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Music and Trance in Siberian shamanism

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Image: "L faced shaman"

Creative Commons courtesy Airton kieling


Throughout nearly all cultures, times, and places, music has been an integral part of human life. Music has been used variously as a means of entertainment and art, as a focal point of sacred rituals, and as a means of non-verbal communication between cultures. The modern music industry has produced millions of albums in hundreds of different genres and styles of music. Due to the ubiquitous nature of music and the influence of the corporate recording industry, much popular music today is crass and unsubstantial: created, marketed, and sold to a mainstream audience. Yet in older, pre-industrialized cultures, music was more renowned for its sacred and supernatural power to captivate the audience and manifest emotion. Because of these qualities, music has often been used in conjunction with religious ceremonies across the world. In shamanic contexts, the ritual use of the shaman's drum and of vocal chanting is prevalent in many cultures. For the purposes of this article I will only be discussing music in Siberian shamanism, primarily among the Tungus, Tuvan, Yakut, and Altaian peoples of Russian Siberia and Central Asia, although the themes I discuss may also relate to shamanic practices in other cultures. While it is risky to try to define the general characteristics of music in shamanic ritual due to the inevitable variations in different cultures, it can be argued that two universal characteristics of this type of sacred folk music are that the music has some noticeable degree of spontaneity and improvisation, and the music has a performative, theatrical aspect which is central to the ritual. Music is important in Siberian shamanic ritual because music is beneficial for supporting dancing and performance, for helping the shaman to enter and maintain trance states, and for facilitating communication with the spirit world.

One of the most easily recognizable features of Siberian shamanic ritual as related to music is dancing. The term “dance” is loosely applied here, because the shamanic ritual consists of physical actions that resemble dancing, but in some ways are very different from what is commonly equated with the term “dancing”. The Siberian shaman's version of dancing consists not only of graceful sways, sweeps, jumps, hand gestures, and rhythmic bodily gyrations, but also other movements that are more distinctly a characteristic of shamanic dance than of contemporary dance: convulsive flailing, shouting and wild gesticulation, animalistic crouches and leaps, and full-body spasms that more closely resemble a seizure than a choreographed dance. Throughout the dance music is usually played by the shaman's helper or members of the audience, with the drum being the primary foundational instrument of rhythm and sound for the ritual.


It has been noted that there is a difficultly in trying to differentiate the dance from the whole ritual itself, and it could in fact be the case that many shamans do not differentiate their “dancing” from the substance of the ritual as a whole. In his book Shamanism in Siberia editor Vilmos Dioszegi describes the problems with trying to define shamanic dancing among the Yakut people, “It appears from most descriptions that the dances of the Yakut shamans were ecstatic in character. By dancing and chanting the shaman forcefully worked himself into a state of hysterical fits and fell into ecstasy. However, from the point of view of the professional choreographer, these dancers in literature are described very superficially. This may be explained by the fact that the shamanistic performances were of a syncretic character. The dance was organically blended with other exercises of the shaman, and was not clearly separated from the very act of shamanizing as a whole, and in this connection it was hardly suitable for independent notation. No scientific classification of the various kinds of shamanistic acts has so far been established. Therefore it is to be stated with regret that in the current programmes of studies in shamanism the attention of researchers has in general not been directed specifically to the necessity of working out the forms and methods of collecting and fixing the choreography of shamanist ceremonies” (Dioszegi 129). The spontaneous and seemingly random aspect of the shamanic dance which sometimes confounds anthropologists and choreographers is typical of the tendency in Siberian shamanism for improvisation in ritual ceremonies.


In addition to the strange spectacle presented by the shamanic dancer, there are also supernatural qualities present in the dance. Very often (but not always) these dances are associated with a state of spiritual ecstasy and trance in the shaman. There are accounts of shamans in the ecstatic state accomplishing supernatural physical feats that seem beyond their physical abilities. V.N. Basilov gives such an account of a Tuvan shaman from Southern Siberia in the book Shamanic Worlds:


“An interesting story is told by S.I. Vainshtein, who persuaded the Tuvinian shaman Shonchur to shamanize a little. The elderly shaman appeared very weak. A relative and his wife placed the heavy kaftan on him with difficulty. 'It seemed that the costume and drum were heavy for the old man, and I was forced to wonder whether Shonchur could move in this attire…. All of a sudden, the shaman… jumped up. Almost in a dance, he made several movements, greatly surprising me by their ease and freedom… Using the drum like a shield, he ran and hopped lightly around the yurt, chasing an evil spirit, but without opening his eyes; and strange as it may seem, without running into any of those attending…. The shaman made quick, adroit, and unexpectedly sharp movements. He leaped and finally caught his foe. A struggle ensued. The adversaries fell down and rolled along the floor of the yurt. The shaman pressed the drum tightly against the evil spirit.' But the ritual ended here. 'After several strides around the yurt, Shonchur in deep exhaustion sank heavily to the floor and opened his eyes only several minutes later—we again beheld an old, crooked, and very tired man.'” (Balzer 17). This theme of fighting with negative spirits as part of the shamanic dance is prevalent in Siberian shamanism. In this context, the healing dance symbolizes the struggle with the evil spirit that is hurting someone. The unseen spirit is subdued and defeated by the shaman partially through their use of the shaman's physical movement. There is also clearly a performative aspect in the dancing that carries some degree of histrionic theatricality. Such brazen and bizarre movements are entertaining (and probably frightening) to members of the shaman's audience, and therefore provide the sick person's family with a supernatural show that partially satisfies the “get what you pay for” necessity of shamanic ritual. When a shaman is leaping around like an animal, wearing a heavy elaborate costume and making strange noises, the audience can be assured that something is happening and that hopefully the ritual will be efficacious.

Another part of Siberian shamanic ritual that is identifiable with music are the shamanic chants. These chants, sometimes referred to as “folk poetry”, are oral or written texts that are often said to be transmitted to the shaman by the spirits that have chosen to form a supportive relationship with the shaman (commonly referred to as “helping spirits”). These songs relate to the shaman's various powers and duties, and most frequently describe the shaman in the context of the natural world that he or she is seeking to manipulate. Shamanic chants are often invocations of spirit helpers, animals, and nature deities, and help prepare a shaman to be fully in their power when a ritual takes place. These chants are not “texts” in the same way that contemporary religious writings are texts. They may have occasionally been written down, but for the most part they were oral texts that were not strictly adhered to during the ritual. Improvisation and nuance were typical when a Siberian shaman would deliver these chants in a ritual. “If we compare the portions of text distinctly audible in the tape recording with that dictated by a shamaness, discrepancies are always found. Even the very same text, taken down as dictated by a shamaness at different times, is not entirely identical: the order of certain phrases is changed, individual phrases and 'couplets' may be missing. But the ritual does not require a psalmody whose text is fixed once and for all. Infinite versions of the text are inevitable, since each particular séance had its own singularitites. But the basis of each text is uniform, dictated by the content of the ritual, and therefore stable” (Balzer 15).


One important aspect of the shamanic chants in some cultures is the connection with the helping spirits. Their idea is that when the shaman contacts the spirit world, the realm of the dead, they will give him a song to sing, which is something like a name that the shaman may use to call upon the helping spirits. There are also various types of accounts of the shamans being “possessed” by the spirits, or being a vessel through which the spirits and ancestors speak. This concept shares some similarities with contemporary practices among spirit mediums and channelers in China and Southeast Asia. Finnish ethnologist Kai Donner describes such a theory of the shaman's spirit songs when describing a ritual among the Selkup people of Western Siberia:


“Everyone seats himself on the floor of the hut, the shaman with his back towards the light or window, the onlookers in a circle around him. The sun sets and, for a moment, the flow of the sunset paints the sky gold. Outside the hut a good-sized fire burns in a birchbark tent next to which the drum is heated. The shaman smokes his pipe or yawns noisily. The drum echoes more and more intensely, and the shaman dresses quietly, complete silence prevailing. The drum is brought in and he grabs it, after which he dons his cap. He sits down on a deerskin, tilts his head in the direction of the drumstick and rod, covering his face with the hem of his suit. He yawns, sighs deeply and gradually begins to murmur something in a distant and strange voice. Soon he begins to hum a tune and beat the drum. He summons his gods (lozila) and when, the noise of the music steadily increasing, they finally arrive, he requests their help. Then they begin to speak, explaining to him what he desires to know. He sings what they say, or to be more precise they speak through him. The gods or spirits (lozila) speak, and the shaman repeats, singing and uttering their words. These are, in turn, repeated by the entire audience. People who have not been present since the beginning of the séance are not allowed to participate in the song, however. When the song is at its peak the noise from the drum is so deafening that the windows rattle. During the first half of the performance the spirits (lozila) usually announce in advance that which it is hoped will appear. Then the shaman seats himself, makes two rebuffing motions with his hand, and hisses a few times. The spirits are driven away and the shaman rests for a moment smoking his pipe. But he is not allowed to drink in order to cool himself off, nor to quench his thirst, which is certainly raging” (Dioszegi 91).


