You are on page 1of 13

The Singing Bowl Book

The authoritative guide to the Asian instruments

by

Joseph Feinstein

founder of Himalayan Bowls

HimalayanBowls.com
Copyright 2016, The Singing Bowl Book, by Joseph Feinstein. All rights reserved.

Introduction

1: What is a singing bowl?

2: Singing Bowl Origins

13

Who invented singing bowls?

14

Utilitarian origins of singing bowls

17

Buddhist origins of singing bowls

22

Where were singing bowls invented?

36

Summary

48

3: Tracing Singing Bowl History

49

Tibetan or not?

49

A silk road remnant

53

The East Asian connection

56

Metallurgical evidence

62

Modern developments

64

Summary

66

4: Singing Bowl Construction

69

Machine finished brass bowls

69

Hand hammered singing bowls

72

Bell metal bronze

77

The seven metal myth

78

Metallurgical study

81

Surface color

83

Surface damage

87

Antique engravings and inscriptions

91

New singing bowl decoration

100

Repairs and reconditioning

103

Other types of bowls

105
2

5: Antique Versus New Singing Bowls

108

The business of singing bowls

108

The problem of misinformation

111

Fake antiques: honesty and deception

113

Is it new or antique?

115

Signs of a real antique

123

Why do antique singing bowls sound better?

130

6: Using Singing Bowls

132

Why Use Singing Bowls?

132

Traditional uses for singing bowls

135

Western developments with singing bowls

140

Many uses for singing bowls

142

Playing instructions

151

7: Shopping for a Singing Bowl

158

Where to find singing bowls

158

Singing bowl types and pricing

160

Making a personal choice

163

About the author

165

Introduction

A large 16th century antique singing bowl


In 1998 I asked a question that changed my life, "What is a singing bowl?" Have you asked
the same question? This is your guide to discover the answer. As the leading singing bowl
expert, it is my goal to share everything I know about these wonderful objects. For the first time,
the origin, history and manufacture of singing bowls will be explained. I explain the many uses
for singing bowls, including their traditional use in Asia and modern Western developments. I
provide valuable information about how to shop for singing bowls, how to use them, how they
are made, what they are made from, how to discern antiques from new singing bowls and much
more. I share ideas about using singing bowls in meditation, sound healing, music and how
singing bowls can be part of a healthy life. As a long time collector, seller, teacher and
researcher, I explain the real history and use of singing bowls and dispel the common myths
perpetuated in recent years. I present real information in a direct way, helping you understand
these wonderful objects and helping you avoid the common pitfalls in shopping for them.
Whether you are discovering singing bowls for the first time or have been using them for years,
this is your comprehensive guide to understanding and enjoying them fully. You will learn about
their important place in world cultural history, secrets of examining antiques and tips for playing
singing bowls. With this guide, you can look at any singing bowl and know the age, quality and
value. With 135 photos and a wealth of information, this is the ultimate singing bowl book.

