Saturday, August 20, 2011

Psytrance and the Spirituality of Electronics

Psytrance among other electronica

Electronic music is generally broken into techno, house, trance, hardcore, breakbeat, and ambient music, along with affiliated smaller genres that float between categories, like trip-hop, electro, IDM, and others. Ambient is easily recognized by its separation from dancing, which is normally manifested in slower tempos and less distinct rhythms. Breakbeat (of which drum'n'bass makes up most of the faster genres, while there are slower genres as well) is distinguished by an emphasis on ways of dividing a bar of 4/4 time other than the standard one. (Notably, there is a focus on the second half of the third beat, though this comes about in various different beat patterns.) Hardcore (an important subset of which is called “happy hardcore”) is distinguished by its extremely fast tempos (generally over 160 bpm) in 4/4 time. House is distinguished by its focus on the second and fourth beats of 4/4, though it also shares many stylistic characteristics with disco, funk, and other popular musics, that help distinguish it from trance and techno. Of these, techno is generally not as fast (around 100-120 bpm) and tends to be more minimalistic, while trance is more melodic. House and trance are by far the most popular genres of electronica, though house tends to be more popular in clubs and trance more popular at the parties often known as “raves”.

Within trance, psytrance is distinguished by its generally higher tempo (135-145 bpm), more focus on sixteenth notes and exotic scales, and most noticeably, through the use of general sounds other than percussion and pitched sounds.

Stylistic traits

Formal features:

Tracks tend to be between 6 and 12 minutes long, with most clustering around 7 or 8 minutes. Most of the tracks begin with about 30 seconds of very atmospheric sounds. These introductions convey some suggestion of the beat (but definitely not the bass drum), but in the tracks I have analyzed here, they are more beat-less than usual, and last much longer than usual, since several are the first tracks of their albums. Sometimes, there is a return to this ambient sound at the end of the track, but it is generally not as long.

Between this introduction and conclusion, the body of the track has two halves. The first introduces the major thematic material, while the second rearranges it, sometimes altering the bass. Most of the themes are eventually layered onto one another at the end of each of these halves, creating two climaxes. There is often some sort of transition or interlude between these two halves, but sometimes it is quite short.

The foundation of each track is some slight variant on a 4/4 bass drum rhythm, together with a pattern of repeated notes in the low register. This pattern is generally a single pitch, hit on almost every sixteenth note, though sometimes there is a second or third pitch that occurs a few times in the one, four, or eight bar pattern. If it is longer than one bar, generally all bars but the last are identical, while the last has a slight variation to indicate the end of the cycle.

In each of the major sections of the track, this pattern repeats many times, with either new sounds being added every four or eight measures, or the sound gradually building in intensity over a period of time. Intensity is increased either by adding new layers to the texture or by changing the timbral characteristics of some layers, generally by adding more overtones to increase the energy at higher frequencies. Any new melody is generally allowed to repeat for a couple measures (sometimes a couple four-bar patterns) before it begins to transform thus.

Melodic and Harmonic features:

Unlike other trance music (but like much other electronic music), chords and harmonies play a very minor role in psytrance. Instead, there is a focused drone pitch, and an implied scale from which almost all the melodies are drawn. The only “harmonies” are generally just juxtapositions of pitches from separate melodies that appear at the same time. In this sense, psytrance is related to some Indian music, though these connections are often exaggerated. Chords do make appearances, though this is normally only in some sections of a given track. (Three of the tracks analyzed here have chords at some point. “Reload” and “LSD” have prominent arpeggios in some passages, while “Release Me” has a melody that outlines tonal harmonies.)

In melodies, the interval of the augmented second is often quite prominent, though there is no specific place in a scale where it generally occurs. The second degree of the scale is usually flatted.3 Many melodies are just short ostinati, only a beat or a bar long, which repeat many times whenever they appear. However, there are also often melodies that last four, eight, or even sixteen bars. Normally, such long melodies have long individual notes, often sustained for several bars each, though sometimes these notes are made up of repeated pitches of very short duration.

Rhythmic features:

The distinctive rhythm of psytrance is a constant stream of sixteenth notes over a steady 4/4 rhythm in a bass drum. In melodies, there can either be constant sixteenth notes, or repeated sixteenth notes and eighth notes, or occasionally very long notes of even duration. When beats are broken up in ways other than the standard one, it normally falls into groups of 3+3+2 sixteenth notes, and almost never 3+3+2 eighth notes, as is common in breakbeat music of all sorts (eg, drum'n'bass, hip-hop, etc). The actual rhythmic character of particular melodies is often obscured by an echo effect that is normally timed to be one sixteenth note long.

Timbral features:

Psytrance is one of the most timbrally-focused genres of music. While melodies and rhythms are also distinctive in psytrance, most of the focus in development is on the timbres involved. There are several distinct types of sounds that appear in psytrance, almost all of which are synthesized – more even than in much other electronic music, like house, breakbeat, and ambient.

