In this review of the literature I present a map that situates a transdisciplinary inquiry into the problem of understanding ritual trance musicking. Historical evidence suggests that body movement in religious ritual has been used since early human societies to “heal divisions in tribes and families, prepare a tribe for battle, and engage in something meaningful and pleasurable” (Renye, 2012, p. 18), with musical trancing being a widespread cross-cultural phenomenon (Rouget, 1985). Nonetheless, trance is not very well understood by scholars and trance phenomena challenge interpretation from a single discipline. From efforts to unequivocally define “trance” and “spirit possession”, to outsider attempts to impose meaning on insider religious practice, the first attempts to understand trancing were largely biased by outsider worldviews. More recently, trance has been reconsidered by scholars seeking to validate this mysterious facet of human experience, most notably by ethnomusicologists. Inquiries into trance, and the cultural study of music in general, tend towards the interdisciplinary; that trance is transcendental and usually occurs in religious ritual further expands this disciplinary space needed to interpret the phenomenon.

Early scholarly treatment of trance in anthropology imposed an outsider worldview onto trancing cultures, which generated dispute around the terms “trance”, “spirit possession”, and “shamanism”. Oftentimes trance was viewed through a pathological lens (Huskinson and Schmidt, 2011). Anthropologists made spurious claims about what trance represented, such as its sexual symbolism, or attempted universal scientific explanations of trance. Disciplinary developments in the field of anthropology has molded Western ethnographic work that sought to describe meaning and symbols within specific cultural trance practices. Anthropology has also profoundly influenced the other fields — religious studies and ethnomusicology — considered in this review.

I was startled to find very little literature on trance musicking in the study of religion. If trance usually occurs in the context of religious ritual, why has it not been explored by scholars of religion? My guess is that trance presents a phenomenon that is very unfamiliar to European and American scholars coming from Christian backgrounds. Nevertheless, religious studies has recently come to appreciate the multi-sensory and sonic dimensions of religion; there has also been considerable theoretical development on how embodiment relates to the transcendent. While ethnomusicologists have recently described religious aspects of trance ritual, they have not explicitly addressed problems of documenting and interpreting religious or transcendental phenomena. Thus, I bring these fields into dialogue in the hope of uncovering relative strengths and shortcomings of each.

The relationship of music to trance is an enigmatic subject that highlights some longstanding issues in musicology and the cultural study of music (Rouget, 1985). There has been debate over how sound and music mediate embodiment, selfhood, socio-cultural norms, and transformations of consciousness. The study of trance weaves through these issues in musicology, which accentuates philosophical themes — mind and body, individual and society — in the humanities. Because both outsider understanding of trance and its insider enactment pivot on some hidden relationship between music, subjectivity, and society, it is necessary to account for perspectives in cultural musicology.

In this review I give voice to both broad theoretical trends and work specific to trance and music. While it is thematic in the way I separate approaches by discipline, it is also chronological since the study of trance as well as the theoretical orientation of scholars has developed over time. I look at anthropological understanding of trance and theoretical orientations that have been employed in its study. As ethnomusicology grew out of anthropological study of music, I present aspects of the cultural study of music. Since trance is almost always a religious ritual, I present elements of the sonic turn in religious studies, and a theoretical orientation that lends itself to ethnographic study of emotion, senses and the transcendental. While the study of religion is only recently turning to sound and music as a topic of study, theories of embodiment and the sensory order in the study of religion could enrich future interpretations of trance. I conclude with some of the major ethnomusicological work on trance that inspire my own fieldwork.

My intention is to lay bare the dominant trends in several disciplines that could shed light on trancing. I do this not only to honor different approaches to the subjects of musical emotion, meaning, and trancing, but to show that there are different ideas about what those subjects really are (Montuori, 2005, p. 381). Some scholars seek a general theory of trance, while others are focused on rich ethnography; for some trancing is purely a social phenomenon while others look to theories of human consciousness. Indeed, the scholarly space is itself entrancing: by bringing these communities of scholarship in dialogue and identifying bridges over the murky waters that separate them, I provide a basis for future research and my own fieldwork.

Anthropology and Trance

It is helpful to begin by presenting how anthropologists have contributed to the literature on high-arousal musicking and trance, since it is upon early anthropological understanding that contemporary views on the subject have formed (Renye, 2012; Becker, 2004; Rouget 1985). The cultural turn in anthropology — and critiques of its methods — influenced the cultural study of music. The field of ethnomusicology, which has most recently produced in-depth studies on trance, emerged from comparative musicology and the anthropological encounter with people making music. Since trancing presents several enigmas regarding how music mediates meaning and selfhood as well as the “value-laden oppositions between mind and body, intellect and emotions” (Finnegan, 2003), there is need for a map that reflects the varied, disparate, and allied trends in anthropology, religious studies, and ethnomusicology. The added benefit here is to begin teasing out long-standing values and assumptions in the various disciplines that could enrich to the literature on trance and music.

