Music and Hypnosis

What does “hypnosis” actually mean? From a professional point of view I would go along with the definition offered to us when we were in training. Hypnosis is a calm, receptive state of mind which is brought about by physical and mental relaxation. For clinical purposes sometimes it is easier and simpler to conceive of hypnosis as a specific state of mind into which a subject can allow him or herself to be lead.

But outside of the therapy room such a definition is far too limited. Therapists, theorists and psychologists may argue endlessly over the definition of hypnosis but the definitions they come up with, however loosely worded, are inevitably too limited. Brian Vandenberg tentatively defined hypnosis as a “communicative process” in which people will allow some other individual to exert a degree of influence upon their experience (Vandenberg 1998). Fine – but where does that leave self-hypnosis? Sarbin (1997) regarded hypnosis as a kind of “conversation” between the hypnotist and the subject. But that not only rules out self-hypnosis, it also seems to exclude the whole subjective experience of the hypnotic process.

My own view is that hypnosis is a state of consciousness which renders the subject far more susceptible to suggestion than is the case in a state of full “waking” alertness. What I am offering here is not a definition but a defining characteristic. In a therapeutic context I am happy to accept that hypnosis is a shift in the quality of consciousness brought about by relaxation. But outside the therapy room, in the big wide world, there are many states in which the subject is rendered highly susceptible to suggestion and therefore, at least in my opinion, should be classified as hypnosis or at least hypnoidal. Certain states of intoxication, certain states of heightened emotion, excitement or frenzy, states of ecstasy and, for want of a better term, “spiritual” awareness – all these render the subject almost infinitely more susceptible to suggestion than “normal” rational awareness. Yet studies of suggestibility invariably focus entirely upon the latter state. Isn’t that like looking through the wrong end of the telescope?

Lest this description be thought too vague, let me point out that not all shifts of consciousness away from the fully wakened state imply a condition of heightened suggestibility. Profound intoxication, states of near-unconsciousness or states in which the subject is no longer receptive to external stimulus obviously cannot be classed as hypnosis. Suggestibility surely implies a responsiveness to something external. But if we accept that hypnosis is essentially a state of heightened suggestibility then it is maybe not too difficult to accept also that music can induce hypnosis.

Music remains a mystery. That it is no longer widely regarded as such probably says more about the contemporary state of the art than anything else. There are many theories as to how and why music works and none of them are entirely satisfactory. But while we might not know how music works, there can be little doubt that it can exert the most profound influence upon our feelings, mood and even our perceptions.

We all know that music can change the way we feel. We know that music expresses emotions and can evoke those same emotions in us. A happy or a sad piece of music won’t necessarily make us feel happy or sad – we have some choice in the matter – but it can if we let it. For many people the expression of feeling is the main function of music. Emotion is not really my concern here however. But I would be very interested to learn whether and to what extent feelings and emotions affect our levels of suggestibility. No studies have been done, as far as I’m aware.

Music also works by association – which is why it is indispensable to advertisers. The tune of an advertising jingle immediately brings the product to mind – if the advertisers are doing their job properly. These sorts of association are incredibly powerful, and sometimes utterly infuriating. It annoys me that I can no longer hear Tschaikovsky’s Dance of the Reed Flutes from Nutcracker without hearing the voice of Frank Muir singing “Evwy one’s a Fwuit and Nut Case”. These sorts of association often have little to do with the music itself. A really happy piece may be associated with a very unhappy incident or period in your life and it may break your heart every time you hear it.

But music can, I think, sometimes act directly upon consciousness itself. Any feelings expressed or evoked or any association the music has accrued over time are secondary to the main function. I think that this is true of some of the earliest music which has come down to us – I think this is true of the organa of Léonin and Pérotin, of much of the polyphonic music of the Franco-Flemish school, of much of the organ music of Bach, the late quartets of Beethoven, certain types of jazz and popular music, and much else. It is also true of certain types of modern / contemporary “classical” music. One name in particular comes to mind.

