Comment: Dancing myself into a trance

Selim Bulut talks to James Holden, Gavin Russom and Viva Ruiz about their attempts to induce a "trance state" in their listeners, and tries it out himself.

There’s a lot of music that gets described as “hypnotic” or “trance-inducing”. Usually these words are used by music writers when certain signifiers are present in a piece of music – repetition, rhythm, or the hard-to-quantify notion of “psychedelia” – but what does it actually mean for music to induce a trance in its listener?

I’m not really sure when my own interest in the trance phenomenon came about. I’ve gravitated towards music that might fall into this category for a few years – tracks like Lindstrøm’s I Feel Space or James Holden’s revelatory Idiot had a significant impact on me, for reasons that I couldn’t and still can’t fully describe – but I suppose it was only when I thought back to certain experiences that I started to make logical connections between them. Experiences like dancing to Four Tet’s spellbinding rhythms in a Manchester basement; feeling my ribcage shake from Factory Floor’s throbbing sub bass; being locked into Morgan Geist’s mutant arpeggios at Corsica Studios at 5am, sober as a judge; witnessing My Bloody Valentine’s infamous “holocaust” section and not knowing if five minutes had passed or 45. I recall all of these experiences as sensations rather than events – the specific moments that comprise them are a blur. Whether these can necessarily be qualified as a trance is debatable, but they’re times where I was not aware of myself, where any self-consciousness had been left behind. So, when I heard that James Holden would be performing a piece of music made with the intent of being trance-inducing as part of the Barbican’s ‘Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain’ season, I jumped at the opportunity to see it, and to learn more about the subject.


Lindstrøm – I Feel Space

Historically there have been many popular musicians exploring the idea of altered states of consciousness in their work, from Alice Coltrane to Steve Reich to Jimi Hendrix to Chris & Cosey to Ron Hardy, but today it’s even more rife, with plenty of musicians trying to tap into that entrancing potential – some actively, and some who perhaps don’t even realise it. It was this line of thinking that was the driving force behind the recent Daphni record ‘Jiaolong’. As producer Dan Snaith noted in its pre-release material, “I’ve been surprised by the number of transcendent moments that I, sober and in my mid-30s, have had in clubs in the last few years, both as a punter and as a DJ…the clichés about the collective consciousness of clubs still seems to hold water in some special cases.” And writing about Philip Glass’s opera ‘Einstein On The Beach’, Adam Harper said “‘Einstein on the Beach’ is an experience that so differs from the traditional, everyday flow of stimuli in time that after a while, I didn’t know whether I’d been there for an hour, a week, a minute, or an entire, parallel lifetime that opened up at a tangent to my previous one…it’s a cliché to describe his music as ‘hypnotic’ – in this context it was spiritually psychedelic.”

“Whilst the normal, alert brain’s frequencies are usually between 14 and 22Hz, they’re slightly slower whilst playing music – around 8-14Hz. Crucially, the brain is in a similar state whilst meditating, or, indeed in a trance.”

The driving factor behind being in a “trance state” (that is, transcending your standard conception of “the self”) is thought to be a universal property of the brain. Brainwave entrainment is the act of causing various body systems to synchronise by altering the frequency of brainwaves. “Entrainment” is a physics term, referring to the fact that two vibrating bodies will synchronise if exposed to one another for long enough – it’s what makes two people walk in step, it’s what makes an audience applaud in time and it’s what makes a couple fall asleep at the same moment.

It’s thought that this effect can also be achieved with an audio stimulus. In preparation for his performance at the Barbican, James Holden researched some of the science behind altered states and found correlations between playing music and different states of mind that, in his own words, blew his mind. The theory of sonic entrainment suggests that the brain will synchronize to an external rhythm – it means that two musicians playing music at the same time are actually synchronising brainwaves. Whilst the normal, alert brain’s frequencies are usually between 14 and 22Hz, they’re slightly slower whilst playing music – around 8-14Hz. Crucially, the brain is in a similar state whilst meditating, or, indeed in a trance. “When people are dancing, the same thing presumably happens,” Holden posits, although he stresses it’s very hard to test – muscle activity creates louder electrical signals than the brain, rendering an EEG scan impossible. “If true, that would elevate dancing music above standing-and-watching music. Obviously, I like that.”

If everybody in a room is focused on one audio source, then brainwaves are synchronising, putting everybody into a similar state of mind, creating a collective consciousness. Ensuring that everybody is (literally) on the same wavelength is important if the state is to be maintained. “We’re naturally sensitive to those around us,” says Holden, “In the same way that if someone near you isn’t into it, it can ruin the effect.” This might go some way to explaining the almost instinctive annoyance that comes with seeing people who are glued to their smartphones or bringing up Shazam at a gig – it’s not just distracting, it’s literally putting you into a more alert brain state.

It isn’t too hard to find websites that specialize in sounds with mind-altering effects, be it 731Hz pineal gland activation videos that access the “third eye” to mail-order CDs selling specially treated whale noises. One popular website that claims to sell “digital drugs” in the form of custom-designed mp3 files is i-Doser, which uses binaural beats (in which the brain “hears” a response to two different tones) and other entrainment techniques to allegedly replicate popular highs. It’s easy to be sceptical – i-Doser’s press pack emphasises barely dressed women above its own product – but the science behind it isn’t far off in theory. One article on Vice describes these as the real deal (“by the end of the session my entire body was numbed and tingling”), although this could easily have been a placebo effect.

