Music and Altered States of Consciousness

Jesse Brand

This literary review looks at music, as well as altered states of consciousness (ASC), by addressing the topic in three sections: first, Consciousness and Altered States, considering what consciousness is and what altering it may mean; second, Methods of Altering Consciousness, considers how music might be used to create changes in consciousness; and thirdly, The Purpose of Altered States of Consciousness, addressing what benefits might come from altering one’s conscious state. Within each section, there are an additional three subtopics used: looking at ASC from an indigenous anthropology, scientific experiments as well as through modern social studies. Anthropology demonstrates the development of ASC through various cultures around the world and their use of music to induce these states, as a means of accessing knowledge and experiences, that were otherwise inaccessible. Scientific perspectives address ASC in the form of experiments in order to study these states, using rhythmic patterns and binaural beats to induce ASC and how these states might be useful in assisting brain cognition. Finally, ASC in modern society are considered in the context of electronic dance music (EDM), as it offers an opportunity for participants to enter a trance like state through certain musical characteristics.

Consciousness and Altered States

In order to discuss the idea of altering consciousness through music, first consideration is taken as to what altered consciousness is in comparison to a normal state. Anthropologist Aldridge (2006) defines our baseline state to be seeing oneself in the middle of their own perception as well as, identification with the physical body. Another popular definition of consciousness is that of Baars (1998), global workplace theory, in which the mind is compared to a theatre with many activities taking place. Some are behind the scenes, and some are the focus of attention and illuminated by the spotlight. The spotlight is our consciousness and all other matters are the sub-conscious. Lastly, Ludwig expands upon this notion defining an altered state as being any “mental state induced by “physiological, psychological, or pharmacological maneuvers or agents”. these can be recognized subjectively or objectively as a deviation from the individuals normal waking state (1969, p. 9-10).

Methods of Altering Consciousness

The methods used for altering consciousness are diverse. However, common trends can been seen throughout differing cultural techniques. Anthropologically speaking, Fachner (2006) discusses induction into trance states and finds there are as many ways to enter a trance as there are cultures. Seemingly, there is no particular rhythm or feature required. Although, techniques of increasing tempo and volume combined with minimal variation are common. Additionally, a narrow tonal range, and a duration of serval hours are universally predominant in trance inducing music. Pilch (2006) comments that some cultures prefer quiet or loud, and fast or slow music to induce trance. In addition, Pilch mentions two divergent systems of trance induction, the first, from the ‘top down’ implies the response is induced by brain activity, whereas the second, ‘bottom up’ approach is encouraged via stimulating the nervous system. Furthermore, Pilch states music in itself will not induce a trance, rather it acts as an important element in the experience. Finally, he notes participants must be willing to surrender into the experience rather than resisting it.

Kennaway (2011), backs up the notion that the will of the participants is a requirement in order to enter an altered state in theirmodern historical analysis. Finding the notion of subconscious hypnosis via contemporary music was unlikely, as there is minimal proof that one can be hypnotised against their will. However, this conclusion runs contrary to scientific findings of Henriksen (2010) who notes involuntary movement occurring in individuals on the down beat of music. Likewise, Weinel’s modern social studies note ASC may occur “voluntarily or involuntarily through various methods”, such as “sensory overload”, “repetitive task”, “heightened state of attention”, “fasting, dehydration, sleep deprivation… or psychedelic drugs” (2018, p. 18), all of which are potential components of EDM events.

Divergent thinking from new age authors too can offer insight into ASC, although these writings are often subjective, is may still bare relevancy as ASC essentially a subjective topic. Perret (2005) explains thattrance states affects the performer, as well as participants, and discusses the musician’s capacity to become an instrument that is played directly by spirit. In this way, the musician’s state of mind regulates the degree of spiritual connection that can be achieved through their music. Perret is describing the ability for spirit to enter the physical world by embodying the musician. An alternative technique is using the music as a vehicle for participants to enter the spirit world asHume (2005)discusses in an anthropological analysis of Aboriginal culture. He notes their music can serves as an announcement to spirit that the musicians are crossing over into the spirit world, this transportation occurs via the music itself.

In a scientific experiment on shamanic practices conducted by Szabo (2006),in which, the relationship between monotonous drumming and crossing over to the spirit world is studied. Conducting an experiment with 118 university students who were presented with a thirty-minute recording of drumming at 210 beats per minute. Their instructions were to imagine entering a hole in the earth that represents an entry into the spirit world. Once inside they were to relax, explore and follow their imagination. Then, they would return when the drumming ended and report their internal experiences of the spirit world.

