In my last blog post, I wrote about some of the health benefits of having transcendent experiences. With this blog post, I’ll be looking more closely at music and transcendence within music therapy so that you can see how such an approach may be helpful to you if you’re looking to do therapy. I’ll do this by first identifying ways that music has historically led to experiences of transcendence. Following that, I’ll look at how music and transcendence can apply to music therapy. To give you a clearer understanding of how I work, I’ll also look at how I incorporate music and transcendence in my therapeutic work with people at different stages of life.
I believe that transcendent experiences are important for people to have throughout life. Such experiences can help people young and old alike connect with the simple, sacred reality of life. And that reality is that we’re all connected- people, animals, and the planet. Losing that sense of connection can contribute to anxiety and depression because it can cause us to feel as though we don’t matter, or feel like our life has no purpose. This in turn can have an effect on how we treat others and how we treat our environment. And because we’re wired for connection, this can cause us to feel more depressed or anxious.
(Of course, there are other reasons why people may experience depression and anxiety. The existential loss of purpose and meaning I describe here is but one factor. However, it’s something that I see with enough teens and adults today that I want to acknowledge it as a factor.)
Music and Transcendence
If you read my previous post, you may recall the different ways people can experience transcendence. These include:
- Being out in nature
- Engaging in some form of religious or spiritual practice
- Making music or listening to music
- Using certain psychoactive drugs
- Having a near-death experience
Less risky than taking psychoactive drugs recreationally or having a near-death experience, music is an easy and powerful way to have these kinds of experiences. As well, music may be more appealing for some people than engaging in any specific religious or spiritual practices. Additionally, music may be more readily accessible for those who have a difficult time with sitting meditation practices.
Music has a long history of serving as a means for transcendence in different cultures around the world. As part of sacred rituals and spiritual practices throughout the ages, music has been there. Shamans , Sufi mystics , and the spiritually-inclined worldwide  have recognized the power of music to enter into another state of awareness that brings one to a place of greater understanding.
Rhythm and Song As Drivers
Two ways that music has been historically used to lead one into a trance or altered state is through rhythm and song. In shamanic practice, the rhythmic beating of a drum leads all parties involved into an altered state. The drumming can serve as an induction into the trance and as well hold a person in it while the ceremony and ritual are being conducted. 
Chanting can also contribute to this state. This can involve the repetition of a mantra, such as in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In shamanic traditions, chanting and singing can also come in the form of personalized healing songs that invite the person seeking help to look within themselves as to what the song means to them.  Additionally, in some cultures chanting and vocalizing can include overtones and harmonics as part of their spiritual practices and as a way to enter into an altered state.
That’s not to say that western music isn’t also capable of eliciting non-ordinary states of consciousness. It can. After all, trance music exists and it’s a modern product of the British and German rave scenes. 
But even western classical music can contribute to a sense of transcendence. Going to see an orchestra perform a piece live can be exhilarating. Speaking personally, Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” with its famous “Ode to Joy,” never ceases to move me.
Likewise, listening to recordings of classical pieces or other relaxing ambient pieces can lead to a shift of consciousness. The ability of music to do this inspired music therapist, Helen Bonny, to develop the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (BMGIM). (BMGIM is an area of specialization that involves extensive hours of additional clinical training. If you’re interested in learning more about this “music-centered, consciousness-expanding therapy,” I encourage you to check out the Association for Music and Imagery’s website.)
Music and Transcendence in Music Therapy
So now let’s look at how music and transcendence apply to music therapy. In music therapy, music and the elements of music are used intentionally in different ways to help facilitate therapeutic growth. That includes the use of rhythm, harmony, and song.
Some ways that music can lead to experiences of transcendence in music therapy include:
- Drumming 
- Singing, such as toning or chanting 
- Guided meditation with music
- BMGIM, when provided by an MT-BC who is also a Fellow/Facilitator of the Association for Music and Imagery (FAMI)
When making music there are times when people get into the “flow” and time and space seem to take on new dimensions. Additionally, music therapy practice also incorporates recorded music as a way to invite people to look inwards and engage in self-reflection. In these ways, the music used in music therapy can lead to transcendent and transformative experiences.
How Music and Transcendence Can Play Out With People at Different Life Stages
Now let’s look at how music and transcendence can play out with people at different stages in life. Developmentally, people have different needs at different stages of their lives. Likewise, people all have their own unique lived experiences which also have an influence on these needs and how they get expressed. Because of that, a person’s age and lived experiences have an influence on how a person may experience music and transcendence.
