Category Archives: Living Music

Zen Mountain

A mountain of music theory

There is a never-ending discussion about whether music theory might interfere with the natural art of making music. It tends to go like this:
The Guitar Grimoire's overtly evil-looking cover.
This circle summoned more demons than all the sigils of Hell.

Self-taught-guitarist: I have played the blues for decades. I don’t need to understand theory; don’t need to learn to read music. I’m afraid theory would get in the way of my art and make me sound too mechanical.

Academic guitar instructor: No, no, no. You must learn to read music. Only when you can turn black dots on a page into beautiful classical music will you be a truly complete musician.

Jazz guitarist: Theory is the groundwork for everything, but once you’re in the moment, you forget all that s***. You internalise the theory, but when the band is playing, you follow and sometimes you lead.

Metal guitarist: WTF are you talking about? Our amps go to 11!

(full disclosure, I know a lot of metal guitarists who joke about this, but are theory masters!)

Technical prog-rock guitarist: I am a music engineer who happens to like to play loud and fast. Could read music if I sat down with an acoustic for a few hours, but I prefer graph paper and drafting tools to chart out the sections and keep track of all the key changes and odd/compound metre changes.

One circle of 5ths to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

There are a lot of different kinds of guitarists, and I’ve been most of them having played metal, 60’s & 70’s rock, blues, bluegrass, punk, country finger-style blues, 80’s virtuoso rock, prog rock, folk, jazz, and classical. Every musician inevitably fights the very natural tendency to push back against a difficulty. In nature, the path of least resistance is law. Rivers, electricity, air pressure all take the path of least resistance. Whether you realise it or not, you are part of that great natural world, and you have those same tendencies. There is a time, however, when the path of least resistance is the path to mediocrity. To say something like, “Music theory gets in the way of my playing; makes me sound too technical,” may have some truth, but it also rings of taking the easy way. It’s up to each musician to decide when the easy road is the best way to let the music flow and when the more difficult road will open it up to unexpected magnificence. 

Even when I played delta blues, knowing some theory opened up the language to a level of proficiency I couldn’t have achieved from just playing by ear, unless delta blues was all I ever did. That’s the key – if you are a one-genre musician, then you immerse yourself in that. If you’re immersed in the delta blues, then knowing the difference between a German augmented 6th chord and a French or Italian augmented 6th probably have little/no value. Full kudos to the old blues masters who maybe couldn’t tell a minor 7th from a 6add9 and yet paved a road I couldn’t imagine walking. Chances are, though, if the question has come up, you aren’t that one-trick pony. Distinctions in style are purely in the mind, and are mostly the result of era and geography or origin. Where does blues stop and bluegrass begin? Is the demarkation between classical, flamenco, and jazz a solid wall, a fine line, or a blur? We have these genres to help us know when to stop for the moment; like the boundaries between football pitches where two sets of teams play each other, but in different leagues. Someone had to say, “you play there while we play over here, and we are going to pretend the other does not exist for a while.” Just like a dozen teams playing on the same field at the same time, the full breadth and depth of music, attempted all at once would drive anyone mad.

I think we can all agree on this circle of fifths
I think we can all agree on this circle of fifths

Maybe you don’t need to know how to pick apart a sonata form movement, but knowing your relative minors, intervals, how to transpose on the fly, which chords fit naturally into a key signature, which chords might be borrowed from other keys, and how to improvise blues from 4 sharps to 2 flats is essential if you want to be the kind of musician that can drop into a jam when your moment comes.

When you first hear a song, and it’s magical. You don’t quite know what’s going on but you want to. Then you learn the song by listening to a recording, maybe slowing it down or reading the sheet music; you learn the chords and overall structure, the intervals between certain parts of the melody, the shapes and patterns of the song. It becomes a mountain of abstract theory — but here’s the thing: while you’re immersed in the guts of the song, you are just doing Music. This idea that music theory is some great mountain disappears because you’re ON the mountain. Then after practising for a long time, the theory ceases to matter. Muscle memory builds, you change little bits – sometimes intentionally sometimes not – you add expression; the song breathes and comes to life. The theoretical aspects provided a scaffold you used to build the song in your mind, but once it was there, the scaffold falls away. You’ve completed both the approach and the descent, you look back knowing the mountain is there, but at the moment of summit the elation of the last chord ringing in the air makes one forget the arduous climb… until it’s time to come back down and you are left with a desire to find the next mountain.