The modern social study of Redfield, and Thouin-Savard (2017) explains that EDMincorporates most of the elements required to induce an ASC. Tension and release, acceleration of tempo, and increase of volume are implemented by the DJ, in addition sleep deprivation, fasting, and psychoactive drugs may supplement the experience. Weinel adds thatsub-genres, such as psychedelic trance or ‘psy trance’ not only have these rudimentary elements of ASC but also incorporates minor scales or the Phrygian musical modes resulting in an Eastern sound, this helps assimilate Eastern philosophical and spiritual mentality. Pieces of dialogue about spiritual transformation as well as about psychedelic drugs are also often added (2018).

The Purpose of Altered States of Consciousness

Through anthropological enquiry authors like Aldridge (2006) pose the question as to the purpose of ASC. Asking is it only another self-indulgent experience? Rather, could it serve as a tool in social consciousness that can assist development of mankind. Aldridge is not alone in considering the purposes of these altered states. His contemporary and co-author of Music and Altered States: Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addiction,Pilch (2006) states, ASC are a universal experience for all human beings. Reiterating that the majority of cultures work with these states as a tool, and the cultures that ignore the potential of ASC are the exception. Hume’s anthropological study with Aboriginalsnotes how music has been used by their culture for working with the spirit world to manipulate the natural elements such as to bring or cease rain, as well as to connect with their ancestors on the other side. Another accreditation of ASC function, in a shamanic sense, is in Fachner’s writing describing music and dance as the medium that allows communication between the “obsessed, the attendees of the ceremony and the Gods” (p.21, 2006).

Scientifically, studies with binaural beats are opening new pathways for understanding and manipulating cognitive function. As Kraus, and Porubanová determined that alpha brain entrainment has a “temporary positive effect on the capacity of working memory” (2015, para 51). Similarly, Reedijk, Bolders, and Hommel found that binaural beats had capacity for “enhancing brainstorm-like creative thinking in individuals with low striatal dopamine levels” (2013, p. 62), however, results can vary between individuals depending on factors like current dopamine levels. Both studies demonstrate for potential of brain wave entrainment through of binaural beats as a means of enhancing certain cognitive processes in individuals to suit their needs .

In a modern social study, the concept of DJ as shaman has surfaced from authors like Weinel who points out that electronic dance music “enable the individual to return to a more ancient form of knowledge and tribal unity with each other and the earth” (p. 92, 2018). Offering opportunity for spiritual healing, similarly to practices of yoga and meditation (Weinel, 2018). Redfield, and Thouin-Savard (2017), add upon this idea of EDM events offering spiritual transformation. They comment on the ‘techno-shamans’ guiding audiences into trance, that is not only powerful in the moment but has lasting effects after the event has concluded. Expanding further, the authors reference Takahashi’s writings mentioning the risks involved for EDM participants favouring experience over theory. Therefore, facing risks due to lack of understanding ASC; suggesting more structures could be implemented to assist in such transformations. Rather than, participants being “left to their own devices, [as] anxiety disorders and depression may ensue” (p. 275, 2004). Redfield, and Thouin-Savard (2017) then highlight the effects of incorporating the uplifting experience into everyday life. Describing improved; relationships, love, empathy, enthusiasm, creativity, and spiritual practice.


Looking at music and Altered States of Consciousness as a whole, only the surface of this subject has been addressed in regards to published literature as well as potential for further study into ASC. The history and diversity within ASC demonstrates the fundamental importance that music and ASC plays within humanity. Considering what consciousness is, how it can be altered by music, and why we would want to alter it, offers a cultural understanding as well as insight into modern integration of these techniques. As we develop an understanding of the of ASC around the globe, we can see fundamental similarities as a species regardless of race, or faith. Scientific enquiries now allows brain entrainment to certain brainwave frequencies via binaural beats, offering a means to tap into the mind in new ways that are still being researched. Moreover, modern social studies display a current overlap of traditional shamanic practices and contemporary EDM music. Thereby opening an opportunity to develop a conscious integration of the two cultures offering an intellectual and experiential understanding of ASC. In this way, ASC offer a potential positive effects that may aid the evolution of modern society. The future will continue to see research and experimentation take place into ASC; in laboratories by scientists, in indigenous cultures by anthropologists, and modern culture through electronic dance music, by anyone with a will to the potential benefits altered state of consciousness.


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Baars, B. (1997) In the Theatre of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fachner, J. (2006). Music and Altered States of Consciousness: An Overview. In D. Aldridge, & J. Fachner (Eds.), Music and Altered States: Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addiction (pp.15-37). London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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Weinel, J. (2018). Inner Sounds: Altered States of Consciousness inElectronic Music and Audio-Visual Media. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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