Music in ritual practice

Doing : white spiral on deep purple circle

Music is an important part of many religious and spiritual practices – and it’s also part of many Pagan or witchcraft practices. Don’t worry if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, there are other options out there!

This article focuses on the reasons you might want to include music in your practice, and another article on this site covers ideas on where to find music you may want to use.

Why?

We can use music to help us do many different things.

By ourselves, it helps us use breath and our bodies as a magical tool, it can bring joy, be a way to praise deities or other entities, and help us focus our intention. If we’re working with other people, it does all of those things, but it also can help us bring a group together, get everyone focusing on the same things. Music is a powerful way to raise and focus energy for magical workings.

Breath as a magical tool

We have to breathe to make sound, and when we sing, we (mostly) end up breathing in a way that is in rhythm with the music. This makes singing ourselves a powerful tool for aligning our breaths and bodies with our ritual work and intention. Sometimes that can mean slowing down a bit, so we are in the moment. Sometimes it can mean using our bodies to raise and focus energy.

Sound vibrates us

Making sound ourselves is different than listening to music. When we sing or chant or make noise, it resonates in our body, from our vocal cords out into our chest, our throat, our head, our sinuses, and all through us. This makes singing, chanting, and other vocal sounds especially powerful for creating change that starts inside us, or that is about connecting all of us to the work we’re doing. It can also be really amazing for creating new patterns or possibilities.

Music creates connections

We can use music to help us create a symbol dictionary, a set of things that calls a particular mood or emotion or concept to mind (just like we can do that with art or colour or statues on an altar or incense and other smells.)

Most of us have at least some songs that will shake us out of a bad mood (I keep a playlist called ‘for bad days’). Some songs may make us weep. Or remember a particular relationship or person or moment. That’s a useful tool.

Music can help us drop into a ritual mindset very quickly, or into a particular focus for a given step of the ritual, especially if we use the same music over and over.

Emotions, good and bad

We shouldn’t ignore that music can bring us so many emotions, make us feel and react and see things in new ways. We can use music to release emotions, to celebrate, to help us work through something difficult or painful, to reassure and soothe us – all sorts of situations.

Music is also a wonderful way to offer a prayer or offering to a deity, to give thanks for a particularly good day, or reflect on one that had more challenges.

Focused space

Try repeating a chant over and over again for a few minutes, and you’ll often find yourself drifting into a more meditative frame of mind. You may find inspirations popping into your head, or the solution to a problem, or a new way to focus what you’re doing to reach a goal.

Group mind

Music is perhaps especially useful when working with a group. Singing or chanting together can really help get everyone together, their energy focused in the same place. In rituals which use the same music regularly (such as the same opening chant) the repetition makes it easier and easier to drop into a ritual mindset. Hear (and sing) the first few words, and it’s common to feel your body and mind shifting.

This is part of why chanting or other participatory group forms of music are a such a common part of religious rituals in many traditions – they bring everyone into participation. It’s not about how well you sing, it’s about everyone joining in.

Pleasure and joy

Finally, music and chanting and singing are things many people just plain enjoy. Our rituals can and should have that joy in it. (And even when the emotion of the ritual isn’t joy, music has also been used for millenia to mourn, to honour, to comfort, and these things also matter.)

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Including music

Just as there are many reasons for including music in ritual, there are many ways you might include it. (The sister article to this one, sources for music, has many suggestions in these categories.)

What are your options?

Basically, you can:

  • Make music by yourself.
  • Make music with others.
  • Listen to music.

Some of these will work a lot better than others for specific situations – if you’re somewhere that needs to be quiet, for example, you’re pretty much stuck with listening on headphones.

Most music produced in ritual spaces by the people there is vocal music with portable instruments (drums, maybe a flute or fiddle). In my experience, it’s best to keep it simple. It can be very easy as a musician to be worrying about whether the instrument is staying in tune, or whether your music is going to get knocked over – which prevent you from fully engaging in the ritual. Keeping the music very simple helps you participate as completely as possible.

And of course, many of our ritual spaces don’t have larger less moveable instruments (pianos, organs) like churches or other fixed ritual spaces can have.

Some groups use recordings in ritual, in which case they should be clear recordings, and anything like live concert applause or narration should be edited out. (If you do this, test the cues for music with whoever is managing them in advance! It can be very jarring to get wrong.)

Other groups don’t want any electronics in circle at all, which may limit your options.

When might you use music in ritual?