Debate on the definitions and characteristics of trance and spirit possession began with the work of James G. Frazer. Frazer, who pioneered the study of anthropology of comparative religion with the The Golden Bough (1890), produced an account of spirit possession that claimed common attributes of trance, which persisted into the 20th century. Frazer argued for the universality of spirit possession and attempted to described its general characteristics:

Certain persons are supposed to be possessed from time to time by a spirit or deity; while the possession lasts, their own personality lies in abeyance; the presence of the spirit is revealed by convulsive shiverings and shakings of the man’s whole body, by wild gestures and excited looks, all of which are referred, not to the man himself, but to the spirit. (Frazer, 1911, p. 93)

Anthropologists who conducted fieldwork over the next half century tended to have similar attitudes towards trance. Oesterreich (1930) provides a cross-cultural study that also describes general characteristics of spirit possession and trance. These include changes in physical presentation, changes in the person’s voice, and adoption of a personality that is opposed to or different from the normal ego (Oesterreich, 1930, pp. 20–21).

Mircea Eliade (1989) distinguished between spirit possession and trance by whether a shaman sent his spirit on a journey or receives a spirit within the body. Lewis (1971) presents a different picture, asserting that shamans do indeed become possessed. Rather than closing the dichotomy between possession and trance, Lewis provides his own distinction, which is the degree of control the shaman has over the spirit. Erika Bourguignon associates trance with “alterations or discontinuity in consciousness, awareness, personality, or other aspects of psychological functioning” (1976, p. 8), and links possession with cultural belief. As cultural explanations of human phenomena were beginning to grow in popularity, many scholars were eager to elucidate the cultural codes that produce phenomena such as trance. Lambek (1989) criticized Bourguignon’s distinction, showing that trance is shaped by culture and asserts that possession and trance cannot be distinguished:

[T]rance is not prior to spirit possession in either a logical or causal sense, and possession cannot be viewed as a ‘model of’ trance unless it is also well understood that it is equally a ‘model for’ trance (p. 40)

This confusion of terms and the debate on physiological versus cultural explanations of human phenomena continues to this day.
Lucy Huskinson and Bettina E. Schmidt (2011) provide a survey of new perspectives on possession and trance. They maintain, following Talal Asad (1993), that most early anthropological work on trance and possession faced the problem of translating from the “alien” to the “familiar”, which was often tainted by the anthropologist’s colonial attitude. Huskinson and Schmidt (2011) assert that fresh perspectives on trance are possible if we are “more receptive to that which is unfamiliar or in apparent opposition to our preconceived ideas: to open up dialogues with unfamiliar disciplines that may offer important insights into our own” (p. 13). Invoking Nietzche’s concept of perspectivism and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (1992) work on Amazon cosmology, they call for greater empathy and dialogue between the various interpretations of trance phenomena.

Musicology and the Cultural Study of Music

Trancing, ecstatic body movement, and musicking have been human experiences since time immemorial and are performed in a great diversity of world cultures (Ehrenreich, 2007; Hannah, 1979). The study of trance has grown out of early anthropological understanding and until recently has been shaped by philosophical debates in anthropology. The study of trancing and music also demands an understanding of how philosophical debates on emotion, mind, and body have affected the cultural study of music.

Traditional musicology grew out of the European Enlightenment tradition. Finnegan (2003) provides a survey of how musicology came to study emotion and the varied experience of music. Musicology emphasized “music’s cognitive and nonbodily features, highlighting composition, written scores, and the rationality of classic music” over the “fundamental urges” of experience and emotions (Finnegan, 2003). Musicology’s task was to paternalistically educate the masses on how to regulate emotions and bodily urges so that they might fully appreciate the heady aesthetics of (Western classical) music.

Anthropology’s cultural turn provided stark critiques of traditional musicology and initiated new disciplines such as ethnomusicology. The inner world of experience became a valid topic of study, as anthropologists deconstructed dichotomies of mind and body, intellect and emotion, individual and culture. Finnegan explains:

Experience is increasingly envisaged not as mysterious inner state or unthinking primeval impulse but as embodied and lived, intertwined with culturally diverse epistemologies. The Enlightenment ideology of language, and the scholars’ preoccupation with cognition and verbalized texts are undermined and enlarged by a growing appreciation of human life as everywhere intershot with imagination, with value, with connotation. (Finnegan, 2003)

In the 1970s anthropologist John Blacking began studying music, sentiment and ritual with his work on emotions in dance and analyses of music (1973, 1977, 1987). From the 1980s on, anthropologists increasingly began studying emotion, challenging the earlier assumptions that emotions are universal. Interacting with feminist, poststructuralist, and postmodern trends, the anthropological study of emotions emphasized how cultures differently formulate or code for the production, regulation, and performance of emotions. While musicology was increasing criticized for its emphasis on composition, texts, and cognition, the new field of ethnomusicology sought to explore music as it is actually performed and experienced by humans in specific cultures.

