Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Influence of Music on Trance - Maura Schonwald

It is common for a westerner to associate trance states with music, and there is a good reason for that. A majority of trance states require or involve some means of music or beat. Although it varies from place to place, trances are induced a variety of ways. Some people stand, some dance, some lie down, and the music that goes along with it varies just as much. Many studies and articles have been published on the subject of the relationship between music and trance. In 1985, Gilbert Rouget translated Brunhilde Biebuyck’s book, “Music and Trance: A theory of the relationships between music and possession” into English. This book was a leading milestone that included many theories on how music stimulates trance. There is a large amount of suspicion as to if music induces trance, but it is hard to pin point an exact explanation. A few factors contribute to the theories, such as there are many different kinds of trance that do not necessarily have to involve music, some believe music has no relationship to the trance, and the fact that any kind of music can associate with many different kinds of trance. Judith Becker (1994) believes “All perspectives are partial perspectives. Neurosciences findings about the brain can help us dispel certain misconceptions and better understand our relationship to both the world outside and our inner experience”. It is possible that the understanding of neuroscience could contribute to the reasons why some music could aid the act of going into a trance. This paper will compare different cultural types of trance-inducing music as well as different theories of how the music triggers the trance.

It is important for all researchers to define what a trance means and what is incorporated with going into a trance. Rouget claims a trance is “a state of consciousness composed of two components, one psycho physiological, the other cultural”. It is imperative to realize that many transcendental states are culturally inherent, and a learned behavior. (Becker 1994) There are a few varieties of trances that may be induced by music. Becker states that there is a trance state for the performer, listener, and the subject that is being possessed. Each variety and person involved in the séance of a trance all acquire their own ways of connecting to higher beings and deities. A trance could be thought of as “a state of mind characterized by intense focus, the loss of the strong sense of self and access to types of knowledge and experience that are inaccessible in non trance states”. (Becker 1994) A trance can also be considered an altered state of consciousness in which all 5 senses are enhanced and can lead to a sense of an out of body experience.

“Shamans’ ritual activities and experiences (e.g., soul flight, guardian spirit quest, death and rebirth) involve fundamental structures of cognition and consciousness and representations of psyche, self, and other. Shamanism involves social adaptations that use biological potentials provided by integrative altered states of consciousness (ASC) to facilitate community integration, personal development, and healing.”
(Winkelman 2004)

Jorg Fachner (2006) states that in order for there to be an altered state of consciousness, there must be a ‘normal’ state of consciousness. In this normal consciousness we can make sense of our social and physical environment. “There is a continuous flow of changing situations and situative definitions of persons in carious context where intensities of conscious states take changing forms dependent on the individuals attention, intention and situation, as well as his cultural background” (Fachner 2006) By these definitions it is imperative to include factors of changing consciousness, varying states of trance, and cultural inheritance.

Many different cultures from around the world use different types of music and beats that vary in pitch and rhythm. In some cultures, specific musical instruments and techniques are used for certain types of rituals and trances. In the far south of Tamil Nadu, South India there lives a tribal community called the Kaniyan where the men are traditionally knowledgeable in Koothu, a term for performers. (John 2008) The celebration to worship Sudalai, a chief deity of all evil and demon spirits, is performed annually. The Kaniyan Koothu ritual is performed by six men; involving music, dance, and song. The musical instrument they use is a drum called the makudam. It is a “small circular one-handed drum hung from the left shoulder and tapped with the fingers of both hands”. (John 2008) The drum is made of wood and buffalo skin, there are two types of pitch, vucha makudam (high pitch) and mantha makudam (low pitch). Both pitches are used in the séance. There are two men who sing in high-pitched voices while the drums are played in order to invoke the spirit of Sudalai so that it possesses a Komarathadigal, a male medium.

In the city of Tunis, Tunisia freed slaves have formed a colony consisting of sub-Saharan and North African Muslims. Dar Barnu, the only surviving communal house for people on Bornu origin, was a site where a healing ritual called Stambeli is practiced. In a Stambeli healing ritual each spirit has its own tune and it is up to the yinna, “musician-healer and master of the three-stringed humbri”, to determine which tune is needed to contact the correct spirit. (Jankowsky 2007) The gumbri melody is the instrument used to speak to the spirits and invite them into the ritual. The gumbri is played with a “cyclic melody” by plucking of open strings and keeping a steady “buzz” from the “vibrating metal disc attached to the base of the strings”. (Jankowsky 2007) A small group of younger musicians accompany the yinna with “heavy, handheld iron clappers”, known as shqashiq, and sing along with the yinna. “Their incessant, cyclic rhythmic patters produce layers of metallic overtones. There are also various shqashiq techniques that alter this texture by varying the timbre, length, and volume of certain articulations”. (Jankowsky 2007) The song of the Stambeli ritual requires a repetitive rhythmic drone with occasional symbols and loud crashes of iron with metallic overtones. The lyrical song is mostly in Arabic with some sub-Saharan phrases. It is commonly very nasal, which is contradictory to the Arabic tone of voice.

