Ritual Engagement with Music


    In a performative musical setting there is concurrently an unwritten set of rituals by which we participate in the act of music making as well as a prescriptive set of rituals imposed by either the composer or curator. The unwritten set ranges from the banality of applause after songs or pieces, to quieting down once the lights dim, whereas the prescriptive set may include program notes provided by the composer, performers asking the audience to stand, or cordoned off areas for either seating or standing only provided by the event curator. However, there is far more than just this action oriented physical dimension of ritual, there is setting, which includes sight, scent, and even touch. Think of the lights at rock concerts, the smell of incense in religious music, the cloud of reefer at a proverbial Grateful Dead show, the feeling of a closely quartered crowd at a music festival, the velvet on the chair of a classical music hall. These are all critical aspects to the dynamics of a transportative experience, which is ultimately the aim of a musical experience. Although this experience comes in many forms, all composers, performers, curators, and technicians alike harness music through ritual to conjure an experience for the audience, which will leave them spellbound.

    Furthermore, the power of these rituals to act as a transportative experience also derives from the collective nature of such performative settings. The capacity for collectivized ritual to bring about transportative experience is well-known and ancient tradition. All throughout history religious, political, and social institutions have strived to rein in the power of the collective for the fulfillment of ritual. While ritual is still possible in a solitary capacity its potentiality pales in comparison to the inherent power of the collective. Despite this, in the modern age we find musical engagement becoming a more and more atomized and individual experience with the dawn of recording technologies and digital music especially. In the isolation of our own homes, or anywhere within the reach of civilization between two earphones, we may access and indulge in the power that is music. However, at what cost might this luxury come? 

    With such interfaces only one ritual now remains: pressing play. Yes, the many rituals of the performative setting may be adapted to the newly personalized listening experience, but now they are merely optional and more often than not foregone in favor of a passivity, which evades any real form of participation or engagement with the sounds we have queued. With older forms of recording technologies at least, there is more ritual inherent in the experience than that within the sphere of digital music. Listening to vinyl records, for instance, the event is localized and stationary, setting being part of ritual, and a listener must rise midway through the experience to flip the record if he wishes to proceed. Again, an abundance of rituals may be adapted to the experience, such as listening with friends, but nonetheless all remain optional and incumbent upon the participant. Even so, with digital forms of music, individuals frequently unconsciously ritualize their listening habits, such as listening to a certain genre while driving at night, but the key difference between this and the rituals of performative music concerns prioritization. More often than not, it is the music which accompanies the drive, a destination is being sought, the sounds are an aesthetic addition, rarely is the drive for the sole purpose of experiencing the music. Furthermore, being unconscious of the fact that our engagement is a form of ritual, closes us off to a great degree of potential inherent in the ritualized form of the musical experience. If we become aware of the rituals underlying our listening, then they may compound upon themselves, taking us to new heights of musical engagement and transportative experiences.

    What then is the effect of this deritualized form of music as it concerns the personal experience? For this we must explore the notion of ‘liminality’ in ritual: liminality describes the space within a ritual wherein the participant has been stripped of their pre-ritual status and have yet to come out on the other side, so to speak. It’s often a state marked by ambiguity and disorientation and in order to resolve this purgatorial status the ritual must be brought to completion. Many ancient and still some indigenous rites of passages for boys of the community most exemplify this concept of liminality. Before the commencement of the ritual, the boys are children of the community with minimal responsibility and freedom of imagination, once the rite begins they have ostensibly been stripped of their childhood status since they shall not again to return to that way of life, and finally at the ritual’s close, initiated by either a vision quest or accomplishment of a great feat, the boys are proclaimed men and honored with the sacred responsibility of adults in the community. Herein, we can see how the participants of the ritual undergo a change in identity or a restructuring of community, and thus that space wherein one stands at the threshold of this ontological alteration is this concept of liminality. A predominant crisis of modernity, concerns this concept of liminality. As ritualized forms of transitions into adulthood become more anomalous or veiled as mere superstitious tradition, the character of the average Western male becomes increasingly more resemblement of that of a liminal ritual participant. Without a literal, or even mythological, conscious acknowledgement of one’s transition into a new identity on an individual or collective level, unconsciously the Western male feels trapped in this liminal state between childhood and manhood. This status of course comes with great difficulty and can be traced to the root of many psychological woes faced by men today. I say men, not because this phenomenon is exclusive to the masculine class, but rather due to the due to the far too common cultural nebulousness of this rite of passage they become the most easily affected, whereas women, unlike their male counterparts, have an unmoving eternally recurrent marker of this transition, which is manifested on a physical and literal level via the induction of the menstruation cycle.

