Music and Trance

1778) [3] and William James (1842-1910) [4], all of whom thought deeply about trance and music.

Among neuroscientists, the prevailing view is that the mind is the brain and that the electrical

The author discusses the relationship between music and trance in terms of new theories of mind and brain. She uses ex· amples from several music cultures, including trance in the Rangda/Barong ritual of Bali.

Judith Becker

Eu""n yea" ago, Rouge t wrote Mu>i, on' Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession [1]. By clearing away some long-held misconceptions, this seminal book laid the groundwork for a new look at the interrelationship between music and trance. Rouget made several important contributions to this area of study: (1) He focused attention on the fact that there are many different kinds of trance, some more usually associated with music than others. (2) He put to rest the assumption (both folkloric and scientific) that there is a causal relationship between certain kinds of music-such as heavy, fast drumming or repetitious melodic phrasing-and certain kinds of trance. The relationship between music and trance is neither causal nor deterministic. One can go into trance without music; one can listen to music and not go into trance. Yet the two are often associatively linked. (3) He demonstrated that, given the right cultural expectations, any kind of music, whether it be vocal or instrumental, can be associated with trance states.

As I read Rouget's book when it first came out in English, I was at once thrilled that he had done so much with a topic that had long interested me, and somewhat dismayed that he had gotten to "my topic" before me. Now, more than a decade later, I am beginning to feel that the topic should again be broached by reframing some of the old questions concerning trance and music within recent approaches to the neurophysiology and neurochemistry of the brain. Few of these studies of the brain ever mention either music or trance, yet, to my mind, these new findings can be directly related to the persistent question of the relationship between music and trance.

My intent is not to reduce the rich, experiential phenomenon of trance to firing neurons and "promiscuous" chemicals, but to consider what another explanatory system can teach us. While this paper focuses on the chemical and physiological aspects of trance, my ultimate aim is to integrate the recent findings of the biological sciences with the body of knowledge about music and trance that can be derived from first-person reports as well as psychological and anthropological literature. Scientific literature can contribute some striking new mental images of how and why we often respond to music by going into trance, and provide some rather startling new metaphors for describing the workings of our minds. In some cases, these studies urge upon us a drastic reformulation of our understandings of mind and brain (such as the notion that memories are "stored" in a particular area of the brain or that brain activity is unified). On the other hand, recent neuroscientific studies also often underscore how much we already know. Though the language of verification is not the same and the metaphors may be very different, scientific studies often provide descriptions parallel to the analyses of humanistic scholars of previous times and places, such as alGhazali (12th century) [2], Jean:Jacques Rousseau (1712-

© 1995 ISAST


and chemical processes of the brain are the mind. Some humanists, musicologists and believers in institutionalized religions find this interpretation disturbing. How could the activity of neurons, transmitters and neuropeptides possibly explain our

life experiences? I do not feel

compelled to make a scientific description stand in opposition to more traditional explanations of what it means to be human. All perspectives are partial perspectives. Neuroscience's findings about the brain can help us dispel certain misconceptions and better understand our relationship to both the world outside and our inner experience. Neuroscience can help us understand some of the underlying mechanisms of the central nervous system that contribute to or make possible the deep pleasure we experience when entranced by music. However, these findings leave ultimate questions aside.

I define trance as a state of mind characterized by intense focus, the loss of the strong sense of self and access to types of knowledge and experience that are inaccessible in nontrance states. While Rouget prefers to distinguish between states of "trance" and "ecstasy," I prefer a generic category of "trance" that includes meditative states, possession trance, shamanic trance, communal trance, aesthetic trance and isolated moments of transcendence. Trance states can be of dif-

ferent kinds: there is the trance of the performer who feels herself to be one with the music she plays; the mild trance of the listener whose whole attention becomes focused on the music; possession trance, in which one's self appears to be displaced and one's body is taken over by a deity or a spirit; the trance of Sufi mystics who feel themselves unified with Allah; or the meditation trance of Vajrayana Buddhists, who feel themselves become the deity. Trance is not a digital onoff state. There can be many degrees of trance. Trance is often a learned behavior and thus nearly always bears the im-

Judith Becker (ethnomusicologist), School of Music, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. MI 48109·2085. U.S.A.

Received 20 April 1994.

Manuscript solicited by Kathryn Vaughn,

LEONARDO MUSIC JOURNAL, Vol. 4, pp. 41-51, 1994


Table 1. Subjective responses from adults reporting recurrent "mystical experiences· [37].

Description Percent

A feeling of deep and profound peace 55

A certainty that all things would work out for the good 48

A sense of my own need to contribute to others 43

A conviction that love is at the center of everything 43

A sense of joy and laughter 43

An experience of great emotional intensity 38

A great increase in my understanding and knowledge 32

A sense of the unity of everything and my own part in it 29

A sense of a new life or living in a new world 27

A confidence in my own personal survival 27

A feeling that I couldn't possibly describe what was happening to me 26

A sense that all the universe is alive 25

A sensation that my personality has been taken over by something

much more powerful than I am 24

A sense of tremendous personal expansion, either psychological or physical 22 A sensation of warmth or fire 22

print of a particular society's beliefs about it. Trance as a category is not defined by "singly necessary" and "jointly sufficient" [5] properties, but should be thought of as a Wittgen steinian category, a set of altered states of mind that bear only "family" resemblances to one another: some of their external symptoms overlap, others do not [6]. Trance, like most natural language categories [7], is a cover term for a set of things that more or less resemble each other.

