Exploring Music’s Role in Psychedelic Therapy

The link between music and psychedelics is profound. Discover how music enhances therapy, deepening self-exploration in psychedelic journeys.
Music and psychedelics. On the left of the image is a young male with short dreads focusing on the music they are listening to through headphones. On the right side of the image is the same person, smiling, with sounds waves and psychedelic patterns emanating from behind their head.
Author: Natalie Goldberg
By Natalie Goldberg
August 13, 2023(Updated: August 16, 2023)

Revitalizing the Perception of Music

The profound impact of music as a therapeutic tool for self-healing is often underestimated. The simple act of curating a playlist could have a significant influence on our overall well-being. Artists like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, and ambient-electronic composers, have consistently provided calmness during my life’s challenging moments—be it navigating teen depression or unraveling the frustrations of difficult work environments. Surprisingly, even after two decades, their music continues to possess a timeless quality that calms me. Recent advancements in psychedelic research shed light on a fascinating connection between psychedelic therapy and the profound effects of music in clinical trials.

Andrew D. Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, has become a famous viral podcast sensation. A recent podcast episode shed light on the use of music in psychedelic clinical trials for therapy. According to the referenced study, psychedelics can enhance the enjoyment of music and even eliminate negative associations that arise when initially listening to a song. In essence, a song that was once associated with a breakup can become enjoyable again without evoking thoughts of the breakup itself.

The transformative potential of music becomes apparent as we go deeper into the intricacies of psychedelic trials. The collective bond experienced at raves or dance festivals has long been appreciated. That said, my curiosity extends to the self-healing qualities that music—particularly electronic music—offers. Researchers investigating psychedelic depression treatments recognize the crucial role of music in therapy sessions. With music being incorporated into psychedelic clinical trials, how does it influence the overall experience, and what neurological changes emerge in our minds with the introduction of psychedelics?

How does music typically affect the body?

There are two key areas in the brain that collaborate to initiate the wondrous flow of music throughout the body. The auditory cortex processes the musical stimuli, which then travels to the limbic system, where we perceive and feel the music. 

To grasp the connection between our ears and brain, I watched a concise Khan Academy video on the auditory system. The cochlea, an intriguing structure in the ear, is covered with tiny hair-like nerve connections that link to our extended emotional circuitry. Spanning from 20 hertz to an impressive 20,000 hertz when uncoiled, the cochlea encompasses a wide range of musical sound connections of auditory heights.

How music and psychedelics work in the brain

Image Screenshot Courtesy of Khan Academy

The limbic system is responsible for our emotions. In simple terms, sounds can either amplify or diminish moods through the direct connection between the limbic system and the emotion-regulating parts of our brain. An example is the amygdala, where fear and anxiety derive. This interconnectedness is immediate, with the emotional center situated at the core of our heads, it is directly influenced by the sounds we hear.

Key Points on How Music Affects the Brain

Listening to music triggers a synergy between the auditory cortex and the limbic system, causing heightened blood flow to brain regions associated with the initiation of emotions. Notably, the experience of hair standing on end and the sensation of chills exemplify powerful emotional reactions that showcase the neurological impact of music.

Even in the absence of psychedelic enhancements, a few benefits derived from music alone are:

  • Music influences mood through the release of dopamine—the feel-good rush.
  • Even a few notes of a familiar song can trigger dopamine release.
  • Emotional responses to unfamiliar music remain possible even after a brain injury.
  • Music engages mental processes similar to reading and can enhance memory.
  • Listening to music may improve cognitive function and memory in stroke survivors.
  • Music has pain-relieving properties and can provide a distraction from physical discomfort.

In a fascinating study, researchers examined how different music genres affect heart rate. Rock music notably increased average heart rates, while classical music significantly decreased them. Surprisingly, participants’ personal music choices noticeably increased their heart rate. These findings highlight music’s potential as a powerful and simple heart rate management tool.

The European Heart Journal studied music’s impact on the heart, exploring its effects on emotions and regional heart activity. Music directly influences heart activity through emotion-linked nerve pathways, with strong emotions like anger and anxiety playing a significant role in heart conditions. The findings support music interventions for anxiety reduction, highlighting its therapeutic potential.

Pre-Musical Metamorphosis in the Psychedelic Brain

Psychedelics primarily alter serotonin, a crucial neurotransmitter that regulates emotional tone, anxiety, depression, and overall emotional stability. Serotonin actively influences multiple brain regions, profoundly impacting our emotional well-being and mental state. Specifically, the 5-HT2A receptors targeted by serotonin and psychedelic medicines induce changes in brain network connectivity and neurotransmitter signaling, and induce a diverse range of emotional effects. Even a subtle change in music can create a subconscious shift, making it feel like a transition into alternative timelines.

Here are a few ways psychedelics alter your brain:

  • Psychedelics decrease default-mode network activity, potentially dissolving memory, thought, and emotional boundaries, heightening present-moment experiences.
  • Psychedelics possess the potential to alter or override brain connections linked to mental health disorders, habits, and negative pondering.
  • Research indicates that combining psychedelics with therapy over an extended period can yield substantial and lasting recovery outcomes.