    We can see how the consequences of being trapped in this state of liminality pose potential dire threats on a macro/cultural scale. These unwanted byproducts come as a result of an unconscious relationship to a transition and alteration of identity, which is nonetheless being imposed upon us by our environment. They are further intensified by debased forms (those designed for the purpose of capital gain) and haphazard attempts to reify this loss without expliciting identifying what exactly even has been lost. Thus, the ritual’s purpose is to serve as both the literal and mythological foundation through which such changes may be psychologically or ontologically processed. Therefore, once we realize the music’s critical relationship to ritual, we may begin to see how through unconscious or haphazard participation in the experience of music we are continuously trapping ourselves in this liminal state of ritual in a microcosmic sense as well. Liminality implies the temporary dissolution of institutions, social order, and identity, and thus creates a malleable and impressionable fluid-like state in the individual. In such a state one becomes more susceptible to influence so as to allow new customs or institutions to develop and be established. Is it of no disquietude then that more and more in both collective and personal settings an experience of music is often succeeded (or preceded) by an advertisement? In conjunction with its transportative capabilities, music has the power to alter the core identity of the individual as we have seen in the historical emergence and subsequent prominence of subcultures informed by musical genres. Each time we experience a piece of music the force of ritual is acting upon us regardless of whether or not we are aware. Thus, via our passive engagement we continue to trap ourselves in an in-between state, which then, over time, accrues compounding psychological consequences. Here, the words of Aristotle begin to ring more and more true: “Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul; hence, when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with that same passion…’. 

    Yet, even in those truly transportative experiences from more performative settings or those profoundly influential musical expressions, which inform our identity, where we engage and participate in the ritual, there is still a critical dimension of ritual lacking that ultimately prevents us from experiencing the totality of the music and may again yield nothing more than an ultimately liminal state. By way of example, if one had attended a concert that contained ritualistically rich ground on which a transportative and meaningful experience may take place, and such an experience did in fact take place on an empirical and phenomenological level for an the audience member of said concert; while a feeling as such may be accompanied by a ‘high’ in the case of an ecstatic experience (there are also solemn types, as solemnity and ecstasy are the archetypally dual forms of a transportative experience) this feeling would not essentially persist beyond the point of engagement i.e. one must eventually come down from any high. Now in a case as such it would seem that the music by way of ritual has accomplished the intention we set out earlier, the induction of a transportative experience; however, of what use is a transportative experience if one is not able to return to said state in any capacity or build upon it through subsequent returns to similar phenomenological states? This inability to re-access or draw on previous experience, which exists outside normal sense perception, due to a lack of tools or understanding to do so, would be like if a child learned each letter of the alphabet one by one, but was never taught that these letters may be combined to comprise words and these word may form sentences, and these sentences, ideas. 

    These tools lacking in the domain of modern musical ritual may be referred to as ‘heuristics’. For instance, in the case of language, grammar may be understood as a heuristic, since the role of the heuristic is to provide a structural scaffolding, so to speak, through or on which deeper understanding may be built. A space wherein we do find these tools or heuristics present when it concerns the transportative experience is within religion. Christianity, for example, contains both archetypal forms of heuristics which allow for further dialogue and deeper understanding of the transportative experience, the first of which is the totemic or materially-oriented heuristic. The crucifix worn by many Catholics bears this function as it is designed to serve as a symbolic reminder of some experience of God (usually encountered in a collective setting), which may be re-entered via contemplation or meditation on the crucifix. Thus, the crucifix acts as a totem of experience, a physical item persisting beyond the bounds of time in which the experience is relegated or trapped. It allows the memory of the experience to be reconjured in a phenomenologically more powerful fashion than that of a photograph or video from a musical concert one had attended. There are many reasons for this, but most obviously is the symbolic nature of the totem versus the cipheric or literal nature of the purely representational photograph. Additionally, the more atomized and localized quality of the photograph has an inherently lesser degree of potentiality than that of the collective nature of the crucifix. Now, the second prominent heuristic found in Christianity, as well as most religion at large, concerns the more mental dimension of experience and is manifested through the use of prayer or mantra. Similar to the totem of the crucifix, prayer is generally collectively oriented as those most commonly employed types exist within the canon of the Church. Furthermore, it also contains the same symbolic quality, as the content of the prayer (unless deeply personal) is not literal, but poetic. Therefore, it serves as the ideal heuristic of the mind which enables a form of re-communion with an experience passed. 