Part of being in trance is knowing how one is supposed to act. Balinese trancers act differently than Ghanaian Dagomba or American Pentecostal trancers do. Cultural expectations always playa part in trance behavior. Anthropological writings about trance have taught us about its cultural components, such as the religious rituals in which trance is often embedded, ways that trancers move when in trance and ways they come out of trance, beliefs con-

Fig. 1. Rangda the witch, one of the primary characters in the Balinese Rangda/Barong ritual.

42 Becker, Music and Trance

cerning the ontology of trance states and the kinds of events in which trance is a possible or appropriate behavior. Contrary to American folk beliefs about it, trance behavior is highly predictable. People in trance act like the people in trance whom they have seen from early childhood. Whether restrained and silent like the enchanted concert-goer or wildly whirling like the Sri Lankan healer, trancers reenact the behavior of their cultural predecessors.

Trance is practiced in all cultures. I believe that it is not pathological, but one possible way of "being-in-the-world" [8]. All cultures that I know of have institutionalized musical contexts in which trance is either occasionally, commonly or necessarily a part. As far as I know, trance is as species-specific as music and language are.

While all peoples learn language and most peoples either play or sing, a smaller percentage regularly go into trance. The United States would seem to be a place generally hostile to trance, providing few positive role models for trancers. In spite of this, and ignoring the many communal trances of religious groups such as the Pentecostals, it would appear that many non-religious Americans have "oceanic" experiences similar to the solitary trance experiences that are also an institutionalized part of many religious domains. In a national survey conducted in 1979, investigators Greeley and McCready asked 1,500 American adults whether they had ever had the experience of feeling that they were "very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift them out of themselves" [9]. The survey revealed that two-fifths of those who responded confessed to having had what we would call a "mystical" experience. A follow-up survey presented those who had responded positively with a list of possible descriptions of such experiences; subjects were asked to choose the descriptions that corresponded best to their own experience. (Table 1 shows the most commonly chosen descriptions.) These descriptions display the same range of affective understanding as descriptions of trance experiences from around the world.

William James's turn-of-the-century study of ecstasy, The Varieties of Religious Experience [10], presents personal descriptions drawn entirely from Europe and the United States. Yet his conclusions that such states are characteristically ineffable and noetic-that they cannot be described in language, and

Fig. 2. Barong in the Balinese Rangda/Barong ritual.

that they provide access to special knowledge-also resemble innumerable descriptions from all over the world.

I introduce the studies of Greeley and McCready and William James in order to inhibit the tendency on the part of Westerners (and perhaps Americans in particular) to think of trance as a phenomenon that occurs only to some distant "other." Trance is also fairly common even among middle-class, well-educated Americans. This caveat seems especially important, since my primary example is of a Balinese trance ritual. I include this example not simply because it is dramatic, but because I am fairly familiar with it, and it is complex enough to underscore many of the points I wish to consider in the relationship of music and trance.

The Rangda/Barong ritual of Bali is an event invoked to restore the balance between the world of people and the world of the deities, spirits and demons of the "other world." If some misfortune believed to result from the imbalance of cosmic forces befalls a village, such as crop failure, pestilence or too-frequent cases of mental illness, the village will stage a ritual encounter opposing the great witch Rangda (Fig. 1) and her followers against the mythic beast Barong (Fig. 2) and his followers. The cast of performers in this ritual can be vast, including up to 20 minor demons who may dance, cavort or misbehave in amusing or threatening ways. A group of young men of the village volunteer to go into trance, become the helpers of the beast Barong, arm themselves with daggers and attack the witch Rangda. At some point in the ritual, the witch curses the young men and causes them to turn their daggers on themselves (Fig. 3). Gradually, as the force of their anger

Fig. 3. Entranced dancers enact the self-stabbing stage of the Balinese Rangda/Barong ritual.

subsides, they fall to the ground in the classic "crisis" of trance (Fig. 4). They are then disarmed and removed to the temple, where they are slowly brought out of trance. The violent encounter between the witch Rangda and the beast Barong and his followers always ends in a standoff, but somehow serves to restore cosmic balance. The young men come out of the trance feeling exhausted, but relaxed and happy, with faint memories of their cosmic encounter.

Before the ceremony begins, all the participants are put into trance at the temple to the accompaniment of long, slow vocal lines of classical poetry sung in unison by a chorus of women from the village.

Throughout the public, theatrical part of the ceremony, the gamelan ensemble (Fig. 5) plays continuously. The instruments' melodic motifs are associated with the numerous characters of the drama; ultimately, they culminate in a furious two-note ostinato pattern that is always played as accompaniment to the "encounter" between Barong, along with his entranced human followers, and Rangda the witch.


Since Rouget wrote Music and Trance in 1980, a large body of scholarship has addressed the issue of the localization of separate brain functions in particular brain areas. The most successful of these studies have localized the areas of the brain most commonly activated during "languaging" [ll]-speaking, listening, reading, thinking in language or silently replaying or preplaying linguistic exchanges that have occurred in the past or are projected into the future (the "inner newsreel") [12]. These studies have

identified two areas of the brain strongly associated with languaging: Wernicke's area and Broca's area, located respectively in the left temporal lobe and the left frontal cortex (Fig. 6).

