Music in the liminal space: Part 1 Neurology and Consciousness

by Bev Foster

I have borne witness to the dying trajectories of three loved ones. It appeared to me that each one was most receptive to music when body systems were shutting down and their spirits were preparing to travel on. That in-between, liminal space can be filled with music based on neurological events taking place at death, the unique nature of music and the bridging of the two. My sense is that music in the liminal space between life and death is heard by the dying one and may, in fact, be helpful.

Death comes in different ways. No matter what way death comes, biologically, medically and legally, the absence of cortical activity signifies death. Clinical death is defined as a period of unconsciousness caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain because either circulation or breathing or both have stopped. If no resuscitation takes place, the brain cells will suffer irreparable damage within five to ten minutes and the patient will nearly always die.[i] Pronouncement of clinical death is usually based on three criteria: absence of pulse or heart sounds, absence of spontaneous respirations, and absence of corneal (eye) reflexes.[ii] Brain death is diagnosed when a large part of the cerebral cortex and the brain stem have sustained irreparable damage. In brain death a person may be “kept alive” by a ventilator. EEG plays an important role in the diagnosis of brain death and is used in intensive care units for the brain injured or catastrophically neurologically diseased.[iii]  In either a clinical or brain death, a “flat” EEG i.e. straight line, shows that any electrical activity in the cerebral cortex is absent.[iv]

In either case, consciousness is an important question in the liminal state, and it seems to be a baffling question. While measuring brain wave activity determines biological death, it does not give us a basis for conscious activity, its beginning and end. What is the basis of consciousness? Does consciousness end with death? If the answer to this question is yes, then music in the liminal space may have limitations and be concerned with biological relationships only. If the answer is no, then the possibilities may be unending.

The term consciousness is hard to define. Someone in a state of deep and dreamless sleep usually experiences no consciousness. Concussion, fainting, undergoing anesthesia causes unconsciousness. Waking consciousness refers to a person who is awake, aware of thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories, known as objects of consciousness. The ability to perceive and experience depends on selective intention and attention.[v] Much of psychiatry is concerned with memories of experiences in the sub-conscious. We may have altered states of consciousness through techniques like hypnosis or through hallucinogens or opioids.

The findings of Near-Death Experience (NDE) research suggest that consciousness is present at death and what lies after death. In view of the NDE reports of consciousness, Dutch cardiologist and NDE researcher Van Lommel says that death, like birth, may be a mere passing from one state of consciousness into another. He believes consciousness is not confined to the brain, because consciousness is non-local, and our brain facilitates rather than produces our experience of consciousness.[vi]

Quantum physics (QP) and the theory that consciousness and memories are stored in non-local space as wave functions, would also support the view of unending consciousness. In QP, consciousness may be thought of as nonlocal information storage in which memory is nonlocally and instantaneously accessible. This would explain the possibility of perception during an out-of-body experience as well as life review with detailed memories and images during an NDE in a dimension without time and distance.[vii]

The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, believed the soul to be imprisoned in the body and restricted by the senses. Death was an awakening, a remembering of the eternal soul. Socrates told his friends on the day he was to die, “what is that which is termed death, but this very separation and release of the soul from the body?”[viii]

Mysticism and spirituality have historically believed that consciousness is endless. Traditional Hindus believe that the “Self” is immortal. The human soul does not begin with conception, rather we are in essence immortal. Buddhists believe in the cycle of death and rebirth. A person cannot die, but a body can. The time it takes a body to die may be brief, or last a long time depending on the time the consciousness needs to vacate the body. Death is like sleeping and the bardo, the intermediate state that follows death, lasts forty-nine days and is much like a dream between death and a new life. According to Tibetan Buddhists, the soul begins its new life on the fiftieth day after death. Jewish tradition also teaches that death does not destroy the soul, rather death represents a transition from one level of consciousness to another, to a spiritual, disembodied consciousness.[ix] The Kabbalah teaches that the human essence, our consciousness or soul, is a complex phenomenon consisting of different layers: nefesh which survives physical death, ruach, the essence of awareness, neshama the collective conscience, chaya, the life-force essence, supreme ultimate consciousness and yechida, unity with the transcendent.[x] According to Christianity, we are born of the flesh and the spirit. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”[xi]  Death happens but it is not the end. Further in Corinthians, the resurrection of the dead is explained. There will be a new body, one that is raised imperishable, a spiritual body.[xii]  Christians believe that there is eternal life and that death is merely falling asleep, modeled by Christ himself in human suffering, death and resurrection. What a person is conscious of is that when they are absent from the body, they are present with the Lord.[xiii] Consciousness revolves around community with the Eternal Creator. Muslims believe that at the time of judgment at the end of time, each person will be led before Allah for an individual trial. All the Prophets of God called their people to believe in life after death; not believing would mean denying God. God has given man perceptual, rational, aesthetic and moral consciousness that guides a man regarding realities that cannot be verified through sensory data.[xiv] The Quaran also states that the present life is a preparation for the eternal life after death. [xv]

Music therapist Colin Lee observes that the process of music and dying have qualities in common.[xvi] One of the demands of death, he says, is being open to constant transformation, including states of consciousness. He believes that the acclimating to the constant change in parameters and forms of the music, experiencing the different states of consciousnesses to which one is brought by different types of music may reflect the dying process. Lee further states that music is a life-giving force, of this world.  According to Lee, there is a dilemma: music can express the essence of dying, but music itself mediates life.[xvii]

If endless consciousness is a possibility, then music may be the conscious life-giving force that helps make the liminal transition. Perhaps music is a sound bridge transporting consciousness from one place to another, or a transformational bridge in the painful parting of biological and spiritual substance. 


Bev Foster, MA, BEd, BMus, ARCT, AMus, is the Founder and Executive Director of the Room 217 Foundation, an organization dedicated to music and care. She is an experienced musician and educator who speaks and writes extensively on the power of music, especially in life limiting situations.


Parts two and three of this three-part series will be published Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 and Wednesday March 6, 2020.

[i] Van Lommel, P., (2007). Consciousness beyond life. The science of Near-Death Experience. New York: HarperCollins. p. viii

[ii] in conversation with Dr. Steve Russell, Palliative Physician, Port Perry Medical Associates

[iii] ibid

[iv] Model Protocol Postmortem Organ and Tissue Donation. http://www.transplantatiestichting.nl. (in Dutch)

[v] van Lommel p. 301

[vi] van Lommel, (2007) ibid. p. 318

[vii] van Lommel, (2007) ibid. p. 252

[viii] Plato, Phaedo, trans. Benjamin Jowett, http://philosophy.eserver.org/plato/phaedo.txt.

[ix] Mishlove. J., (1975).  Roots of Consciousness. New York: Random House

[x] ibid

[xi] Bible I Cor. 15:22

[xii] ibid,  I Cor. 15:42-57

[xiii] ibid,  II Cor. 5:6

[xiv] How Do Muslims View Death? by the Assembly of Muslim Youth http://www.islam-guide.com/life-after-death-by-wamy.htm

[xv] Quran 23:99-104

[xvi] Scheiby, B., ch. 17, “Dying Alive” – a transpersonal analytical music therapy approach for adults with chronic, progressive neurological diseases.  from Dileo, C., Loewy, J., (ed), (2005). Music therapy at the end of life. Cherry Hill NJ: Jeffrey Books,

[xvii] ibid, p. 177