First there is theory. Then there is no theory. Then there is.

Why don’t people sing in Church? (And how to fix it!)

On every side, Music in this culture is reduced to a consumer product. It takes coaching to get people to sing together, we can’t just get on stage and play music anymore expecting people to sing along. It’s unthinkable to me, but singing is no longer an automatic reaction to hearing other people sing.

6 Things that might make this better:
1. Good musicians and singers who can perform without seeming too full of themselves. If you have pro musicians, encourage them to joyfully perform alongside amateur musicians. If they can’t do that, they aren’t good worship musicians.

2. Teach, right in the middle of worship – don’t presume that people even know how to sing together. Do some call-and-response to break the ice. I did this with a bunch of stuffy old Masons last night, and it worked like a charm.

3. Foster an atmosphere of acceptance of all skill levels, and do whatever you can to minimise Congregational performance anxiety. Singing in your seat is still singing in front of people. Talk about how beautiful the sound of an old warbling woman’s voice is to the ear of God, and stop trying to make everything so friggin perfect.

4. Try to see to it that the music style is agreeable to most people in the congregation. It may be worship, but it’s still performance, and good performers must know their audience. Sure, a mature Christian can worship with any music style, but we don’t really reach maturity until about age 280. (i.e. nobody is ever so mature that they don’t occasionally get turned of by a song they don’t like).

5. Encourage participation in more than just music. Telling people, “You get to be a part of service ‘here’, but not ‘here’, ” is emotionally confusing. Meet-and-greet is important, be inviting of prayer requests and praises. Get the people out of the pew and up in front.

6. Stop pretending children don’t exist and get the kids involved. Let them jump dance and sing, and others might see how much fun worship should be and follow the wise example of the children.

Don’t forget to breathe!

Breathing is important.
There are a few approaches to breathing with non-breath instruments such as guitar. The primary two that I use are: 1- Faux Circular breathing which involves a conscious slow in-out breathing synchronised by phrase, and 2- Breathing like a singer and write breath marks in the score, even singing parts of the score and marking where natural breaths happen.

I was taught to write vocal breath marks on the score and sing the phrases. Sometimes a faux circular breathing works better – I use that technique in Asturias. I even found that giving a little focus over to intentional breathing fixed some memory problems by: 1 – obviously delivering more oxygen to the brain, and 2- resulting in a more fluid focus which enables the mnemonic benefits of lateral thinking.

I call this: “The Mnemonics of Pneumonics!”

Build a musical foundation for your community

It seems that Western society as a whole is going through a period of devaluation of everything that does not feed directly into the economic machine. It’s happening in many areas. For example, I’m a member of a Masonic Lodge in Indianapolis as well as the Scottish Rite. My lodge is meant to be an example of Masonic restoration and progressive values. However, aside from a single hymn that is sung for one particular ritual, there is no music in this lodge. The dearth of music in blue-lodge Masonry is apparently common. Where one Masonic temples were filled with the sounds of instruments and singing, now music is a side bar or special event. I’ve heard from a friend in Scotland that his lodge does sing a processional. There is music in the Scottish Rite, but it is in decline. I joined the chorus because I asked around some of the head 33rd-degree officers for information about the music programme, and they didn’t even know who the chorus director was!
I use this example for perspective: music is not perceived to be as vital to community life as it once was. If a community were to re-discover the social value of every day music — not factory music as is heard on the radio, but community-made music — we may see a resurgence in education as well as core humanitarian values. What might be the modern version of going down the pub for a sing, to hear a local musician, to relish the sounds WITH music makers and sing along. Is it too late to change people’s understanding away from consuming art to being art — away from being spoon-fed a pre-fab industry to digging into the feast with their own knife and fork and being part of it, no-matter how amateurish they are?
A small town might actually be a good place to start. Win the backing of a mayor or town council and start some community activities in which amateur music making is heralded as a thing that helps build a healthy neighbourhood. A stronger music community will create more opportunities to teach and perform for all.
What are your thoughts on strategies for building a stronger amateur music community?


On connecting with fans, I’ve noticed, through my own mistakes, that the Twitter/Facebook effect can work against an artist. Here’s what I mean by that:
My favourite local band posts an event/show on their page, maybe I even get an invitation. I’m not sure if I’m available, so I click ‘Maybe’… THE END.