Drum sounds – there is always a prominent bass drum, hammering on just about every quarter note (after the introductions and conclusions, the only exceptions are at occasional phrase endings, and a couple brief pauses in the middle). There are also generally other percussive sounds, normally including something like a snare, something like a hi-hat, and some low-register instrument. Sometimes some of these drums are pitched to reinforce the bass note, but this is hardly noticeable.

Pitched sounds in psytrance are generally contrasted by a combination of register and whether they tend towards more simple sine tones or towards more complex fm-synthesis sounds. It is very common for these sounds to also have a flanger/phaser effect, or to gradually shift one overtone to more prominence than another, resulting in a gradual change in octave, without interrupting the melodies. This is particularly effective when a short three- or four-note melody is repeated many times while gradually changing registers. Sometimes a melody that began in the bass line will end up several octaves higher after a few repetitions, just because of a redistribution of its overtones.

Beyond standard percussion and melodic sounds, there are the most distinctive part of psytrance – the generally non-pitched sounds. Many of the squeakier ones are derived from the Roland 303 bass synthesizers, played in a very high register rather than a low one. Some of these sounds also sound like they result from fm synthesis with very high modulation.

There are also a wide variety of recorded sounds in psytrance, even though they are less prominent among the instruments. Sometimes these include actual instruments other than oscillators and digital sounds, though this is uncommon among all but very few groups (like Infected Mushroom). There are also occasional environmental sounds that make their way into tracks (as in “Trance Africa Express”). However, these normally come with more noticeable recordings: spoken lines either from movies or other relevant sources. These texts often suggest something mind-expanding, whether it be a guru talking about meditation or some hallucinogenic drug (as in “LSD”), or a quote from a sci-fi movie about evolution or alien life-forms (as in “Release Me”). However, there are also occasionally just seemingly unrelated quotes that say something that might be of tangential interest, like the pilots in “Reload”. This spoken word sampling occurs in tracks by almost all groups, and is often the most noticeable feature for newcomers.


Psytrance music (being almost purely electronic) has a different performance context than many other types of music. When actual producers of tracks go on tour, they normally travel with various samplers and synthesizers and create much of the music “live”. This creation generally involves layering premade loops and preprogrammed melodies, and often involves a computer as a central mixing station.

However, it (like other electronic music) is far more commonly “performed” by djs at all-night parties. These parties tend to almost always feature several rooms with djs playing music of different styles, with the most common other styles being “breaks” (a kind of breakbeat music that is substantially slower than drum'n'bass and often features the same kinds of noises as psytrance) and some sort of “ambient” or “chill” music. While many types of these musics exist, many producers of psytrance also have side projects in these other genres that are designed to go well at psytrance parties. (For instance, Simon Posford releases psytrance tracks under the name Hallucinogen, and also creates chill-out music with Raja Ram under the name Shpongle.) Other types of electronic music also often appear, though they are less common.

Psytrance parties in the Bay Area are often in indoor spaces with multiple rooms for different djs (as are “raves” of all sorts) but psytrance parties in particular occur outdoors much more often than the other types. In the summer, there are often parties on beaches, and multi-day outdoor festivals in remote locales where many different djs perform at different stages. Through a much longer part of the year, parties occur in somewhat secluded areas near major cities (I have been to parties in several forests in the Bay Area, as well as some half-indoor venues in San Francisco, and in a forest near Los Angeles). Many of the outdoor parties are free for partygoers, as opposed to most parties in other genres of electronic music.

These parties generally officially start around 9 or 10 pm, though a majority of the partygoers don't show up until around midnight. Indoor parties end at various points generally between 3 and 6 am, depending on the venue and the number of available djs, as well as potential noise complaints. Outdoor parties often tend to go much later, not having neighbors. I have on several occasions left parties at 7 or 8 am with the sun risen well past the morning clouds, while the dance areas are still full of people.

All of these parties, whether indoor or outdoor, have very distinctive decorations. While these include some of the colored lights, disco balls, and strobes of other “raves”, the most characteristic feature is a collection of blacklights. In addition to the reaction of blacklights with standard white clothing, many partygoers wear clothing with additional blacklight sensitivity. But there are also many hanging cloths prominently displayed around the party area, mostly painted with blacklight-sensitive paints. Some of these are covered with purely geometric designs (normally related to fractals and other very complex patterns), while others have either nature scenes (sometimes with aliens) or mythological images. The mythology most often drawn upon is pan-Indian imagery, sometimes depicting actual Hindu deities, and sometimes images just reminiscent of them because of having multiple arms and “om” symbols. There is occasionally also Buddhist imagery (yin-yangs in particular) and once in a while Greco-Roman or even Aztec imagery.

