A brief look into psychedelics and music: history, setting, journeying, and future questions.

Alexandra Plesner
18 min readDec 23, 2021

I have a creative mind — that is how I would sum it up — or call me neurodivergent. It has been suggested that the way I experience sound and music is likely sitting somewhere between synaesthesia and misophonia. Needless to say, I have a somewhat unique relationship and history with music (and sound).

As a designer and artist, I am naturally interested in the setting of a psychedelic session, which includes music usage. The “setting” of a therapeutic session, meaning the environment, has a tremendous influence on the experience, and music is part of the setting (Eisner, 1997).

The text below is a first step to gain a very high-level understanding of the research area into the use of music in psychedelics in therapy and the associated impact on human cognitive functioning.

Have a look at the content overview and skip to what sounds interesting to you.

Table of contents

  • Introduction
  • The connection: music and altered states of consciousness
  • Music as part of the setting
  • Patient-specific music
  • Your brain on music
  • Your brain on psychedelics
  • The synergy between music and psychedelics
  • Findings on different kinds of psychedelics & music
    - Ayahuasca
    - LSD
    - Psilocybin
    - MDMA
  • Music — sans psychedelics — my Wavepath deep listening experience
  • New questions that came to mind
  • Conclusion
  • References

Introduction

“The word psychedelic is derived from combining the Greek words psychḗ meaning ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ and dêlos, meaning ‘to manifest’ or ‘make visible’” (Kaelen et al., 2015, p. 1).

Music has historical importance to humans to give meaning, to express feelings, and for the potential to support soulful emotionality. It was a tool to guide or support experiences during the administration of psychedelics throughout time (Barrett et al., 2018; Eisner & Cohen, 1958).

As Kaelen et al. (2018) put it: “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” (p. 7).

At the moment, music selection for psychedelic therapy is not standardized. Some music features may support the mystical experience and guide the patient’s journey (Barrett et al., 2017).

This review briefly explores music in psychedelic research and therapy and music as psychedelic therapy.

The connection: music and altered states of consciousness

Music and altered states of consciousness are connected; the induction and expression of emotions through music has been utilized in shamanistic practice and various cultures for ages (Fachner, 2011; Nettl, 1956). Music is ancient. “The oldest known musical instruments appear in the archaeological record from 40,000 years ago” (Killin, 2018, p. 1).

New research on music has begun to address music’s capacity to support altered states, such as transcendental experiences (Gabrielsson, 2011; Hove et al., 2016), its ability to convey and modulate emotion (Arjmand et al., 2017; Kaelen et al., 2015), and the induction of flowing states of ecstasy and hallucination (Jourdain, 2008).

Like the use of music, archaeology indicates the ancient global use of psychedelics, already attested during the Neolithic (around 11000 BC) periods (Samorini, 2019).

Music has played a central role with traditional medicinal, spiritual practice and psychedelics, from ceremonies of the Mazatec Indians to peyote ceremonies of Native Americans and Rites of Eleusis (Kaelen et al., 2018).

Influencing drug experiences significantly (Eagle, 1972; Eisner & Cohen, 1958; Kaelen, 2018), music is a vital element of the setting to support the therapeutic experience and meaning-making (Chander, 2013; Eisner, 1997; Eisner & Cohen, Kaelen et al., 2015; Kaelen et al., 2018). Music directly influences the emotional experience within a setting and should be selected very careful, responsible, and attune for a patient as an individual (Bonny & Pahnke, 1972; Kaelen et al., 2015)

Music as part of the setting

Experiences with music arguably can have therapeutic effects, from the relief of physical pain (Gabrielsson, 2011), in the treatment of psychological (Castillo-Perez et al., 2010; Gabrielsson, 2011; Lu et al., 2021; Wang & Agius, 2018) and neurological disorders (Bian et al., 2021; Gassner et al., 2021).

It is reported that the music experience during psychedelic therapy provides a sense of safety and calm and correlates with mystical experiences and insightfulness. Music seems a supportive guide during the onset, ascent, and return phases of the psychedelic experience (Pollan, 2018; Kaelen et al., 2018).

As the quality of the music experience has been associated with therapy outcomes, and, more specifically, a music experience characterized by personal ‘resonance’ (Kaelen et al., 2018), the conclusion follows that the music selection requires an intelligent optimization, potentially even to the individual patient.

To quote Gabrielsson (2011): “When music takes over, the surrounding world disappears. Time stands still; all that counts is the music and me, here and now. Sometimes, the circumstances around the experience seem to be particularly favourable for the person to merge with the music. In some way, the music acquires a special clarity, and one is totally indeed the music” (p.77).

