Listen to Händel – You know you want it

What do stage hypnosis performances, motivational coachings, BDSM-scenes and music have in common? It might be more than you think.

(Just to state this in advance: By no means do I consider myself an expert on any of those fields. Only in music does my knowledge exceed the basics.)

I hit on the idea that there actually might be similarities when I read an interesting introduction to stage hypnosis – I stumbled over it while sailing the seas of the web, late at night. (Sometimes my journeys tend to end me up in interesting places.)

So, what’s stage hypnosis all about?

Basically, it’s a show. People come there with the firm expectation to experience something extraordinary, and they won’t be disappointed. (The same is true for the other fields I mentioned, but we’ll get to that later.)

What does a stage hypnotist do?

The first selection has already occurred long before the performance even starts. People who won’t bother won’t go to such performances. This leaves the hypnotist with the fans and the willing, and to a certain percentage, the sceptics and the haters. To stay on top of the situation at all times, the hypnotist has to perceive the existence of both those kinds of persons.

Now the audience is being prepared. This happens in a subtle or not so subtle way, mostly suggesting things like “only intelligent people can be hypnotised.” This lowers the barrier everyone naturally has.

Now comes the selection of “victims.” Most stage hypnotists choose volunteers – and they choose wisely. In the brief sum-up I read, it was phrased something like this: “The trick has already happened before. The volunteers are already hypnotised before they step up on the stage.”

Now it is about getting a deeper stage of hypnosis, and quite quickly. Not to be underrated is the subtle social pressure – who likes to be a spoilsport, after all.

Inducing a hypnotic trance

So now it gets interesting: There are quick and easy ways to induce a hypnotic trance. Those are not magical by any means, and often used by doctors for therapeutic uses.

Now what hit me, is two things: One is, the similarity across the fields I mentioned for that process – I think that specifically, the similarity to what a musician does at a concert is quite striking, e.g., apart from the fact that they (sadly, or luckily) don’t call volunteers on stage very often.

But there’s another thing: the means by which a hypnotic trance is brought about. One very common way is the method of pattern interrupt. Apparently, when the brain doesn’t know what to do, it picks on the first idea it hits on itself, or is prone to accept the first direct, unambiguous order it gets. This can be “Sleep,” or “Stand still”, or whatever order a kinky mind might come up with, because of course, this can be used as well in a situation to do with sex.

So, what was I getting at even … The whole procedure has its point in inducing a hypnotic trance and making the respective other accept an order – any order – from a complete stranger.

Hypnosis has its limits. Personally, I think you can make people like what they normally shun, but most probably, you cannot get someone to murder someone they actually like with one simple session of hypnosis. Let’s remember that the people who volunteer in the first place are the ones already susceptible; they want to be hypnotised. (The same is true of course for concert audiences or people who arrange or attend BDSM-scenes.)

But let’s go back to the pattern interrupt. A good example starts with a simple handshake. You know how to do a handshake, don’t you? You just take the hand, and … But what if someone suddenly withdraws that hand, or takes your wrist with his left instead? This is one method of a pattern interrupt.

Another is, to gently rock someone, and then break that pattern. Now I will get to what this reminds me of …


Good music, specifically. (Music in general is about the recognition of patterns – harmonic or rhythmical ones – and their negation. Without a pattern, sound is mostly perceived as mere noise.)

For an example, let’s take awesome Händel, and his aria “Fammi combattere.” (I deliberately didn’t choose an outwardly entrancing aria like “Caldo sangue.”)

I won’t use the word motive in a strict musical sense now, as it would get to complicated. Let’s say the first phrase “Fammi combattere” is the motive. (It actually comprises of more than one.)

Now let’s see how Händel does the trick to turn that simple motive into a kick-ass aria:

  1. Fammi combattere (Alright, here we go.)
  2. mostri e tifei (I know that one, almost the same as just before.)
  3. nuovi trofei (Hey I know it, alright, but it’s a note lower now again.)
  4. se vuoi dal mio valor. (Alright, first 4 bars end, now what’s next, I bet something similar.)
  5. Fammi comba-a-a (Feeling reassured, but hey, now it gets interesting,)
    -aa -aa (Sounds like taking off to jump – prepare yourselves!)
    -aaattere (And go! and wow we landed.)
  6. Fammi combattere (Oh god, yes.)
  7. mostri e tifei (I know that one already, but hey, even better! – The motive gets expanded to an octave jump in the end.)
  8. nuovi trofei (I know that motive, but where’s it heading now?)
  9. se vuoi dal mio valor! (Oh, that feels like home. Sort of.)

From that part on, Händel varies more freely, but repeats the system. I could draw a curve to model the tension in those phrases; it’s greatest in line 5 and following, like a rubber getting expanded which releases in the coloratura. The biggest action so far is in the octave jump of 7. To take us on this ride, Händel prepares us very cautiously, elaborating his motive systematically, so we trust him – before he pushes us off the coloratura-cliff and catches us safely again in the cadenza.

The point is, if you gave 10 music students who didn’t know the aria before the first five lines and asked them to elaborate them – I bet no one would quite hit on Händel’s version. While the first bars are sort of like spadework, from line five on, Händel’s genius kicks in.

For me, this phrase, when the motive gets dissolved into coloratura is the pattern interrupt – before, Händel was just rocking us gently.

A greater effect yet occurs in the DaCapo. (Mehta’s brilliant one there is a great example.) All the A-part of the aria gets repeated – and embellished. While the turns the original A-part takes could be compared to a kiss one the cheek at a first date, the DaCapo is more like a messy, steamy make-out.

The first A-part may be exciting, but the excitement is mostly limited to what the composer came up with. The first A-part is the composer’s brilliance; the DaCapo is all about the singer’s uniqueness and creativity.

For me, this in parts accounts for the excitement that Baroque arias still can cause: a hypnotic element combined with the focus on the singer, and their spontaneity.

The great thing about it: the better you know a piece, note for note, every grace anyone ever did, and every shade, the greater the effect of the pattern interrupt, and thus, the deeper the hypnotic effect.

Oh, I just love music.

Fammi combatttere
Orlando, G. F. Händel

Fammi combattere 
mostri e tifei, 
nuovi trofei 
se vuoi dal mio valor. 

Muraglie abbattere 
disfar incanti, 
se vuoi ch’io vanti 
darti prove d’amor. 
Let me fight
against any monster,
if you want
new trophies by my braveness.

Let me throw walls down,
destroy enchantments, 
if you want me to boast
of giving you proof of love.

Libretto via the Aria Database


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