In recent years, I have spent a significant portion of my time delving into two axes. One involves delving into immersive technological tools and their applications on the auditory apparatus. While the second revolves around the role of sound on the emotional states of living beings and beyond.
I admit that at the beginning of my studies, my approach to the second subject was a mixture of skepticism towards a holistic world I had never approached, and in its track a lack of reliable sources. So, overcoming the initial skepticism and steering clear of the allure of sensationalistic readings, I embarked on a fascinating journey, which is founded on themes such as neuroscience, anthropological research, deep listening and sound as the main key to trigger undiscovered human potential.
The topic of how music and sound influences your state of being, initially viewed as a fringe of the sonic world, reveals its fundamental influence on all fields of science and the study of matter. As well as it touches the very existence of our being—both in conscious terms and in terms where the unconscious is the protagonist. After all, we are vibrating bodies in a universe that vibrates, and it should not surprise us that these infinite and boundless forces are omnipresent.
I am here to introduce one of the topics that has particularly struck me: the influence of sound/music on altered states of consciousness. It’s a subject still debated and far from unanimously recognised scientific validation, but this doesn’t diminish the significance it holds.
This introduction has been necessary to understand and hopefully follow, in the simplest and clearest manner, the series of articles I will write on this topic.
Talking about ecstasy and trance in the same article can lead to confusion because the two terms are often interpreted with similar meanings both by scholars and in the collective imagination. ln reality they are two different emotional states or state of consciousness, what they have in common is the search for spiritual and emotional healing that has characterized all of humanity since the dawn of time as my favourite author Gilbert Rouget also mentions.
To write this article I am making use of the valuable studies and research done by this Gilbert Rouget (1916 – 2017) a French ethnomusicologist and researcher who in the book Music and Trance, The Relationships between Music and the Phenomena of Possession, has well explained the meaning of ‘mystical/emotional acting that leads man to the search for ecstasy and trance. Most of the claims I make can be found in his book.
Now with my limited knowledge and with the respect that this subject demands, I will try to explain in the simplest and most subjective way possible these emotional states and take you on the journey I took and resulted in my sound journey From Ecstasy to Trance.
Ecstasy and Trance
Inherent in each of us ecstasy and trance touch territories of the unconscious not yet rationally explainable. They touch complex aspects of human existence and are therefore susceptible to manipulation by phantom healers, spiritual waifs and swayed by opinions and distinctions especially when viewed from a religious or spiritual rather than a social or rational point of view.
Let me start by saying that both ecstasy and trance are temporarily emotional states otherwise we speak of psychic pathology or mental disorder. Both states require that one is voluntarily willing with mind and body to enter this non-ordinary state of consciousness.
During the experience of these states people report to feel completely different from their daily life, they experience life completely different as life itself changed. Visual and auditory hallucinations (ecstasy) and divinatory possessions (trance) can often occur.
To simplify the concept and make it clear from the beginning, let me start with the difference between the two terms:
Trance is related to sensory overstimulation, (dances, singing sociability and ensemble rituals ) while ecstasy on the contrary is mostly a deprivation of the senses (solitude, silence, fasting self hypnosis).
Below you can find the diagram used by Rouget that effectively explains the elements that characterise these two states for the occurrence of phenomena :
- Sensory deprivation
- With crisis
- Sensory overstimulation
- Absence of hallucinations.
Obviously, one cannot imagine that this scheme leads to the total differentiation of the two phenomena. It is much more complex and carries with it a series of overlaps that can give rise to contradictions and further confusions. So to simplify let me say that one enters one of the two states properly if all the elements from Rouget scheme occur. On the other hand one cannot speak distinctly of a state of ecstasy or trance but of a continuum between the two phenomena.
A good example is the individual/solitary experienced Dhkir state which is more described like a state of ecstasy than trance but it is embedded in a secular Sufi trance ritual (famous twirling dancers).
As already pointed out the state of ecstasy is by its very nature an inner quest, and comes from a practice that has immobility, silence solitude and sensory deprivation as its cornerstones. Therefore it is incompatible with music which is dynamism sociality sensory excitement. Certainly there are instances when at deep levels of meditation one can hear melodies, chants or specific motifs but these occurrences are caused by sound hallucinations also called “mystical sounds” that arise from the ‘unconscious and manifest as a call of the innermost memory and are therefore a signal from within our being.
Trance on the other hand needs external stimulation almost always accompanied by music. Sometimes only rhythms, other times only with melodic and incantatory chants or other times still religious litanies but still from an external audible and participated signal. It should be added that trance is a transient state of consciousness (hence the word trance) where a part of oneself is revealed in an almost uncontrolled way, while in ecstasy one is in oneself and inwardly one finds bliss without having any kind of possession phenomena.
Trance then, is a transient state where for a given period we allow a spirit, entity to be represented in our body so we become something else and/or someone else. There are different types of trance: that of communion, ritual and religious and that of identificatory possession. The latter is triggered when the adept under certain circumstances represents the deity, the spirit ( eg vodun, djiin ) that has been called during the ritual. It often requires hours of dancing, chanting dancing, accelerating and crescendo before this can occur. For example, in both Benin and Aleppo rituals several cults/confraternities use music and thus the dance that arises from it to bring the participants at a psycho-physical level of exhaustion. By pushing and crossing the limit of tolerance of these external stimuli beyond a threshold one enters states of transcendence where supernatural behavior, sometimes of extreme violence, self-flagellation up to episodes leading to the death of the possessed can occur.
Role of Music
What is the role of music in the arising of these phenomena?
To simplify: a certain kind of music played insistently activates dance, which combined with the right preparation, intention and stun can lead to trance.
But what kind of music?
In the collective imagination it is the drum that is often represented as the instrument that causes trance, just think of shamans but this is not always the case indeed…
From the direct testimonies of scholars present at the ceremonies, a fundamental role is played by the voice: not only the beautiful singing that leads to transcendence but even more important is the often overlooked meaning of the words. The language circumscribed to the type of culture of reference, singing about the exploits of the saints, or the cherished places and instil the stories that tell the stories of the ancestors and the patron deities of the community. It is rare if not impossible to enter trance if one is a stranger to the culture of that particular cult.
In the second part I will explore the role of music in relationship to trance from the viewpoint of philosophers like Plato or Aristotle and mystics like the Persian Ghazzalî or Rumi.