Patient-specific music

Not much empirical research can be found in patient-specific music, considering the critical role of music in the treatment model. A study with semi-structured interviews by Kaelen et al. (2018) about the evidence for a central role of music in psychedelic therapy found that: “Analyses of the interviews revealed that the music had both “welcome” and “unwelcome” influences on patients’ subjective experiences. Crucially, the nature of the music experience was significantly predictive of reductions in depression 1 week after psilocybin, whereas general drug intensity was not” (p. 1).

The same study by Kaelen et al. (2018) found that a “strong disliking of the music selection was rare” (p. 11) but associated with feelings of discomfort, irritation, and even resistance to the experience overall. The optimization of the musical experiences arguably is critical. It acts essentially counterproductive if not chosen carefully, an idea that has already been emphasized by pioneers such as Bonny and Pahnke (1972), Grof (1980), and Hoffer (1965).

Bonny and Pahnke have also been essential to inform us about the importance of the structural design of the music playlist, as well as Stanislav Grof, who defined the different phases in psychedelic therapy sessions, such as “pre-onset”, “onset”, “build-up”, “peak”, “entry”, and “return”. These phases are in chronological order, and each stage is associated with a different set of psychological needs for a specific kind of music (Kaelen et al., 2018)

Your brain on music

Brains are parallel processors running with a perceptual system, making sense of the information we receive through sensory receptors — the retina for vision, the eardrum for hearing. Most of the time, this information is fragmented and obscured by our environment. Our perceptual system allows us to fill in the missing information gaps through experience to help make decisions quickly (Levitin, 2006).

Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG) hypothesis (Dąbrowska, 2015) — the idea that all humans are born “with an innate capacity to understand any of the world’s languages, and that experience with a particular language shapes, builds, and then ultimately prunes a complicated and interconnected network of neural circuits…our brains and natural languages coevolved so that all of the world’s languages share certain fundamental principles, and our brains can have the capacity to incorporate any of them, almost effortlessly, through mere exposure during a critical stage of neural development. Similarly, it seems that we all have an innate capacity to learn any of the world’s music” (Levitin, 2006, p. 107).

Our perceptions are the end product of a long chain of neural communications that ultimately give us the illusion of an image, which effectively is not a 100% accurate reflection of the present reality (Levitin, 2006).

“Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience and on neural structures that can learn and modify themselves with each new song we hear and with each new listening to an old song. Our brains learn a kind of musical grammar that is specific to the music of our culture, just as we learn to speak the language of our culture” (Levitin, 2006, p. 106).

Your brain on psychedelics

The study of music provided insights into the organization of the brain due to the recruitments of large-scale brain networks involved in functions such as attention (Janata, 2005), memory (Kumar et al., 2016; Watanabe et al., 2008), motor system (Gordon et al., 2018) and emotion (Koelsch, 2014; Levitin, 2006; Trost et al., 2012).

Now, “brain regions recruited during music listening overlap at least partially with brain regions where activity and connectivity are altered after the administration of psychedelics” (Barrett et al., 2018, pg. 3).

Psychedelics produce an altered state of consciousness characterized by marked reductions in functional coupling within high-level brain networks, but at the same time, they increase connection in other low-level areas of the brain (Pollan, 2018; Kaelen et al., 2015).

Psychedelic drugs affect our ability to receive and interpret auditory information such as music and how we emotionally react to it (Barrett et al., 2018; Kaelen et al., 2015; Hoffer, 1965).

A study with psilocybin, for example, illustrates that psilocybin disrupts the typical organization of the brain, leads to less constrained and more intercommunicating mode, and new connections between areas of the brain that are not present in a normal state (Petri et al., 2014).

A further study by Kaelen et al. (2015) showed that LSD and music interact to increase effective connectivity from the parahippocampal cortex to the visual cortex. This ties in with an increase in visual mental imagery and autobiographical memories.

The synergy between music and psychedelics

Classical psychedelics are serotonin 2A receptor agonists, which activate that receptor in the brain. Serotonergic neurons in the brain respond specifically to auditory stimuli, allowing increased synergy between music and psychedelics (Hurley & Pollak, 1999).

Barrett & Griffiths (2018) further suggest that “psychedelics may diminish the usual regulatory processes of music-evoked emotion and allow a fuller processing of music and the features of the music that evoke emotion” (p. 5).