Why? Because it wasn’t a real interaction, it was entertainment. That’s what the TwitBooks do – turn your friends into your personal entertainers. In a typical real-space ad campaign, you hope for a 15:1 or maybe 10:1 turnover ratio of impressions-turned-customers. On Facebook/Twitter, I think it’s closer to 50:1.

I’ve tried the route of just using digital promotion for my albums & shows. It’s really tempting, easy, oh sooo cheap. But why won’t people buy my recordings and come to shows? I’ve got tonnes of FB likes & “impressions”, Twitter favs, re-shares, and 100 people clicked the ‘Join’ button on the FB event… what happened? Why won’t virtual people cross-over into the real world?


I’m Kevin Flynn trying to get virtual people from Tron CIty to a real show in meat-space.

“The Grateful Dead toured constantly throughout their career, playing more than 2,300 concerts. They promoted a sense of community among their fans, who became known as Deadheads, many of whom followed their tours for months or years on end. In their early career, the band also dedicated their time and talents to their community, the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, making available free food, lodging, music and health care to all comers; they were the “first among equals in giving unselfishly of themselves to hippie culture, performing ‘more free concerts than any band in the history of music’.”

(from Wikipedia;

What the artist formerly AND currently known as Samuel J Lawson needs is more Grateful Dead real-world social marketing and community building strategies. This is where my local groups to which I belong, the Indianapolis Society of the Classical Guitar, Scottish Society of Indianapolis, the Indiana Freemasons, and my local churches beat Facebook and Twitter with real-world interaction. Spotify and iTunes do not do that. I don’t think that one can use a virtual tool to make a real community like the Dead did, though the new tools can’t be ignored either. I’m hopeful for CDBaby and Amazon’s CreateSpace. They have something that iTunes and Spotify don’t have: conversion to a physical product… and not only that, but the highest per-album compensation for sales in the current industry.

I wonder if every successful career that isn’t churned out of the Sony/BMG/TW/Disney music mill depends more on finding one’s particular version of Haight-Ashbury than maintaining Twitter, Facebook, and iTunes.

Mind Like Water

“In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact. 

The power in a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle; it comes from a focused “pop” at the end of the whip. It’s why petite people can learn to break boards and bricks with their hands: it doesn’t take calluses or brute strength, just the ability to generate a focused thrust with speed. But a tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind and being flexible are key.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a “mind like water.”

-David Allen, “Getting Things Done”

Whatever your discipline, whether music, martial arts, or maths, if you can reduce it – in practice – to applying the Mind Like Water principle, you have achieved part of what Zen masters talk about when they say “From one thing, know ten thousand things.”

“The Natural Classical Guitar” by Lee F. Ryan is an important piece of my music pedagogy library, as well as “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner, and “Zen Guitar” by Philip Toshio Sudo. None of these books are Method books, but what they teach is to put exactly the right effort at the right place for the the desired outcome. It’s within this context that I also sometimes reference Aikido in lessons, because it’s primarily focussed on the management of physical and mental, even spiritual energies. In music, too much force results in a poorly executed note, too much tension results in plodding, uneven rhythm, too much energy results in playing too fast and making sloppy mistakes, too much focus on one section of music can cause one to forget about other parts.

It is the principle of least effort.

One exercise that I use to teach this is to instruct a student to play a scale on the guitar. It can be any scale, C major, E minor pentatonic, or just a chromatic scale. Here’s the important part – I tell them to *Intentionally* Buzz every note, i.e. to press the string to the fret with just barely enough pressure to sound the note, but not enough pressure to sound it clearly. The result is a slight ‘buzz’ or fuzziness to the sound. Every student I’ve ever taught has trouble with this at first – they want to squeeze the guitar neck. But by learning to Buzz the notes, they learn to play with the least possible effort. After successfully buzzing each note in a scale, I then tell the student to play it again and add 1 oz of extra pressure to pinch the string to the fret. The result is a beautiful, clean tone, and usually much smoother playing of the scale because they don’t have to release all that excess tension when moving to the next note.This is the same principle as the Kung Fu master who hits with the exact force necessary, never wasting energy on excess force, or the mathematician who learns to balance focus on formulae with taking mental breaks to allow the mind a moment’s recess from contemplation.