!4

I spent years developing an understanding of the origins and historical spread of singing
bowls throughout Asia. Conducting research around the world, my historical theories are based
on physical, cultural and scientific investigation. My research has led me to museums,
universities and temples in ten countries. Working with scientists, monks, collectors, folklorists
and generations of families, I have gained unique knowledge about singing bowls. For years,
little has been known about the real history of singing bowls. This book reveals the results of my
research, sharing the secrets and facts about these mysterious and captivating objects. I tell the
cultural story of how the bowls have been made and how they spread across Asia centuries ago.
I explain how they have been used in various cultures and how they are used today.
Singing bowls are one of the worlds most revered musical instruments. They are important
as objects of cultural significance and as beautiful musical instruments. To really answer the
question, what is a singing bowl? you must hold one in your hands, feel the smooth vibration
and hear the enchanting sound. The answer requires an experience which supersedes any facts or
ideas. If you have never held a singing bowl, I encourage you to get one in your hands and enjoy
the amazing feeling of the vibration. This book will help you make an informed choice when
shopping for singing bowls and avoid overpaying for an inferior quality singing bowl. If you are
already a singing bowl collector, you know they are special. For the first time, you can read
about the real history and traditional uses of singing bowls, without all the fabricated myths.
Part history book, part practical guide, my goal is to provide you with information and
inspiration to get the most from your singing bowl experience.
Here I offer the first
comprehensive history of singing bowls, placing them in their proper context as significant
cultural artifacts and enduring examples of traditional artisanship. I will show how singing
bowls are not an isolated development but part of a broad tradition spanning many cultures. I
will take you on a journey over thousands of years and around the world to explain the origins
and development of the instruments. I explain how the various types of bowls are made. I also
explain the results of the first ever metallurgical research which revealed the true content of
singing bowl metal. Contrary to the common internet myths, singing bowls are part of the
ancient bronze making tradition, as proved by their metal content. Various traditions must be
considered to understand the development of singing bowls across Asia.
While I give examples from different countries, my focus is on Himalayan singing bowls.
Himalayan singing bowls are the most historically significant and also sound the best. They are
by far the most desirable to collectors. Using photographic examples, I explain how to tell
antiques from new bowls and discuss issues when shopping for singing bowls. I offer
suggestions and guidelines for getting the most out of your singing bowls, including using them
in meditation, education and how to get started with sound healing. I provide detailed playing
instructions which are useful to musicians, therapists and general collectors. This book has been
years in the making because I want to tell you everything I know about singing bowls.

!5

Singing bowls have been my passion, my hobby, my art and my business since I was in my
twenties. I am one of the only true experts working exclusively with singing bowls. They have
been central in my life since I first discovered them in 1998. I have studied singing bowls very
carefully with the help of experts around the world. This book is intended to be accurate and
factual as well as creative and inspiring.
Where do singing bowls come from? How did they evolve? How are they made? What are
they made of? How were they traditionally used? How are they used today? Why is the sound
so special? How can I choose a good one? Is it a real antique? How do they help people? Why
do they make an environment feel so good? How are they used in meditation? These are some
of the questions that have come up for myself, my customers and my students over the years.
Here you will find the answers, some of which may surprise you.
I hope you become as inspired as I have been for all these years. Please feel free to contact
me personally by email: joseph@himalayanbowls.com or visit HimalayanBowls.com for live
chat, comments, free videos and more. I welcome your questions and comments.

Spanning 5 octaves, here is my set of 63 harmonically tuned fine antiques.


It took 10 years to complete and was my inspiration to start HimalayanBowls.com.
!6

1: What is a singing bowl?

The 3 basic shapes of Himalayan singing bowls: low sided, straight sided and round bottomed.
A singing bowl is a type of bronze bowl that makes a beautiful sound. They are a type of bell
found in various regions of Asia. Like other bells, they make a ringing sound when struck. They
sound best when struck with a soft padded mallet. They can also be played in a unique manner
by rubbing a wood or leather mallet around the rim to produce a continuous singing sound.
Singing bowls hold a special place in human history. They sit directly on the crossroads of
several cultures. They are a remnant of an unbroken tradition of Bronze Age craftsmanship that
has continued for thousands of years. Singing bowls are among the most beautiful sounding
objects ever made. Their appearance range from rustic to finely crafted. Some are plain, others
are delicately engraved. Some have an uneven shape, others are nearly perfect in form.
Singing bowls have a long history. They have been used in Asia for centuries. In recent
decades they have spread around the world. Collectors from all walks of life enjoy them as art
objects, musical instruments as well as tools for meditation and health. They have become
famous in recent years for their special power to calm the mind, foster harmony and promote
wellbeing. Singing bowls have a profound effect on us personally and also transform any
environment. Many people agree that singing bowls provide health benefits, whether by simply
helping us relax or possibly with more profound and far reaching results.
Singing bowls evolved over a long period of time and the best examples display masterful
artistry. The oldest singing bowls found today are about 800 years old. Their predecessors,
which were not used for sound, date as far back as 1,200 years. While it is impossible to know
exactly when bronze bowls began to be used for sound, it was approximately 800 to 1,000 years
ago. Singing bowls are one of the last remnants of the bronze making tradition that goes back
more than 5,000 years. They are still made today using ancient techniques lost to the rest of the
world. Himalayan singing bowls are the most diverse, beautiful and culturally important.