Studies attempting to localize musical activity in the right cortex have been far less successful and convincing than studies of languaging activities. If there is a hemispheric preference for listening to music, that preference is less consistent than the left hemispheric preference for languaging. One study has found that for the right-handed person, the right hemisphere controls melody, whereas the left hemisphere con trois rhythm [13]. A number of studies have shown a right hemispheric preference for listening to melodies, but a shift to the left when the subject is asked to do analytic tasks or is a trained musician [14]. These findings, all based only on experimen ts involving Western listeners in laboratory settings, contributed to a spate of articles claiming that the right cortex was involved with "holistic" thinking and the left with "analytic" thinking. These categories have been indiscriminately applied to vast areas of the brain of which we know very little.

Whether or not the attempts to localize musical activity in particular areas of the brain are ever deemed as successful as attempts to localize language have been, it is abundantly clear that trance states necessarily involve many different areas of the brain simultaneously. In addition to whatever might be the "music" areas of the brain, trance also must involve the languaging areas of the brain. Institutionalized forms of trance, like the Rangda/Barong ritual, are about cosmologies; they come out of narratives in which one way to overcome an outbreak of disease, for instance, might be

Becker, Music and Trance 43

to stage an encounter in which people are brought into contact with "the other world." Beliefs concerning trance necessarily involve language, since our beliefs (which are languages) always mediate our experiences. All institutionalized systems of trance involve cosmologies, beliefs about trance ontology and beliefs about the meanings of trance: One cannot intuit that Rangda is a widow and thus the wife of a spirit, that she is known to eat children, that she has a beautiful, seductive daughter or that she herself sometimes desires release from her incessant evil-doing. All this is part of the languaging of trance.


The theory of mind now coming into prominence-called connectionism, or emergent behavior-seems to provide the kinds of metaphors that can handle the complexities of music and trance relationships. This theory promises to be more amenable to discussing the relationship between music and trance than mainstream cognitive science and theories of the "mind as computer" have been.

Studies in musical cognition have been largely based upon the theoretical formulations of the discipline of cognitive science. The basic metaphor of cognitive science is that the mind operates in ways similar to a computer; thinking is analogous to enacting formal operations upon a string of symbolic represen-

44 Becket; Music and Trance

Fig. 4. Barong followers in the temple court after the Rangda/Barong ritual at Pagoetan, Bali [38].

tations. In a statement of this position, John Haugeland writes:

The basic idea of cognitive science is that intelligent beings are semantic engines -in other words, automatic formal systems with interpretations under which they consistently make sense. We can now see whv this includes psychology and artificia'l intelligence on a more or less equal footing: people and intelligent computers (if and when there are any) turn out to be merely different manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon. Moreover, with universal hardware, any semantic engine can in principle be formally imitated by a

computer if only the fight program can be found [15].

According to connectionism, memory is the key to the mind's functions. Memories are not single items stored in particular places, but the results of the simultaneous activities of innumerable groups of neurons joined by vast networks of interconnections. What we see and hear is an emergent property of these activated neuronal networks.

Bodily enactment (so important an aspect of much ritual trance) plays no role in the mind-as-computer theory, nor does context. The sequential application of rules on symbolic strings is not amenable to the simultaneity of experiences in trance. Musicologists and ethnomusicologists need a theory of mind that admits anecdotal, experiential evidence-in the form of both firsthand and introspective reports-as a possible source for the understanding of mental processes. We cannot use a theory that posits that our mental operations are not available to consciousness in any direct way. Knowing full well that neuroscience is a quickly changing field, at this point in time I have chosen to follow the premises of the connectionist or emergent theory of mind, rather than the formal models of cognitive science.

The brain is composed of billions of neurons, or nerve cells, "and in a single human brain the number of possible interconnections between these cells is greater than the number of atoms in the universe" [16]. According to the theory of neuronal grouping, or global theory, it is not individual neurons that deter-

Fig. 5. The garnelan that accompanies the Rangda/Barong ritual.

mine thought and behavior, but rather neuronal groupings and groups of groupings called "maps." These maps are located in specific areas of the brain, and become linked through past behavior in what are called reentrant processes. Separate groups or maps are massively connected by neuronal circuits and neuronal loopings [1 7J. Through repeated behavior or repeated learning, certain linkages are habituated, so that the stimulation of one map-through, for example, the perception/hearing of a particular piece of music (stimulating the auditory cortex and the right frontal lobel-almost simultaneously stimulates other maps (of memories or emotions, for example) as well. These so-called maps are based upon learned perceptual and cognitive categories (Fig. 7). When hearing a familiar piece of music, one may recall the memory of previous hearings, feel again the emotion of another time and place or find one's attention riveted by the out-of-tune entrance of the horn player. When hearing a new piece, one may attempt to make it fit into a known category of pieces, enter into an evaluative listening mode or think about any number of other issues. All these thoughts or categories constitute neuronal groupings, or groups of groupings, designated as cognitive maps.

The neurons of the brain communicate with each other by an electrical impulse, or a neuronal firing called a synapse, which releases chemicals called neurotransmitters across the gap between neurons. A neuronal cell receives the electrical impulse and the released neurotransmitters on a spine of its dendrites. This synapse may stimulate the receiving neuron to itself generate an electrical impulse, producing a neuronal firing from its axon to a neighboring neuron's dendrite (Fig. 8).

Most of the activity of the brain is not related to outside stimuli, but is internally generated. Most of the massive neuronal interconnections of the brain do not connect directly with any sensory system. For the most part, the brain talks, not to the outside world, but to itself. With minimal sensory input, we hear what we expect to hear and see what we expect to see.

