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Music and Altered States. Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addictions

br2007_084Aldridge, David & Jörg Fachner (Eds.) (2006). Music and Altered States. Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addictions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 208 pages – with additional sound material to be found at www.musictherapyworld.net/ASC

Societies which do not utilize [altered states of consciousness] clearly are historical exceptions which need to be explained, rather than the vast majority of societies that do use these states.

This quote (p. 43) from a foundational anthropological study by E. Bourguignon (1973) indicates one reason for welcoming a book on the relationship between music and altered states of consciousness (ASC): ASC is a universal (or ‘pan-human’) dimension of the self in almost all societies outside the Western culture, and music is considered an important element in utilizing the potential of ASC for healing or spiritual purposes. Another reason is, that very little has been written about music and ASC, with only a handful of Western music therapy studies. – So what is the problem that Western cultures have with ASC? As David Aldridge writes in chapter 1, “all mystical traditions encourage us [to enter] altered states of consciousness where we lose our sense of self and attain that sense of unity with others. This is a difficult message in cultures where we look only to develop ourselves and attain personal states of knowledge.” (p. 13) Theologist John Pilch elaborates on this theme in his excellent essay on music and trance: “The advent of modern science in about the seventeenth century disrupted the bio-psycho-spiritual unity of human consciousness that had existed until then…Western cultures socializes individuals to develop a metaself, a critical observer who monitors and comments on experience.” (p. 43) Many of the chapters illustrate in various ways these points and options, that we seem to have forgotten in Western societies: Even if monotonous drumming in itself may have the power to change subjective experience of body-image and time (Szabo in chapter 5), it is the social and cultural context and performance, not the music or the drugs in themselves that make music + ASC a healing or a spiritual (or a threatening) experience (Pilch in chapter 3, Sokolova in chapter 6, Rios in chapter 8, Maas & Struvelt in chapter 9).

The book comprises 13 chapters written by international authors with different backgrounds: music therapists, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, psychologists, and a theologist.

Chapters 1 and 2 are introductions by the editors; chapters 3-6 give cross-cultural perspectives on different aspects of music perception and cognition; chapters 7-11 deal with aspects of the interplay of drugs, music and ASC; chapters 12-13 address the question of music and spirituality in end-of-life care.

In the first chapter David Aldridge underlines the social, performative and participatory dimensions in the combination of music and ASC. “Music and consciousness are things we do. And we can do these things together.”

The second editor, Jörg Fachner, has done comprehensive research in music and ASC, and his two chapters are among the most valuable in the book. In chapter 2 he gives a preliminary definition of ASC/Consciousness states, as illustrated in Fischer’s (1971) continuum of ergotropic (exiting) and tropotropic (damping) states. This is followed by an overview of theories and research within the following areas: Trance and music; Hypnosis and music; Therapy, music and ASC; Electrophysiological studies of music-related ASC. Fachner concludes that “Music and ASC are connected in various ways concerning context, personal set and socio-ecological setting, and cultural beliefs”. There are social and individual reasons for inducing ASC (with or without music): the social type is related to ritual and traditional healing, while the individual type mostly relates to hedonism or spiritual concerns.

Fachner’s second contribution (chapter 7) is a historical survey of ‘the music and drugs connection’ since the rocking 1960es (with some references to earlier music cultures, e.g. jazz). Many musicians and music lovers seems to have had a deep attraction to the euphoric, sedative or psychedelic functions of drugs as related to music in performance or as a listening experience. The alteration of time and space perception induced by drugs and experienced in ASC (documented as alpha or theta changes in EEG) may enhance or improve acoustic perception (as it does in many non-western cultures, where drug addiction is not a problem). This is one reason why music combined with drugs may have psychotherapeutic potential, as documented in the research of Helen Bonny and others, but this discussion is still controversial and suffers from lack of contemporary research. Fachner summarizes the dilemma: “Music and drug action are processed in the same limbic brain areas”, thus “drug-induced cross modal intensification leads to more vivid association and vision correlated to the music in a guided therapeutic context” (p. 96). So how can ‘high’ states (neuropsychological speaking: alpha or theta increase) be promoted in a safe way? This is an important question in music therapy.

Uwe Maas’ and Süster Strubelt’s report on Polyrhythms supporting a pharmacotherapy: Music in the Iboga initiation ceremony in Gabon is one of my favourite chapters. It combines a personal narrative of a drug-induced initiation ceremony with music analyses in innovative formats that can be understood by non-musicians, hypotheses on the neuropsychology of the combination of polyrhythmic music and the drug Ibogaine (-> induction of theta waves), and the healing and therapeutic potentials of such initiation rituals. All themes of the book come together in this very rewarding study, written by a (male) paediatrician and a (female) psychologist. Excellent sound files are provided to accompany the article.

