Music, Culture, and Reality

A psychoactive is defined as that which has a profound or significant affect on the mental processes. Although typically used in the context of drugs and substances, this concept is often extended to anything evoking a seemingly ‘mystical experience.’ What people describe as mystical experiences are indistinguishable, neurologically and empirically, from deep and poignant religious experiences. Moments of oneness and insight are typical in both cases. In “The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902),” William James describes mystical experiences as ineffable, noetic, passive (rather, a sense of loss of control), and fleeting. From the remote mystics of Sufism and Kabbalah, to modern day ‘urban shamans,’ psychonauts have sought methods other than imbibement to investigate the cosmos within. Through meditation, breath control, lucid dreaming, sensory deprivation, and a host of other methods, music has stood among cultures in this service probably since early man first danced around campfires.

Ethnomusicolgist Gilbert Rouget explores the connection between music and trance throughout history. Perhaps music is more than simply a mortal construct, rather having cosmic significance. Playing music (and truly appreciating music) forces an individual to focus on the present moment, which in turn is the cornerstone of meaningful experience. This emphasis on the present moment is the consummation of all other psychonautical resources (mediation, entheogens, etc.). Subscribers of the shamanic and mystical often view the passage of time as an illusion of the human mind, and regard a ‘perpetual now’ as true reality. Interestingly this is where science begins to align with the esoteric.

Quantum Mechanics argues that particles move backwards as well as forwards in time and appear in all possible places at once. String theory proposes that the physical world is composed of little, tiny strings of vibrating energy (It seems appropriate to allude to chordophones). Terrence McKenna, recounting a DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) induced experience, asserts that the constant dance of ‘machine elves,’ (entities occupying a parallel world) creates reality as we perceive it. Are the rhythms of music akin to the language of reality? Is music a method of staying in contact with the underlying ‘Logos,’ being the true virtue in which all things exist? Whether it be Spring’s hymn of birds and bees or the elegant, geometrical dance of our physical world, music plays the universal tongue in a reality seemingly ripe with babbling discord.