Time Displacement

After performing 16th-17th-century lute music at Renaissance faires the last two weekends, I’m experiencing a curious sort of disorientation.
Aside from the pure enjoyment of making beautiful music, the next thing I love most about playing my lute, a replica of one made in 1540 Bologna, is the feeling of being transported in time, or possibly the break-down of the illusion of separation from that time period.
“The lowest trees have tops,
The ant her gall, The fly her spleen,
The little spark, his heat,
And slender hairs have shadows though but small,
And bees have stings, although they be not great,
Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs,
And love is love in beggars and in kings.”
     -John Dowland, “The lowest trees have tops”
This text is the first verse (or strophe) from a lute song of John Dowland written around 1600. It is notable to me that it puts kings and beggars on the level. The lowest things are worthy of respect and recognition. 400 years later we are still arguing about what benefits the poor should be given on the dole.
The second strophe shifts the subject only slightly:
“Where waters smoothest run, deep are the fords,
The dial stirs yet none perceives it move,
The firmest faith is in the fewest words,
The turtles cannot sing and yet they love,
True hearts have eyes and ears, no tongues to speak,
They hear and see and sigh and then they break.”
Here the message has to do with the value of things, and how that value whether it be depth, complexity, strength, compassion may be hidden beneath a simple façade.
Although I perform as often as I can, I live within an economic system that dictates I have a day job unless I should happen to achieve a greater regional recognition in my artistic vocation. My daily work is as far from the year 1540 as can be – I write computer software. Today, however, I’m experiencing some difficulty stuffing my consciousness into the tiny box required to do modern thinking.
When I play any music, I allow the world to slip away and I exist for a time within the structure created by the interweaving melodies and harmonies. Time no longer passes in seconds, but in quavers. I exist in the imaginal world of music and spirit wherein the real mixes with the surreal and natural with supernatural. It doesn’t matter a dicky bird whether it’s really another world between which there be some kind of thinning border, or if it’s purely imagination – there is no difference in that space between notes. And so, when I play this Dowland lute song, I see an agitated king who is uncomfortable being compared to a homeless person, and I see a beggar-man puffing up his chest secure in his own dignity. I see the complex gears of a clock though the “stirring” of the dial is imperceptible (a great allegory for my day job), trees and even flies and turtles are personified and equally valued. Having returned to work after a weekend of playing beautiful music, I’m again a pawn in a class game between executives who make decisions and professionals who do specific job functions. Outside the office, we may be equals in nature, but in this society in which I have to keep this job for the sake of my families prosperity I need the reminder from this 400-year-old lute song that my social station does not dictate the worth of my character.
It is so obvious to me that the text of this song is as timelessly applicable as any. Maybe that’s why I feel so out of place today sitting at my computer and (ostensibly) writing computer software.

On aesthetic experience in worship

There are pros and cons to involving arts in the worship experience. My uncle once told me that he thought people tend to confuse an aesthetic experience with a religious or spiritual one. I think, however, that it’s inaccurate to think of them in such a compartmentalised way. I think this compartmentalisation is responsible for the imbalance people may feel when one thing is given too much precedence in a worship service. One doesn’t want any particular part of a gathering to take excessive importance and over-shadow the reason for getting together. Our ancestors quarrelled over whether to have pipe-organs and pianos, and now drums and guitars for fear people would worship the music, yet they often ended up following fallible men who used other self-aggrandising means into folly anyway. Music wasn’t the problem, rather it was putting all of the worship experience into one action or one person. This is likely where the popular practice of tearing down musicians originates: we perceive one person receiving more recognition than we like, and so we denigrate their offering by accusing them of ‘Performing’ with a capital ‘P’ instead of worshipping. I’ve been on both sides of this. My musician pride brought me to call out others on their self-aggrandizement because I would rather have been the one doing the performing. The sin was mine in that case, and it took me being the accused to realise that performing is performing whether it is in church, in the practice room, or on a public stage. Worship may be many things, but performing can always worship. It’s the responsibility of those involved in making it or receiving it to make it so. You can’t rely on a guitarist to “Enter the gates.” You have to open them, yourself.

