Music As Medicine

Music and psychedelics go hand-in-hand. Could both have a healing effect?

This is the first of two stories by the same author. Read the companion piece here.

After my mother died in May, I spent many sad afternoons with maudlin classical concertos plugged into my ears. But there were also many nights on my sofa, bawling my heart out, with “N.W.O.” by Ministry (possibly the greatest metal track ever), “Heart Shaped Box” by Nirvana, and “Mr. Self Destruct” by Nine Inch Nails at max volume. Screaming and crying with the loudest, angriest music in the world released more grief and pain than any ambient track was capable of. 

I asked neuroscientist Christopher Timmermann of Imperial College London, who is a part of Imperial College London’s Center for Psychedelic Research unit as well as a musician, if it could be appropriate to throw some dark, intense industrial techno or even heavy metal thrash into a psychedelic mix—if that sort of thing would seem right for that person. Would dark, heavy, loud, cathartic music prove useful for anyone processing pain, anger, or trauma?

“Traditionally, ayahuasca shamans in South America always have dark moments in their ceremonies,” says Timmermann. “Usually this manifests as intense drumming, but there are also moments of dark tones, minor chords, and mysterious harmonies. Shamans use them to potentiate intense and difficult emotions.”

However, Timmermann still thinks the current trend for calm, quiet, ambient music serves psychedelic therapy best. 

“From a neuroscientific perspective, there’s only so much sonically that you can take in. When music is too disorganized, busy, and chaotic, it’s not typically conducive to emotional breakthroughs,” he says. “What most people need is music that is spacious: Abrasive and imposing music doesn’t give enough space—enough sensory space, cognitive space, or emotional space for people to put their own stories and thoughts at the forefront of their experience and organize their minds. I also think the ambient genre is helpful because it is ‘decontextualized’—you don’t have issues with locality, cultural appropriation, or triggering.”

He’s right, says Stacey Griffin, a Canadian-born Amsterdam-based musician who creates music with her experimental music triad End of Time. Because music is so powerful, it has the power to send things very, very right. But it can also send things very, very wrong, says Griffin, whose group has been commissioned to produce multi-hour performances for legal psilocybin-containing truffle retreats Synthesis and Spinoza in the Netherlands. She recalls attending sessions as a participant rather than a performer, and she found some of the music triggering. 

“During one ceremony they put on a hard rock song that brought up painful childhood memories,” she says.  

Nonetheless, dark can be good—and End of Time is one of the few acts that I’ve come across making modern music for psychedelic therapy who embrace the cathartic power of the dark. When their track “Hundred Syllable Mantra” came through my headphones I was on the bus, dead sober. Yet my hair stood on end, my skin became covered in goosebumps, and for the next hour I listened to the same track on repeat, at max volume. It tapped into something I just couldn’t find in any other psychedelic playlist.

End of Time performing at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Sigrid Keidel

“Maybe it comes from my youth, going to raw and dark techno raves in Detroit, but my whole life has been about the theme of ‘non-cheesiness,’” says Griffin. “It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or what you look like if you’re in a pitch-black warehouse: it’s just about the music, and about the music being, for lack of a better word, ‘authentic.’”

It is crucial to note: Griffin swears she was never high at her youth-defining raves.

“As I was having these transcendent experiences with the music, I didn’t feel the need to alter it with drugs. That and a family history of addiction made me wary of taking anything,” she says. “I got super high from the music alone—and I stand by that,” she says. “Since then, all of my work, such as with Shift Meditation, has been about shifting consciousness—and nothing shifts your consciousness more than music.” 

The beating heart of treatment

The “psychedelic boom” is all over the news. Psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) has been shown to be just as effective as traditional pharmaceuticals for treatment-resistant depression. MDMA continues to show promise for PTSD. Startups are raising millions, and psychedelic CEOs are ringing the bell on Wall Street. It’s strange to see so much excitement about molecules that were vilified for so long. 

Yet far too many people—including academics and entrepreneurs—only consider psychedelics in terms of their activity as cures in and of themselves. But the most important factors—such as the people you do them with, whether they be friends, strangers, enemies, therapists, or just your sweet self—have a far greater influence on the nature of your experience. 

And what music you listen to is a big part of that as well, says musician Jon Hopkins, who released a standalone album of music crafted for psychedelic therapy last year. 