When we’re younger, these experiences may not feel as profound, but they may be, depending on the personality and lived experiences of a young person. Additionally, these types of experiences can take on deeper depth and meaning as we get older. Likewise, having these kinds of experiences can “prime us” in a way for being able to see the world differently and take on a different, more grounded, and open mindset. This would be an example of the “mature experiences” of transcendence I described in my previous post. And as I mentioned in that post, these kinds of experiences can contribute to our health in positive ways.
Below I describe how I incorporate music and transcendence in working with teens, adults, and older adults.
Adolescence is a complicated time. Teens are identifying who they are, who they want to be, and where they belong. It seems especially challenging for teens today as they face a variety of societal and existential stressors. I see a lot of anxiety and depression in my work with teens as they navigate their futures.
Because of the unique stressors that teens are dealing with, I think that experiences of transcendence are valuable to them. Teens facing a world of uncertainty need to know that they matter, that their life matters, and that they aren’t isolated beings in the world. They need to know who they are.
And music can be an impactful way of helping teens connect to this truth. Ways that I use music to help teens experience a sense of transcendence include:
- Lyric analysis
- Active music-making, such as drumming and playing other percussion instruments
With lyric analysis, you can think of it as similar to the personal healing song of the shaman. The person seeking healing reflects on what the song, or what certain lyrics of the song, mean to them and how it applies to their situation. This sort of reflection and shifting of perspective is part of what lyric analysis encourages.
With active music-making, I tap into the flow that can occur when making music. Likewise, there can be a dropping of defenses when a person feels grounded and embodied while making music. This can allow for new insights and awareness to come up to the surfaces for reflection or integration. Additionally, rhythm and repetition of musical patterns can come into play which creates a trance-like effect that also allows for new insights and awareness to arise.
Adults also face challenges that can be relieved by transcendent experiences. They may struggle with finding ways to live authentically. There may be a desire to create a better work/life balance as they feel like life is slipping away. Some adults may simply be needing to find reasons to continue “adulting” because it’s harder than one thought.
So similarly to my work with teens, I use:
- Lyric analysis
- Active music-making
- Singing and chanting
Part of the reason why I use singing and chanting more with adult clients is that oftentimes they are specifically wanting to work with their voices. Because of this, there can be less resistance to using their voices. Although there can also be some initial discomfort as the voice is a very personal part of us.
When I incorporate singing and chanting in my work, that can include pre-composed chants and established mantras, or co-created affirmations that are personal and unique to the person. Together we’ll chant it as a way to reinforce the melody and the intention behind the words. The result of this is a “personal healing song” that the person can turn to when they need it. It’s meant to be simple and catchy so that it can be easy to recall.
Older adults have different needs than teens and adults. While there’s still a need to live authentically and know who one is, it looks a little different as one gets older. With age, there are inevitable losses that come as a result. We have to get to know ourselves in new ways. Likewise, there’s a need to look back at our lives and find a place of acceptance of what we’ve done and where we’ve been.
The theory of gerotranscendence suggests that transcendent experiences can be part of our developmental process as we get older. Specifically, there are three dimensions in which a person can experience transcendence. They are:
- The Cosmic Dimension, which involves how a person experiences time and space
- The Self-Transcendence Dimension, which involves how a person experiences themselves
- The Social Selectivity Dimension, which involves how a person experiences relationships
Some ways in which I’ve used music to facilitate transcendent experiences with older adults include:
- Active music-making
- Singing and chanting
- Music-facilitated life review
Music-facilitated life review can involve a few different approaches. Lyric analysis can be part of it in that we listen to music and discuss lyrics relevant to them as they process who they are and the life they’ve lived. As well, music-facilitated life review can include the person choosing songs that have personal meaning to them from different points in their life. In listening to these songs, we discuss the memories that they bring up as a way to help the person further integrate into their full, authentic self.
Next Steps If You Want to Experience This Yourself in Therapy
I hope that this article has given you a better understanding of how music and transcendence can be used in therapy regardless of how old you are. As a result, you may now find yourself interested in incorporating music and transcendence into therapy for yourself or someone you love. If so, contact me. I offer a free 15-minute phone or online consultation that you can schedule here.
References Thomas Winn, B.A., Barbara J. Crowe, MM, RMT-BC, Joseph J. Moreno, MA, MME, RMT-BC (1989). Shamanism and Music Therapy: Ancient Healing Techniques in Modern Practice, Music Therapy Perspectives, Volume 7, Issue 1, Pages 67–71, https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/7.1.67
 Tony Crisos (2017). The Sufi Mysticism of Music, Sound, and Vibration. Retrieved from Be Here Now Network
 Smithsonian Institute. Music and Spirituality
 Gemma Perry, Vince Politio, and William Forde Thompson (2021). Rhythmic Chanting and Mystical States Across Traditions, Brain Sciences, Volume 11, Issue 1. 10.3390/brainsci11010101
 Give It a Trance. The History of Trance Music