Ultimately, I go to kirk  to be ministered to by the Holy Spirit. This takes the form of lots of things: Listening to a message, reading/studying scripture, experiencing worshipful music through singing or listening or playing, hearing stories and testimony, solitary and communal prayer and meditation, and simply being with other people who are seeking God. For myself, the musical experience is one which God makes use of to soften my heart and break down the imaginary barriers I have placed around myself. I think one utility of music is to mark off a time and place, establishing a sacred space in which people lower their guard a little. It’s like the “thin places” experience people report from visiting sacred sites like Jerusalem, Iona, or any other place thought of as an area in which the veil between the words seems somehow thinner. It may simply be a state of mind in which a person is more focussed on the eternal. Regardless of what it is, it is something that I think Christians try to create through song, prayer, meditation. Sometimes it’s called “entering the gates”. We need something that says, This time and this place is a space where we are reminded that God is immanent – not because He won’t be here if we don’t do it, but because we might miss out on an opportunity to experience Him if our attention and our intentions are unfocussed. Music, more than anything helps me (admittedly a musician) to accomplish an arrival at that state-of-mind-and-spirit wherein I’m more conscious of my spiritual senses and the gentle whisper and nudging of God (1 Kings 19:11-13 — One place wherein I find God is the whispered, dying vibrations of the last note or chord of a piece of music. That, to me, is a sacred place that is no-place and a time that is no-time in which I’m most aware of the closeness of the Teller of My Story.

Music arcana

I recently received some great questions regarding magic and mysticism in music. It sparked such thought that I had to write this rather long article.

Questions from the original poster:

1. what is the purpose of scales? I know based on almost a days worth of research that each scale can be used in certain incantations or just painfully evoke certain emotions, or in evocation magic summon spirits.

2.when you say certain tones bring about an ethereal feel to them could the devils tritone or diabolus in musica be explained in that sense?

3.what makes scales and chords in music magic evoke spirits and emotions? though I didn’t understand what he means exactly, mind you my friend is NOT musically inclined, I played a pagan friend of mine a very nice happy sounding Major chord progression and was told “do you know how much white magic your pushing with that?” So then I played him something a bit faster at 180 beats per minute playing riffs I created in Locrian with the distortion on and was asked to politely stop because it brought about “angry lonesome feelings” what gives one the ability to discern between white, grey and black magic within music? and even when you can discern how can you create while knowing exactly what type of emotion and spirits you’re evoking?

Excellent questions! Music is the most subjective and most abstract of the arts. The subject is so mysterious – even people who don’t believe in anything may speak reverently about music as one would a god.

SCALES – have several uses. Speaking purely musically, scales establish a tonal centre, give a performer a framework for composing (either on paper or in live improvisation), can be used as a tool for the personal practise of discipline, and if you don’t practise your scales, your teacher will thrash you.

Scales do not have to be playing linearly. A scale can be a launchpad into a state of free-flowing improvisation, and through focusing your intentions can be a link to the creative forces of the universe. You play, you create, you experience joy. Dedicate that experience to the object of your worship, and invite your deity to participate, maybe by carrying out the rites one would normally do without music, but as a kind of prelude. Then work through the music to create a cathedral of sound in which you and those around you might experience communion with your beloved Gods, Spirits, Ancestors, and other kindred.

Practically speaking, pairing a scale with an incantation would be a great idea, but not *as* a scale. The scale is the source of tones and a tonal centre. Rather than signing a scale, invent a melody using the scale. I think it would be really interesting to try this. If anyone

In the time of J.S. Bach, it was thought that beautiful music should be evocative of a general ‘Affect’. The listener is said to be ‘affected’ by the music when one feels generally positive, negative, remorseful, curious, mysterious, frightened, indignant, amorous, nostalgic, etc… During the era we term ‘Classical’ and especially the later ‘Romantic’ musicians sought to get more specific with emotions, and the tone-poem became very popular a-la Felix Mendelssohn.

In general, these composers who sought to evoke emotion, or even specific ideas through music were experimenting with ancient Greek methodologies that had been brought to light after the Renaissance with the rise in availability of re-prints of some very old manuscripts. The medieval-early-renaissance church modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and the transposed modes Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, and Hypomixolydian) were thought to convey specific emotions or ‘humors’ – not to be confused with joviality. The names of these modes are based upon the more ancient classical modes, the specifics of which sadly are lost to us, but a few examples have survived. What they termed ‘phrygian’ was thought to be aggressive, even war-like. That one seems to align with what we call ‘phrygian’ – but of course it’s all very subjective.
You may find this interesting: you say certain tones bring about an ethereal feel to them could the devils tritone or diabolus in musica be explained in that sense?

