Bettina Brentano, writing to Goethe in 1839.
Magic is music.
Open your ears and the whole world is music. The whisper of a breeze through trees; the hum of a refrigerator; the crunch of dry earth underfoot; the clatter of waves on a pebble beach.
This act of listening, of transformation, of interpretation, of imagination, of forging a relationship between the self and the universe beyond, is the essence of magic.
Or at least one form of it.
Here are some more, their boundaries necessarily blurred. You can assign your own choice of music to each example.
It might be music of action and raw power. It might be music of transcendence and otherworld journeys: into the vastness of Outer Space or the luminous darkness of Inner Space. It might be music created to be magical action, or music created during magical action. It might be music of form: sound revealed for what it is, physical vibration acting upon space and matter. It might be music of place: site specific actions imbued with the genius loci. It might be music of rebellion and defiance: drawing on cultural opposition and taboo for its power. It might be music of unity: a powerful experience shared by all those at a gig or club.
Or it might just be you, listening quietly.
Music and magic are twins. They were born together and will never part.
Music and song are central to the lives of almost all animal species and we humans are no different. Archaeologist Steven Mithen has suggested that our Neanderthal cousins, who lived in Europe between about 200,000 and 35,000 years ago, communicated in high-pitched sing-song voices, and that words and language evolved from these musical sounds. Did a similar evolutionary process take place in our own species? Perhaps humans and Neanderthals sang together in interspecies harmony. Today humans and birds sing together, while elephants and bonobos in captivity are learning to play human instruments. Music communicates across species boundaries; and that was, perhaps, the earliest form of magic.
Music can not have been far behind song. An alleged 43,000 year old bone ‘flute’ – two holes punched into the femur of a cave bear found at Divje Babe, a Neanderthal settlement in Slovenia – remains highly controversial; but a number of bone flutes found in China, many still playable, have been dated to 9,000 years ago. To put this into perspective, 9000 years ago humans were beginning to settle down into distinct cultures, developing agriculture and animal husbandry. The great pyramids of Egypt and the grandest stone circles of Northern Europe were still 4500 years into the future, and we are another 4500 years ahead of them. What will our descendants be listening to in 4500 years time?
Magic and music gave rise to all human culture. In hunter-gatherer societies, music and dance mimicked (and still do) the cries and movements of prey animals, and animal calls were made during the hunt. These rites evolved into more complex performances with multi-layered meanings – the first theatres of magic. Shamans employed song and dance, often along with hallucinogenic plants or animals, to heal and harm, and to mediate between the spirit and physical worlds. Those cultures that experienced dramatic expansion saw some of their shamans become priests and the music stayed with them, and remains with us today. Chanting is a powerful transcendental tool whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew or Muslim; ecstatic drumming and dance still dictate the pace of the African-root religions – Candomblé, Obeah, Santeria, Voodoo. (Yes, when it comes to religious music, Christians really drew the short straw.)
That old magic is still with us, permeating our culture, flowing a course through time. It is everywhere, fragmenting and evolving with every new generation. It’s up to us to tap into it. Some of us will find magic by ourselves; some of us prefer the structure of groups and organisations; some of us don’t yet realise that we’ve found it. But music is as good a place as any to start looking, and you will almost certainly find it there.
In our days there are as many styles, colours and definitions of magic as there of music. As in music you will find traditional approaches or genres – wiccan, heathen, voodoo, hoodoo, thelemite, luciferian – and post-modern breakdowns of each. Find the route that takes you there, but the first lesson of magic is to be aware: knowledge is power. Much of the assumed power of organised magical structures resides in notions of tradition – of secret wisdom passed down through countless ages. In the Western world, most esoteric traditions began as fantasies of tradition; many aren’t much older than the blues. Most contemporary practitioners are aware of this and have no problem with it, others have generated new traditions that speak to them more profoundly than off-the-peg systems. First find the magic, then shape it to your own needs.
But if it’s transcendence and tradition that you want, you can find it in music. By beating a drum or plucking a string, you are engaging with systems and states of mind that stretch back centuries, even millennia. And your tools don’t have to be ancient. Electricity is one of the supreme manifestations of natural magic; the qabalistic paths and flowing sigils of synthesiser waveforms – my own weapon of choice – are about the same age as wicca, perhaps the West’s most widely practised magical form.
So, choose your instrument, find your magic, use your imagination and remember:
music is magic.