This passage illustrates the concept of the shaman acting as a vessel to speak the wisdom of the ancestor spirits for the people who are requesting help. These helping spirits are frequently the spirits of dead people who were biologically related to, or were a close friend of the shaman. It is useful to note how the spirit's voice is presented by the shaman in the form of songs that he sings to the audience of the ritual, and again the drum is utilized in order to help facilitate the connection between the shaman's music and communication with the spirit world. The conjunction of shamanism and ascetic practices are also described in that passage—the fact that the shaman is not allowed to drink water during the entire ceremony. Music, when played over the course of several hours in a repetitive and consistent way, can also be thought of a sort of ascetic practice; at the end of a ceremony the shaman is often exhausted not only by dancing, and the engagement with spirits, but also by the act of playing and listening to the music.


In many cases these shamanic chants describe the relationship between the shaman's power and nature, that the shaman's power comes from an attunement to the natural world. The content of these songs often involves giving praise to the natural world, and imploring the deities of various elemental forces to aid in the shaman's power to complete their task. Here is an example of a Tuvan shamaness' algysh chant relating her shamanic power to the power of the natural elements.


“Algysh of Shamaness Kyrgys Kurgak Asking for Happiness

Even from the loud noise of my drum
The Skies will thunder, will shake.
Jumping when I shamanize,
I am like a strong windy storm in a rage.

I can even subdue the Sky
I am a very strong shaman
You are Mistress of the Universe
The Mistress of the Universe is telling me.

Upon unruly people
I can bring down lightning

Upon greedy persons, liers [sic], scoundrels
I can swell up their stomachs.

Even forest taiga places
I am a shaman who knows.
Even the beginnings of rivers, waters
I can shamanize, I can make rituals.

Getting my power from the original source,
For living freely in peace
I was destined to be born in a light land,
I was born in a light land.

When I shamanize wearing my clothes —
They enjoy watching me, being endeared to me.
Where is the one who is stronger than I?
After looking at me, they start to pray” (Kenin-Lopsan 11).

These chants can also have a performative aspect, meaning that the recitation of the chant itself is like a spoken spell that is being cast by the shaman, a verbal statement delivered with the intention to achieve a certain task. An example of this type of shaman's song is the Tuvan rite of sanctifying special trees.


“Since ancient times, Tuvans have been sanctifying shaman trees. Most often the shaman pine tree was sanctified. Tuvan people have passed on an algysh about the shaman tree:

Shaman tree

you are the most wonderful tree on the earth;

Shaman tree,

they say you are the most beautiful tree in the world;

Shaman tree,

they say you are the goodness of an animal;

Shaman tree,

you embody all the spirits;

Shaman tree,

they say all the people's lives are tied together in you;

Shaman tree,

they say you preserve among your beautiful branches people's fortunes;

Shaman tree!

They say you give your healthfulness to the animals;

Shaman tree!

They say you give children a happy life;

Shaman tree,

sacred tree.


It is one of the ancient customs of Tuvan people that only a strong shaman can sanctify a shaman tree,
as they say. SShS” (Kenin-Lopsan 29).


This is a good example of the performative aspect of music in shamanic ritual because the song itself, when chanted in this context, is the power of the ritual. The Tuvan ritual of sanctifying a shaman tree would not be performed without the use of a song such as this one. From these and other examples we can have an idea of how the shaman's algysh song is vital to the ritual as a means of verbal magic, and of communication with living and dead spirits.

Now it is appropriate to discuss one of the most fascinating and least understood aspects of shamanism: trance. A trance state is an altered state of consciousness, a liminal mental state that seems to exist between the thresholds of waking consciousness and dreaming consciousness. These trance states are a central aspect of almost all shamanic practice. This is the modality of consciousness in which the shaman is able to communicate with the spirit world, to travel out of the body into realms such as the lower world and the upper world, and to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks like divination, prophesying the future, and miraculous healing. The depth of these trances ranges from light, shallow trance where the shaman is still able to interact and communicate with the exterior world, to deeper, cataleptic trances that resemble comatose states. Some authors have used the terms “trance” and “ecstasy” interchangeably, but this is misleading because not all forms of trance involve ecstatic experience. However, while this may not be true in all cases, the shamanic trance is in fact frequently associated with an ecstatic state. In most shamanic contexts, the ability to enter and maintain trance states is a crucial requisite in order to be a shaman.

