Ritual Music


Does anyone have any favorite books or media related to ritual as it pertains to sound and music? Even sound healing stuff would be cool. I have been interested in ways of using modular + guitar to make a performance more minimal/ritualistic but still containing improvisation and I’m looking for some fresh takes on this.


Composition of performance
Benjamin Mauch, n-So, Rawls, Scott Burton (Ritual Magick)

I believe that any music with the right intention can be healing. Having some experience with spiritual healing and shamanic work best is to follow your heart and find / build your own rituals.

A book I love: Joachim-Ernst Berendt: The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness (and other books by the same author).

Edit: Forgot to mention the works of Gabrielle Roth ( music & writings )



“Ritual” is going to mean vastly different things depending on who you ask. “Ritual music” could mean anything from the occult-inspired stuff like Metgumbnerbone, Coil, and Halo Manash; the ecstatic drumming and glossolalic vocals of someone like Jon Mueller; most song and/or dance associated with spiritual / religious / ceremonial practices; or even things that would lazily be filed under “new age” or “world music” genre categories.

I haven’t read this yet, but it came up early on in a search for books related to ritual in sound and music:



That’s how I would interpret it myself, for the most part. (There are also social rituals, like weddings, sporting events etc. with music but I’ll bypass that.) I’d categorize it into three main types, which can cross over:

– Music meant to enhance group bonding and participation in the context – like hymns and praise songs.

– Music that is itself an invocation.

– Music meant to set a mood but not distract, which can be performed by musicians “on autopilot” so they can spare attention to the proceedings. The original “ambient” music.

I was a Kemetic Orthodox (ancient Egyptian reconstructionist) priest for several years, and often acted as a drummer. Most of our songs were written for reason #1, though they could cross over to #2 when appropriate. A couple were specifically intended for #2 in specific circumstances. #3 was entirely improvisational but also quite simple – several people shaking sistra, either in a straight rhythm or making a gentle susurrus, and maybe one or two softly drumming.

Most, but not all, of our #1 songs were lyrical with no specific drum parts, so those got improvised. (One of those was in compound time, unbeknownst to the author of the song (!), gave many drummers difficulties and resisted my campaign to change the rhythm of the song to simplify it.) One of them was written with its drum part, and one was a drumming rhythm before the lyrical part was written. Non-percussion instrumental accompaniment was rare, but usually just improvised harmonizing.

We often had what we called “Gods’ Dances” which was informal, alternating between improvised drum circle stuff and type #1. Actual ritual was likely to start with #2 and then stay mainly at #3… and then trail off, emphasizing the silence in an intentional way or putting 100% focus on a part of the proceedings, and maybe go into #1 if the moment called for it. (Our rituals had very formal parts, and in some cases, left space for unscripted things to happen.)



Love the recommendations so far!

Indeed it does seem that this topic is explored only in specific contexts. This is a good thing, since any “universal” treatment will only end up imposing a modern/Western perspective, and precisely so to the extent the perspective claims to be universal. This is of course the classical structuralist/perennialist move.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the West, but this specifically modern/Cartesian “universalizing” approach is precisely one – perhaps unique in human history – where ritual fails to show up at all. Instead, ritual practices are recast in terms of explanatory chains of causation; in other words, using concepts such as “belief”, “superstition”, “social function”, “cultural values” and so on, each which completely miss the phenomenon. But this approach is just as hostile to medieval-Christian/pagan/Greek understandings as it is to those of non-Western origin.

Ritual, mysticism etc. are matters that must be thought from themselves, that must be thought out of specific ways of comportment which enable the phenomena to show up, ways which are in turn constituted by the phenomena. This circle cannot be transcended by any proper investigation, any inquiry that purports to reveal something of the phenomenon. Revealing begins with what is most near, but thenceforth becomes a spiraling-out within this circle – never finishing, never getting anything clear, consistent, or complete as demanded by the universalizing approach. Indeed, our own work as musicians and artists, really only comes meaningfully into its own within this circle, within the spiraling process.

Anyway, one book I’m very interested in getting is Owen Coggins’ Mysticism, Ritual, and Religion in Drone Metal. Despite my not (yet) being a fan of the genre, Coggins’ interviews have been compelling in the way everything begins and ends with the raw phenomenon which is the total concert experience – the extreme volumes and durations erasing all distinctions between hearing/feeling, mind/body, self/other – actively creating the space for the phenomena to show themselves . For instance, I highly recommend his recent interview with Erik Davis:

Coggins’ book is available now, but at ridiculous ($115) academic pricing. However, it seems that a paperback will be out in 2019.