Maybe music isn’t the icing on the cake—perhaps it’s central to the entire journey.

“You get into trouble when you think about these molecules in isolation—when you think of them as magical cures,” says Hopkins, who contributes to the Wavepaths platform. This autumn he released his own standalone album of music crafted for psychedelic therapy, simply titled Music For Psychedelic Therapy. “If you think you can just drop this magical thing into your normal life, without considering the context of the experience—the setting—and everything else you need to do to make deep internal transformations, psychedelics are unlikely to make lasting changes in your life.”

Maybe music isn’t the icing on the cake—perhaps it’s central to the entire journey. 

In fact, there are tantalizing suggestions of just that from clinical studies. The results of a recent clinical trial testing the anxiety-reducing potential of calm music and auditory beat stimulation with 163 people clinically diagnosed with anxiety yielded positive results. It showed “sound-based treatments are effective in reducing somatic and cognitive state anxiety,” according to the report published by researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, who conducted the study. 

In an earlier 2018 study, scientists from Imperial College London reported in the journal Psychopharmacology that of 19 people treated with psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression (meaning at least two attempts with traditional pharmaceutical antidepressants were unsuccessful), the nature of their experience of the music was “significantly predictive of reductions in depression” a week later—while the intensity of the drug experience was not. Their experience of the music was more important than the perceived potency of the drug. Isn’t that something?

Most scientists—including all authors of that 2018 study—were surprised by this. But I was not. 

Long before I became interested in psychedelic therapy (or had experienced it), music has been my therapist, my medicine, my healer, and my best friend—really since birth. It is the only one of the triad sex, drugs, and rock & roll, that I cannot survive more than a few hours without. I need it all day, every day. And why not? Music has never given me a hangover, busted up my home, broken my heart, or killed any of my friends.

I believe in psychedelic therapy, and I care deeply about it. But my first love has always been music. Moreover, music is not just my first love—it’s humanity’s first love. We have only consumed drugs for fifty thousand years or more. But music? It has been with us since the very beginning, even before language. Archaeological excavations from sub-Saharan Africa to Central America to Southeast Asia have uncovered musical instruments of surprising sophistication, such as flutes fashioned from mammoth and bird bones over 40,0000 years ago in Central Europe.  

Music is one of the few things found in every single culture on earth. Not every culture has architecture, agriculture, writing, or the number zero. But every human population on the face of the planet makes music in some way shape or form. It is one of our few universals. 

Music’s ancient origins aren’t just fascinating—they are useful. Thanks to its evolutionary roots, music has deep biological foundations—and therefore can be deployed as a form of medicine for a huge range of conditions: people undergoing spinal surgery require less anesthetic when played music. Memory recall in people with Alzheimer’s improves with music. Many children with autism find social bonding easier with singing and dancing. People suffering from Parkinson’s disease who struggle to walk find walking becomes possible with music as an accompaniment, a treatment known as “melodic gait therapy.” Even premature babies will gain weight faster when played music in the ward: No cynic could dismiss that as the placebo effect. 

Some of the most astonishing stories concern “melodic speech therapy,” which involves re-teaching people to speak just as we teach children the alphabet with the ABC song using melodies. The most famous person to ever recover speech through music therapy was Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman shot in the head in a 2011 assassination attempt. Though she survived, she could not speak until music therapy gave Giffords her voice back.

Music as medicine 

The popular term used to describe therapeutic experiences with LSD, magic mushrooms, MDMA, and other perception-altering drugs is “psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.” But I wonder if a more accurate term would be “psychedelic-assisted music therapy.” All forms of psychedelic therapy—ayahuasca ceremonies, peyote rituals, the psychiatric experiments in the 1950s, the underground scene birthed in the 1970s, and the modern ketamine clinics and Dutch recreational magic mushroom truffle retreats—all of them place music at the center of the experience.

Many therapists describe music as the “anchor” or the “guide,” with the psychedelic as the ingredient providing the true healing. Put another way: You can have music therapy without psychedelics, but it’s almost impossible to have psychedelic therapy without music.

But it’s also worth asking if psychedelics simply catalyze the effects of the music? And, is music is the true healer?

