Altered States and The Power of Music

Who hasn’t said or heard someone say, “I love music”? Nietzsche says, “without music, life would be a mistake”. The impulse to listen to and/or to make music is undeniably central to most people’s experience. It is often spoken of in reverent terms. In fact, it is central to many religious traditions.

Most creation stories report that the world was created by music. In Christianity, God spoke and the world was created, in some Native American cultures the world was created from the “original heartbeat of the world”, in India “Nada Brahma” translates as “God is sound”. The ancients spoke of the “music behind the world”. From church hymns and chants to polyrhythmic drumming, religions and spiritual traditions have used music to create ecstatic experiences with the Divine and a shared communal bonding.

Throughout millennia music, meditation and dance have been used for healing and enlightenment. Ancient cultures used music for healing emotional and physical ailments. Anthropologists travel to exotic places to study how music is used in indigenous cultures. Through the rhythm of the drum, chanting, and playing musical instruments which create altered states, they have witnessed miraculous healings and a deepening of community relationships.

Although altered states have been as a healing medium for thousands of years, currently the fields of modern science and psychology are studying its effects on psychological and physical well being. It has been found that changes in perceptions through meditation, listening to music, hypnosis, and chanting are effective therapeutic tools.

Scientists have plugged electrodes on subject’s brains to measure the effects of music on emotional and cognitive states. They have measured the changes that happen in the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobes when a person becomes immersed in music. These studies have begun to uncover what ordinary humans have understood about the power of music. As it affects different parts of the brain, music impacts one’s sense of self in the world and can create altered states of consciousness.

Our conscious states are constantly changing. Consciousness, from con – with and spire – to know implies a “knowing with”, or communal knowing. Consciousness is based on a psychological sense of knowing who we are; a sense of identity, and the physical sense of who we are in our body. Our normal consciousness is a communal, shared understanding. We understand what is “normal” based on our cultural norms.

Altered states occur when this knowing is interrupted, when we lose a sense of our perception of who we are or with our body. This can be brought about through trauma, sleep disturbances, sensory challenges, neurological imbalances, epileptic seizures, or fever. It can also be a socially induced state through frenzied dancing or chanting, such as in a religious setting. Ingesting psychotropic drugs can also bring about these states.

Altered states can be characterized as dreaming, daydreaming, meditation, trance, spacing out, and being hypnotized. It can be described as being out of one’s mind, fevered, high, or ecstatic with deep joy. It can be a sense of one-ness with the world and infinite peace.

Mystical traditions encourage us to go beyond the states of a personal self-consciousness and into an altered state where we lose our sense of self and experience unity with others. Many religions identify the ‘ideal state’ as an altered state of consciousness, of relinquishing one’s body and one’s self, and uniting with some sort of Divine Being. Techniques such as meditation, prayer, singing/chanting, dance, specialized movements, and postures are used to break sequential, verbal thinking. Sequential, or linear verbal thinking characterizes normal consciousness.

Music is a powerful tool used to create altered states. It has therapeutic benefits to affect positive emotional change as has been noted from ancient and indigenous cultures, through religious experiences, and modern science. Music therapy developed as a field as therapists began to recognize the power of music to achieve emotional healing.

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