Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Music in Ritual, Music as Ritual

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.


* * * * * * *

Music in its many forms has long been an integral part of ritual in many cultures and traditions. From the earliest shaman’s drum to the latest digital recordings, people have used music to alter their energy and change their consciousness. How does music affect you in your daily life? Do you use music to change your mood? To cheer you up on a bad day or calm you down at the end of a stressful one? Does music distract you from some activities or help you concentrate on others?

Music in daily life affects the conscious and subconscious mind. Ritual strengthens these effects because the setting encourages us to open our hearts and minds to experiences beyond the ordinary. The setting of a ceremony primes us to internalize any symbolism we encounter and to match our energy with that created by our surroundings. Let’s look at some of the ways we can incorporate music into ritual, both for enjoyment and to enhance the effect of the rite itself.

C minor cadence

A Simple Beat

One of the most basic forms of ritual music is drumming. It is easy for anyone to do and requires little equipment; even an empty oatmeal box will do, in a pinch. Drumming can provide a background for other types of music or for dancing. It can also function as a sound effect - a heartbeat drumbeat, for example, to slow down or speed up the energy. A drum circle is, in itself, a ritual, the communion of the drummers with the fire and with the dancers who move in concert with the energy of the drum-sound. Drumming is also the physical-world focus of shamanic journey rituals, providing the link back here for those who travel to the Otherworld.

When might you want to incorporate drumming into a ritual? Consider the different effects of the following: drumming while the participants chant; drumming while the participants dance; drumming to aid or lead a meditation or visualization; drumming as background sound during a speech. When would you want many people to take part in the drumming? When would you want the drumming reserved for a few specific people? When would drumming be inappropriate or detrimental to the atmosphere of the ritual?

An extension of drumming is any kind of rhythmic, non-melodic instrument - shakers, rattles, sticks, bones and so forth. Any of these types of instruments can be substituted for drums or included along with them. A fun addition to a casual ritual is the activity of making simple rattles and shakers then using them as part of the rite. What kind of effect might the different sounds have on the energy of the circle? Consider, among others, the boom of a djembe, the hiss of a sistrum, the click of bones or sticks.

Wooden Darbouka


Adding a Few Words

One of the most common types of music in modern ritual is chanting. Chants have few words, repetitive style and simple melodies that most people can learn quickly and easily. They can be made up on the spot for particular occasions or magical workings or they can be tried-and-true favorites that everyone knows.

Unlike drumming, chanting does not lend itself easily to the creation of an entire ritual. Rather, chants are used to reinforce an activity or raise energy within the ritual. Can you think of a chant that can be used to acknowledge the elements? How about one for invoking some aspect of deity? There are many popular chants that can be used to enact various parts of ritual - marking the sacred space, invoking elementals and deities, celebrating the Great Rite, sharing food and drink, ending the ritual. How might the energy be different if various portions of a ritual are performed by chanting rather than by ordinary speech? How would the energy differ if only the ritual leader performed the chant, or if the entire group participated in the chant?

Prayers are commonly chanted in many religions around the world. Can you think of a prayer you have heard chanted or sung? How does this feel different from a prayer that is simply spoken? Prayer in itself is a ritual. It includes a beginning, an identification of deity or higher power, praise and thanks to the deity or higher power, an asking for favors or gifts, and a formal ending. A prayer can be offered as a ritual complete in itself or it can be incorporated into a larger ritual, echoing the greater framework (a ritual within a ritual). Prayers can be chanted or sung by the ritual leader or by the entire group of participants. When might you choose to have everyone offer a chanted prayer together? When might you have only the officiant chant or sing the prayer, and why?

Music has an interesting effect on the brain: it allows us to remember things better than we normally can. If you’re near my age, I bet you can still sing the Preamble to the Constitution as performed on Schoolhouse Rock all those Saturday mornings ago. If you had simply memorized the words, you probably would have forgotten it by now. Any piece of ritual performed to music rather than simply spoken will make a deeper impression on your memory, creating a more powerful overall impression. How would the effect of a chant or song you already know differ from one you are presented with for the first time in ritual? What if it is repeated until you learn it?

What about chants we make up on the spot? Do they have the same effect? Does it depend on how easily they are learned? There are moments in magical working when the sudden desire for a chant becomes overwhelming. That is the time to make something up. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can have the same melody as another chant or song. You can use just a few words, repeated over and over, and the effect can be powerful. Have you ever made up a chant on the spot or participated in a ritual when someone else did? How did the chant make you feel? Children are especially talented at on-the-spot composition, since they do not feel the adult social constraints to make everything turn out perfect the first time. The chants we voice do not have to be perfect, just useful and enjoyable.

Cat Halloween Song


Instrumental Music

Instrumental music, alone or as an accompaniment to singing, can add a deeper dimension to ceremonies. Drumming is one kind of instrumental music, but melodic instrumentals add a different kind of energy to the ritual environment. Have you ever participated in a ritual which included instrumental music? We are used to thinking of the pipe organs in churches, but a guitar or flute can add a great deal of texture. What kind of instrument would you use to evoke the energy of Spring? Of Winter? How about calling the deities with music -- what sort of instrument would you use to call Pan or Epona or Grandmother Spider?

We are not all musicians but we can all still incorporate instrumental music into our rituals thanks to the wonderful modern convenience of recorded music. Used as the background for part of a ritual, recorded music can be surprisingly effective in setting the tone and fine-tuning the energy.  Recorded music is also useful for chanting and singing when no one in the group feels confident enough to lead an a capella version. Since the music is recorded, its inclusion in ritual does not add the performance anxiety that live music sometimes can. All you have to do is pop CD into the boom box or dial up the title on your MP3 player and turn it on at the appropriate time. When might you want to use recorded instrumental music in a ritual? What type of music would you choose? When might you want recorded vocal music? How would you incorporate it into a ritual without having it overwhelm or distract?

Victorian Harpist


By Action or by Use

Most pagans consecrate items they plan to use in ritual before they enter the sacred space. This usually includes any implements to be placed on the altar as well as personal magical tools - the wand, the blade, and so forth. What about musical instruments, and especially electronic devices such as boom boxes and MP3 players? This question goes back to the discussion of the fact that all space is sacred. How do you treat items that you don’t normally use for ritual but which you will bring into a ceremony on one or two occasions? Why?

Regardless of the type of music you choose, whether it is live or recorded, whether you perform it or someone else does, give it a try in your next ritual. The drumbeat and the melody can lead you to places you can’t reach any other way.

Recommended Reading and Listening


Chants: Ritual Music by the Reclaiming Community

Circle of the Seasons by Lisa Thiel