“Simply making music is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever experienced—music can add new perspectives, or a sense of meaning, to things that had previously felt meaningless,” says Hopkins. “The aim is always to use music to convey the things that words can’t—in particular, that feeling of awe you experience when you are presented with something you just can’t explain.”

Hopkins tells me that much of the inspiration for the album came from a number of experiences in his 30s with the recreational drug DMT. “I just had this enormous urge to translate these extraordinary experiences into music,” he says. 

Though Hopkins is best known for his dark, loud, crowded club bangers, he started off as a classically trained pianist. His soothing and ambient tracks are among his most popular, such as “Immunity,” his fourth-highest ranked track on Spotify, with 18 million plays. Music For Psychedelic Therapy takes things to an even more soothing and downtempo level, with no beats or drums. Instead, gentle tones are layered with numerous field recordings of waterfalls, breezes, and birdsong taken during a 2018 trip to the Tayos Caves in Ecuador with artist Eileen Hall (who created the cover art for the album).

“I wanted to push the parameters of what you can do emotionally with ambient music,” says Hopkins. “I’m fascinated by the emotional intensity that can be conveyed with really abstract stuff. And electronic music that is made specifically for psychedelic use really is like a whole new language, because the technology to make this kind of music in this way didn’t exist until quite recently.”

“This feels like a frontier,” he says.

Genre is meaningless

Hopkins made headlines by creating ambient, longform music for therapy last year—lauded by mainstream press as something that had never been done before. 

But musicians have always made slow, quiet, ambient, electronic, rhythmless music intended to soothe. Brian Eno’s Music for Airports came out in 1978—almost half a century ago—explicitly designed to alleviate the stressful chore of air travel. And though made for sober folk, we can be darn sure it was used by many while tripping.

Moreover, there have always been forms of music crafted explicitly for psychedelics. For thousands of years music has been central to peyote, ayahuasca, and ibogaine rituals. In the 1960s, “psychedelic rock” with its distortion, endless guitar solos, and multi-hour jams, captivated a generation of stoners and Deadheads. Through the 1980s, gong baths, wind chimes, and singing bowls became popular at underground hippie retreats with psychedelics as the bedrock—which Michael Pollan derisively and accurately terms “spa music.” Then the 1990s saw the emergence of rave culture, and a form of (terrible) repetitive, longform dance music known explicitly as “psy trance.”

“Music should never be viewed as a genre or entertainment—it is a powerful regulating force for our moods and emotions,” says Jimmy Kyriacou, the founding partner of the FutureSound platform and The Future is Sound Summit in London, which hosts events showcasing how sound can transform the human experience. With electronic music, Kyriacou says, “the possibilities of creating new sounds are endless.”

Music stimulates more parts of our brains than any other activity.

And this is the real difference between music crafted for psychedelic therapy today and every other form of music made for psychedelics in the past. Musicians can now craft pieces with digital technology to carefully and precisely elicit specific reactions in the listener, utilizing information gleaned through modern neuroscience. 

This all amounts to a new way of thinking about what music really is: a medicament, a therapy, an art, a technology—and a means to manipulate the listener. 

“Music really can be seen as a tool to evoke a specific biological reaction,” says Imperial College London neuroscientist Timmermann, who co-authored the 2018 “hidden therapist” paper that found musical experiences were more important in determining recovery from depression a week later than drug intensity. 

“The new forms of electronic and ambient music composition seem to be attempting to engineer emotions in the audience through music,” he says. “And that, I think, is genuinely new.”

The hidden therapist

“It is amazing to track the listener’s biological responses, especially their nervous system responses—to see that in measurable ways—and really see how the music is affecting the listener,” adds Dréa Drury, a Canadian musician who also works on music for psychedelic therapy as a contributor with Wavepaths. “That’s my obsession these days—creating sound mandalas that have a very specific purposes in how they impact the nervous system.”

Over the past twenty-five years, neuroscientists have discovered that music affects the brain like nothing else. Music stimulates more parts of our brains than any other activity: more than reading, more than mathematics, more than learning a new language. Music is singular, and it affects every part of your brain, from top to bottom, back to front. 

Music for Psychedelic Therapy, by Jon Hopkins.

And if you want to tinker with someone’s brain, the best tool—after music—would be psychedelic drugs, which have the overall effect of “shaking up a snow globe,” as University of California, San Francisco researcher Robin Carhart-Harris puts it.