It is fairly obvious through these examples that different types of trances are culturally related. All of them use their own music and lyrics to help incorporate the spirits with the possession based on traditional means. “People in trance act like the people in trance whom they have seen from early childhood”. (Becker 1994) Becker, also states, in a later article (2004), that people who are more emotionally attached to music in general are more likely to be able to go into trances. “Neurophysioloical explanations are as yet primitive when dealing with human action, human perception, and human motivations.” (Becker 2004)

“A raga is an aesthetic projection of the artist’s inner spirit: it is a representation of his most profound sentiments and sensibilities, set forth through tones and melodies.” (Becker 2004; via Shankar 1968)

An Electroencephalograph (EEG) measures the frequency levels of activation that correlates to consciousness. The levels range from; Delta wave: sleep mode (from .5Hz), Theta rhythm: light sleep, Alpha rhythm: daydreaming or inwardly direct attention, to Beta rhythm: alert and externally directed attention, in increasing order of Hz. (Sternbach 1967) In a study by Michael Wagner (1975) it was found that musicians produce a higher amount of alpha rhythm than non-musicians in the temporal lobe. It was also reported that there was a higher frequency of alpha waves when music was played over silence.

Rituals produce an environment for the trance processes to take place that puts the subject into a more relaxed and calmer state of mind. Through the familiar music, within a specific culture, of repetitive beats, fluctuating volume and rhythm, the likelihood of an altered state of consciousness is higher. Fachner (2006) believes that a more emotional person would have a stronger reaction to the music and in turn identify with the music as well as the spirit being called upon.

Through the many different kinds of trance and traditional music each religion upholds it is hard to compare if specific music put people into trance. Most trance-inducing music has a steady beat with fluctuating volume and rhythm. Whether it be from using a simple hand drum or incorporating iron, symbols, or a gumbri if a person is predisposed to a ritual they are more likely to go into a trance. Music stimulates the alpha brain wave that allows a person to think internally or have a tranquil state of mind. Some believe trance is strictly an experimental occurrence where it can be neither explained nor rationalized. Music is a facilitator to induce a trance but it requires a distinction between the conscious and unconscious mind in order to allow the possession to take place. It is when the mind is in a relaxed, comfortable, and familiar state, combined with a sensory stimulator that brings people into trance.


Becker, Judith, Deep listeners: music, emotion, and trancing. (Indiana University Press, c2004)

Becker, Judith, Music and Trance. (Leonardo Music Journal Vol. 4 1994) pp 41-51

Fachner, Jorg and Aldridge, David (Eds.), Music and altered states : consciousness, transcendance, therapy and addiction. (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, ch.2, 2006) pp 15-37.

Jankowsky, Richard, Music, Spirit Possession and the In-Between: Ethnomusicological Inquiry and the Challenge of Trance. (Ethnomusicology Forum Vol. 16, No. 2, November 2007) pp 185- 208

John, Simon S., Kaniyan: Ritual Performers of Tamil Nadu, South India. (Anthropological Survey of India, Mysore Asian Ethnology Volume 67, 2008) pp 123-135

Rouget, Gilbert, La Musique et la trance: esquisse d'une theorie generale des relations de la musique et de la possession. (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1980) English translation by Brunhilde Biebuyck, Music and Trance:A Theory of the Relations between Music and Pos-session. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985)

Sternbach, Principles of Psychophysiology. (New York: Academic Press, 1967) pp 57-60

Sylvan, Robin, Traces of the spirit: the religious dimensions of popular music. (Published by NYU Press, 2002)

Tassi P, Muzet A., Defining the states of consciousness. (Neurosci Biobehav Rev, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2001) pp 175-91

Wagner, Michael, Effect of Music and Biofeedback on Alpha Brainwave Rhythms and Attentiveness. (Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 23, No. 1 1975) pp 3-13

Winkelman, Michael, Shamanism as the original neurotheology (Zygon, v.39 no.1, 2004) pp 193-217

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