    However, with the musical experience, more often than not, one may return from the performance and be able to re-listen to a studio recorder version of the music encountered therein or even a totally recorded replication of the concert itself! What then is the difference between the ability to re-listen to the music, which brought about the transportative experience in the first place, versus making use of prayer or mantra in a religious or more spiritual context to re-enter the space in which the meaningful experience took place? While the former may actually be considered a valid path to re-union with the experience, it differs from the latter insofar as it is inherently qualitatively one-dimensional by comparison. What I mean to say is that in the case of re-listening to a recording of the music which brought about the initial experience, the most prominent quality of this type of heuristic is inherently its passivity. Comparatively speaking, listening to a piece of music requires a starkly lesser degree of active engagement that would be incumbent upon the individual who uses a prayer or mantra heuristic. While the form of listening one makes use of may become more active by way of singing along or even performing the song oneself, inherently the nature of the recording does not require this, one can simply “turn on, tune in, and drop out”, whereas prayer, in order to be initiated necessitates continuous active engagement. I must add at this juncture, that I do not mean to say that musical experience in modernity inherently prevents such engagement with experiences of profound meaning, but rather unlike in more religious contexts it becomes drastically more incumbent upon the participant to understand and implement the elements of ritual if they wish to receive the full value and benefit of the experience. 

    Therefore, if we desire to experience the full potential of the force that is music we must adopt an approach and formalize a method, which strives to both reclaim and implement the empirical sensibilities inherent with music and its relationship to ritual. To fully grasp what then has become incumbent upon us in order to engage with music in both a meaningful and beneficial manner, we must understand that this is, in a way, a restorative process. In our not so recent history, “Music was a handmaid to the traditional functions of worship...; it did not yet exist for its own sake...the music was not yet to be put on a mantlepiece or in a museum.” says Joscelyn Godwin. While modern music still makes use of ritual, in the past, music was the ritual, an essential element in a spiritual practice, which elevated action to new heights, and brought individual consciousness to altered states, stirring the community into transcendence. From the Dionysian music of the Apollonian Greek religious theatre, to the plainchant of monks and polyphonic settings of the Christian mass, to the ritual courtship songs of troubadours, to the rattles in the Huichol dance of the deer shamanic ceremony, to the hindewhu whistle/singing in hunting rituals of the Babebzélé Pygmies, to the guzheng of the Chinese Moon festival, and to the harmonium of the Carnatic Pitr-yajna ancestral rituals  - music has long been deeply entwined with rituals of transcendence throughout the world. Only recently has music become separate from the overt ritual. We see this progression most clearly in the West where the musical tradition was initially, and for so long, intimately tied to the Church, the Great Mother of ritual. Then, in about 1500, opera music emerged, followed by sinfonia music some 200 years later, wherein music came to exist for its own sake. Still at this juncture, the level of ritual enmeshed in the purely musical experience was far beyond the scope of today. The vestiges of ritual from this time, persist predominately in classical music, as seen in the unwritten dress code of the symphony hall, for example.

    Music of the present, while still participating in the realm of ritual, has fallen victim to the consumerist mindset, which may strip the music of its transcendence and distort it for mere utilitarian purposes or for personal gain. Music of this sort can be very positive and most fulfilling, but the fundamental error is in its unbalanced nature in modernity. Therefore, with the decline of the role of ritual within music, we see the emergence of certain epiphenomena that arise in accordance with the law of conservation. Most prominently, is the growing presence of rhythmic-oriented music. We see this kind of music proliferating in popular music as manifested through the dominance of rap, which favors a ‘flow’ over melody, as well in the ever-expanding dance music scenes, driven by the hypnotic effects of the pulsating rhythm, and which continue to spawn endless sub-genres. It is even apparent in modern classical music with the advent of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, who prioritize rhythm over harmony or melody. Rhythm is thus the husk of ritual, it is that Dionysian impulse, which stirs those most primal instincts. It is the music, which initiates our relationship with ritual and the higher realms; a music of the body and the lower chakras, or as Joscelyn Godwin puts it, a music of the belly, which is a “...visceral music, usually marked by strong rhythm, which makes one feel physically powerful (the battle march) or sexually aroused (the harem dance).” Ritual of course manifests in the other forms of music such as the music of the chest and the head, or the middle and higher chakras respectively, but in order to reach these levels one must always pass through the lower chakras where rhythm reigns supreme. Thus, due to the de-ritualization of music in terms of our collective and conscious engagement with it, the music itself returns to the realm of rhythm, collectively and unconsciously manifesting as such, so as to reify this conscious decline, simply because the bond between ritual and music can never be broken, only altered.