Coggins definitely seeks to avoid the universalizing pitfalls I mentioned above, and to which all of us have basically alluded. From another interview (transcript – not as interesting as the one with Erik Davis):


Hope this contributes something, and again I’m really excited to be looking at all these recommendations! This is indeed a topic very close to my heart.



Glad to hear this mentioned, I was always into this stuff surrounding the industrial scene, especially when young, most prominent were Coil, but including also 23 Skidoo, early (pre-folk) Current 93 (Dogs Blood Rising), Zero Kama, Zoviet France, Muslimgauze and then especially Z’ev who died recently, I remember even some of the more obscure 90’s efforts like Voice of Eye, 23 Degrees, PWOG etc. I have to go back and listen but at the time I certainly felt something was there.

Funny that we both were into that and then very much into post-minimalism today. Despite most of the classic postminimalist stuff also being in the 70’s and 80’s. In my case, Italian and Japanese post-minimalism. I think really neither “scene” can be taken up any more but I do see a kind of cultural turn happening in which a totally new approach can emerge today, and I hope maybe my own stuff can align somehow. Of course I don’t force anything.



I really love encountering music in a ritual setting.

One book that comes to mind is Music of the Spheres by Jamie James, which has a broad approach to music and cultural significances. From memory it doesn’t really address ritual but might open your mind to applications in that area.

A book I read recently about ritual in another fun context is Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner, which has opened my atheist mind on how to understand notions of the sacred.



Here’s an ethnography on the ritual music of the Ewe people of West Africa. Might be interesting for you, if you don’t mind the dryish academic style of writing:




Had to read that several times as it’s so well expressed. You really hit the nail on the head!



you HAVE to read z’ev (rip) work: Rhythmajiik
a complete method for drumming based on the kabbalah and related concepts.



Notes on praxis:

Angus MacLise (yes, twitter happens to be a perfect format for this poem/magical act):


Harry Smith:

Stan Brakhage:



Thanks everyone for so many great insights! I’m getting a better idea of the direction I want to take the music and these perspectives and links (what I’ve gotten to check out thus far) have really helped. I know we’re all used to singing the praises of this forum, but the people here are officially the best, and the insight to post ratio here is off-the-charts amazing!

@hyena Any way to get/read Rhythmajiik? That sounds super interesting.

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when z’ev was alive he asked anyone interested in reading it to contact him and request it directly to him. he then provided a free download. i found this way of keeping a first hand contact with his readers a very important choice. this led to my conversation (by email) with him that gave me a lot of interesting insights on his views and a lot of interesting suggestions on how to translate those guidelines, that method, to electronic music production and performance.
now that he left this plane i think it’s safe to affirm that there’s no problem in sharing it. in fact i just found out there is an archive.org free d\l:



This is where I’m at with the music right now. These are two short Instagram vids showing my approach with the ritual music. The idea right now is to to have the modular playing random notes quantized to a scale, and on top of that, I’m playing a constant stream of notes, improvising around the scale, but trying to keep the pulse constant.

The balance of sound isn’t there yet—these are just iphone recordings, but I’m excited by the possibilities. I’m booking a show locally this Fall in my home of Richmond, VA----this will definitely force me to figure it out/be able to perform it for people.



Voices of Haiti by Maya Deren

this film does contain footage of animals being sacrificed and it is definately not my intent to offend anyone with this post.

lo res:

there is also a book which i have not read:



this is classic and I don’t think listed above (?

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I’ve read the book, though it’s been a while. It was actually recommended to me by a friend who’s a mambo, as being surprisingly not terrible :slight_smile:



that’s because maya deren got sincerely involved with voudou in haiti. she went there to simply study traditional dances and music, by a westerner point of view, by an artist and researcher point of view. then she was ridden by Erzulié and her life changed for ever.

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Well I did my first solo performance using a lot of what I learned here, and it went great! I played in a small room in the middle of a local park, and the night and the vibe was perfect. The project is called ‘Ritual Magick’ and it’s definitely something I want to do a lot more. Thanks for all the info and keep it coming. Here’s a pic a friend took of the scene:

The main piece I played revolved around a constant stream of guitar notes that were all evenly spaced. I had the guitar sending gates that would trigger the other sounds, so as I gradually increased the speed of the guitar, everything else did too and it gave the music a gamelan feel.