Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Beating Drum, The Beating Heart: the role of music in shamanism

Shamanism describes the traditional practices of spiritual belief that forms a mediumistic bridge between the ordinary waking state and an altered state of consciousness to attain transcendence. This essay aims to address how music is an imperative element intrinsic to the shamanic practice of trance and ecstasy as a method to embody spiritual expression. Trance and ecstasy is fundamental to the practice of the shaman as a medium to transport to a controlled altered state of consciousness by involuntary dissociative means. Evidently, music is a fundamental function of the ability of the shaman to enter differential states of trance including emotional, communal and shamanic. These varying states of trance are vital to the shamanic culture as a means of healing and interconnectedness that mediates between the mundane and the profane as an insightful embodied social function. As a result, trance, ecstasy and music have an interconnected relationship that is vital to the role of the shaman.

Trance and ecstasy are transformative experiences that create a state of detachment from the physical world depleting the boundaries between the altered state of consciousness and the ordinary waking state. Altered states of consciousness “defy systematic definition and boundary” (Perry et al. 2010, p. 289). On the other hand, ordinary waking states of consciousness refer to the level of active awareness of the consciousness through sensory experience (King 2010). Peters and Price-Williams (1980, pp.399-402) argue that trance and ecstasy illustrate similar qualities that reflect a dissociative, hypnotic and orgasmic transformative experience. However, Rouget (1985, p.11) argues dissimilarities between the two, as trance is “always associated with… sensory over-stimulation…and ecstasy on the contrary, is most often tied to sensorial deprivation.” Nevertheless, for a shaman control is an imperative element for trance and ecstasy between the altered state of consciousness and ordinary waking state. This is corroborated by Eliade (1964, p.6) who argues that the fundamental role of the shaman in trance and ecstasy is the ability of the shaman to control the spirits and not be controlled. The element of control mastery also identifies the ability of the shaman to willingly enter or terminate altered states of consciousness (Mayer 2008, p.73). Essentially, as a function music is imperative to the inducement of varying states of trance that is a vital to the shaman to communicate between the ordinary waking state and the altered state of consciousness.

Shamanic practice uses music as a function to induce emotional and communal trance as a way to provoke transformation through altered states of consciousness. Walker (2003, p.43) argues that music has the unique ability to provide “the means of expressing, reviving and generating renewed…identity.” In shamanism, music through vocal and instrumental expression in the form of tempo, rhythm and volume is inherently associated with the multisensory movement of trance. This multisensory component identifies the significance of emotion during trance as it acts as an implicit tool to “generate insight into our feelings as sounds elicit issues significant for our emotions, personal development and values” (Winkelman 2010, p.195). Therefore, emotion is an intrinsic element to spiritual experience as it uniquely identifies the individual with the experience that associates consciousness with spirituality (Hume, 2007, p.17). Music is also a significant element in communal trance as a way of maintaining the induced trance state that allows for the provocation of emotion. Jilek (1987, p.598) argued that “induced communal trance… is triggered by the emotional power of sung words but is maintained by rhythm.” Hence, the shaman’s drum (dungar) acts as an agent that is referred to as “the horse who conveys the shaman on [their] journey” (Pratt 2007, p.519). Thus, shamanic trance is an assimilation of emotion and rhythm as a corporeal technique that acts as a conduit to induce the spiritual and animalistic realms into trance ritual.

Consequently, music induces shamanic trance that allows the shaman to act as an agent to enhance human wellness, community practice and animalist and nature relationships. Healing is an imperative communal function of the shaman (Dadosky 2004, p.126). The shaman can actively mediate between the mundane world and the spirit world and call on the spirits for help to heal the ill. By using music transporting technique the shaman can act as a “curative agent… [that has] the ability to promote health and wellness through enhancement of natural balance and harmony in our emotional systems” (Winkelman 2010, p. 193). The shaman is able to connect with these spirits during transcendence by the focus that is gained from the spiritual energy through music. Spiritual energy is culminated from the interconnected relationship between shamanism and nature that identifies the “all-embracing connectedness” between the animalistic, natural, spiritual world and the shaman. This is express through a shaman’s elaboration of the function of a shaman in society in the following excerpt:

My job is to help people find their own relationship with nature and appreciate that connection… I help people explore the world around them.
(MacLellan cited in Mayer 2008, p.75)

It is through transcendence by the means of music that this nature fulfillment and understanding can be achieved, identifying the significance of music in shamanism. Levin and Suzukei (2006, p.173) argue that music is an intrinsic element in shamanism to connect to the spiritual world that is transformed as a “medium of social salvation.” During shamanic ritual, it is music that creates social cohesion and develops a cultural identity. Walker (2003, p.43) describes the fundamental connection between the shaman, the community and music as an edification of the individual within the musical context that highlights the importance of “people, plants, animals and other phenomena within a landscape with which indigenous people describe as a profound connection” (Walker 2003, p. 43). The relationship with nature is most significant in the practice of manifesting a spiritual energy from the animalistic personas and totems that shamanism bases its foundation of worship on that is stimulated and reiterated through musical enhancement. As a result, music is a fundamental element in shamanism due to the powerful effect it has on the shamans ability as a healer and mediator between the spiritual realm that creates individual and communal interconnectedness.

Music is a vital element to the experience of transcendence and ecstasy in shamanic culture. Trance and ecstasy is concerned with both sensory and non-sensory components that are developed to enhance the ability of the shaman to mediate between a controlled ordinary waking state and an altered state of consciousness. By attaining this level of control, music is utilised to maintain and determine both emotional and communal states of trance that identify the significant relationship between music and spiritual connection as a result of the elementary components of the implementation of rhythmic and lyrical music. By implementing music into ritual, shamans are able to induce, maintain or exterminate trance that acts as a significant tool for the shaman to connect with the community, enable healing and deplete the gap between the mundane and the profane. Essentially, music is a vital component of shamanic ritual as a way to induce and maintain trance that seeks to benefit the individual and the community in spiritual phenomenon.

Reference List
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Eliade, M 1964, Shamanism, archaic technique of ecstasy, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Hume, L 2007, Portals: opening doorways to other realities through the senses, Berg, New York.
Jilek, W 1987, ‘Music and trance revised’, American Ethnologist, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 598-599.
King, DB 2010, Conscious state expansion, viewed 20 March 2011, .
Levin, TC & Suzukei, V 2006, Where rivers and mountains sing: sound, music and nomadism in Tura and beyond, Indiana University Press, Indiana.
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Perry, E, Collerton, D, LeBeau, F & Ashton, H (eds) 2010, New horizon in the neuroscience of consciousness, John Benjamin Publishing Co., Amsterdam.
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Pratt, C 2007, An encyclopedia of Shamanism, Rosen Publishing Group, New York.
Rouget, G 1985, Music and tranc: a theory of the relations between music and possession, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Walker, M 2003, ‘Music as knowledge in Shamanism and other healing traditions in Siberia’, Arctic Anthropology, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 40-48, viewed 15 March 2011, <>.
Winkleman, M 2010, Shamanism: a biopsychosocial paradigm of consciousness and healing, ABC-CLIO LIC, California.

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