Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Music & Religious Ecstacy


Penman, Joshua, and Judith Becker. "Religious Ecstatics, “Deep Listeners,” and
            Musical Emotion." Empirical Musicology Review 4.2 (2009): 49-70. Web.


            This study explores the connections between musical stimuli and strong emotional responses to music in the context of religious ecstasy. The basic hypothesis of this study is that people are physiologically pre-conditioned to respond to music thereby inducing a state of ecstasy. These “deep listeners” are a portion of musical consumers who experience a strong emotional response and have reactions to music similar to those of religious ecstatics. An ecstatic state is closely linked to the idea of a trance state: loss of a sense of self, a feeling of transcendence or connection with the divine and a lessening of self-talk. Trance states are often considered highly fraudulent or psychotic.  In some religious communities, overly charismatic, or “spirit-led” congregations are frowned up.
            For the purposes of this study, it is important to create a distinction between meditation and trance. Mediation is associated with a sense of stillness and mindfulness while trance is viewed as a very public sensual overload involving movement. Meditation is generally more accepted by Western societies while trance states have cult-like and fringe associations.
            This study examines physiological response to music using GSR (galvanic skin response) and heart rate monitoring. The study defines emotion as “relatively intense affective reaction that usually involves subjective feeling, physiological arousal, expression, action tendency, and regulation” (51). The participants for this study were divided into five groups: Pentecostal Ecstatics, Pentecostal Non-ecstatic, Other Protestants, “Deep Listeners” and General Students. The “trancing” or ecstatic Pentecostals were chosen out of a group of church-goers by the researchers on the basis of observation. They were people who were seen to enter states of speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, or shaking and trembling visibly. The deep listeners were a self-selecting group of people, recruited from a music faculty, who believed themselves to be profoundly moved by music.
            Participants were asked to bring in two favourite songs to demonstrate their musical preferences. The first piece of control music was a classical piece chosen by the researchers while the second control piece was selected from the list of the participants’ favourite music. This is based on the idea that the physiological response to music is not a result of inherent features of the music itself but is found more strongly in the relationship of the listener to the music.
            During the experiment, both GSR and heart rate was measured while excerpts of the control pieces were played alternating with the selection from each participant. The highest readings for the GSR Index based on participant-selected music was the Pentecostal Ecstatics and the Deep Listeners. The deep listener group had consistently high readings on both the participant-selected and control group music. This could be a result of the musical training that all of the participants in this group had since by understanding the features of the music, there is perhaps a more profound emotional connection with the music.
            The authors also attempted to measure the correlation between the intensity of the music and the emotional response the music elicits. They devised a subjective measurement called Intensity Level or IL based on elements like the tempo, loudness, register and timbre of the music. This evaluation of the music revealed a moderately strong correlation between the GSR Index and the intensity level of each piece.
            Both the ecstatic and deep listener groups often describe their experiences in near transcendent terms – that they feel nearer to the sacred and that there is a loss of boundary between self and other. Overall, the results suggest that the Pentecostal ecstatics and deep listeners may have a different physiological response profile which seems to result in strong physiological responses to music. Effectively, the deep listener group may also contain potential ecstatics.


            This study provides a strong basis for future research into the connection between music and religious experiences. A broader exploration of other faiths could be helpful to establish cross-cultural links between music and religious experiences. However, it is evident from this study that music is really the catalyst for such religious experiences since trance-like states can also happen without music. In the sense of arousal, music may help people to focus their attention on one specific task. In the religious sense, that one particular task may be prayer or worship. Music heightens the sense of engagement with this particular task resulting in a type of hyperfrontality which leads to a flow or trance-like state.
            The one aspect that this study doesn’t explore is how personality influences the type of response to music. For example, it would be enlightening to see what personality traits the members of the Pentecostal Ecstatic group have in common. A personality test carried out in conjunction with this study would allow further conclusions to be drawn in terms of what types of personality traits make someone more predisposed to entering trance-like states.
            Overall, it is evident from the GSR results that a stronger emotional connection occurs when the listener feels some sense of connection with the music. In other words, the participant selected music always elicited a stronger emotional response than the control music chosen by the researchers. Both the deep listeners and Pentecostal ecstatics shared this strong emotional response. A further exploration of what makes these participants more predisposed to a strong physiological response to the music would be helpful. The personality trait data might also help in this regard. The fact that the deep listener group had a strong reaction to both groups of music (though the participant selected group was slightly higher) perhaps suggests that formal music training causes broader appreciation of a variety of styles. However, the fact that these participants were also classically trained musicians may also heighten their emotional response to the classical music selected as part of the control group.

            Lastly, it would be interesting to consider music’s impact on different types of ecstasy. Though this study has focused mostly on religious trance states, music also plays a role in stimulating meditative states. Both trance and meditation are just different types of transcendence. Different faith communities value both differently, and probably choose music specifically to invoke one of these states.


Danielle said...

What a fascinating review! This is great! Thanks, Will!

Tina Alexander said...

I found this review particularly interesting. Obviously we react to musical experiences in an emotional way, but it is interesting to consider the role of music specifically in religious settings. I agree in the way that music can help facilitate a meditative state, or one of “losing” oneself, and how this is used throughout different religious settings. I also think that it would be interesting to see a similar study done both including different religions and cross-culturally.

I agree that it would be interesting to see if much research has been done in the area of personality testing and trancing, specifically in the more ecstatic Pentecostal groups. It seems that for this study, the “ecstatic” Pentecostal’s chosen by observation, were most likely extroverts, seeing how they were the ones more physically involved. In measuring the ability of music in this hypnotic state, I think that there are so many factors that have weight, and personality is only one of them. This is especially more difficult to measure in a religious state, where there is a self-willingness to lose self identity in the hope of a connection with God, or with the divine, and this comes aside form any musical involvement, and then may be only enhanced by it.

Although it was interesting to read that the deep listeners and Pentecostals had a similar physical reaction to the music, it would also be interesting to consider how the brain is reacting in response to this, and in these moments of “trance” specifically. What areas of the brain are engaged? Is it similar to this state of “flow” tat we have talked about in class? Although the study considered individual musical preferences, that is not always the case in many religious settings- meaning that people are not simply at church to be hypnotized by music into a trance-like state, and may not always have a deep emotional connection with the style of music being played.

Branko Dzinovic said...

Thank you for an interesting review of the study. We all know that music had been part of religious experiences since the beginning of mankind. There are almost no religious practices today that do not include music as part of their ceremonies. In my opinion, religious ecstasy is predominantly a culturally shaped phenomenon. For example, members of different religious groups can be exposed to the same works of music, but there is no evidence that they will both experience ecstasy. Additionally, it is possible that members of certain religious groups will likely feel uninterested towards music(s) used by other religious communities. Furthermore, some musics might be highly offensive to different cultures. Buddhist monks will hardly fall in religious ecstasy listening to the music used in the Western Catholic Church tradition. I agree with you on the relevance of individuality for entering and experiencing trance-like states. This is an interesting and important area for cognitive processes that needs to be further researched. Finally, the relationship between music and feelings may be of great importance in this case. Specific music triggers specific emotional states and good part of religious music is composed/improvised with this in mind. I think that all of the mentioned aspects can be categorized under cultural heritage, simply because religion and culture are highly intertwined concepts.

Thank you,

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