When we think of psychedelic music bands like The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and The Beatles tend to come to mind. Inspired by the LSD-fueled cultural revolution of the 1960s, bands like these provided the soundtrack to this era and gave birth to a whole new type of sound: psychedelic rock. While people gathered in the hundreds of thousands to bear witness to these new sounds at festivals like Woodstock, researchers of this era were using music to facilitate psychedelic experiences in a more formal setting. These researchers noticed that music had the profound ability to alter the psychedelic experience in one way or another.
However, music has played a central role in the psychedelic experience for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In ayahuasca ceremonies, icaros are performed by curanderos. These traditional indigenous Amazonian songs are used to guide ceremony participants over the course of their psychedelic journey . Maria Sabina, the curandero who is best known for introducing R. Gordon Wasson to psilocybin mushrooms, was also a prolific poet who spoke or sang her verses during ceremonies .
In modern clinical research with psychedelics, music continues to be recognized as having an integral role to play in psychedelic therapy. Participants undergoing psychedelic-assisted therapy sessions often wear eyeshades while listening to a specially curated playlist of songs that act in harmony with the effects of the drug.
The research team at Johns Hopkins have been using such a playlist for over twenty years of psychedelic research. Initiated by Bill Richards, a substantive effort has been made to carefully select music from a variety of genres which Richards says, “chromatically develops, and it goes up and reaches this exquisite climax and then comes back down.” In this sense, music is deliberately chosen to accompany a particular part of the psychedelic journey .
On a grander scale, the use of music in psychedelic therapy relates to the essential importance of context in the psychedelic experience or the ‘set and setting’ of the experience. Given the crucial role music has in psychedelic therapy, researchers have been exploring how music can influence the psychedelic experience. In no particular order, below we highlight some of the significant publications surrounding this aspect of psychedelic science.
Top 10 Psychedelics and Music Papers Walkthrough
Music is a well-known tool for evoking and studying emotional responses. In 2015, Frederick Barrett and colleagues tested whether or not the music-evoked emotional response is enhanced by LSD. This within-subjects, placebo-controlled, single-blind study (n=10) found that LSD enhanced music-evoked emotions as measured by a visual analogue scale (VAS) and the nine-item Geneva Emotional Music Scale (GEMS-9).
This is one of the first studies to directly explore the effects of music and provide evidence that the link between music and the psychedelic experience may be harnessed for therapeutic benefit.
Researchers at Imperial College London later explored if listening to music can induce changes in entropic brain activity during resting state and lead to subsequent changes in personality structure. In this study (n=20), participants were administered LSD (75µg) and the Revised NEO Personality Inventory was completed at screening and two weeks after LSD/placebo.
Results indicated that acute increases in brain entropy affecting the disintegration of functional connectivity within sensory and higher-order networks were predictive of subsequent increases in trait openness measured two weeks later, and this relationship was enhanced by listening to music.
fMRI has become a popular neuroimaging technique used by psychedelic researchers. Using fMRI, Mendel Kaelen and colleagues (2016) explored the relationship between LSD and music-listening on eyes closed imagery invoked during peak drug effects.
It was found that LSD and music may work together to induce visual imagery via the parahippocampal cortex. This region of the brain has previously been linked with music-evoked emotion, the action of psychedelics, and mental imagery.
Mendel Kaelen and colleagues revisited the role LSD has on music-evoked brain activity in 2017, this time with a larger sample size (n=16). fMRI was used to assess the effects LSD (75µg) has on brain activity and connectivity in response to acoustic features in music.
It was found that LSD enhanced music-evoked feelings of wonder under LSD, which in turn correlated to the changes within brain networks encoding music-evoked emotions and modulation of timbre complexity, which is thought to be a universal feature of music that conveys emotions cross-culturally.
5. Qualitative and quantitative features of music reported to support peak mystical experiences during psychedelic therapy sessions
Different types of music can elicit different effects on the psychedelic experience. Similarly, different stages of the experience respond differently to music. In order to better understand how the features of music support the different phases of drug effects, Frederick Barrett and colleagues (2017) asked individuals with extensive experience administering psilocybin to identify the features of commonly used musical selections that have been found to be supportive of mystical experiences within a psilocybin session.
This study identified the peak/mystical experience inducing/supporting music as “regular, predictable, formulaic phrase structure and orchestration, a feeling of continuous movement and forward motion that slowly builds over time, and lower perceptual brightness.”
6. Serotonin 2A receptor signalling underlies LSD-induced alteration of the neural response to dynamic changes in music
In a separate study, Frederick Barrett and colleagues (2017) used the blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) technique to investigate the role of serotonin receptor signalling in the neural response to the time-varying tonal structure of music in participants under the influence of LSD.
Data revealed that 5HT2A receptor signalling alters the neural response to music in brain regions supporting basic and higher-level musical and auditory processing and areas involved in memory, emotion, and self-referential processing.
This study analyzed data from the same participants as Preller et al. (2017).
7. Set and Setting: A Randomized Study of Different Musical Genres in Supporting Psychedelic Therapy
Matthew Johnson and colleagues were the first to study the effects of psilocybin and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) on smoking cessation in 2014. In this open-label study, 80% of participants were smoking-free at 6 months.
These researchers revisited the data from this trial in 2020 to assess the effects different musical genres had on participants in the original study. Mystical experiences scores tended to be higher in overtone-based sessions (e.g. gongs) than in Western classical sessions. While the sample size was small and a number of confounding factors were present, these findings “call into question whether Western classical music typically used in psychedelic therapy holds a unique benefit.”
Mendel Kaelen and colleagues (2018) at Imperial College London further explored the role music plays in the psychedelic experience. This time, however, they sought the perspective of trial participants through semi-structured interviews.
Participants identified a number of ways in which music influenced their experience, most frequently related to the intensification of emotions and mental imagery, and the music appeared to be a significant source of guidance, creating a sense of grounding, as well as a sense of carrying the listener into different psychological places.
The review looks at what music has been used throughout 10 studies with psychedelics (n=180). The review begins with a summary of earlier work by Helen Bonny and Walter Pahnke who explored the role of music in psychedelic therapy in 1972. From this work and more, Helen Bonny devised the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music which is a common approach to transformation therapy guided by classical music.
In the studies included in the review, music was widely considered integral for meaningful emotional and imagery experiences and self-exploration. Music was associated with positive longer-term therapeutic effects. Moreover, the researchers offer some tips on how to study it and use music in psychedelic therapy.
By now, it should be clear that Frederick Barrett and Mendel Kaelen have a particular interest in this area of psychedelic science. In 2018, these researchers, and Katrin Preller, reviewed the role of music in psychedelic therapy.
The review explores the history of contemporary research on the contribution of music to the treatment of psychiatric disorders within the novel framework of psychedelic therapy. Furthermore, the researchers provide perspective on the future directions regarding the use of music in psychedelic research and therapy, arguing for a more detailed and rigorous investigation of the role music plays in the therapeutic process.
1. Psychedelic Times. (2017). The Spiritual and Therapeutic Benefits of Icaros Songs in an Ayahuasca Ceremony. Psychedelic Times. https://psychedelictimes.com/the-spiritual-and-therapeutic-benefits-of-icaros-songs-in-an-ayahuasca-ceremony/
2. Aridjis, C. (2015). On María Sabina, one of Mexico’s greatest poets. British Council. https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/maria-sabina-one-of-mexicos-greatest-poets
3. Shapiro, M. (2020). Inside the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Playlist. Johns Hopkins. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/articles/inside-the-johns-hopkins-psilocybin-playlist
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