A visual perception consists of at least 30 separate sets of neuronal groupings [18], each responding to a feature of the stimulus such as boundary, edges, light or darkness, movement, etc. All are linked by reentrant processes. What we "see" is a composite instantaneously constructed in the visual cortex by millions

of neurons in separate groupings, all firing in response to a visual stimulus.

While the auditory system in the temporal lobe is not as well understood, it too consists of neuronal groupings, each responding to a different aspect of the incoming signal, such as timbre, pitch, loudness, melody, rhythm, harmony, stress, etc. Through reentrant or looping processes-synaptic connections going to many other parts of the brain-we are simultaneously (or so it seems) aware of the last time we heard this piece, or one like it, as well as perhaps concomitant feelings of joy, sadness or even fear, involving many billions of other neuronal firings in neuronal groupings in distant parts of the brain. We may start to dance, involving motor activities located in the parietal lobes and the central nervous system down our spines and out to our toes. All the studies that locate the reception of music in special areas of the frontal lobe (melody and harmony in the right; rhythm, singing and syntactic sequences in the left [19J) ignore the massive reentrant linkages that trigger neuronal activity in many specialized brain areas and down our spinal cord. Not only do we hear in our right and left frontal cortexes, we hear with our skin.


Let us return for a moment to the Balinese trancers attacking Rangda. Hearing the musical theme alone, a trancer would be able to imagine the witch, envision the scene in which she is to be attacked, and feel the rage and terror she inspires. Minimally, this act of hearing involves not only the auditory cortex and the right frontal cortex, but the language areas of the left frontal cortex where the association of Rangda with evil acts occurs, plus the lower limbic areas of the brain where emotions such as fear and hate are activated (Fig. 9). In this way, a particular sensory stimulus acts as a physiological metonym-one part (music/sound) invokes the whole mythology, as well as the behavior and emotions that accompany it.

The metonymic quality of all mental activity, including trance activity, has been described as a "scene" by Edelman [20J. He believes that it is the ability to create a scene that is the mammalian base of the development of what he calls "primary consciousness" in humankind.

Learning certainly occurs in animals that show no evidence of conscious behavior. But in some animal species with cortical systems, the categorizations of separate causally unconnected parts of

Fig. 6. The position of the language areas in the brain. The top figure illustrates the lobes of the cortex; the lower left illustrates the language area in the frontal lobe; the lower right illustrates the language area in the temporal lobe [39].

frontal lobe

occipital lobe

frontal lobe --_...,

Broca's area

Broca's Area (left hemisphere only)

Language Area (left hemisphere only)

Becker, Music and Trance 45

Fig. 7. These drawings illustrate possible neuronal pathways within the brain that can, through repeated use, become established as "maps." The drawing on the left illustrates possible projection pathways from the thalamus to both hemispheres, illustrating how a single part of the brain may have direct links to all other parts of the brain. The drawing on the right illustrates possible association pathways within each hemisphere that may be either direct or circuitous [40].

the world can be correlated and bound into a scene. Bya scene I mean a spatiotemporally ordered set of categorizations of familiar and nonfamiliar events, some with and some without necessary physical or causal connections to others in the same scene. The advantage provided by the ability to construct a scene is that events that may have had significance to an animal's past learning can be related to new events, however causally unconnected those events are in

the outside world. By these means, the salience of an event is determined not only by its position and energy in the physical world but also by the relative value it has been accorded in the past history of the individual animal as a result of learning [21].

This metonymic action of the involvement of many brain areas in response to a single auditory stimulus is a familiar

Fig. 8. A drawing of a typical neuron illustrating the action of a synapse from the axon of one neuron to a dendrite or cell body of another neuron. The enlarged drawing at the right illustrates the movement of vesicles with chemical neurotransmitters moving from one neuron to another [41].

46 Becker, Music and Trance

one. We all know that listening to a particular piece of music invokes thoughts, memories and feelings that are in no way intrinsic to the musical signal itself. All this implies the firing of multiple neuronal groups, linked by massive reentrant processes. These studies reinforce what we already know concerning listening to music: that it activates many areas of the brain/body, not just the specialized acoustic areas in the temporal lobes or the emotion-producing areas of the limbic systems [22].


But what of trance? One can think of Rangda, know of her wickedness, be angry at her malevolence, want to move to her music and yet not go into trance. I can hear my colleague play one of Bach's unaccompanied cello suites, think of the last time I heard the compact disc recording played by Yo-Yo Ma, recognize it as within the genre of solo Baroque music, anticipate what the next musical phrase will be, feel joy at hearing the piece again, take pleasure in the skill of the musician and still not go into trance. I could even, in the next moment, be thinking about what I might enjoy having for dinner or responding to my companion's question about whether I have recognized a friend sitting beyond the next aisle. I can mentally "leave" the musical experience if provoked by any momentary distraction. Trance states do not disallow such "leaving," but they definitely inhibit mental flitting about. One of the common characteristics of the trance category is its focus, its intensity; speaking neurologically, one is held within the relative constancy of the continual activation of a particular complex of neuronal groupings, a particular "map." One's mind is less likely to "wander" in trance than in other mental states.

