Music can affect your conscious state in much the same way recreational drugs can. It has the power to regulate the way we feel at the push of a button. Many people understand this without realizing the full potential music holds as a consciousness-altering tool.
Listening to your favorite album on the bus to work will also undoubtedly help you start your day in a better way, something which the rise in portable music players is contributing towards. We are rapidly learning more and more about the affects of sound upon human beings while fields such as music therapy are now becoming established alternative medical practices.
Ancient cultures have understood and utilized the affects of psychoacoustics on consciousness for thousands of years. Interestingly, particular aspects of modern electronic music mirror those employed by these cultures. Indeed it is not only dance music that holds this potential, as therapists and fans of binaural beats will testify.
- Binaural beats modify brain wave activity and are said to aid relaxation and learning
Shamanism is used colloquially as a blanket term to describe traditional tribal religions not stemming from the Abrahamic faith structure that most of our ‘contemporary’ religions are based upon. In a broader context it can be described as the employment of altered states of consciousness within a tribal setting for the purposes of healing and guidance. Analyzing Shamanic music we find that drumming is the key factor in it’s structure. Mostly it is very minimal and simple, sometimes with only a rhythm formed from a ‘bass’ drum. Monotonous patterns are played with varying degrees of fervor and reserve to create a journey like experience through the music.
“Try listening to the ‘Sacred drums of Burundi’ and you'll see that the effect of this
music is not very far from the effect caused by techno or electronic music,
as these musical styles both work on
the concept of loops” – Dino Sabatini.
- The sacred drums of Burundi.
Shamanism has used sound as a tool for thousands of years in order to alter individual consciousness. It allows one to experience a different sort of reality to the normal operating state that categorizes our waking hours. Some call it a trance or dream state but in this regard, we will categorize it as being meditative. The shamans utilize this for various purposes, such as healing and problem solving within the community. Just like meditation it seems to have a grounding, peaceful and ecstatic effect upon those who step into its realm. Modern science has shed light upon the changes within our brains. When subjected to this kind of music it is literally the effect of the music upon the human brain which gives rise to these altered states of consciousness.
The Rhythmic Patterns
Our brain waves oscillate within four different bands of frequency: Alpha (relaxed state), Beta (normal daily functioning), Theta (dream state) and Delta (Deep sleep.) Brain scanning has shown that when subjected to Shamanic drumming the brain waves of the listener move down into the Theta band whilst they are awake. The listener experiences this as an altered sense of reality, which normally only occurs during sleep. This scientific evidence shows how repetitive drumming produces different states of consciousness in individuals.
It is not only drumming which can induce these states. We know that long periods of meditation, inducing large amounts of pain, physical exertion, sleep deprivation, fasting and sensory overload can all induce an altered state. These techniques are often used together with the music to give rise to a more intense experience within the individual.
- Dino Sabatini’s White witch taken from his Shamanism inspired album 'Shamans Path – Prologue Music 2013'
Comparatively, modern electronic music’s use of repetition mirrors that of Shamanic drumming. Genres such as techno, trance and house all employ (for the most part) the same straight 4/4 drum patterns. Today it is not uncommon for clubs and festivals to remain open for days on end, providing an environment where one can physically exert one’s self through dance. The music often never stops for long intervals with DJs creating an environment where the listener is constantly suspended within the music. Strobe lights, lasers and abstract video projections are also the norm in most music venues, providing sensorial stimulation to go alongside the music, adding to the atmosphere of a space and giving it a sense of abstraction. These dance-spaces are literally fashioned to form an environment of sensorial stimulation that is are both rich and overwhelming.
- Shammanic drumming from author and composer, Michael Drake
Mind altering drugs play a role in both cultures. Whilst it is at first hard to compare the use of psychedelic drugs as used by Shamans with the stimulants favored on most dance floors, it is important to note that both cultures use drugs that allow a shortcut to different perceptions of reality. Most Shamanic traditions that use drugs have no need for the physical and sensorial methods used by others. Their drugs, such as Ayahuasca, are so powerful that they allow passage into other states with out the need for other practices.
By far the most popular recreational drug (discounting alcohol) taken at raves and clubs today is MDMA. Using the drug, users report a closer connection between themselves, the music and others around them. The music is seemingly more alive and emotionally touching, hypnotizing the users into dancing for hours upon end. MDMA seems to be the perfect drug for the dance floor as it induces a state where one is totally focused upon and in touch with the music. Some meditative techniques, it is worth noting, instruct the individual to focus upon sound and in doing so the mind is cleared of thought, worries or emotion. A clear similarity between a meditative technique and the effects of this widely used drug.
“I see that DJs are the modern day Shamans. In the past Shamans have
come from a place of healing and music within indigenous tribes.
I think that DJs play a weird malfunctioning Shaman role” – Jimmy Edgar
Could it be that both cultures are aiming for the same target albeit through slightly different techniques? The similarities between Shamanic music and modern electronic music are undeniable as is the sensorial stimulation that both cultures employ. Drugs complete the picture as the final comparative.
We lead hectic and intense lives in this new millennium and for many there is no better way to unwind than to get lost in the music. It seems to provide an opportunity for mass meditation and therapy that few other experiences in our techno-industrial society can offer. Many people follow the culture with religious-like zeal and ironically many often find alternative parties on Sundays, replacing the day’s traditional religious entertainment of yesteryear.
It is up to individuals to come to their own rational conclusions about what can occur in these situations and for some the idea of a transcendental element to dance music will seem absurd. At first it may be hard to connect this theory with the scenes of mayhem and debauchery we witness at clubs and festivals. Yet many artists today profess to provide a deeper experience through their music.
“When we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey.
When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point.
And exactly the same thing is true in meditation.
Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment” – Alan Watts.