Jon Hopkins summed it up perfectly in an interview: “The psychedelic space needs a lot of new music that is designed for it. Otherwise, you have a playlist made of a hundred different energies. It’s like someone new coming into the room every 10 minutes and bringing their stuff into your space.” (Carreon, 2021).

Findings on different kinds of psychedelics & music

Ayahuasca
Icaros, the ritual songs of shamans, are tools of guidance of traditional ayahuasca ceremonies and are considered an essential element for the healing experience. Susana Bustos talked already 11 years ago about the effect of the Icaros songs on the individual, how the healing is sustained, and inner journeying can unfold in perfect simultaneity due to careful guidance (Bustos, 2010). The Icaros are improvised by the shaman and adjust to the energy in the room.

LSD
Studies revealed that after the administration of LSD, the perception of the acoustic properties of music is altered. LSD increased those brain dynamics associated with music perception and emotion. The enhancement of these emotions points to music being a critical factor in a spiritual / peak experience during a session. Barrett et al. (2018) found that increased openness only occurred with music during the LSD experience.

Psilocybin
Psilocybin has been shown to enhance visual effects, the absorption into the music and the emotional significance of music (Barrett et al., 2018; Carbonaro et al., 2018; Pollan, 2018).

From Michael Pollan’s (2018) experience with psilocybin: “As soon as Mary put on the first song…I was immediately propelled into a nighttime urban landscape…Once again, sound became space (“in the beginning was the note,” I remember thinking, with a sense of profundity)…I was traversing a world generated by mathematical algorithms, and this gave it a certain alienated, lifeless beauty. But whose world was it? Not mine and I began to wonder, whose brain am I in? (Please, not Thierry Davids’s!)… I’ve left out one important part of my journey to the underworld: the soundtrack. Before going back under for this last passage, I had asked Mary to please stop playing spa music and put on something classical.

We settled on the second of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The suite in D minor is a spare and mournful piece that I’d heard many times before, often at funerals, but until this moment, I had never truly listened to it. Through “listen” doesn’t begin to describe what transpired between me and the vibration of air set in motion by the four strings of that cello. Never before has a piece of music pierced me as deeply as this one did now.

Though even to call it “music” is to diminish what now began to flow, which was nothing less than the stream of human consciousness, something in which one might glean the very meaning of life…I lost whatever ability I still had to distinguish subject from object, tell apart what remained of me and what was Bach’s music.

Instead of Emersons’ transparent eyeball, egoless and one with all it beheld, I became a transparent ear, indistinguishable from the stream of sound that flooded my consciousness until there was nothing else in it, not even a dry tiny corner in which to plant an I and observe. Opened to the music, I became first the strings, could feel on my skin the exquisite friction of the horsehair rubbing over me, and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument and went out to meet the world, beginning its lonely transit of the universe” (p. 258- 268).

MDMA
According to a meta-analysis by Luoma et al. (2020) that compared nine identified randomized and placebo-controlled clinical trials that have been published since 1994, exploring effect sizes of psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, versus MDMA; MDMA has “a differing biological and phenomenological effect” (p.3).

Studies that looked into ways MDMA and music interact with each other showed that music helps “flood the brains of people on MDMA with even more dopamine and serotonin than already get released in the presence of the drug, essentially doubling down on their positive effects like mood regulation and improvement” (Capps, 2017, para. 12).

Music — sans psychedelics — my Wavepath deep listening experience

Now — I had the pleasure to directly experience Wavepaths through an immersive deep listening experience on December 16 2021.

Dr Mendel Kaelen developed Wavepaths, a music company that collaborates with musicians to provide curated music both for and as psychedelic therapy. The program builds sound environments Through adaptive AI music-generation technology based on different factors, including emotions and the type of medicine a person consumes (Siebert, 2021, para. 3).

The free event started with a 30-minute introduction to Wavepaths and the deep listening session via a Zoom call with Dr Kaelen. Over 300 of us gathered to that joined universal experience. Deep listening was described to us to be an “attitude of listening”, and we were encouraged to be a) focusing on nothing but the music, b) accepting without judgement the entirety of the experience and c) to surrender to the unfolding experience of the music.

After the introduction, we received a link to the actual musical experience (without video); we were asked to get comfortable, use our best headphones (or speaker), get eyeshades, reflect and off we went.

For me, it was evening, and coming off a very inspiring conversation, I decided to — frankly — take a long hot shower during the introduction call to wash off the day, which was rather hectic. I then settled into the dark cosy room with my noise-cancelling headphones on and surrendered to the music. A very soft-spoken voice guided me to take three deep breaths and relax, similar to the endless mediation sessions I experienced before.