As mentioned earlier, one of the identifying characteristics of trance is its noetic quality; it presents to the trancer a special type of knowledge, nearly always accompanied by a sense of absolute certainty concerning that knowledge. For the Balinese trancer, normal reality recedes; he goes into what is called the "other world," the world where Rangda exists, where it becomes imperative that he attack her with his dagger and where she will at some point curse him. He will, willy-nilly, turn his dagger against himself. What allows this to happen in a man who, in all other respects, acts normally-tending his farm, playing with his

children, taking pleasure in cockfights and in watching tourists? We say that he "goes to another place" or that he enters an altered state of consciousness.

If we can think of states of mind, including trance states, as involving the simultaneous activation of neuronal maps that form a particular set and the nonagitation of other neuronal maps, it becomes easier to imagine the mechanism for trance's noetic quality, for the feeling that one has access to special kinds of knowledge that may make little sense in other states of mind.

The Christian sacrament of communion, in which the sacramental wine becomes the blood of Christ and the wafer becomes the body of Christ, is incomprehensible to the confirmed materialist; yet, this transformation may be experienced as true by that same person within the setting of a church, while hearing Gregorian chant, smelling incense and seeing the priest move slowly and deliberately about the altar in long robes of white and gold.

The inner experience of the "other world" is rich with its own special configuration of memories, images and feelings, of activated neuronal groups-its own map. It would appear that other large sections of one's cortex have simultaneously shut down, including some areas that relate us to the normal, wideawake, non-metaphysical world we normally inhabit. It seems to me that a central feature of trance involves the shutting down of selected perceptual

connections, resulting in the blocking of distraction, a blocking that itself may lead to an openness to many new kinds of perceptual and cognitive inputs. To be "lost" in thought, to "lose oneself in the music," or to give oneself over to the mythological other world of Rangda all involve selective mental shutdowns. The same process that energizes the trancer in the Rangda/Barong ceremony makes him oblivious to most mundane events and concerns. He is offered another world to live in, a world with its own kinds of knowledge, its own insights.

We know that one can learn to become entranced, that some people are better at it than others and that in some societies large numbers of the population learn this skill, while some never do-even when it is a socially applauded activity. Whatever the activated global network that facilitates trance may be, the global network of a particular trance state is linked to an equally vast network inhibited by the same activity. Such inhibitions would account for certain fairly common post-trance phenomena, such as the inability to recall what happened during the trance state, as well as the inability to describe the sensation. Ineffability, at the neuronal level, would seem to relate in part to the inhibition or shutting down of sections of the language areas of the brain and some of the connections between the cortex and the hippocampus (part of the limbic system) that establish shortterm memory (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. This drawing illustrates the limbic system, a lower and more primitive part of the brain than the cortex, and its position within the brain. The limbic system plays a central role in the generation of emotions [42].



In Michigan, on warm summer nights in July and August, the grasses, bushes and low trees are filled with fireflies. If one watches for long enough, one will notice that the blinking of these tiny bugs becomes synchronized.

Nonanimate objects such as electronic circuits will also synchronize their oscillations if they are close to each other [23]. "Phase-locking" of two adjacent pendulums was reported by Christian Huygens as long ago as 1665 [24]. Our speech and body motions exhibit wavelike characteristics that are both personal and cultural [25]. Differences between the speech rhythms and body rhythms of different cultural subgroups within the United States are often the source of profound dis-ease between, say, midwestern Protestants and New YorkJews, as has been vividly illustrated by Tannen [26]. Across geographic areas such as the United States and Java, the different language tempos and body rhythms can make one feel profoundly out of sync. Body gestures and speech rhythms are as much a part of correctly "speaking" a language as are nouns and predicates.

The fact that the brain also acts in a rhythmic fashion has led to an alternate theory concerning the connectivity of bundles of neuronal brain cells. Earlier, I talked of these connections in terms of their reentrant processes, the connecting loops that join separate, localized and specific neuronal maps. In this view, the coherence of brain activity involving many different sections of the brain is based upon those pathways, those neuronal connectors that go back and forth within the cortical hemispheres, between the cortical hemispheres, between the cortical hemispheres and the limbic systems, between the cortical and limbic systems and the lower-brain areas and down the spinal cord as well.

According to this view of the working of the brain, the underlying metaphor is the map. Sections of the brain are like cities connected by superhighways, small towns connected by two-lane highways and villages connected by dirt roads. Learning may change the map in great and small ways. Through disuse, highways may become dirt roads, while former villages may expand into larger towns once they are connected by welltraveled highways.

An alternate theory suggests that it is not so much structure as process that links different areas of the brain, and that the mechanism of this process is

Becker, Music and Trance 47

"Encounter" Theme
!l._ ~. ~. ~. etc.
OJ I 1 I ·1 .
oj ~
oj . . . . . . . . .
(drum) c":: dru:;:'.ts/,:.-' ...... ........................ -
ceng ceng
(cymbals) _____ IIIiiIiiiiiiIii __ 1iIiiIiiiiiiIii
(a) gong



Fig. 10. Gamelan themes that accompany scenes in the Rangda/Barong ritual: (a) the theme of the encounter between Barong and his followers and the witch Rangda and (b) the self-stabbing theme, which is played at the stage in the ritual when the followers of Barong turn their swords against themselves. Short, loud temporal cycles with no melodic elaboration are used in Balinese gamelan music to indicate the presence of demons and fighting.

flashing light meant "now you must jump a hurdle or get a nasty poke," correspondingly greater areas of the brain became rhythmically entrained.

