The Sonic Spell: Six Components Of Musical Enchantment


enchantment—the state of being under a spell

“Technical processes…are construed magically so that, by enchanting us, they make the products of these technical processes seem enchanted vessels of magical power.”
– Alfred Gell,
“The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”
in Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics (1992), p. 46

For a while I’ve been rather obsessed with, or at least consciously committed to, the idea of enchantment in music, trying to figure out what creates it for me and how I might reliably generate it in my work. But enchantment is a moving target. There’s as many kinds of musical enchantment as there are musics, and one persons’s sonic spell is another’s enuit or annoyance. Still, I persist trying to unpack how the enchantment idea plays out generally in the musics that I return to over and over because they feel so good.

Inspired by the late anthropologist Alfred Gell, who wrote groundbreaking articles on enchantment (notes on which I re-read every now and then), I’ve been thinking about music production as a technical process whose products we interpret as enchanted vessels of magical power. Come to think of it, I never understood when an artist cited inspiration as being more pivotal to their process than experimentation and iteration, and when they won’t not admit that art-making is essentially a technical process, or at least a craft. As with so many things in the world we want to learn more about, we can just look at what artists do to figure out how they work: most of them do an awful lot of trying things out, and then some of that trying they later deem the product of inspiration. Still, enchantment is a tangible thing that you can feel, not unlike the realness of physical beauty’s symmetries and proportions or the realness of someone’s sense of humor. Not only is enchantment tangible, it may the X factor that determines whether or not a music has any life to it.

I distill musical enchantment into a few key components, musical examples of which you can fill in for yourself.

Ambiguity. I love ambiguity, obliqueness, and certain kinds of uncertainty. I like it when the music is ambiguous as to what it’s trying to say and how it’s saying it. I like it when its forms and movements and shifts aren’t so obvious. I like it when it asks you to bring something to the what does it mean? party.

Surprise. I like it when the music surprises me through a sudden shift, unusual chord (what comes before and after the chord changes everything), or deceptive rhythm. I like it when I thought the music was doing one thing, only to find that it’s now doing something else. As I wonder how did that happen? the music weaves its enchantment.

Reassuring Stasis. I like it when music stays put for a while and enjoys being what it is, without need to “go” somewhere. I like music that explores the state it’s in. Stasis, of course, can easily slip into oh-my-god-this-is-sooo-b-o-r-i-n-g music, so this component of enchantment benefits from being tempered by other qualities, such as ambiguity or surprise.

Kinetic Action. I like it when the music moves and sparkles with rhythmic life, when it dances around on its own energies, when it’s syncopated, hocketting, call and responsing, filling in its beat holes, when what you thought was the downbeat is actually the upbeat. The timeless textbook for this kind of action is the traditional polyrhythmic drumming traditions from West Africa. These traditions figured out long ago how to make rhythm sparkle, and the concepts embodied in their musics are still teaching the rest of the world’s musics how to move.  

Timbral Depth. I like it when the music has striking contrasts of timbre. Sure, a voice and acoustic guitar duet makes a decent contrast, but there’s so many more timbres available, especially to one working with digital music tools. Music with rich contrasts immediately has a sense of depth and depth is enchanting. This reminds me of that classic musician’s compliment: Her playing is so deep, man.

Less Is More. I like it when the music does a lot with a little—when it conjures enchantment through the barest of materials to create ambiguity, surprise, reassuring stasis, kinetic action, and timbral depth. Doing a lot with a little requires a careful thinking through of one’s compositional materials and figuring out how to derive maximum musicality from a minimal of means. Following Gell in his discussion on enchantment, the essential alchemy of making art “is to make what is not out of what is, and to make what is out of what is not” (53).


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