    If music’s relationship to ritual can truly never be broken, only altered, why then should we bother with revitalizing the conscious domain of ritual in music, when ritual persists in the unconscious realm regardless? Furthermore, is not the project of ambient music to polemically resist this pure Dionysian urge?  We again return to the Hermetic swing of the pendulum and project of cultivating a balance between opposing forces in the rgms. By becoming conscious of the forces within music, as well as understanding its innate relationship to forms such as ritual, and implementing our grasp of this through engagement, we become true masters of music. Thence, according to the Chinese Book of Rites:

When one has mastered music completely, and regulates the heart and mind accordingly, the natural, correct, gentle, and honest heart is easily developed, and with this development of the heart comes joy. This joy goes on to a feeling of repose. This repose is long continued. Persons in this constant repose become a sort of Heaven. Heaven-like, their action is spirit-like. Heaven-like, they are believed without the use of words. Spirit-like, they are regarded with awe, without any display of rage. So it is, when one by mastering of music regulates the mind and the heart.

    Ritual, in our conscious engagement with it, serves to translate the information and experience received by the mind or spirit to the dimension of the body, or vice versa. Only through ritual can we experience the whole meaning of the thing in itself, that is music. In his book ‘Inner Work’ Robert Johnson explains a method of analyzing and understanding dreams, which as we’ve discussed, have an inherent underlying intelligence within. The last step, which he deems most crucial, ritualizes the understanding of one’s dream. Once one believes to have received a suitable understanding of the core message being transmitted by the dream, the dreamer must create a correlated ritual of the body, which serves to translate the understanding that took place on a mental level into a understanding in the physical sense, so that body and mind may be united in the experience and fulfillment of the dream’s meaning.

    So then in desiring to consciously revitalize music’s relationship with ritual and thus participate in the totality of the musical experience as manifested in all domains of the self, and within each individual chakra, how then shall we catalyze this form of engagement? As de-ritualization has dissolved the institutions of engagement with the transcendent function of music, we must then strive to formalize an approach, which acts as the structural foundation of the new institution that will draw us out of that state of liminality we have been culturally induced into. Having lost the sense of our pre-ritual selves by virtue of this liminal participation with music, a new institutional mold must serve as the foundation through which we form our new identities as participants in the realm of music. However, this new institution must not be abstractly constructed and imposed upon its participants, but rather it must be a byproduct of an organic unfolding process, one which is built over time via empirical observation and engagement. Thus, it is incumbent upon the artist to initiate a new ritual engagement by offering prescriptive measures through which one may participate in the work of art. The prescriptions ought to be derived from the artist’s own engagement with the work of art after completion, but also may come from the inspired listener. These prescriptions should include a degree of flexibility, so as to not appear dogmatic, an ‘if not this, then that’ clause. Just as well the listener need not engage with every prescriptive measure outlined, they are free to pick and choose. The essential goal of such a practice is to begin to form an engagement, which transcends mere mentalism or sheer passivity in the listening experience. Below we have outlined preliminary categories of prescriptive engagement with examples. Again, each category need not be attended to by artist or listener, and new ones may arise in inspired participants. 

Time of Day: Dusk; just as the sun crosses the horizon

Lighting: Minimal; Candlelight

Colours: Dark Blue, Light Purple

Posture/Movement: Half-lotus (first half); Lying on back (second half)

Scent: Nag Champa (burned incense)

Precious Stone: Hematite or Quartz

Herb/Drug: Tulsi, Kratom

Activity: Breathwork (deep breathing, first track only); Nasikagra Drishti (tip-of-nose meditation)

Discursive Meditation or Mantra: Symbolism of the Church Bell; Ye-Ho-Wah Elo-Him

Image: In Northern Darkness there lives a fish called Bright-Posterity. This Bright-Posterity is so huge that it stretches who knows how many thousand miles. When it changes into a bird it’s called Two-Moon. This Two-Moon has a back spreading who knows how many thousand miles, and when it thunders up into flight its wings are like clouds hung clear across the sky. It churns up the sea and sets out on its migration to Southern Darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven

Divination Correlation: Hexagram 14 - Ta Yu, Possession in Great Measure (I Ching); 10 of Pentacles (Tarot)

Moon Phase: Balsamic (energy of Release, Return to Subjectivity)

Astrological/Seasonal Emphasis: Sun in Fire, or Venus in Air (Tropical)


“Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos”

-Lao Tzu