In an early laboratory study of rhythmic entrainment through sound, Andrew Neher [29] placed electrodes on the parietal, occipital and temporal lobes of 10 volunteers with normal EEG records. He then recorded their EEGs in response to a drum beating at frequencies of 3, 4, 6 and 8 beats per second. The main response of the subjects in Neher's study was the entrainment of the rhythms of neurons in the auditory cortex (over the ear) with the drum beat. He also detected what he called a "recruitment" response, i.e. a secondary response in the occipital lobe (at the back of the head). This particular study has been cited repeatedly in anthropological literature, but is summarily dismissed by Rouget in Music and Trance [30]. As scientific studies go, it does seem somewhat thin and inconclusive. Nevertheless, it shows that auditory rhythmic entrainment can be scientifically demonstrated even in a culturally impoverished laboratory setting.

In a more recent article (based on materials collected and analyzed by Tolbert [31]), Vaughn [32] charts the steadily increasing regularity of voice fluctuation, including frequency modulation and tremolo caused by glottal stops, while a woman sings a Karelian lament. Vaughn

studies. Anyone can observe or participate in rhythmic entrainment at concerts and especially in ritual settings where physical activity is not discouraged. Scientific studies, however, can identify more precisely the neuronal mechanism by which this can occur. Most of the laboratory work on entrainment has been done by using a rhythmically flashing light. A report by E. Roy John tells of an experiment conducted on cats [28]. Investigators implanted 34 electrodes in different parts of the brain of a cat. These electrodes allowed the researchers to record the electrical rhythms from many parts of the eat's brain in response to a regularly flashing light. Those parts of the brain that showed electrical waves at the same frequency as the flashing light were named "labeled rhythms." Other regions of the eat's brain showed only random electrical activity.

When the cat first saw the flashing light, only those areas associated with the visual system responded in synchrony with the flashing light. The experimenters then introduced an unpleasant electric shock that the cat could avoid by jumping a hurdle as soon as the light flashed. As the cat learned to jump when the light flashed, the "labeled rhythm" took on new meanings and spread to other parts of the brain. As long as the "labeled rhythm" meant only a flashing light, only the visual cortex responded in synchrony. When the

rhythmic synchrony, or rhythmic entrainment. The firing of electrical impulses, or synapses, of the neurons of the brain often proceeds in perceptible rhythmic patterns. In other words, it is through different patterns of rhythmic activity among the same neuronal groupings, rather than different loci or different pathways, that different parts of the brain are linked and mnemonic associations develop.

An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a rough-and-ready way of measuring the predominant rhythmic electrical activity of sections of the brain by planting electrodes on the scalp over the temporal, occipital, parietal or frontal lobes (see Fig. 6). The "resting" rhythm of the brain, or its alpha rhythm, is normally between 8 and 13 cycles per second. Although the basic alpha frequency is not the same from person to person, within a given individual the range (at least in laboratory studies) is fairly limited. Since 1934 [27], it has been known that flashing a bright light into the eyes at a rate close to the normal alpha rhythm of the resting brain will increase the amplitude of the alpha rhythm of the brain, and that slightly increasing or decreasing the rhythm of the flashing light will stimulate the brain rhythms to adjust in synchrony.

Our knowledge of rhythmic entrainment during ritual performances involving music is not dependent on scientific

48 Becker, Music and Trance

hypothesizes that, as the song progresses, the singer's vocal cords become rhythmically entrained with her bodily gestures (the "bobbing" of sobbing). Furthermore, the increased regularity of the pulsating voice corresponds to the singer's perception that, at those very points, the song is having the desired effect of carrying the spirit of the deceased to the abode of the dead. She implies that the rhythmic entrainment of voice and body rhythms are indications of the singer's entering an altered state.

The encounter between Barong and his followers and Rangda is accompanied by fast, loud and short temporal cycles played on the gamelan (Fig. 10). In all Balinese and Javanese gamelan music, short, loud temporal cycles with no melodic elaboration indicate the presence of demons and fighting. Long, slow temporal cycles with much melodic elaboration indicate refined characters and peaceful scenes. No Balinese music is more demonic, louder or more minimalist than that which signals the encounter between the witch Rangda and Barong and his followers, the entranced men who attempt to thwart Rangda's power [33].

The driving, incessant ostinatos of these themes are icons of the emotions of fear and rage and the action of fighting. They undergird and sustain the manic and mad frenzy of both the witch and her attackers. It seems that the gamelan music has a physiological impact on the men who participate; indeed, networks of groups of neurons seem to be firing synchronously with the gamelan rhythms in the brains and bodies of the trancers. The clanging bronze keys of the gangsas, the booming gongs and the pulsing rhythms of drums and cymbals, all rhythmically synchronized, become one with the rhythmic synchrony experienced throughout the central nervous system of the trancer. While this kind of rhythmic driving is not a necessary condition for trance, it may especially facilitate the manic trance of the encounter with the witch. The long, slowly sung melodic phrases that originally put the men into trance are probably not as effective in sustaining the altered state that leads them to frenzied self-stabbing.

It is always important to remind ourselves that the music does not cause the self-stabbing. Members of the audience are hearing the music, but seldom go into trance. In this ritual, women rarely participate as trancers. Sometimes a designated trancer will withdraw if his

trance is shallow. And sometimes, contrary to expectations, an audience member may be overcome with rage and frustration and join the circle of trancers, be given a dagger by one of the attendants and begin leaping about while stabbing himself.