Steven Feld’s groundbreaking work Sound and Sentiment (1990), explores the complex sonic epistemology of the Kaluli in Papau New Guinea. He uncovers the dynamic between the Kaluli description of their experience, birdsong, emotions, ceremony, and music, describing how the music frames intense feelings such as nostalgia and rage. Feld’s work initiated and demonstrated the study of sound as a social structure, and like much ethnomusicological work, was profoundly influenced by the sociology of Durkheim. Ethnomusicologists began to approach sound as constituting “symbolic action in an ongoing intersubjective lifeworld” that “builds and shapes actors’ perceptions and meanings” (Feld, 1984, p. 383). Rather than looking for the essence of music in its sonic structure, ethnomusicology emphasized the relationship between sound, affect, and culture. Inspired by Durkheim, ethnomusicologists sought to produce narratives that would illuminate the social world of a culture as it influences and is shaped by music.

Finnegan (2003) writes,

Rituals are often intershot with music, managing fraught occasions in human lives and presenting organized occasions for emotional deployment where, again, it makes no sense to draw an opposition between thought and feeling. Musical performances have been seen as occasions for exploiting the encompassing capacity of sound to marshal a sense of communitas, of trance, or of transformation from one state to another. (n.p)

From the understanding that musicking is a “communitas” (Finnegan 2003), scholars observed how human sociality in specific cultures shapes musical experience and meaning. Broad claims were made about “the social” that exhibited itself through sound structures. Ethnomusicology also began to elucidate the transcendental dimension of music. Kotthoff (2001) looks at how in Georgia lamenting persons perform a “non-ordinary experiential and imaginative involvement and a space where the living are seemingly in contact with the dead” (p. 173). Finnegan (2003) asserts that while it might be impossible to “penetrate and pin down hidden internal states”, scholars can describe the way in which practitioners involve themselves in music, highlighting once again “motion, affect, mood, imagination, expressiveness, passion, and overtone” in musical experience. Finnegan asserts that another trend is a move away from “fashionable concept of ‘texts’”, towards in-depth ethnographic study of experience and the multiple ways emotions and affect occur in musical experience. Another shift is a move away from cultural construction. Finnegan explains that cultural construction can just be just as simplistic and biological determinism, and instead musical experience can be seen as a “resource” that humans “draw on and fashion to their own occasions” (Finnegan 2003). Tia DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life presents music as “a material that actors use to elaborate, to fill out and fill in, to themselves and to others, modes of aesthetic agency and, with it, subjective stances and identities … a resource for producing and recalling emotional states” (DeNora 2000, p. 74, p. 107). Tia DeNora’s re-casting of music as a resource allows researchers to peer into power dynamics. Much contemporary scholarship concerned with how music mediates agency and power dynamics adopt this approach.

The last major shift in cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology relevant for our discussion of music and trance is a turn towards the body and its “patterned corporeal engagements” (Finnegan 2003) with music:

embodied musical experiencing…brings yet further resonances to music’s experiential potential — images of place, artifacts (instruments, dress, programs), visual associations, tactile impressions, bodily rhythms, somatic remembrances, intertextualities across a range of senses. These complex multimodalities deserve a central rather than marginal place in our experience-ful analyses of music.

Ethnomusiclogy is now ripe with research on the bodily dimension of musicking. The body is regarded as the site of mediation between individual and society, past and present. I view the emphasis on the corporeal dimension of experience as part of a larger trend in research that tries to go beyond representation of symbols to describe pre-cognitive processes, with scholars in ethnomusicology being influenced by non-representation theory, the post-structuralism of Michel Foucault, and the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

As I explain below, embodiment and the multi-sensory turn have also become concerns for religious studies. Because ethnomusicologists have largely been the ones who have studied trance, and trance tends to occur in religious contexts, there are assumptions that are not clearly articulated regarding the cultural construction and religious nature of trance experience.

The sonic turn in the study of religion

The field of religious studies has contributed very little to the study of music, trance, and auditory aspects of religious life. Since “cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been at the forefront of research on religious acoustic and auditory practices” (Hackett, 2011, p. 448), disciplinary demarcations are blurred in research on music, sound, and religion.

Studies of religion have severely undervalued the role of sound for a variety of reasons. First, the aural dimension as a spiritual sense has been overlooked in favor of sight, images, and symbols as images (as opposed to sound) (Chidester 1992; Schmidt 2002). Joachim Ernst Berendt (1991) provides a rich, albeit speculative, narrative on why the visual, masculine, sense has dominated over the auditory, feminine, sense in the 20th century. Second, there seems to be no straightforward way to conceptualize music’s role in culture. Music was thought to come from culture, rather than being able to shape culture (Chernoff 2002). This confusion is related to broader unresolved questions related to aesthetics and the evolutionary explanation for why music exists, evidenced by Steven Pinker’s (2009) provocative claim that music is merely “auditory cheesecake” (p. 534). If music is responsible for mediating religious experience then this would certainly enrich the contemporary discussion on music’s adaptive role in culture. Third, there are difficulties of method in examining sound in religion (Hackett, 2011, p. 448), as scholars of religion may not have training in analyzing music or sound.