Holden is quick to dismiss these sites. “Binaural beats are actually less effective than simple pulsing sounds or rhythms, and the effects they cause are just milder versions of what you’d get listening to rhythmic repetitive music. I presume a lot of the reported effects are down to suggestion.” Suggestion, placebo, and effects such as meta-hypnosis (if the individual is primed to be hynotised, they’re more likely to be) go some way to accounting for trance’s effectiveness. When dance tracks spell out the enchanting powers of music, telling us to get “lost in the groove”, this could just be autosuggestion at work.


Virtual Drug, Binaural Beat – ‘Desert Vision’

This isn’t to imply that the entire phenomenon is down to suggestion. Particular frequencies often recur in religious and ritual music – Indonesian gamelan music, for example, uses ultra high frequencies that are nearly impossible to record, and these are allegedly what create the trance phenomena. In Yoruba-derived drumming, it’s the tiny delays in timing that create miniature moments of tension and release in the deeper drum tones. Ultra low frequencies are attributed to having strong psychic effects, something that experimental art groups like Throbbing Gristle experimented with.

“Rituals that include music and trance are usually very highly structured and designed toward specific purposes, mostly communal healing…At the same time, the experience of dancing to repetitive music all night in a club has definitely put me into a trance and has made me feel connected to something deep.” – Gavin Russom

There are musicians carrying on this tradition today. Gavin Russom is one of them – his official biography describes this succinctly: “Through music, sculpture and drawing Russom explores the boundaries between the world that surrounds us and the worlds that lie within. In his work of the past two decades he has sought to hone his awareness of the ways in which sound, vision and space can transform consciousness and reveal the pliable, malleable nature of personal reality. Underlying this is a fascination with ritual and repetition, and with spiritual practices that combine them to achieve trance and other ecstatic states of mind.” Across albums like ‘Days Of Mars’ (with Delia Gonzalez) and ‘Black Meteoric Star’, he’s worked through these ideas using different musical forms. Alongside musician/filmmaker Viva Ruiz, Russom is a member of The Crystal Ark, a group who make intensely rhythmic dance tracks.

Russom is cautious about comparing religious and ritualistic ceremonies to things that happen in popular culture, or even his own work, even if they do share some scientific principles. “Rituals that include music and trance are usually very highly structured and designed toward specific purposes, mostly communal healing.” Gavin says. “At the same time, the experience of dancing to repetitive music all night in a club has definitely put me into a trance and has made me feel connected to something deep. Trance states achieved within specific spiritual traditions might have a greater degree of depth and consistency because of the focus of their techniques on a specific message and mythology, shared by all the participants, as well as strict rules of conduct. In a club things are looser, but that can also mean that the experience of getting caught up in the music and the spirit is less about outside programming and more about the needs and experience of the individuals present.”

“I do feel like the body wants to move, it wants to find a release, and has its own intelligence towards this.” – Viva Ruiz

Viva, the other half of The Crystal Ark, echoes this final point. “I think most people, even people who don’t identify with spiritual ideals, tend at some point to want to be in a surrendered state, ache to let go of something – ego, worries, practical and worldly day-to-day concerns. Music is a way people can get there, whether it’s in the design of it or not, and whether it’s in the intention of the dancer or not. I do feel like the body wants to move, it wants to find a release, and has its own intelligence towards this.”


James Holden at the Barbican, photographed by Mark Allan.

Back at the Consciousness lecture, James Holden is performing his music that will, hopefully, put the crowd into a trance. It starts with a single drone that gradually mutates, introducing live elements (saxophone, percussion) from his fellow musicians – who are presumably all operating on the same wavelength at this point – and slowly but surely engulfing the listener, despite its melodic simplicity. The visuals behind him (provided by one of us) generally mimic the music, changing constantly yet imperceptibly. It’s quite reminiscent of some of his past work, particularly tracks like Idiot, or new single Gone Feral, which seem to be persistently building up, moving not towards one peak but several peaks.

“Music has had thousands of years evolution towards this purpose, musicians spend a lifetime intuiting how to achieve these results.” – James Holden

It’s an excellent piece of music, but whether it fulfilled its task on the night is debatable. Firstly, for me, an anti-placebo effect came in, preventing me from being transported. Secondly, the environment didn’t seem right – the music was crisp but not encompassing, and we were seated in a lecture theatre, not dancing or watching a band from a crowd. But maybe it wasn’t meant to work in a true sense – maybe it was a demonstration of the collective consciousness, with the sold-out audience all held fully to attention during the performance, not checking their smartphones.

Besides, there isn’t really one golden recipe to achieving this state – tastes vary and people perceive things in different ways. “The event’s producer set up a meeting for me with Vincent Walsh, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL.” Holden says, “It was near the start of my research, and what I was basically asking him was: is there anything in the science that I can take to make more effective hypnotic music? His response nailed it: he told me to go with my instincts. Music has had thousands of years evolution towards this purpose, musicians spend a lifetime intuiting how to achieve these results.”

“And that’s the take-home fact,” Holden says, hitting the nail on the head: “Our subconscious intuition is the best bit of our brains. I couldn’t do the maths to tell you where a thrown ball would intersect my arm’s reach, but I could probably catch it.”


Artwork by Giulia Valenti.

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