!7

The oldest Himalayan singing bowls are up to 800-1,000 years old. This example displays
advanced oxidation and may date from the earliest period.
The real history of singing bowls is fragmented by culture and time, so it must be pieced
together using existing examples. Based on my extensive research, travel and discussions with
scientists and art historians, it has become clear that singing bowls are related to both decorative
bowls from the Near East and musical instruments from the Far East. In fact, Himalayan singing
bowls seem to be a synthesis of ideas from the East and West. Clues about their history place
singing bowls in the middle of the ancient world, where they developed along ancient trade
routes. These routes connected many cultures over vast distances.
The story of singing bowls mirrors the story of Asian culture. The quality of the bowls
reflects the state of the cultures that produced them. The best examples are found from wealthy
times, while few are found where war and hardship persisted. The bowls exemplify the
interaction of cultures through trade and the sharing of technology. They are a type of time
capsule, reflecting the wealth, refinement and skill of the people who made them. Antique
singing bowls found today intrinsically retain their heritage in their very form. Singing bowls
were most prevalent where Buddhism flourished and are often associated with Buddhism.
Today singing bowls are still part of the living ancient traditions in several countries. They
are made today (in alphabetical order) in China, India, Japan, Korea, Nepal and Vietnam. In
ancient times they may have spread more widely across many civilizations, from present day
Iran all the way to Japan.
!8

Singing bowls are associated with Buddhism and may have originally been Buddhist alms
bowls. They would have been multipurpose, used for many activities. They were used for
collecting donations, making sound and also as utilitarian vessels for eating, drinking, carrying
and storing. The tradition of using alms bowls transformed over time in most Buddhist
countries. Today singing bowls are mainly used symbolically as musical instruments. They are
used in temples and monasteries for meditation, music and collecting donations. They are used
in homes as shrine objects and tools for daily prayer and meditation.
Singing bowls are made in a variety of sizes from two inch diameter to over three feet across.
Antique singing bowls range from about three inch to thirteen inch diameter. There are a variety
of shapes and every culture produced their own unique types. While I will discuss singing bowls
from different cultures, the focus of this book is the Himalayan singing bowls of Nepal,
commonly referred to as Tibetan singing bowls. Himalayan singing bowls have the nicest sound,
are the most widely available and are the most desirable to collectors. They were likely also the
first singing bowls made. Himalayan bowls may be called by their Nepali names, such as
jambati (big bowl) or thadobati (straight bowl). Some sellers invent names, which are not
traditional but rather used as a modern marketing tool.

Himalayan singing bowls come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and tones.
Singing bowls produce one of the warmest, most pleasant and magical sounds of any musical
instrument. A combination of factors result in singing bowls producing a powerful and uniquely
beautiful sound. The metal, shape and hand made construction combine to create a vibration that
is warm and melodic, with a unique power to relax the body and focus the mind. Singing bowls
sound unlike any other object in the world. The sound is often described as a voice. The sound
does share many qualities with the human voice, which is one of the reasons they are called
singing bowls.
!9