Hackett (2011) provides a survey of sonic turn in religious studies. Her overview considers biases in the field that have limited the scope of study of the sonic domain, describes relevant scholarship, and outlines some methods that have been used. She argues that since religious studies and related fields have undergone a “multi-sensory” turn, further scholarship can help create a “more sonically aware religious studies” (p. 455).

Hackett (2011) gives some examples of scholarship that brings together religious and sound studies. One is Leigh Eric Schmidt’s (2002) work on Christian listening during the American enlightenment, where he suggests the need to “broaden attention beyond preaching, communications media and musical performance to the whole of the devotional soundscape” (Schmidt, p. 35). Guy Beck (1993) has studied the varied ways sound is employed in different Hindu traditions, showing how Western scholars have been biased towards the visual components of Hindu religion. Charles Hirschkind’s (2006) research on cassette tape sermons and recitations of the Qur’an in Cairo presents how sound influences religious behavior and experience, and shows how sound is an “embodied practice that occurs in changing urban landscapes” (Hackett, 2011, p. 452).

As part of the multi-sensory turn in religious studies, studies on sound and religion tend to focus on “sensory meaning and practice of particular cultures” (Hackett, 2011, p. 452). One concept that has been taken up is the soundscape, coined by R. Murray Schafer. Hackett, following Dorothea Schulz (2008), describes soundscape as “a time and space emplacement where both sound production and sound perception combine for powerful religious experience and communication with the divine” (p. 453), and contends that it is a useful concept for multi-sensory approaches.

Trance is usually accompanied with music, and this explicit sonic dimension to religious ritual requires further study. Trance has been likened to “deep listening” and a form a high sensual arousal by Becker (2004), yet what makes aesthetic or sensory experiences religious? In the next section I present a theoretical standpoint that is prevalent in the anthropology of religion that could shed light on aesthetics, meaning, and religious experience in musical trancing.

Sense and culture in the study of religion

Birgit Meyer’s work (2006, 2012, 2016), coming from the anthropology of religion, provides a useful theoretical lens to assess what aesthetics and the multi-sensory turn mean for religious studies. Discontent with scholarship that privileges ontology over epistemology, Meyer (2016) suggests that Scott’s (2013) anthropology of ontology emphasizes “modes of existence above modalities of makings sense”, which places “primacy to being above representation” (p. 13). Meyer is concerned with the problem of how to establish accounts of the richness of religious experience that can be communicated amongst scholars. Inspired by the work of R.R. Marett and her own fieldwork in Ghana amongst Pentecostal-Charismatic churches, Meyer (2006) suggests that through “sensational forms… religious practitioners are made to sense a limit of understanding” (p. 10), and scholarship can take these sensational forms as a starting point to analysis instead of a “transcendental entity out there” (p. 9). In contrast to Rudolf Otto’s concept of the numinous, Meyer suggests that the focus of scholarly study should be the socio-cultural constructs, as they are performed and embodied, which produce awe. Awe becomes an experience that is “effected through an authorized procedure that involves particular objects, spaces, and sensing as well as sense-making bodies in the context of specific power structures” and is caused by “specific and authorized methods” (Meyer, 2006, p. 10). Meyer admits that this is a distinctly sociological approach, but nonetheless is the best way to perform “a close study of the standardized methods that yield the fabrication of some kind of excess” (2016, p. 18). This stance is widely adopted in religious studies and ethnomusicology when approaching transcendental experience: the ethnographic focus is on uncovering and thickly describing the social-cultural practices that could “fabricate” extraordinary experience.

One may rightly criticize this approach for reducing the “stuff” of religious experience — the numinous or transcendental — to cultural conditioning. Since much scholarship in the contemporary study of religion, including auditory studies, examines how culture shapes religious experience and meaning, it is useful to probe the limits of Meyer’s claim. Following Bruno Latour’s (2010) notion of the “factish”, a “human-made yet sublime thing”, Meyer (2016) claims that the performance of form generates a “sacred surplus”, and participation with standardized religious practice that causes belief and awe (p. 18). Form is what compels the practitioner towards a “limit of understanding”, or the “experience of something beyond”: “It is a limit that is not simply limiting, but above all enabling the experience of the sublime in the here and now” (Meyer, 2006, pp. 10–11).