I encountered the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen by accident. I was a child, lying in bed, listening to a cheap little transistor radio through an earpiece. When I found Radio 3 I thought the radio was playing up or malfunctioning. Then I realized that a malfunctioning transistor radio could never produce sounds which were this weird. I listened to the end. The piece was called Plus-Minus. I was utterly intrigued. Who on earth writes music like that and calls it Plus-Minus? A few years later I was in a record shop. This was in the days of the vinyl LP. Most towns had at least one record shop. Horsham had more than one. I came across a double album called Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Greatest Hits. That was my fate sealed. I remain an admirer to this day.

Stockhausen came to England in the early 1980s and gave a series of concerts at the Barbican in London. I went to a couple of them. One of them created an experience which I will never forget until my dying day and which I still do not understand.

There was just one piece in this concert, and no interval. The piece was Stimmung. (“Tuning” is the rather inadequate English translation). It is a work for 6 singers only – three male, three female. It is based on a simple chord of B flat and it involves various vocalizations to produce harmonics, spoken poems, “magic” names etc. It is quiet, peaceful and gentle.

As we sat in the auditorium, the six singes entered one by one and sat cross-legged around what looked like a low round table with a soft light in the middle. Six microphones were in place – amplification is necessary if the piece is to be heard at all. Stockhausen himself was in the audience, sat behind a panel of knobs, buttons and switches, controlling the sound. The house lights went down. The performance started.

Then, after what seemed like 5 or 10 minutes had elapsed, the house lights came back on and the performers stopped. I was alarmed. Something must have gone wrong. I knew Stockhausen’s own recording of this piece. The work lasts at least an hour and a quarter. What we had been listening to was obviously a different version of the work – but it was still the same piece. The singers got up, turned to the audience and bowed. The audience gradually started to clap. The applause gradually got warmer. This was clearly the end of the concert.

What had happened? Was this an abbreviated version? The performance has started at 7 o clock. I looked at my watch. It was nearly 8.30.

I hadn’t fallen asleep – or, at least, I was not aware of any interruption in consciousness. I wasn’t remotely tired. I had taken no alcohol at all. I didn’t (and don’t) do drugs. I couldn’t understand what had happened. But what happened next was equally weird.

It wasn’t a rush of euphoria. “Rush” is too forceful, too violent. It was as if euphoria started to radiate through me, starting somewhere in my chest and spreading right through my body and mind. I wasn’t disorientated at all. I felt as if I was walking on air but I knew I wasn’t. I was perfectly lucid and able to function. But everything I saw, heard, smelled or felt filled me with an intense delight which I have never experienced before or since. The sight of the evening sky, the sound of traffic, the colours of people’s clothes all filled me with joy. I couldn’t analyse it, I couldn’t figure out what was happening and I didn’t want to. The feeling stated to come and go as the night wore on. I had no alcohol at all that day – I think I had to work the next day. At bedtime the feeling was still coming and going. The next day – gone. And I’ve never found it again.

I still have no idea what happened. Did someone slip me a drug? No. Why would they do that anyway? I felt no feeling of chemical intoxication and no after affects of any kind. Or was it something to do with body chemistry? At that time I didn’t smoke and I drank very little. I was in my early ’20s. Maybe it was some kind of hormonal “rush” or “natural high”. But why then? Why did it happen at that particular concert? I certainly wasn’t expecting it. I had heard Stimmung many times before the concert and had never experienced anything like that. Was it some kind of spiritual epiphany or transcendental experience? Well – I don’t know, but I tend to be very sceptical of such “explanations”.

I suspect that the answer lies somewhere in the work itself. I have never seen a live performance of it since then but I’ve heard it many times since. The feeling never comes back – not even a vague hint. But maybe that’s because I’m looking for it, wanting it to happen, waiting for it to occur?

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