Tsvia Horesh does not write a single word about ASC, but she gives an inspiring introduction to music therapy with drug addicts, addressing the important question of “Dangerous music”. In music therapy we often tend to underestimate the potential destructive powers of music that may lead e.g. drug addicts to relapse if the problem is not addressed in the therapy. Horesh uses ancient Greek mythology to frame her thoughts about group music therapy with drug addicts: The Sirens, Circe, Odysseus and Orfeus all give their contributions to an understanding of how to deal with certain musics’ seductive power.

Marko Punkanen’s contribution is a fine introduction to clinical music therapy with drug addicts who have traumatic experiences. The traumatic memories are stored through the amygdala in the somatic memory system, and therefore therapy must begin with physioacoustic methods before, emotions related to the traumatic memories can be accessed through music listening, including the use of “anchors”, “safe places” and body awareness procedures to secure a minimum of control.

The last two chapters discuss music and spirituality as related to end-of-life care. In his second contribution David Aldridge discusses the relationship between religion and spirituality as related to therapy. Definitions of spirituality and religion are presented in useful tables, and Aldridge’s position is “that is spirituality is about the individual, ineffable and implicit, religion is about the social, spoken and explicit” (p. 163). The question is how to establish an ‘ecology of knowledge’ through encounters, facilitated by music. ‘Transcendence’ is a core concept in the attempt to give an answer, indicating that the transformation of e.g. the individual suffering to a collective spiritual meaning is a change in consciousness, entering an altered state. The essay does not give specific guidelines to how music therapy can transform or alter consciousness. Aldridge’s ambition is more to articulate a philosophical framework for our understanding of the aesthetic dimension of ‘health as performed’ and to underline how music and musical relationships can contribute to healing encounters.

Lucanne Magill’s final chapter exemplify some of Aldridge’s points in a clinical essay with many vignettes to illustrate how music therapy can support and facilitate four core themes in palliative care:

There is no direct reference to ASC as a goal or a means to “transcendence”, but this seems to be implicit in the chapter that also underlines the importance of the presence of the music therapist. Empathy, acceptance and reflective listening are qualities that the therapist must bring to the session. Magill quotes a dying leukaemia patient whose words seem to summarize or even synthesize the many different ideas about music and ASC presented in the book:

“When I am in the presence of music, I hear the voice of God;
When I am in the presence of music, I fly like a bird;
When I am in the presence of music, my spirit is free and I am in peace.”

As a whole, the book presents itself as a rather loose collection of texts with more or less obvious relation to the main theme. The 13 chapters vary highly in style, scope, length and method, and I miss a clear introduction to explain the disposition and related contents of the book. A few definitions of the core concepts might have been helpful. The subtitle of the book indicates how broad the scope is, ranging from reports on experimental studies in the psycho-physiological aspects of music & ASC, over cultural and anthropological essays to texts on the spiritual dimension of music therapy in palliative care. Based on the main title I had expected that all chapters would address the questions how music and ASC can be connected and how the role of music in ASC procedures (rituals, healing, therapy) can be understood and described. However, several chapters (5, 6, 10, 11, 13) do not address these questions at all, and this makes me wonder why they have been included – their other content qualities unspoken. Cohen’s chapter 5 on perception and responses to schemata in different cultures (Western and Arab cultures) is based on experimental research and documents certain culturally determined differences in the perception and understanding of musical ‘schemata’ (these may be learned in and by culture or natural as related to general meaningful perceptual organization rules). It is definitely worth reading, but I cannot see how it relates to the main themes of this particular book.

Based on the title I had expected the book to include at least a few chapters on BMGIM, one of the major music therapy models working explicitly with – drug-free – induction of ASC as part of the therapeutic process. Helen Bonny’s groundbreaking work and research in Maryland is acknowledged in the book, where you can also find Fischer’s (1971) model of “Varieties of consciousness states” presented by Bonny in a music therapy context as early as 1975. But apart from that BMGIM is not included in the volume – and I really wonder why that is? The cover text says that the book “examines the induction of altered states and their therapeutic potential…”, and this is true for some of the chapters. It is a core element in BMGIM, so why are chapters on this model not present?

Regardless of my critique above, I welcome the book as a good starting point in a very important discussion of music and ASC that needs to be unfolded – from both a clinical and a research perspective.

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