Meyer (2016) contends that the bias in religious studies of content over form relates to the idea that form was dominant in “primitive” societies and “in the higher ones it is dispensable and content reigns supreme” (p. 19). Invoking Ernst Cassirer’s concept of symbolic form, Meyer (2016) claims that it is precisely form that allows for the mediation between sensation, culture and what lies beyond the limits of understanding: “Shaping what is indeterminate and not yet differentiated into a Gestalt, form is a necessary condition for the articulation and indeed, formation, of content and meaning” (p. 19).

Meyer presents her concept of sensational forms, which are “fixed, authorized modes of invoking, and organizing access to the transcendental, thereby creating and sustaining links between religious practitioners in the context of particular religious organizations” (p. 9). Sensational forms are common ways individuals in a community embody and enact religious mediation; they are “performances, in that they effect or make present what they mediate” (2012, p. 26). Citing collective ritual as an ideal example of sensational form, Meyer asserts that sensational forms “produce” the experience of “something beyond”; they make the practitioner “sense a limit of understanding”, and thus “awe, wonder, and other forms of amazement…is generated in the context of power structures that are located in the immanent” (2006, pp. 10–11). Through sensational forms scholars may come to understand the religious aesthetics of a culture. Meyer claims that religious aesthetics shape specific bodily and sensory disciplines that in turn shape individual and collective notions of self and world, while at the same time providing a standard “style” that can be repeated, learned, and mimicked to become a “habitus” (2006, p. 24). The idea of a learned cultural habitus is also employed by Becker’s (2004) phenomenology of trance.

I devote considerable attention here to Birgit Meyer’s theory because: 1) it is an example of the “tradition of the more” (Orsi, 2011, p. 99), which seeks explanations of religiosity in cultural phenomena, and 2) much of the current scholarly interest in trance tends to avoid its essentially religious aspects. Thinking in terms of sensational forms may elucidate these features of trance. While some scholars, especially ethnomusicologists, might be faced with the overwhelming reality of a possessing spirit (reported by subjects as well as within themselves), there is no consensus on how to bring this into scholarly dialogue. Hence, Meyer’s (2016) plea to take a step back from assigning ontological primacy to being, and to start wondering about translatable concepts, may be productive for understanding phenomena such as trance and spirit possession. But this does not eradicate the problem of interpreting what is, in the words of Orsi (2011), “the holy” or the “really real” for the trance practitioner.

Ethnomusicology of trance

As mentioned above, Steven Feld’s Sound and Sentiment (1980) is a major theoretical contribution to the field of ethnomusicology, as it introduced the study of how affect is generated in song, dance, and interpretation and how sound relates to Kaluli myth. Feld (1980) argues that Kaluli “expressive modalities are culturally constituted by performance codes that both actively communicate deeply felt sentiments and reconfirm mythic principles” (p. 14). Profoundly influenced by anthropology’s cultural turn and the postmodern deconstruction of ethnocentric models, ethnomusicology tends to eschew universal theories in favor of cultural, linguistic, and semiotic explanations of emotion, cognition, and embodiment of music.

Janowsky (2007) notes that that research on spirit possession and music is “characterized by a tension between rationalizing scientistic and universalizing tendencies, on the one hand, and more culturally contextualized, phenomenological approaches on the other” (p. 187). Herbert (2011) acknowledges ethnomusicologists’ disdain for universal musical traits, yet makes a plea to hold universalist and relativist approaches as complimentary: “it makes no sense to ignore cross-cultural psychophysiological commonalities relating to altered consciousness and arising from the fact that humans possess a shared biology” (p. 216). The paradox of trance brings these issues to fore. It is certainly true that music brings about a fundamental change in consciousness (Nettl 2000), and trance is a “psycho-biological capacity available to all societies” (Bourguignon, 1973, p. 11). Trance may be observed by outsiders as being situated in history, culture, and society, yet the reported reality of trance experience tends to also include making meaning of the transcendental. Interpreting trance is a task that confounds both universal explanations and relativist, cultural-construction accounts. The following scholars have three distinct, influential approaches to the study of trance that are informed by the developments in anthropology and the cultural study of music described above.