Although there are numerous methods, one of the easiest and most effective means for inducing trance is with music. Certain drum patterns, for example the “binaural beat”, have been shown to help induce a trance-like, hypnotic state. It has been shown that certain rhythmic patterns and hertz frequencies, when heard by a subject can activate corresponding delta, theta, alpha or beta range brainwave patterns in that person. Studies have shown that even infants who cannot yet speak are affected by music in ways that alter their consciousness, making them happy or sad or entranced (Pilch). For example, a frequency range of 4-7 hertz will induce theta brain wave function, the type of brain wave patterns that are present in the brain during dreaming and deep meditation. Studies conducted by Dr. Melinda Maxfield and others have shown that shamanic drumming, at a rate of about 4.5 beats per second for a period of at least 15 minutes, will induce theta brain wave patterns in subjects exposed to the drumming (Maxfield). Theta brain wave patterns are associated with learning and memory, creativity, and intuitive perception. According to Dr. Jeffrey D. Thompson and the Center for Neuroacoustic Research, “Theta brain states are associated with out of body or astral forms of meditation. In these states, one usually experiences seeing the guru, experiencing places of beauty or peace, and sometimes receiving great spiritual insights with associated visions and sounds. These Theta states are also associated with the classic Shamanic 'journeying' experiences” (Thompson). It is conceivable that shamans understood this phenomenon of the relationship between rhythmic patterns and inducing states of consciousness (although obviously not in modern scientific terms) and intentionally used specific rhythmic patterns to alter brain wave patterns and enter into altered states of consciousness such as trance. If this is indeed the case, it would help to explain the nearly universal presence of drumming in shamanic ritual contexts. Many of the stories of shamanic rituals involving drumming describe the shaman as yawning or being sleepy at the beginning of the ceremony, in the initial stages of trance, and at the end of the ceremony as they leave the trance (Balzer 15, Dioszegi 91). These descriptions in shamanic research are consistent with scientific descriptions of someone having Theta brain wave activity while awake.

All of these factors contribute to the role of music in the ritual of Siberian shamans. The shaman's costume is evidence of the importance of their music, as their elaborate garb will often feature bells and tinkling trinkets that make noise when the shaman jumps or dances. The shaman's drum is a central part of Siberan shamanism. The importance of the drum to the shaman is shown by the fact that the drums are marked with the effigies of the spirit and animal helpers of the shaman, and are consecrated as sacred and magical objects (Balzer 105). The ecstatic potential of music, for both the musician and the audience, is an integral part of many healing ceremonies. Another aspect of the importance of music is that in the pre-modern periods when shamanism was widely practiced there were relatively few entertainments available to the common people, and music is an effective way to draw people in and involve the audience in the participation of the performance. Probably most importantly, music was and is utilized by Siberian shamans because of its unique vibratory power, it's ability to alter human consciousness, and because of the rhythmical quality of music which is useful for grounding other aspects of the ritual such as dancing and chanting.


Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam, ed. Shamanic Worlds: Rituals and Lore of Siberia and Central Asia Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.

Kenin-Lopsan, Mongush B. Shamanic Songs and Myths of Tuva
Budapest, Hungary. Akademiai Nyomda, 1997.

Dioszegi, Vilmos and Hoppal, Mihaly, ed. Shamanism in Siberia
Budapest, Hungary. Akademiai Kiado, 1996.

Maxfield, Melinda. “Effects of Rhythmic Drumming on EEG and Subjective Experience.”

Thompson, Jeffrey D. “Epsilon, Gamma, HyperGamma, Lambda Brainwave Activity and Ecstatic States of Consciousness”

Pilch, J.J. “Music and Trance.” Music Therapy Today (online) Vol. V, Issue 2, available at

Kalweit, Holger. Dreamtime & Inner Space
Boston, Massachusetts. Shambhala, 1984.

Rouget, Gilbert. Music and trance: a theory of the relations between music and possession
University of Chicago Press, IL. 1985
LC # ML3920 .R813 1985

Hoppal, Mihali. “Music in Shamanic Healing.”

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