Like other musical instruments, singing bowls produce a fundamental tone and two or three
audible harmonic overtones. The fundamental tone is the deepest audible tone. The overtones
are higher pitched. The fundamental tone varies, from very deep and rumbling large bowls to
high pitched small bowls with remarkable clarity. The fundamental tone is considered the first
harmonic. The second harmonic is an octave higher than the fundamental. The third harmonic is
an octave higher than the second. Sometimes a fourth harmonic can be heard. Other frequencies
are present but are either outside of our normal hearing range or blend with the other tones and
cannot be discerned. Six tones can usually be measured with spectrographic technology.
The combination of the fundamental tone and harmonic overtones produces a unique musical
chord. Each frequency is a different musical note and their combination creates the voice of the
bowl. How the various tones interact determines whether the bowl sounds in tune or out of
tune." Singing bowls are often out of tune, either slightly or greatly. An out of tune singing
bowl may sound dark and mysterious, complex and interesting or dissonant and unpleasant. If
the various frequencies are well in tune, the sound is very beautiful and harmonious. It has a
magical effect on our ears, minds and hearts. The tone is musical and clear. It has a special
calming and soothing effect. At the same time the experience is energizing and delightful. No
other instrument does what a singing bowl can do. But not all singing bowls can do it. The ideal
is a real hammered bronze bowl which is well in tune.
The complex chord of multiple frequencies is the essence of a singing bowls character. The
chord varies from one bowl to another making each bowl seem very unique. Subtle variations in
the tonal relationships do make them unique, but some bowls sound virtually identical. Two
bowls can sound alike but have very different size and shape. The tone is determined partly by
the size but more importantly by the thickness of the bowl. The thicker the metal, the higher the
pitch. A small thin bowl can sound the same as a larger thick bowl.

!
Given two bowls of the same diameter, the thicker bowl sounds higher, the thinner bowl deeper.
!10

Sound is vibration. It is a physical event. Hearing is our ability to detect the movement of
energy from a vibrating source. We actually feel sound through our ears and skin. The vibration
of a singing bowl can be clearly felt. The feeling is wonderful. The universal reaction is a smile
and desire to hold the bowl. Through our feeling and ability to be moved by the sound, singing
bowls can improve and enhance our lives. Singing bowls have become the most popular sound
healing tools, which are instruments used specifically for personal wellbeing and health.
True singing bowls are made from bronze, which is a mix of copper and tin. The bronze used
in singing bowls is a special preparation known as bell metal bronze. Bell metal contains a
higher percentage of tin than normal bronze. The proportions of copper and tin and special
preparation of the metal make bell metal bronze the best sounding metal known to humanity. It
has been the metal of choice for singing bowls, bells, cymbals, gongs and other metal
instruments for thousands of years. Today, hand made singing bowls are still made of bell metal
bronze while new machine finished bowls are made of brass. Brass is a mix of copper and zinc
and does not sound as nice as the traditional bronze. Brass sounds dull and does not vibrate as
long as bronze. Most bowls sold today as singing bowls are in fact mass produced brass bowls.
Hand hammered bronze singing bowls are the true singing bowls, following the ancient tradition.
Five factors determine the sound of a singing bowl: the bronze alloy, bowl shape, variations
in thickness, form of the lip and changes due to age. These physical properties combine to create
the unique sound of an individual singing bowl. Variations in the surface due to the hand
hammered construction produce uniquely complex overtones. The round shape of a singing
bowl creates a resonating chamber, similar to the body of a drum. The resonating chamber
produces an echo effect which gives a singing bowl a full tone. The shape and thickness of the
bowl rim changes the pitch and duration of the tone. Along with handmade craftsmanship, the
bronze alloy is a big part of what makes a singing bowl sound so nice. Bronze rings beautifully
and bell metal bronze sounds particularly good. Antique singing bowls generally sound superior
to new singing bowls due to changes the bronze undergoes during the aging process. However, a
high quality new bowl can sound better than a poor quality antique. Since singing bowls are
handmade, there is a great deal of variation in the tone. Not all singing bowls sound nice. When
shopping for a singing bowl, it is important to hear how it sounds because most are out of tune
and sound dissonant. A large number are broken and make a rattling sound. Some bowls lack
volume or the sound fades too quickly. Listening to a bowl before purchase is essential.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about singing bowls in books and on the
internet. Myths and lies are common and it is difficult for consumers to find the truth. This has
been my main motivation to write this book. Some of the most common misconceptions have to
do with the metal content, history, traditional use and beliefs about healing power. Mystique
follows the instruments and many false stories are told about them, often to drive up the prices.
Due to the wide variety of quality and large number of fakes, caution and education are essential.
This book will give you all the keys to understand these wonderful objects.
!11

A rare 15th century singing bowl with a very thick body and specially folded lip.

!
New hand hammered singing bowls are still made in the traditional way.

!12