Gilbert Rouget’s Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession (1980), first published in French as La Musique et la Transe: Esquisse d’une Theorie Generale des Relations de la Musique et de la Possession, is regarded in ethnomusicology as a seminal work, and served as the only reference on trance until Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners (2004) (Herbert 2011). Rouget (1980) attempts a general theory of trance and music, using a very broad cross cultural study. He presents distinctions between ecstasy, trance, possession and shamanism, and argues that there are different kinds of trance that uses music to greater or lesser degrees. Counter to previous anthropological accounts of trance, Rouget asserts that the relationship between music and trance is not causal. Citing evidence from a great variety of world cultures that practice trance rituals, Rouget (1980) shows that trancing occurs in diverse musical contexts, from “musical violence” to a “mere tinkling of a little bell gently shaken close to the subject’s ear!” (p. 85). Rouget (1980) presents distinctions between passive musicking and active musicking and their relationship to trance and shamanism (pp. 90–92). Rouget rejects various claims that music causes trance in any physiological sense, as if music were a drug (much anthropological literature grouped music with drugs/psychedelics in descriptions of trance-inducing practices); instead Rouget (1980) claims that “nothing authorizes us to think that music… plays any direct role in the onset of trance other than by means of its ‘moral action’” (1985, p. 183). Rouget’s concluding thesis is that in possession trance “music is the instrument of communication between subject and group”, where it has several functions: music creates a psycho-emotional atmosphere in the ritual; leads trancers towards “great mutation, occurring at the level of imagination”; and most importantly, it “provides the adept with the means of manifesting this identification [with spirit] and thus of exteriorizing his trance” (1980, p. 325). Thus, for Rouget, music’s chief role in trance ritual is to socialize the temporary identity taken on by the trancer: music “speaks simultaneously… to the head and the legs… [it] provides the entranced person with a mirror in which he can read the image of his borrowed identity… it is the music that enables him to reflect this identity back again to the group in the form of dance” (1980, pp. 335–326).

Ruth Herbert (2011) notes that Rouget’s work has greatly contributed to the study of trance, but has “cast a long (and at times perhaps unhelpful) shadow over it” (p. 204). Rouget may be criticized for embarking on a cross-cultural study but omitting “whole cultures and their musics” that do not fit his assumptions on what trance is (Herbert, 2011, p. 205). While providing interesting sociological nuances to trance, Rouget’s work leaves out in-depth accounts of the reality experienced by trancers. In general, Rouget’s work is celebrated for its assertion that culture and social codes inform expression, music, trance, and possession (Becker, 2004; Janowsky, 2007).

Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing attempts to unite biological and neurological theories of consciousness with “richly humanistic, first-person descriptions of musical trancing” (p. 3). In her highly regarded book, Becker “seek[s] a theory of music cognition, of consciousness that can help understand the complex interrelationships between trancing and music, in correlating the eye-and-ear visions and gestures of individuals in religious trance who are simultaneously being musicked” (2004, p. 4). Becker (2004) defines trance as “a bodily event characterized by strong emotion, intense focus, the loss of the strong sense of self, usually enveloped by amnesia and a cessation of the inner language…. an event that accesses types of knowledge and experience which are inaccessible in nontrance events, and which are felt to be ineffable, not easily described or spoken of” (p. 43). Music during trancing provides a vehicle by which trancing individuals enter altered states of consciousness, where “imagination becomes experience’’ and “one is moved from the mundane to the supra-normal: another realm, another time, with other kinds of knowing” (Becker, 2004, p. 27).

Drawing on the work of Damasio (1999), Maturana and Varela (1987), and Benzon (2001), Becker (2004) theorizes an “enactive” approach to meaning and cognition in trance (p. 11). Becker writes that trancers “temporarily lose the sense of their private, autobiographical self in favor of the sense of the special self of trance possession” (p. 144). She links this to the cessation of inner language during peak experience, where a qualitatively different way of knowing emerges for the trancer. Music helps enhance the perception of alternate worlds, creates a sustaining rhythmic ground, increases emotional arousal, and “may facilitate the experience of a different self” (Becker, 2004, p. 147). Maturana and Varela (1987) link insights from phenomenology with biology and produce a fresh approach to thinking about interactions of organisms, from single cells to groups of human beings. They call “structural coupling” a process of repeated interaction between organisms and their environment leads to bonding and change, of “co-ontogenies with mutual involvement through their reciprocal structural coupling, each one conserving its adaptation and organization” (Maturana and Varela, 1987, 180). Becker (2004) asserts that the concept of structural coupling, as well as Nuñez’s (1997) notion of “supra-individual biological processes”, helps us understand the relationship between individuals, music, and trance:

Music and emotion are part of a larger processual event that subsumes many other people doing many other things while the whole event unfolds as a unity organized and reorganized over time by small structural changes with the participants… The event is not coded in the culture or even in an individual. It is an enactment, a performance by particular groups of persons who continually restructure each other and subsequent events (Becker, 2004, p. 123).

Becker (2004) asserts that it is through repeated performance of a religious ritual that “mind and body of the trancer becomes structurally coupled with the drama of the ritual” (p. 121). Seeking a middle ground between objective-scientific and cultural explanations of emotion, music, and trance, Becker (2004) suggests that changes in the neurophysiology of the trancer cannot be ascribed to the solitary individual, but are initiated through “group processes of recurrent interactions between co-defined individuals in a rhythmic domain of music” (p. 127). Becker’s work provides a cognitive-scientific and phenomenological window into a trance that movies away from the purely social explanations of anthropology. If trance is an enactment that is conditioned by both individual and social domains, the ethnography of trance must also include individual narratives of the trance experience.