If two planets were to come in close proximity, there are two likely possibilities: 1- they obliterate each other, the resulting mass coalesces and becomes something new like a planet or asteroid belt, or 2- some equilibrium is arrived at and the end up orbiting each other like binary stars. What they don’t do is stay at the same distance. That’s the tritone – it is a device that can either be used to create a sort of new harmony of its own, or it creates tension that is released when the interval is resolved to a perfect 5th, 3rd, or somewhere else entirely. Tritone is an example of the ultimate imperfect harmony in that is is just a half-step under what had been called the most perfect harmonic device for over 1,000 years, i.e. the perfect 5th. If there is magic in music, it is in the fact that it obeys the same laws as the physical cosmos, but in this strange realm that seems so transcendent. A rogue planet without a star about which to orbit is likely a very inert world, but a planet that is part of a system of planetary bodies orbiting one or more stars is a dance, and may support some form of life if the right conditions are met. A single tone can be beautiful, but left alone it is inert. Tones that interact with each other, creating and releasing tension, rising, falling, sustaining, hopping about – there is life there. A traditional sonata movement, for example, is the journey of two melodies, a kind of love story without words. I think they may live in a way far different than our biological definition of life.

“what makes scales and chords in music magic evoke spirits and emotions?”

all physical objects and locations have resonant frequencies. It stands to reason that people do as well, and if people are spiritual beings, then non-human spiritual beings may also experience a kind of sympathetic harmonic resonance. Metal makes some people feel alive; has healing effects, while to others it may cause physical illness. I think its best not to over-complicate this: Music that resonates to your soul is likely also to resonate with a deity that calls to your soul. If you are attempting communication or evocation of a spirit that is unfamiliar to you, use your innate ability to empathise with that being. If a phrygian-mode melody sounds war-like to yourself, it might be a good choice if you are trying to call upon Mars for strength in a conflict. Ritual, generally speaking is for the ritualist, not the Gods per se. All ritual puts yourself into a state in which you relegate your physical body so that your spiritual senses can rise out of the depths of your person. In other words, if a certain type of melody, chord grouping, rhythm, etc… makes you feel in sync with your goal, then it is as much as you can do because we can’t really know how these beings percieve music. For all we know, a melody is as solid as a stone wall or fluid (and dangerous) as water in other realms.

“… what gives one the ability to discern between white, gray and black magic within music? “

The psychological and emotional reactions of yourself and your listeners is the biggest clue. You have a very musically/spiritually sensitive friend, this person could be an invaluable help to your development and a music magic worker. Discernment is something that increases with use, I think. Hang around your friend as you did, and then try the same things apart and see if you can develop this sense. Music, to certain extents, operates along the same laws by which the rest of the universe is ordered. The great sacred paradox of the universe is that nearly everything that seems wrong or out-of-place has some place where it is proper. Two planets passing too close together cause tension and destruction, but in their proper orbits they create harmony. The music that you played for your friend that created ‘angry lonesome feelings’ might be welcome to another person in another ‘sphere’ of being. Blues music sounds depressing to some people, but to myself, when I went through a serious depression, the blues helped me to own my depression. Through the music, I claimed it as my own and therefore possessed power over the negative emotions, using them as a creative force. A few months of shouting the blues total strangers in a bar, and I was myself again, off anti-depressants now for over a decade.

To sum up – music is a medium that takes everything inside you and creates worlds out of it, sometimes gateways to other worlds, sometimes thins the veil between worlds. It can be very powerful, and it is the responsibility of the magus of music magic to learn what music fits in any given environment. Music that is uplifting and empowering in one situation could seem aggressive and destructive in others. “Black magic” in music is anything that is intended to manipulate the feelings of others, just as Black Magic in other realms also comes from a manipulative or destructive intent. That’s not to say that a love song meant to inspire amorous feelings is black magic – I wouldn’t say that!

Modes, minor chords, major chords, diminished, and augmented — can’t be said to be White or Black. Music is so colourful that it seems incredible to refer to anything in black and white. Any major or augments chord can be made to sound grave, any minor or diminished chord can be made to seem uplifting, positive, powerful.