Before a ritual step:
In this case, you’d sing a chant, and then follow up with a ritual action. For example, you might sing a song about the elements before calling the quarters, and then you’d make the individual quarter calls. The song would help remind people what you’re doing next, and get them thinking about the different aspects of those elements.

During a ritual step:
Some groups sing the ritual step itself. For example, they may have a chant which is integral to the circle casting. Sometimes in these cases one person (or a small number of people) will also do specific ritual actions while everyone sings.

In the tradition I’m trained in, there’s a song that’s sung as part of the preparation for calling quarters, which has a few ritual actions with it, and most people sing while one person does those. It also helps people prepare for the quarter calls.

To avoid blank space:
Music is a great way to fill space while something is going on that will take a little while to do. For example, when you’re passing a cup and plate around for a dozen or more people to share, it takes a while for that to happen. Each person has to take the thing, eat or drink, and then pass it on.

Without music, it can be easy for people to start chatting (about other things) or get distracted. Music gives everyone something to do, when they’re not doing the ritual act.

Energy raising or focusing:
This music is sung (or played) while people are raising or focusing energy toward a goal. It helps keep everyone mindful of what you’re doing. Some groups also use spoken chant or toning for this (and those both work well too!) Often the pace will pick up as the energy grows, so things go faster and faster and build to a climax.

Music does add a fair bit of length – anything you sing is often 2-5 times as long as just saying those words. That adds up over the course of a ritual. It’s more common to take more time with singing at the beginning of ritual, and perhaps less at the end.

Chanting

One of the earliest versions involves chanting. These are usually shorter pieces of music (one to four lines are common) repeated over and over again, and they are a great way to focus or raise energy. Many of them produce a trance state that makes it easier to direct what you’re doing.

You can sing them by yourself, but if sung in a large ritual, many common chants have some options for harmonies (musical lines that complement the melody), descants (lines that go above or around the main chant line and complement it), or can be sung as rounds (where people come in with the main line at intervals.)

People often complain that chants are boring (“Pagan dirge” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot – many of them are in a minor key).

They can be – but remember that if you’re trying to get a group of people, many of whom don’t identify as musical to sing something, it’s got to be pretty simple. That means songs that are short, have a fairly simple melody, and don’t require a large vocal range do a lot better if you want everyone to be able to participate.

There are a number of traditional folk songs and melodies that work well for ideas – because if they were widely used for centuries, they’re usually pretty easy to share.

Songs

In some ritual settings, longer songs may be used to help set the mood, tell a story, or create a particular energy in the circle.

There are options here, as well. You might sing the whole thing through. If someone in a group is a strong singer (and comfortable with this) they could sing the verses and the group could sing along with the chorus. Sometimes a song might be played on some sort of speaker (and people might sing along, or not, depending on the purpose)

Ritual acts

Sometimes you want music to go along with a ritual act. You might have music as part of a moving meditation, while people are working on a crafting project, as background to a meditation (or during quiet reflective time) or any other time people are quiet but you want to keep energy lightly focused on your ritual. Some rituals may use music for people to move or dance to, or to play while people are moving between stations in the ritual where different things happen.

The best music in this case is either very specific to the ritual act, or undemanding (instrumental meditation tracks work well.) You want to avoid songs in this case that people may have a very strong emotional reaction to unless you’re pretty sure what the reaction will be (and it’s the one you want.)

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Ongoing focus

One use of music is the creation of playlists – and streaming music services offer a lot of options for creativity here!

My playlist is out to get me:  It’s possible to create a playlist that acts a bit like a divination tool. Part of my daily practice right now is listening to a song from a playlist every morning. I make note of which song it is, and take it as a mood for the day. (There’s a wide mix there, currently about 70 songs.)

But another great use for playlists is to help reinforce long-term magical or ritual work. Here’s some examples I’ve done:

Elemental: My tradition’s training involves an extended period doing elemental work. While I was working with each element I created a playlist of several hours and listened to that as my default listening for those few months.

Long-term workings: When I’ve been doing significant job hunts, I’ve created playlists for what I want my life to feel like after I get the job – the emotions I want to feel, the things I want to have be part of my life. As with the elemental lists, I listened to it most of the time while I was working toward that goal.

Other options: Here are some other ideas, but I’m sure you’ll also come up with your own.

  • Zodiac signs
  • Seasons or Sabbats (always handy!)
  • Specific rituals you practice (I have one for a trad-specific ritual)
  • Music for ritual preparation (like what you listen to while you’re bathing and setting up before ritual, if those are things you do.)

Last edited February 8, 2018

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