Musical Peaks

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is a common element of trance. Musical sounds combine with other sensual cues—like incense and bright ornate colors—to bring individuals into feelings of euphoria and a perceived connection with a sacred realm. In the Santería religion of West Africa and the Caribbean, songs with repetitive and extended rhythmic patterns are played to call upon deities, known as orishas. A typical ceremony begins with oro seco, dry drumming without singing, followed by a salute to Elegúa, the messenger between gods and humans. Next comes the oro cantado, or sung prayer, during which individual orishas respond to set rhythms and musical themes, and enter the bodies of consecrated priests—a sensation called “mounting the horse.” The musicians and dancers, propelled by polyrhythmic textures and repetitious melodies, continue performing for many hours. The emotions and physical exertion escalate as the ceremony carries on. The end goal is spirit possession, in which orishas are believed to work within the possessed and deliver messages, advice and healing.

This is just one culturally and religiously specific example of how rhythm, melody, dance and belief merge to inspire feelings of transcendence. The type and level of rapture will vary according to factors like physical space, group makeup, belief system and style and duration of the musical episode. How and for what reason the trance is induced is situational: it takes different forms and is interpreted differently depending on whether the context is Hassidic, Dervish, Santerian or something else. Moreover, similar feelings can be aroused at secular venues like a rave or rock concert, and can potentially be achieved in unplanned and informal dance sessions done in private.

The diversity of perceived causes and meanings indicates two things. First, human beings seem to be drawn to this kind of experience. We have an instinctual urge for ecstatic moments and use music and dance to reach them. Second, it is in the level of interpretation—prior to and afterward —that we assign meaning to what takes place. The kinds of responses that occur are essentially identical from person to person and group to group, but the environments and explanations span a wide spectrum of possibilities. Many of them involve some form of theological language, as with the notion of orishas possessing their invokers. But is this a necessary component?

Dance trances, in all their multifarious incarnations, exemplify what Abraham Maslow called peak experiences. Maslow, a humanist psychologist, rejected the premise that supernatural forces ignite feelings regarded as spiritual. Instead, he saw these “peaks” as perfectly natural moments of self-actualization: especially exciting events involving sudden feelings of wholeness, elation, epiphany and awe. These wondrous instances can be triggered by an assortment of inducements, including love, works of art, the beauty of nature, and music.

In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow cites listeners of classical music who describe themselves being delivered to “great joy,” “ecstasy,” “visions of another world” and “another level of living.” A few sentences later, he notes the consciousness-altering effect of music when it “melts over, fuses over, into dancing or rhythm.” According to Maslow, the potential outcome of such peak experiences is manifold. They can release creative energy, affirm the value of existence, renew a sense of purpose and promote oneness with the universe. And the mark they leave can be permanent, reorienting the individual for the better.

Again, none of this depends on an external power; it all takes place within the “farther reaches” of the body and mind. In this sense, there is no inherent contrast between spiritual/religious experiences and peak/highly emotional experiences. They are one and the same. The only difference is whether religious or secular language is used to contextualize and interpret what has occurred. Regardless of how we choose to frame such experiences, they demonstrate the human propensity—and need—for extraordinary moments.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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