My Psychiatrist is a DJ

London-based startup Wavepaths is creating a new kind of music technology explicitly designed for psychedelic therapy.

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

Lying on a yoga mat in a softly lit Victorian crypt in central London, I close my eyes. This allows the music to wash over me—music specifically designed for ketamine, a party drug and medical anesthetic increasingly co-opted as a therapeutic treatment in private clinics (which I have taken before in raucous settings at raves and festivals). 

Within minutes my body is covered in goosebumps, my heart burns with fire, and tears slide down my face. I feel like I could spend hours in this state, lying in stillness, with only the music for company, feeling every part of my body melt.

But here’s the thing: I am completely sober. 

That was February of 2020, and in one last, soothing gasp of pre-pandemic air, I was taking in a crowded demo put on by Wavepaths, a London-based startup that provides musical experiences for psychedelic therapy, the use of psychedelics to aid in treating mental health conditions. 

Wavepath’s team of engineers—led by Dutch neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen—were hosting a “deep listening session” to give 200 people a taste of what they were working towards: a new kind of music explicitly designed for psychedelic therapy.

They have spent years developing a new software platform that uses a vast menu of original music samples produced by world-class artists—ranging from timeless acoustic instruments such as strings, winds, and choirs, to quirky modern electronic creations—all mixed together with “an AI-powered auditory landscape designed to be responsive to every moment of a therapy session.” 

Now that their software is fully developed and tested, therapists can license it to craft personalized music sessions in their own clinical sessions, which they can modify on the fly for each individual patient. No one session will ever be the same, the music will always be novel (and unfamiliar), and it will always be formed with individual participants’ tastes in mind. 

This is a vast departure from how music was used in the 1950s when thousands of psychiatrists in the West began testing LSD as a treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction, and other conditions. The therapeutic rituals that evolved then remain standard practice today: People lie on comfortable couches, blindfolded, and listen to pre-recorded music. By shutting out visual inputs, the brain can explore other sensations and process memories and thoughts in new ways, leading to breakthroughs and revelations—with music as the emotional rudder. 

Seventy years ago, people involved in these studies were invariably played music that was universally perceived at the time to be “therapeutic.” You know the drill: Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and other giants of classical music who never even would have heard of psychedelic drugs. This was probably appropriate for some—but certainly not for all. 

Yet for seven decades, that Western classical music remained the gold standard in most clinical studies. Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore—one of the world’s top institutions leading the “psychedelic revolution” today—has published study after rigorous study on the clinical use of psychedelics to treat depression, anxiety, and other illnesses for twenty years. Yet they still use a playlist created by psychedelic pioneer Bill Richards in 1963: Gorecki, Vivaldi, Beethoven. Even Wagner is in there, the one composer associated more with the Nazis than any musician in history.

Until recently this playlist was the standard track for many other psychedelic studies—not always with the best results. An anonymous comment from a test subject in a 2016 Imperial College study administering psilocybin for depression highlights that shortcoming. “I’ve heard classical music performed live and wonderfully,” the person said, “but I’m kind of suspicious of it now. There’s something malevolent in it, maybe not totally, but from its inspirations, because it was intended to be nationalistic and patriotic.” (Curious, I emailed representatives of Johns Hopkins asking why they still use the Bill Richards playlist, but they did not respond).

At Wavepaths, Kaelen has decided to take a new approach: He has spent the past six years working on a new form of software to allow therapists to create genuinely novel music tracks, individualized for each person, based on their listening histories, their preferences and their tastes—what he calls “person-centered music.” We know that in medicine everyone is different—everyone has different preferences, aversions, genetic predispositions, and allergies. And a major movement within medicine for years has been toward precision medicine—using a person’s genetics and other specific traits to inform their treatment. If medicine can be personalized, why can’t music? Why should we expect one kind of music to heal everyone?

“I refer to our platform more as an instrument than a piece of software.”

Using music samples from more than 30 artists—including Jon Hopkins, Greg Haines, Robert Rich, Christina Vantzou, and dozens of other neoclassical and electronic stars—the Wavepaths software is designed to produce original music that is “incommensurable” and “in the moment.” 

According to Harry Simmons, the community manager at Wavepaths, their product is not a single piece of music or a curated collection of songs per se—but rather an algorithmic music system, which enables the creation of live, adaptable, and unrepeatable music experiences as opposed to static, stop-start playlists. “We would like to stress the fundamental humanity at the heart of Wavepaths music,” Simmons says, “where live recordings and compositions are mixed intelligently to create unique, ever-evolving immersive musical worlds.”

This is crucial, Kaelen says , because it allows the music to feel more like a conversation with the listener than a performance to an audience. Instead of one generic track, the music can respond with a therapist’s direction, rising or falling with the needs of each individual—who they are, and what they need in that place and time. The music is designed to always be fresh and unfamiliar—which not only avoids triggers (or annoyance), it also gives the mind the space it needs to wander more freely.

“I refer to our platform more as an instrument than a piece of software,” Kaelen says. “We are building a new generation of instruments for a new generation of care providers who work with altered states of consciousness.”

He wants to mimic how music has traditionally been created by shamans in South America, who always worked with a range of instruments—rattles, drums, their voice—from which they could select what they felt was most appropriate for that person in that time and place. 

The goal is that today, rather than being confined to an inflexible and elitist playlist of classical music crafted by dead white men, therapists should be able to mix things up on the fly using “a tapestry of sounds,” just as indigenous tribes who work with ibogaine, ayahuasca, and peyote have always done. 

“Future care providers should have musical tools that are representative of our culture and our time,” says Kaelen. “We are moving away more and more from the concept of ‘genre,’” he says. Instead they are more and more seeking to understanding the building blocks of music. “The different melodic structures, the tones, the tone colors, the rhythms,” Kaelen explains “In our research we are identifying a number of what we call ‘therapeutic functions.’” 

In addition to creating “person-centered” music, Kaelen believes it is possible to identify how specific drugs affect sound perception and neurotransmitter stimulation. In other words, actually understanding on a biochemical level how specific frequencies, melodies, and tones affect us. 

Is this even possible? Time will tell—but given that by November 2021, Wavepaths had raised over $4.5 million in funding, clearly many think it just might be. 

Read the companion piece:

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