A number of recent studies have highlighted the efficacy of magic mushrooms and other psychedelics at treating mental health disorders, yet the role of music in shaping these therapeutic experiences is something that scientists are only just beginning to explore. Interestingly, virtually all psychedelic trials and therapy sessions involve music, yet a new study suggests that the playlists that are typically used by researchers and therapists may not be the most effective.
The impact of music on psychedelic experiences is not in itself a new discovery, and indigenous shamans around the world are thought to have used sound to guide and manipulate the visionary journeys of their patients for thousands of years. Anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios famously described the music played by Amazonian shamans as a “jungle gym” that enables people to navigate their ayahuasca-induced hallucinations.
For this reason, modern psychedelic researchers have been keen bring some melodic magic into their clinical trials, and neuroscientists from Imperial College London even teamed up with Brian Eno to create a playlist for use in psychedelic therapy sessions. Consisting mostly of relaxing classical music, the soundtrack has been used in some of the most celebrated psychedelic studies of the past few years, such as those that revealed the capacity of psilocybin – the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms – to relieve depression.
Subsequently, clinical guidelines for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy have tended to insist on the use of classical music, yet a new study in the journal ACS Pharmacology and Translational Science suggests that this may not be the most appropriate genre after all.
To conduct their research, the study authors administered psilocybin to ten participants in an attempt to help them quit smoking. While under the influence of the drug, patients listened to two different playlists, one of which consisted of Western classical music while the other featured “overtone-based” sounds. This involved the use of instruments like gongs, Tibetan singing bowls and didgeridoos, and often lacked any melodic structure.
Participants later filled in questionnaires relating to these two soundtracks, with results indicating that the overtone-based playlist was slightly more effective than the Western classical playlist at generating “mystical experiences”.
Patients were then allowed to choose which of the two playlists to listen to during their next psilocybin therapy session, with six of the ten participants opting for the overtones. These individuals were slightly more successful at giving up smoking than those who chose the Western classical playlist.
“These data call into question whether Western classical music typically used in psychedelic therapy holds a unique benefit,” explain the study authors in their write-up. They go on to suggest that it may be erroneous to assume that any one genre is superior to all others when it comes to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, and that the personal preferences of each individual patient should be taken into account when devising a playlist.
While these findings cast some doubt over the exact songs that should be used during psychedelic therapies, the importance of music in general is not being questioned. A number of fascinating studies have revealed that music amplifies the emotional and therapeutic effects of psychedelics, and that the combination of these two elements is far superior to taking psychedelic in silence.
For instance, one study revealed that music significantly increases communication between the parahippocampal cortex – which coordinates autobiographical memories – and the visual cortex under the influence of LSD. As a consequence, patients who received the drug reported experiencing more personally significant visions when listening to music than when not.
It seems, therefore, that psychedelic therapists may need to develop a shamanic-like skill for music selection.