Music has different effects on our moods, and one way or another, our ancestors also noticed this phenomenon and began using musical notes eminently for magical-religious purposes. Although each culture has its own characteristic rhythms, the essence of the music used by shamans, the sorcerers or even some contemporary religions, remains the same: it is used to provoke a state of openness in the person toward the ideas that they’re trying to instill.
Thus, some overly aggressive rhythms cause real hallucinatory states
In primitive cultures the steady rhythmic sound was used to influence the well-being or the behavior of the person or group while states of ecstasy, trance or hypnotism are an essential element in ceremonial dances, especially in African cultures . In the most diverse manifestations of these religious beliefs occurs a frantic dance instigated by the sounds of percussion that is facilitating religious trance. In the so-called “Ghost Dance”, the Native Americans formed a circle and danced monotonically until one after another were falling rigid on the ground. Variants of this dance are now performed in some African regions and countries whose descendants maintain ancestral customs, such as: Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.
However, also in the Aztec culture were practiced these dances with rhythms remembering somewhat the modern rock and roll.
Curiously, and for those who think catatonic or ecstatic states are only produced by the music of African origin, are now currently under development similar trendy and “chic” parties denominated Goatrance, and particularly the dancing ritual called Goa Gil was born in southeastern India but has rapidly spread to the West. In short, the ritual Goatrance is a contemporary version of the ancient shamanic ritual used for spiritual healing, rejuvenation and for strengthening the sense of community. This ritual revolves around an intense period of dance that lasts all night until the next morning where participants move rhythmically with electro-music, carefully selected, that induces trance states.
However, as we have outlined, the music alone is not enough to cause these states but have to be mixed with two more essential components: suggestibility and body movement. A person who doesn’t believe in the possibility of experiencing a state of religious trance won’t hardly have this experience, the subject must have a suggestible personality. But I have to underline that, fortunately or unfortunately, most of us are highly suggestible.
Moreover, body movement coupled with rhythmic melodies, produces a curious effect on the centers of balance and therefore in the temporal lobes, which are responsible for spatiotemporal orientation, and in this way, often the person who dances undergoes a process of disengagement with reality. On the other hand, the fact of having to coordinate movements while dancing diminishes the conscious attention dedicated to music, that will be perceived primarily through the older brain structures, which increases its hypnotic potential. At the same time, the dancing fast for long periods of time causes fatigue, and fatigue reduces sugar and oxygen levels in the blood inducing a reduction of brain waves and the release of endogenous opioids.
Of course, the percussive and repetitive ritual sound changes the brain wave patterns: increasing theta activity in the temporal and frontal regions and decreasing the occipital delta activity. This new direction of the brainwaves can introduce visual sensations such as seeing colors, patterns and movements that lead to the experience of highly organized hallucinations. Thus music became the director pattern of catatonic and hallucinatory experiences.
However, the effects of music doesn’t stop there, the sound aggression is also used to encourage submission states that propitiate indoctrination. This was the sadly famous case of Mandarom at the time of Gilbert Bourdin, when adepts were locked in a temple and through sound devices they had to listen to the sound “om” tirelessly repeated as an alarm.
Similar hallucinatory effects are produced within evangelical churches.
To resume, music, like most human creations, can help overcome depression, cope with anxiety, promote learning but can also be an instrument of domination.
McAteer, M. (2002) Redefining Shamanic Ancestral Ritual for the 21st Century: Goa Gil and the Trance Dance Experience. Thesis of the department of Philosophy, Religion and Psychology. Reed College: Oregon.
Winkelman, M. (2002) Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology. American Behavioral Scientist, 45 (12): 1875-1887.
Rouget, G. (1985) Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relationships Between Music and Possession. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.