Deborah Kfapchan (2007) presents a rich ethnographic account of trance in Traveling Spirit Masters: Morrocan Gnawa trance and music in the global marketplace. Kapchan’s work is highly relevant for this survey as it exhibits several themes previously discussed. Drawing from performance studies, linguistics, sociological/ethnographic theory, Kapchan presents a unique view of trancing amongst the Gnawa, presenting substantial evidence that trance in fact cannot be completely explained by Becker’s (2004) model.d

The Gnawa originally came to Morocco from sub-Saharan Africa as slaves during the trans-Saharan slave trade which existed from the 8th to 20th centuries. After independence, the Gnawa were emblematic of “the essence of African culture” in Morocco, representing the slavery experience and “discourses of liberation” (Kapchan, 2007, p. 21). They hold all-night ceremonies, healing people suffering from spirit possession; they use music, incense, colors, ritual food/substances, self-mortification, and animal sacrifice create the conditions for trancing (p. 2).

Kapchan’s work with the Gnawa is exemplary because she is not a passive observer, but a full participant in the trance ritual. Kapchan writes, “Trance…became not just an object of study for me, but also a vehicle of knowledge, an ontology of difference that at times possessed me viscerally, in the very habits of my body and spirit” (p. 5). In this way she is able to provide the sort of thick description of Gnawa ontologies that is celebrated in ethnomusicology and demanded by the ethnographic methodology of Marcel Griaule, which is highly influential among ethnologists (Kapchan, 2007, pp.135–136).

The most striking argument in Kapchan’s ethnography is that Gnawa trance re-enacts somatic memory of subjugation, of the Gnawa’s past as slaves (pp. 34–35). Trance ritual provides the context for healing of the wound, which is both personal and social, and empowers practitioners with the capacity for “ecstatic multiple subjectivity” (p. 263). The experience of the wound of slavery symbolically repeats itself in the trance ceremony where the trancer is subjugated to a spirit, or Allah; the ceremonies “attract those whose wounds are bound up with oppression, whether racial or sexual…” and “cure wounds originating in other forms of domination”, such as patriarchy (p. 35). Kapchan analyzes gesture, movement, symbolic forms, and participant narratives to show how metaphors of possession find a temporality and space in the body. The mostly female Gnawa trancers submit to possession by a spirit during a musical ritual where gestures of subjugation, which may have originally come from the experience of slavery, are nonetheless used to mark their submission to something that is not their everyday self.

Kapchan asserts that Gnawa trancing is an enactment of bodily metaphor, where “embodied distress, falling to the spirits” (p. 96) are metaphors that have personal and social effects. The body is the site of mediation between spirits, self, and society, with trance being an enactment that allows the practitioner to achieve a “new state of emotional readiness or workability” (p. 97), or “breakthrough…into the performance of another identity and into a social realm where different norms apply” (p. 97). In contrast to Becker’s (2004) model, Kapchan describes how desire or volition plays an important part in the individual’s process of entering a “secret temporality” of the wound and its transformation (p. 34). The Gnawa in trance, instead of lacking control, is enabled in transferring control to the possessing spirit, where she finds “release, catharsis, sublimation” (p. 60). While the trancer employs socialized and conventional gestures to signal to the community that she is in trance, the gestures are also “expressive acts directed to the self, ways that the imagination inhabits the self…they concretize…the possession by another entity” (p. 64). Thus, while trance gesture is learned or culturally-coded, the trancer’s experience reveals to her a dynamic flux of subjectivity where the possessing spirit also possesses an ontological status and demands propitiation from the everyday conscious self.

Kapchan explores how agency and subjectivity are involved in Gnawa trancing. Citing Mark Johnson (1987), she contends that trance exhibits gestural, bodily metaphors that captivate the body in a highly affective narrative and translate experience from one domain to another. The gestures of falling (to the spirit and the body actually falling down) relate to the “fall into a relation of self-disintegration, a kind of abject state of multiplicity” (p. 65). Kapchan asserts that music’s role in trance is to “invade the parameters of the body, to move the body, just as metaphor moves identity” (p. 70). “Music has a privileged relation to the body and to memory” (p. 69), and by invoking “transitions of ontological register” (p. 60), music compels the body to remember. This kinesthetic remembrance has its own relation to time, since when “the body remembers, there is a collapsing of past and present into the now; indeed the past feels co-immanent in the present” (p. 69). Music, co-occurring with gesture, helps make the body into a container for greater emotional flexibility in the present, while facilitating a reflexive shift into the multiple subjectivities of trance time.


Scholarship on trance musicking reveals a multifaceted dynamic between culture, experience, and the transcendent. Becker’s (2004) linking of Maturana and Varela’s bio-phenomenological model, cognitive science’s theories of consciousness, and cultural interpretations of trance provides a robust framework to assess what is happening in trance phenomena, between individuals and culture as well as within the individual. While providing one basis for cross-cultural comparison amongst scholars, Becker’s model does not fully account for individual will and experience, especially as the trancer navigates multiple subjective worlds, as well as the transcendent aspect of trance.