“…and even when you can discern how can you create while knowing exactly what type of emotion and spirits you’re evoking?”

When I play my best, I am existing in the music. Music exists in the dimension of time, but we think of it (at least I do) statically, like a painting. Even master classical musicians, whose careers depend upon their ability to play the same notes in the same durations and dynamics flawlessly every time, to a one will still say the music is different every time they play it. It is because a huge part of any successful performance is the reception of the music. Playing a death-metal anthem in a cathedral to a horde of screaming metal fans might uplift and inspire. Playing the same music in the same place to 75-year-old church-goes might literally kill someone. A non-metal fan attending a show at a club where that music is often played will expect that kind of music, and may even learn to enjoy it.

Environment & audience will effect the ‘Affect’ as much as the music itself. Your attitude and the listener’s attitude sets up what kind of affect the music has. It’s like a ritual. The set-up is nearly as important as what prayers are offered.

I think I should give an example of a piece I had to stop playing. That is the first movement of “La Catedral” by Augustin Barrios Mangore. The second and third movements are deeply moving works of art, as is the first movement. However, the first movement was added by the composer and dedicated to his late wife. When I play this work, all I can see is a man weeping at the death of his beloved, and I just can’t handle it. I felt myself entertaining the same depressed feelings that I had experienced a decade earlier. I may be able to play La Catedral in its entirety some day, but I need to be in a different place for that to be appropriate. It will still be an emotional experience, but I will have to inhabit an emotional sphere at a healthier distance from that of the composer or the general ‘Affect’ within the music — two planets passing too close destroy each other.

Another work, the 2nd Lute suite by J.S. Bach, is one I had to abandon for similar reasons. The Affect was causing a resurgence of depression. However I have recently taken it back up, and I now find it an uplifting experience.

I have an arrangement of ‘Loch Lomond’ by Eythor Thorlaksson that often makes me weep when I play it, and yet I feel cleansed and uplifted after playing it. It is in a major key, but it is one of the saddest ballads composed, about two soldiers, one who will return home on foot, one who will return home only in spirit.

What gives one the ability to discern between white, grey, black in music magic, must be the same as how one discerns in other areas of magic. I’m probably not giving a conclusive answer because I don’t feel conclusively about the black/white/grey distinctions in magic. I don’t think there is any truly ‘black’ magic in music, because when I play and that veil thins between the worlds (and when I’m aware of it) I see colours upon colours. The thing about music is that it can have a life of it’s own. You have to get to know a piece so you can bring it to life in the right situations. Practising this will also help you to be able to improvise songs more effectively for any given situation, environment, and audience.

The audience is so important to how the magic works. A good audience who are receptive, understand your music, and respond in ways that increase your own energy. People whose ideas and beliefs harmonise with your own (note that harmonise doesn’t have to mean ‘same’) can direct the energy of your performance to epic levels. Unfortunately you can’t count on the audience to always help you out. One audience that shouldn’t be neglected is/are your deity(s) and other spirits that you venerate. Considering your supernatural audience is, I think, the greatest act you can do to build your own musical character and ability to create and experience potent music magic.

What I’ve written about are my experiences in the practise of playing music with the intent of venerating deity, spirits of nature, and edifying other people. There are more specific writings available, notably the above link and also the book “Music, Mysticism, and Magic” by Jocenlyn Godwin, the latter is a source-book style collection of some older sources. What I don’t think really holds much salt are correspondences between specific tones and astrological signs, tarot cards, runes, etc… Such correspondences may exist, and I do plan to explore them more fully, but the problem is that one doesn’t just play one tone or one scale or one mode. I’ve always felt the most mystical moments in music happen when all these different elements with their differing correspondences coalesce.

Creating thin places with music

Creating thin places with music

As a lifelong musician, music magic is particularly sacred to me. However I sometimes lose sight of the magic whilst I focus intently on some of it’s academic qualities, when I’m practising relentlessly to prepare for a concert, or when I pursue professional engagements for my livelihood. I’ve been searching for the meaning of magic in music, and I think I’ve missed a simple and beautiful truth that music is magic. It is unique among the arts for being the most abstract, I think of it as a particularly concrete form of magic. I’ve also realised during performances a very palpable sensation of the presence of spirits and the nearness of Annwyn, the otherworld.

