Since it has existed, music has been used by humanity as a tool to enter altered states of awareness. Even the common example of a teenager hooking up to their iPod to relax and forget the fight they just had with their parents is a way of changing self perception, by shifting attention away from certain situations.
The central nervous system (CNS) has two different functions: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). They are not separate neural pathways, but two distinct, complementary functions.
The SNS is activated by adrenaline and is needed in extreme situations to ensure our survival. It helps us react faster when we need to fight or flee. When it is active our heartbeat and breathing accelerate, and our visual and auditory perceptions become sharper. Our muscles tighten.
The PNS is activated by noradrenaline and is needed to help us rest and recover. When it is active, all our muscles relax, and our breath becomes deeper and slower. Our heartbeat decelerates.
These systems work in the same way that a complementary pair of muscles work. Both have to play their role so that we can be balanced. But if we are stressed all day long - if our SNC is active for longer than it should be - this depletes our energy. We run out of adrenaline, and when we need it, it's not there.
As adrenaline and other substances related to the SNC accumulate in our muscles, we enter a state of perpetual stress. Our muscles are chronically contracted - and this takes a LOT of energy!
Naturally, the PNS should be primarily active during sleep. Our capacity to remain alert in our dreams depends largely on how deeply we can relax. But if our muscles are permanently stressed out, there is no way we can achieve profound relaxation, and there is no way for our dreaming attention to flourish.
Playing, singing, dancing, or simply listening to music is a very direct way to shift into the PNS. In this sense, it can be described as a direct pathway into the world of dreams and enhanced self perception - even during wakefulness.
It can be no coincidence that so many cultures have made music and sound the focal point of their search for the indescribable. For these traditions, sound is the border that divides the physical world and an underlying world of energy.
Traditions from the world over have used music, chants and dance as ways to glimpse other realities. From the Aboriginals of Australia, to the Shamans of the steppes of Russia; from the Sufis to the Hopis, we can find this search for the unknown through our intrinsic connection to sound. Although the musical styles, instruments and specific interpretations and cultural edifices around music and sound vary immensely, the basic truths remain constant.
Music has always been a basic part of human culture, a basic building block of society, and a channel to achieve a deeper connection to ourselves and the universe. Sadly, music in the western world, and everywhere else, through its influence, is becoming merely a commercial product, with no deeper significance, and its true power goes unperceived by more and more people every day.
Alexander Cortes is a composer and guitarist, with a keen interest in exploring all the facets of human consciousness. He is editor of Guitar Theory in Depth, a website that explores musical theory as it relates to the guitar, from a fresh perspective. He currently lives in Mexico, and can be contacted via his website.