One can reasonably assume that human brains become entrained to the rhythms of music and that these entrained rhythms involve not only acoustic and sensory motor areas of the brain, but areas in many other cortical and sub-cortical areas. Memory, past history and emotions become a part of the rhythmically pulsating brain.

According to this view, it is not so much the linkage between groups of firing cells that is important in determining our understanding or interpretation of an event in the world outside, but the synchronous rhythms at which they fire.

It is sometimes easy to fall into an impression of determinacy, causality or inevitability when considering the brain's reactive behavior. Yet, all the neuroscientists working in this area warn against any such impression. The term "deterministic chaos" was coined to describe a system such as the brain, in which patterns of order do emerge from a system in which no particular element or organizational morphology is without randomness, without "noise." The same "deterministic chaos" holds true for the linked neuronal groups, the reentrant pathways and the topological mapping of the massively parallel and reciprocal interconnecting neurons of the brain. The boundaries both within and between neuronal groups are, within a given individual, unstable, and will change in response to new experiences or to a new internal organization of the brain [34]. The indeterminacy of a particular person's reaction to a particular kind of trance music is mirrored by the indeterminacy of the action of any particular neuron in the brain.



Explanations involving neuronal groups linked by neuronal pathways and rhythmic entrainment may help us visualize what happens beneath our skins when we sing, dance or enter a state of trance. But these explanations don't address the "why." Human actions tend to be overdetermined in the sense that many different "whys" or impulses may lead one to stand up from a chair and cross

the room to open a window (room too hot, muscles getting stiff, book boring, mind distracted by slight hunger, unfamiliar bird just out of view, etc.). The reasons for listening to music can also be multiple and complex. Nevertheless, one of our reasons for making or listening to music is that it makes us feel happy. Listening to music is associated, for many people, with feelings of pleasure. States of trance are also usually associated with pleasure; ecstatic trance, with extreme pleasure, as the term implies. Along with associative memories, knowledge and rhythmic entrainment, the suppression of pain and the enhancement of pleasure occur simultaneously in trance states. While these processes of suppression and enhancement can each be discussed separately, they seem to be but two sides of the same phenomenon.

At the neuronal level, increased pleasure is partially a result of the action of the chemicals-generically called endorphins-that operate at the place of the synapse. Endorphins (a shorthand term for endogenous morphines) are painsuppressing, pleasure-enhancing chemicals. Endorphins are only one member of an extended family of brain chemic cals called neuropeptides, which are made up of chains of amino acids.

So far, some 200 brain chemicals have been identified as making us feel happy, sad, sexy, suicidal or obsessed. When an action potential (an electrical impulse) arrives at the gap between two neurons (the synapse), it triggers the secretion of a chemical messenger (a neurotransmitter). These transmitters seep across the gap to bind to the next cell.

Neurochemicals can be either inhibitory or excitatory. In addition, at each synapse the impulse can be either modulated, duplicated exactly, reduced, increased or delayed. As input from the senses percolates to different parts of the brain and the nervous system, it gets processed at every stage. Some input is modified, some discarded, some passed on. We continuously filter our experience, making selections based on emotional meaning or past experience [35]. In Cytowic's words, "the neuron ... is a storyteller that accentuates some features, completely ignores others, and is our fragile link to the physical world" [36]. All perception is shaped, filtered and processed. Endorphins playa role in our construction of the world outside our bodies.

As well as being pleasure producers, endorphins are potent natural painkill-

Becker, Music and Trance 49

ers. Long-distance runners, some anorexics, and meditators have been found to have elevated beta-endorphin levels. I suspect that those in trance do also. What would we find were we able to test Balinese trancers or those in a state of aesthetic entrancement at a concert? The ability to withstand turning one's dagger on oneself and the abatement of the pain of arthritis at a concert seem to be related phenomena. The threat to the mind-body distinction that these examples pose is intensified by the fact that Balinese trancers not only do not feel pain when stabbing themselves, but also rarely display any resultant physical trauma, such as open, bleeding wounds. Endorphins seem to have the ability not only to impede the sensation of pain, but to prevent the physical damage that would normally accompany the pain as well. One of the effects of the hearing of music appears to be the stimulation of the production and release of natural opiates, resulting in feelings of pleasure or even ecstasy.

In this study, the relationship of music and trance has been linked to brain topography, the rhythmic firing of neurons and the chemistry of the brain. Each of these three perspectives illuminates a different aspect of the music/ trance link. The "dream" state of trance has to do with the rhythmic firing of neuronal bundles, with the selection of certain bundles of neurons and the inhibition of others and with the production of certain chemical transmitters as opposed to others. A trance state is a particular neurological and chemical configuration within the brain, as is the "dream" of reality. In both states, our relationship to the world outside ourselves is constructed internally; this construction is constrained by both the chemical/morphological constitution of the brain and the constitution of the world outside. Music, by stimulating auditory neurons that successively stimulate neurons in the other parts of the brain, helps to establish a particular configuration of activated and unactivated bundles of neurons and activated and inhibited neurotransmitters. For some persons, this complex and combined activity results in a state of trance.

