Psychedelics and music: neuroscience and therapeutic implications

This review (2018) finds that music may play a larger (active) role in psychedelic therapy and could be responsible for (part of the positive) outcomes.

Key findings

“From the beginning of therapeutic research with psychedelics, music listening has been consistently used as a method to guide or support therapeutic experiences during the acute effects of psychedelic drugs. Recent findings point to the potential of music to support meaning-making, emotionality, and mental imagery after the administration of psychedelics, and suggest that music plays an important role in facilitating positive clinical outcomes of psychedelic therapy. This review explores the history of, contemporary research on, and future directions regarding the use of music in psychedelic research and therapy, and argues for more detailed and rigorous investigation of the contribution of music to the treatment of psychiatric disorders within the novel framework of psychedelic therapy.”

Authors: Frederick S. Barrett, Katrin H. Preller & Mendel Kaelen


“Psychedelics and music listening interact to produce profound alterations in emotion, mental imagery, and personal meaning. Research is beginning to unveil underlying brain mechanisms, and to support a central role of music in psychedelic therapy. Music appears to influence the efficacy of therapy significantly, through modulating emotion, including the facilitating of mystical experiences, and through supporting autobiographical processes. Acknowledging the significance of music and the importance of rigorous future empirical investigations in this young field of research is key to improving our understanding of psychedelic therapies, and key to improving the efficacy of psychedelic therapies.”

  • The paper explores the history of psychedelics and music, and the concurrence of them in traditional societies and research alike
  • Already in 1972 music guidelines were set by Bonny and Pahnke (The use of music in psychedelic (LSD) psychotherapy)
  • “These studies revealed that LSD alters the perception of the acoustic properties of music. In particular, LSD increased the BOLD signal in response to timbral complexity—indicative of the complexity of the music’s spectral distribution—in brain networks associated with music perception and emotion, i.e. the auditory cortices, inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), insula, precuneus, striatum, and the supplementary motor area.” … “an interaction between LSD and music lead to increased information flow (effective connectivity) from the parahippocampus towards the visual cortex, and this effect correlated with enhanced mental visual imagery and seeing autobiographical scenes.”
  • Many different traits of music have been argued to be explain their emotional effects (from acoustic features to personal associations with a music piece)
  • The paper also makes a link between being more emotionally involved with the music (and surrendering to that) and the mystical experiences (positively correlated) that are reported
  • “It has been demonstrated that the music-experience during psychedelic therapy correlates with the occurrence of mystical experiences and insightfulness during psychedelic therapy, and with reductions in clinical symptoms 1 week after the session, and that calming effects of music are welcome and potentially beneficial during onset, ascent, and return phases of the psychedelic experience.”
  • The authors imply that the music selection should be personal, and although standardisation has been good for scientific research, the therapeutic benefits could be enhanced by providing music with the best ‘personal resonance’.
  • In the ‘future directions’ part of the review, the authors acknowledge that we don’t know the full effect of music and how it relates to other parts of psychedelic therapy (the talk therapy, therapist, set & settting, etc).
  • One can finally note that the third author (Kaelen) was at the time of writing already working on a company that promotes the use of (generative) music for psychedelic experiences (Wavepaths).

Significant Mentions / Follow-Up

Experience of Music Used With Psychedelic Therapy: A Rapid Review and Implications (O’Callaghan, et al., 2020)

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