I find it curious that Becker (2004) employs the classical rasa theory of Indian aesthetic philosophy to support a scientific theory of “group consciousness” in trance experience, while omitting a discussion of how rasa describes the aesthetics of transcendence (p. 60). As Timothy Lighthiser (1999) makes clear in “An exegetical and historical essay on the concept of rasa within the work of bharata, anandavardhana, and abhinavagupta”, rasa theory elucidates both the relational aspect of communicating emotions as well as the transcendent nature of aesthetic communion. Rasa could be a lens through which both the cultural and the transcendent could be illuminated, with trance being an especially suitable topic of study. Thus, Becker may be imposing a contemporary scientific epistemology onto rasa theory.

The study of religion’s foray into auditory materials shows promise in elucidating how sound and music mediate religious experience, meaning, and power dynamics. While Kapchan (2007) does not embark on an overt religious analysis, she describes how the Islamic belief systems influence the meanings of gesture, word, and experience in trance. Religious studies and anthropology tend to adopt socio-cultural explanations of phenomena, yet the profoundly transpersonal nature of trance demands a bigger picture that includes the transcendent as it is experienced by the trancer. Kapchan (2007) shows how the reality of trancers’ narratives open into a deeper world of individual subjectivity and “poetics of narrative” (p. 80) within the trance culture, in a process of working with the transcendent, as well as often oppressive social codes, in everyday life. Understanding the religious in trancing can augment and honor divergent attitudes in the study of religion regarding the transcendent. In my fieldwork, I posit a hermeneutic process of trance, where religious aesthetics, individual agency, and narratives of transcendence are interdependent and co-evolving.

Following Kapchan (2007), trance and spirit possession amongst the Gnawa clarify the possibility that the trancer is empowered in a transformational process that can help her transcend oppressive social, moral, and cultural codes of her society. This challenges old definitions of trance that either focused on 1) how the body and personality appeared (to the outsider) during trance, or 2) the socio-cultural context that generated trance phenomena. As Huskinson and Schmidt (2011) attest, the influence of psychological ways of thinking about altered states of consciousness has created barriers to understanding trance, often pathologizing ritual non-normal behaviors. An additional problem, I suggest, is that western ethnographers impose this psychological way of thinking onto their interpretations of trance. Kapchan shows how one trancer uses “code switching” between the French “crise” and Moroccan Arabic to refer to her psycho-emotional disturbance that needed to be resolved by trance; this indicates that the trancer has knowledge of various psychological lenses through which her non-normal condition could be viewed (pp. 49–50). Kapchan astutely recognizes that the nature of trance experience is deeply colored by language and psychological diagnoses are ill-suited for trance cultures. In my research and fieldwork, I challenge psychology’s assumptions of altered states of coconsciousness and investigate how trancers navigate the several codependent semiotic systems in making meaning of psychological transformation in trance.

As socio-cultural construction is the overwhelmingly dominant mode of thinking about trance, I explore in my fieldwork the limits of this type of explanation. Are there elements to trance that are outside history and culture? How might bio-cultural and cognitive scientific explanations omit the meaning-making that is transpiring in trance? Meyer’s (2016) “sacred surplus” and other theories that look to cultural construction of transcendence may be neglecting to accept that within individual subjective trance experience there is a generative power that shapes agency and choice. Does religious practice really “produce” the transcendent, as Meyer contends? As Orsi (2011) emphasizes, “in response to the excessive holy, humans generate rituals and stories” (p. 103). Indeed, trance practitioners may be encountering “the holy” as “overwhelming, excessive, unforeseeable, unaccountable” (Orsi, 2011, p. 103) and subsequently enacting a religious aesthetics. It is surely this dynamic in trance that needs to explored by further research.

I believe that research on how humans make meaning, encounter self and other, interact with the holy, and negotiate socio-cultural coding in the realm of ritual trance musicking requires multiple disciplinary perspectives. I contend that the transcendent, contrary to Meyer (2006), can certainly be a topic of scholarly inquiry and dialogue. Theoretical and qualitative research into meaning, emotion, the senses, embodiment, and spirituality can inform ethnographic work on trancing, yielding rich narratives of trancing. Research on a trance culture’s “sensational forms” (Meyer, 2006) does not have to negate participants’ “narratives of epiphany” (Kapchan, 2007), but may be complementary approaches. I argue that cultural construction of trance, and religious aesthetics in general, is incomplete without thick descriptive ethnography and a theory of how to talk about the transcendent. Further research must acknowledge the participation of individuals in trance experience, their agency in confronting culture, and the insurmountable divide that exists between the multiple ontologies that emerge between people and cultures.


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