One experience, for which I am eternally grateful to my gods, I get to have on a weekly basis. I could have this experience daily if I remind myself to let go and breath in the music whilst I practise. A perfect performance is one in which I step out of myself, out of this world, into a world in which the very landscape is formed of the tones from my instrument. In that place is perfect happiness, peace, and above all joy. Sometimes it’s a story of a man striking out over land and sea to find his love and return home, sometimes it’s a rendezvous in a forest during which a wild storm accompanies wild love-making. Sometimes it’s a great adventure to parts where there be dragons. When I play this music I go to these places, and it is among the greatest pleasures of life.
Often times I find myself growing tense as fear tries to break down the magic. Fear of missing a phrase, forgetting, judgment from others. It is all lies. “Let go, and exist in the music and walk in between the notes” is what I tell myself when I find myself struggling during a performance, and if I do it, the song turns around and may even become a great channel into Annwyn, the otherworld. It’s a way of being compassionate to oneself: To not berate oneself for a wrong note. The point is not to play ink on a page, although it’s good to be able to do that. The goal is to walk in Awen and allow its magic to flow into a world which needs it desperately. Sometimes the right music can thin the veil between the physical world and the otherworld. But what makes the music ‘right’?

Several years ago (okay, more like a decade) a book by John O’Donohue called ‘Anam Cara‘ introduced me to the idea of ‘thin places’. He describes them as locales and/or times wherein the veil which separates our physical world from the spiritual realms is thinner. These “spiritual realms” have many names in the religions and traditions of humankind, and I’ve taken to referring to it as ‘Annwyn‘ or the ‘Otherworld’ in Welsh mythology. In some places it seems so thin that it seems as if one could simply walk into Annwyn as through a wide open door. One goal of music magic is to create these ‘thin places’. The sacred symbol/syllable, AWEN, (or streched out as a chant: ah-oo-wen) is very important to this as well. Awen means “flowing spirit” and also describes the flow of inspiration and creativity of a bard, minstrel, or anyone who might use their creative gifts to open pathways for spirit(s) to flow. (Joanna Van Der Hoeven describes it HERE in detail.) The rays of Awen have been used for opening gateways to altered states of awareness, to begin ceremonies, and open doors to Annwyn, or possibly countless other otherworlds. Music has long been used to prepare the hearts of congregations for worshipping deity, and like the druid’s Awen, music prepares the way, not for the gods to enter our lives (they are already there), but for us to enter theirs and experience this communion — to briefly peak under the veil of our fleshy perception to experience a brighter, more real cosmos. So it is no great stretch of reason to see that music can be a catalyst for Awen to open that gate.

1My heart is steadfast, O God;
I will sing, I will sing praises, even with my soul.
 2Awake, harp and lyre;
I will awaken the dawn!” – Psalm 108 (NRSV)

(If you’re reading this and you’re caught off-guard by the reference to Judeo-Christian sacred texts because it’s not your religion, please stay with me. One doesn’t have to believe in the Hebrews’ idea of God to glean a little wisdom from these texts. A thing can be sacred and yet not be of one’s religion.)

The psalmist (traditionally David here) uses instruments and singing to consecrate day and dedicate it to the worship of his deity. In this, whether myth or real, God is not sitting behind the celestial curtain waiting to be invited in.

The ‘right music’ then does not refer to a genre, does not have to be a select set of tones (though certain tones put together can have what one might call an ethereal quality, and there have been written many treatises on the practical uses of music in ). Awen, the symbol, is comprised of a triad of rays coming from the sun. Awen is also the flow of inspiration and creativity – but I think there is a third part: Sharing or perhaps simply receiving. I’ve experienced the nearness of Annwyn occasionally whilst practising, but I feel it almost every time when I play and another person is there who receives the music as food for the soul. The times when I play the music and simply enjoy it as if I were a spectator are those sacred moments to me when I enter privately into the otherworld for a time. Inspiration is light from the gods. Creativity is light from the bard and minstrel. When another receives the musical offering in a way that illuminates one’s consciousness, then the three rays of Awen are complete and Annwyn seems so very near!

A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion engraving.
A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion engraving.

If I have written anything which is disagreeable, I ask forgiveness,
If ever I contribute to happiness and fulfillment, you deserved it,
May the music you make and the music you receive carry you to places your physical form cannot travel,
And may the magic of Awen fill your life and the lives of those around you.