Clinical Perspectives and Investigative Studies on Music Paired with Psychedelics

  • Under psychedelics, music can foster a fully present appreciation by temporarily reducing distractions from past and future thoughts. According to Dr. Zach Walsh in a VICE article, psychedelics activate and enhance the locus coeruleus, the part of our brain responsible for detecting novelty. This activation leads to a significant shift in perception, mostly in relation to music. Dr. Walsh suggests that this unique state enables a more immersive and engaging musical experience, where familiarity and novelty merge, making a familiar song “feel” new again.
  • Scientists conducted a brain imaging study to examine how psychedelics, particularly LSD, impact the brain’s response to music. They specifically investigated the role of the 5HT2A receptor signaling, which is strongly influenced by LSD. The study revealed that this affected various brain regions involved in music processing, memory, emotions, and self-relatability. LSD altered the perception and connection with music, making it feel more emotional, meaningful, and immersive.
  • This study highlights the positive impact of dance festivals on participants’ well-being. The combination of social interactions, music, and shared values creates a remarkable and uplifting experience for attendees, particularly due to the prevalence of psychedelics. The shared values may stem from the collective neurological euphoria resulting from the synergy of all elements combined.

A Psychedelic Psychiatrist’s Journey of Clinical Musical Healing

Discovering a doctor who not only studies psychedelics but also creates healing spaces with the music I enjoy is truly inspiring. Dr. Graham Campbell is a DMT clinical researcher and associate psychiatrist at Flint Healthcare in the United Kingdom. In an interview with him, I was thrilled to learn that he not only shares my love for EDM pioneers like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, but also intricately explores the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. Campbell’s understanding of diverse music and psychedelics offers a unique perspective on nurturing emotional well-being and regulating inner tranquility.

Also known as The Psychedelic Psychiatrist, Graham developed an interest in electronic music during the 90s, sparked by Pink Floyd’s use of synthesizers and their association with LSD. Curiosity about LSD’s transformative effects led him to transition into psychedelic therapy research—and eventually training with the Imperial College London. In 2020, he served as the study psychiatrist for a groundbreaking trial investigating DMT as a potential treatment for Major Depressive Disorder. 

Empowering Patients with Artistic Expression

As an inpatient psychiatrist, in 2018, Graham co-founded Modulate—a music lab designed to provide solace and therapy to psychiatric patients. This therapeutic electronic “jam” space harnesses MIDI-synthesized keys with a long history of being used as a tool of expression. It empowers patients to create their own music from layered sounds, fostering a sense of creativity and self-expression while facilitating healing.

As stated by Graham, the focus of the Modulate project was primarily on the social aspects of collaborative music-making. The goal was to establish an environment where participants could intuitively and harmoniously play together, to foster a sense of genuine involvement in the creative process, and break down the artificial barriers that separate patients and care-givers in hospitals. While it was a continuous learning process, success was achieved in realizing these collaborations.

Unleashing Inner-Healing through Music Creation

With evidence that producing electronic music empowers individuals with a sense of artistic autonomy, Graham’s influence transcends psychedelic trials and music healing spaces. As a dedicated electronic music producer, Joseph Hecht explores the technical aspects of digital music creation, exploring its transformative potential. Graham acknowledges that producing music offers a remarkable degree of creative independence. Personally utilizing music as medicine, a form of self-expression, and an avenue for escape, he seizes the opportunity to create his own music whenever possible, employing the same tools introduced to his patients during therapy sessions.

Graham Campbell’s passion for psychedelic therapy, combined with his focus on music as a healing force, sheds light on the broader significance of this magic mixture. His efforts contribute to expanding the boundaries of mental health treatments and inspire others to explore the neurological magic between music, psychedelics, and the human psyche. His innovating work in DMT clinical trials, as well as his dedication to producing his own music, demonstrates a profound understanding of the synergistic power of psychedelics and music on the mind and emotional state.

Unveiling Possibilities and Awaiting Infinite Frontiers

A unique collaboration called “Dreamachine” brought together neuroscientists, musicians, and philosophers through an art installation in 2022. The objective was to replicate the otherworldly encounter of a psychedelic journey by combining ambient music with captivating optical illusions. Jon Hopkins, an English electronic-music composer, is known for creating music specifically for psychedelic therapy. In his compositions, he incorporates auditory clips of psychedelic discussions. He is a grammy-nominated composer and contributed a composition in 360 spatial sound as the musical score for Dreamachine.

As we venture on the journey of researching mind and body, the captivating fusion of music and psychedelics emerges as a vital force, capable of sending us through a personal voyage of self-discovery. Music transcends its role as a mere background melody. It becomes a powerful tool for reclaiming autonomy over our mental health, offering peace, empowerment, and a transformative experience that lingers long after the psychedelic journey concludes. 

With each encounter, music can become a new experience, a constant reminder of the limitless possibilities of the healing process. Together, music and psychedelics create a gateway to deep self-exploration, inviting us to embrace the enchantment of harmonizing our minds and bodies in a symphony of personal growth and well-being, with desirable melodies. We eagerly anticipate further research discoveries that will reveal new mysterious combinations that enhance psychedelic therapies.

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Revitalizing the Perception of Music

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How does music typically affect the body?

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Pre-Musical Metamorphosis in the Psychedelic Brain

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Clinical Perspectives and Investigative Studies on Music Paired with Psychedelics

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A Psychedelic Psychiatrist’s Journey of Clinical Musical Healing

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Unveiling Possibilities and Awaiting Infinite Frontiers

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The content provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should be a substitute for medical or other professional advice. Articles are based on personal opinions, research, and experiences of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Psychedelic Support.

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Author: Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg is a psychiatric and pediatric nurse who recently transitioned into the cannabis industry, and has been giving Florida’s medical cannabis patients guidance and knowledge on how to treat their ailments. She’s currently writing to spread awareness on the medicinal qualities of cannabis and psychoactive plants.

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