The findings of neuroscience tell us humanists some things we already know: music promotes feelings of solidarity with others (for instance, through the rhythmic entrainment of whole congregations), invokes realms of knowledge to which we otherwise have little access

50 Becker, Music and Trance

and provides a deep and sometimes abiding sense of well-being. But science tells us these things in a new way. The rapidly expanding field of the neurobiology of the brain allows us to talk about musical mystical experience to a new and formerly unsympathetic audience. We become empowered to talk about music and trance in a way that may allow us to be heard by some of those with whom we usually have difficulty talking. Beyond that, neuroscience validates some of our most deeply held intuitions about the power of music.

References and Notes

1. Gilbert Rouget, La Musique et la trance: esquisse d 'une theorie generate des relations de la musique et de la possession (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1980). English translation by Brunhilde Biebuyck, Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985).

2. Al-Ghazali, Tracts on Listening to Music, James Robson, ed. and trans., Oriental Translation Fund, New Series, Vol. 34 (London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1938).

3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses and Essay on the Origin of Languages (New York: Harper and Row, 1986).

4. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, Green and Co., 1902; New York: Pen' guin Books, 1982).

5. Gerald M. Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) p. 234.

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd Ed., G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. (New York:

Macmillan, 1958) pp. 31-32.

7. For a thorough discussion of categorization, see George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things:

What Categories Reveal about the Mind (Chicago, IL:

Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987).

S. George Steiner, Martin Heidegger (New York: Viking Press) p. 60.

9. Andrew Greeley and William McCready, "Are We a Nation of Mystics?" in D. Goleman and R.J. Davidson, eds., Consciousness: Brain, States of Awareness and Mysticism (New York: Harper and Row, 1979) pp. 178-183.

10. See James [4].

II. A. L. Becker, "Language and Languaging," in Language and Communication II, No. 1/2, 33-35 (1991).

12. Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning, 2nd Ed. (London: Free Press, 1971).

13. Hans M. Borchgrevink, "Prosody and Musical Rhythm Are Controlled by the Speech Hemisphere: in Manfred Clynes, ed., Music, Mind and Brain (New York: Plenum Press, 1982) p. 52.

14. Isabelle Peretz and Jose Morais, "Determinants of Laterality for Music: Toward an Information Processing Account," in Kenneth Hugdahl, Handbook of Dichotic Listening: The Theory, Methods and Research (Chichester, United Kingdom: John Wiley and Sons, 1988).

15. John Haugeland, ed., Mind Design: Philosophy, Psychology, Artificial Intelligence (Cambridge, MA:

MIT Press, 1981) p. 31. See also Marvin Minsky, ed., Semantic Information Processing (Cambridge,

MA: MIT Press, 1968) and Ray S. Jackendoff, Consciousness and Computational Mind (Cambridge, MA:

MIT Press, 1987).

16. Robert Ornstein and Richard Thompson, The Amazing Brain (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1984) p. 21.

17. See Edelman [5] pp. 83-85. IS. Edelman [5] p. 85.

19. See Borchgrevink [13] p. 54.

20. See Edelman [5] pp. 118-119.

21. See Edelman [5] p. 118.

22. See H. Petsche, K. Lindner and P. Rappelsberger, "The EEG: An Adequate Method to Concretize Brain Processes Elicited by Music," Music Perception 6, No.2, 154 (Winter 1988).

23. Itzhak Bentov, Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the Mechanics of Consciousness (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1988) p. 29.

24. Mark S. Rider and Charles T. Eagle, Jr., "Rhythmic Entrainment as a Mechanism for Learning in Music Therapy," in J. Evans and M. Clynes, eds., Rhythm in Psychological, Linguistic and Musical Processes (Springfield, IL: C.C. Thomas, 1986) p. 226.

25. William S. Condon, "Communication: Rhythm and Structure," in Evans and Clynes [24] p. 63.

26. Deborah Tannen, Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1984).

27. E.D. Adrian and B.H.C. Matthews, "The Berger Rhythm: Potential Changes from the Occipital Lobes in Man," Brain 57 (1934) pp. 355-384.

28. E. Roy John, "How the Brain Works-A New Theory," in Goleman and Davidson [9] p. 14.

29. Andrew Neher, "Auditory Driving Observed with Scalp Electrodes in Normal Subjects," Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology 13 (1961) pp. 449-451. See also Neher's concurrent study: "A Physiological Explanation of Unusual Behavior in Ceremonies Involving Drums," Human Biology 34 (1962) pp. 151-160.

30. See Rouget [1] pp. 172-176.

31. Elizabeth Tolbert, "Women Cry with Words:

Symbolization of Affect in the Karelian Lament," Yearbook for Traditional Music 21 (1990) pp. 80-105.

32. Kathryn Vaughn, "Exploring Emotion in SubStructural Aspects of Karelian Lament: Application of Time Series Analysis to Digitized Melody," Yearbook for Traditional Music 21 (1990) pp. 106-122.

33. Sound illustrations of this are available through an anonymous file-transfer protocol (ftp) site hosted at the MIT Press file server». For complete directions on accessing the site, see the announcement at the front of this issue.

34. See Edelman [5] p. 27.

35. Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi, The 3-Pound Universe (New York: Dell, 1987) p. 72.

36. Richard E. Cytowic, Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989) p. 3.

37. Excerpted from Greeley and McCready [9] p. 183.

3S. Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies, eds., Dance and Drama in Bali (Faber and Faber Limited, 1938) plate 36.

39. Ornstein and Thompson [16] pp. 13, 142, 153.

40. Ornstein and Thompson [16] p. 209.

41. Edelman [5] p. 20.

42. Ornstein and Thompson [16] p. 27.


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Becker, Music and Trance 51

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