The characteristics of the sound felt like instrumentation, predictable, soft, not stimulating, warm, and deep at the beginning, and somewhat embedded on a base that felt like binaural beats and wind. I felt like falling into space, flying upward and forward, all the time surrounded by stars like diamonds. I was surprised to fly and change directions as I wanted or rest still, wrapped in thick air. It was not warm. It was just that I was not cold, and I felt safe, although I am afraid of heights in the real world. I was in space, but it was not high. I looked, and I saw myself out there, spread over the darkness and continuously expanding forward.

As the dynamics of the music felt like picking up pace, there was still comfy stability in rhythm as the motion slowly built up, it felt like less consistency, and just as I thought I could rely on it, the strident sound of bells burst my bubble of comfort. It was annoying, and the sound patterns exploded, and every tiny piece felt like multiplying in infinity. I remember telling myself that this sound eventually had to end. I was back in reality for a nanosecond, in which I found myself thinking about the fragility of my ageing father. My hero. And here I was, tears that had me dissolve into a puddle, a little anxiety was creeping in, and my heartfelt wrapped in something complex. I think I told myself to try and feel all the feelings, and I managed to stay in the space instead of running away from it.

At times I did not want the experience to end, and I bet I was lying in the dark, eyes wide open like when I jumped out of an aeroplane — and it was so overwhelming that my brain could not believe what was going on. It was awesome! At other moments, I felt like — wow, this has been hours, I am bored now, shall I end it and exit — but then talked myself into staying in it. I am ashamed to say I must have fallen asleep eventually, as I got pulled back into the present moment by the same female voice. But this time, I was shocked. The voice was as loud as the music and reminded me about when I was deep asleep, and my mother woke me up to get to school. Never my favourite part of the day; I am a firm believer in slow mornings.

I am very perceptive to sound. I had two similar experiences before: one was with one particular recording of the NuCalm app. Another one was at a sound studio in Los Angeles, where we all were lying on the floor of a big dome. I love the feeling of sound waves going through the body.

Was the journey extraordinary? Most definitely yes. Was it a breakthrough in regards to facing some feelings? Mhmmm. Was it fundamentally different to other experiences I had with sound? I think, in the end, I was a bit disappointed because I hoped to have a deeper musical understanding, on a level that would not have been known and felt by me already.

Maybe at this point, it is good to mention that I did not take any psychedelics for the Wavepaths experience.

I am very grateful for the opportunity and am now eager to explore more and dive deeper into the matter. I definitely would like to get an understanding of the technology behind Wavepaths ever so roughly.

Conclusion

To conclude, psychedelics and music, especially in combination, can increase openness, mental imagery, and emotions.

It opens ideas to study how particular music patterns give rise to specific neural activations in the brain and how that interacts with what type of psychedelics in what dosage and setting. How exactly do music and psychedelics affect neural networks and expand human cognition?

In my understanding, creating music for psychedelic states ought to be very architectural, with various interconnected dimensions a journeyer can roam in. The design of the playlist has to be consistent and the environment cohesive to keep a positive forward-moving flow.

New questions that came to mind

– Is the dislike of certain sounds and music an indicator for a therapist and guide to change the music, or is this an important part of personal “learning and growth”?

– What would a careful intervention look like to restore ease in the patient?

– Do highly sensitive people, who are very perceptive to the tiniest changes in sound, have different levels of what is okay and what is intensely irritating when listening to music, and is this enhanced or dimmed in combination with psychedelics?

– If so, is there a way to acknowledge and define very individually altered playlists?

– Is there such a thing as a musical safety net? With that, I mean a sound (or binaural beats) that can be played as a subline under a musical piece to restore the feeling of peace immediately?

– Is there any way musical playlists, or the process of generating patient-specific music, can be standardized to a certain degree to make a model for therapy scaleable?

– Do musicians and non-musicians (or musical) perceive sound differently, and if so, how does this apply to music for psychedelic settings?

– Do we understand the brain’s responses to the different genres of music and sound?

– Are there long term effects of people listening to music in psychedelic settings, and can the therapy be more intense if the patient continues listening to the same playlist — let’s say once a week?

– What are the long term effects of listening to music; are punk rockers brains altered differently over time compared to frequent deep house listeners?

– What kind of music is found in the neuroscientific laboratories that investigate that anyway?

– Would no music, and even the deliberate use of earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones, be a possible way of a different setting, much like the use of eyeshades, to quiet the senses and allow inward guided experiences, rather than one influenced so heavily by the music played?

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