“Psychedelics reveal the mechanics of the mind and make very obvious that we construct our models of reality, and how those constrain our thoughts,” says Max Cooper, a computational biologist by training and world-renowned techno DJ by profession, who has composed music to accompany small startup pharmaceutical companies running DMT studies. With a PhD in computational biology, specializing in the expression of gene networks, he knows more than a bit about the mechanics of living things. “Psychedelics can be great to come up with new thought processes, find new solutions to things that are stuck—and change your neural networks in a positive way.”

He’s probably not wrong: a 2016 PNAS study demonstrated how LSD increases the “functional connectivity” between different regions of the brain. Regions that normally do not communicate with one another suddenly can exchange information, resulting in new ideas, new insights, new breakthroughs.

So what happens when you put music and psychedelics together? New methods of crafting music for psychedelic therapy go beyond demonstrating that music can affect the brain in specific ways. The entire field of music therapy strikes at the heart of understanding what music actually is.

Defining music has never been easy. Some have called it “organized sound”—which is somewhat true, but an alarm clock is also organized, but it’s not music. Others have called music “beautiful math.” Again, that’s somewhat true, but there are many forms of music that are not mathematical, and many forms of mathematics that are not musical. 

A pretty good definition is that music is “an exquisite illusion,” or as Brian Eno once quipped, “music is something your mind does.” It exists outside your head, but it is in your brain where the specific chords, notes, tempos, riffs, and motifs of music really become imbued with meaning. There on the biological level, music can become a form of medicine in its own right: nutrition without food, healing without words, therapy without a therapist.

“The idea of music as ‘the hidden therapist,’ making people feel as if they are being heard, really resonates with me,” Cooper says. His next album is titled—presciently—Unspoken Words. “Writing it felt like being ‘heard.’ Sometimes it is possible to capture something of our shared essence with music, and that can be an endlessly comforting thing.” 

Tiresome beyond belief

Almost every single stanza of music I have ever heard in a psychedelic “ceremony” has deeply annoyed me. Some portions of the “Psilodep 1.2” playlist used by Imperial College London are beautiful and uplifting—but I have found many sections tiresome beyond belief. Overblown opera does nothing for me, and Sigur Ros tracks I’ve heard 1,000 times already (and never liked to begin with) leave me bored and irritated.  

Much worse is what I’ve heard in ayahuasca circles in Europe: White people singing the icaros songs of the “ayahuasceros” of South America. They always feel like ill-informed cultural appropriation, and I cannot take seriously anyone who spends a month in the jungle and then calls themselves a “shaman.” People who grow up in those cultures spend decades training to be a shaman—this isn’t something you can learn on vacation. 

The word psychedelic means “to manifest the mind”—and nothing truer could be said of music.

If psychedelic therapy is going to take off in the West, we need music that is appropriate for our time, our culture, our needs, our tastes, our experiences, and our history. Moreover, if you have trauma or anger to process—the very reason many undergo psychedelic therapy at all—often one needs something intense and dark for catharsis. 

That brings us back to my original point: Music isn’t the icing on the cake, the assistant to therapy—or even the “hidden therapist.” Music is the therapy—because it is the ultimate psychedelic. 

The word psychedelic (coined by Humphry Osmond, the same psychiatrist who dosed Aldous Huxley with mescaline) means “to manifest the mind”—and nothing truer could be said of music.

“I’ve always been obsessed with the power of sound to immediately shift you into different moods and different states of consciousness,” says Carl H. Smith, director of the Learning Technology Research Center and principal research fellow at Ravensbourne University London. He has been a study subject in Imperial College’s DMT brain imaging studies over the past six years. “It has been a fascinating journey to be part of so many different clinical trials—it’s almost as if each psychedelic enables ‘context switching,’ so it’s as if you hear different types of sound through different types of filters,” Smith says. “But it’s been equally amazing to see the music composed for different drugs evolve over the years.”

“The new recognition that is being given to sound as the most powerful tool in these sessions is vital, because the psychedelic renaissance is always very fragile,” he says. “And music is absolutely fundamental for its success.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 31, 2022 to clarify, in the second to last paragraph, which clinical trials Carl H. Smith participated in and to add an additional quote from him about the experience.

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