Music Industry

The mainstream music industry has had little effect on the psytrance scene, because it has stayed relatively underground so far. The music very rarely makes it onto the radio, and appears primarily on a network of minor record labels, generally run by the artists and/or a group of people that put on parties. Party flyers (in both e-mail and print forms) generally include label affiliation of djs that perform, so that fans can get an idea of the style and talent of the djs, even if the names aren't familiar.

The main places I have found to purchase the music are either by ordering CDs on the internet from specialty sites (including homepages of artists and record labels) or by going to specialty stores. Most such stores (like Ceiba Records, in San Francisco) sell not just psytrance music, but also associated paraphernalia.

The technology of the music production is very similar to that of most other electronic genres, though there is more synthesis and less sampling than in many other genres. While house has sampled melodies, drum'n'bass has sampled beats, and big-beat, happy hardcore, and mainstream trance often have vocals, psytrance is probably the most purely electronic genre of music other than pure techno and IDM. The movie samples that are one of the most distinctive features of psytrance to newcomers actually make up a relatively small amount of each track, and are not present in all tracks.


Psytrance (also known as Goa Trance) has roots stretching back to the 1961, when the Portugese colony of Goa was forcibly annexed by India. Soon afterwards, hippies and various other people from Europe and North America seeking spirituality of various sorts headed there on vacations, especially for elaborate winter rituals on the beaches, combining Christmas rituals of the Portugese Catholic heritage with Hindu ceremonies. Because of the nature of the festivals, the music tended to last very late, with sunrise being the focal point of the event. The expatriates started having their own parties on the beaches, year-round, playing music of various sorts over the decades. At first it was mainly psychedelic rock of various sorts, but by the early '80s, electronic body music and German industrial music were being introduced. By the early 1990s, a local genre had developed, and the scene had become even more international, involving many Japanese and Israelis, in addition to the Europeans, Australians, and Americans that had been there before.

Because of the heat and humidity, djs in Goa tended to use cassette tapes instead of vinyl records. As a result, beatmatching was very hard, and many of the oldest djs working in the genre don't bother trying at all (for instance, Goa Gil, who brought the music to northern California, whom I saw on Halloween last year). To ease this situation, psytrance developed a tradition of having relatively long atmospheric portions in each track, which allow one to easily mix two tracks of different tempos without having them clash. By the early 1990s, DAT tapes became common, but it is only recently that CD mixers with tempo controls have become available, and the music has already been shaped by this formative environment.

The genre's origins in India (especially among spirituality tourists) explain much of the decorations and imagery associated with the music, as well as some of the scales that are quite popular. However, the sounds themselves probably owe more to the association of the music with hallucinogens of various sorts. While mainstream trance music is often associated with the drug ecstasy, psytrance is more associated with hallucinogens. (The “psy” in “psytrance” is normally said to stand for “psychedelic”, though it is also associated with the words “psychoactive”, “psychotropic”, “psychic” and anything else connected with the mind or brain.) It's never clear what percentage of the fans are under the influence of some substance or another at the parties, though people who dance well past dawn may be taking advantage of something or other to keep them going. The effects of the drugs may be one reason why this genre of music focuses so much more on timbre and non-pitched sound than on melody, harmony, or rhythm, as most other music does. The basic tempo is significantly faster than most mainstream trance music, and this has been attributed to the fact that constant sixteenth notes at a tempo of 145 bpm gives a rhythm almost identical to that of the naturally occurring alpha waves in the brain.

Psytrance played an important role in the development of trance music of all sorts around the world. Trance first emerged in the early 1990s, as a dark sound coming from German and Belgian producers. This almost broke through to the mainstream, but it was only when producers like Sven Väth and Paul Oakenfold started adopting the sound that had developed in Goa that it started to take off. However, Goa trance and psytrance were pushed aside (as was the original darker German trance) by brighter “progressive trance”, which has been perhaps the most popular form of electronic music in the United States since the late 1990s. Since the mid-1990s, the music has continued to develop, now largely in places like Israel, Europe, Japan, and the United States, and thus it is now often referred to as “psytrance” rather than “Goa trance”.

Despite playing this important role in the development of electronic music, particularly that played at “raves” across the United States, psytrance is relatively unknown outside of its fans. At the same time, it is a very international style of music, with important artists coming from all corners of the globe. (In the four tracks I analyzed, Deedrah is a Ukrainian-Italian man, brought up in France, and working in Ibiza, Spain; Infected Mushroom is a pair of Israeli men who also have independent projects; Hallucinogen and Sheyba are British. While at these parties just in Northern California, I have met people from Spain, Russia, Israel, and the Netherlands.) This makes the fans feel like part of an exclusive community, which at the same time transcends national boundaries.

Thus, although psytrance has already once “emerged” and “disappeared”, it is still a thriving genre in locations around the world. Perhaps at some point in the future it will have more direct influence on other popular musics. But as long as it remains tied to its particular style of parties, it is unlikely that it will catch on among large audiences.


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