The Tradition and Science of Music during a Trip

The Tradition and Science of Music during a Trip
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Table of Contents

What part does music play in a psychedelic trip? We know that music is present in ceremonies across traditions. Thus, what role does music play in traditional ceremonies? What is the science of music – both in how it affects our brains and trip experiences? Taking these questions into consideration, we will take you through a little history and science to help guide you in making the perfect playlist for your next trip.

If you’ve ever synced up Pink Floyd’s The Wall with the Wizard of Oz, you know that a psychedelic experience doesn’t always require a substance. Music can be a pretty trippy experience all on its own. Dim the lights, pop in some earbuds, crank up “Purple Haze,” and see for yourself. Nonetheless, music and psychedelics have a long, complementary history. When paired together, their powers combined enhance their psychological and psychedelic effects. So, adding music to a psychedelic experience can heighten and deepen levels of clarity, introspection, and transformation during and after a trip. 

Traditional Role of Music in Ceremony

For countless indigenous cultures throughout the world, music is  an essential component of the traditional ceremony. This is especially true for healing rituals. Generally, music facilitates a shaman’s travel to the spirit world, and ability to make contact on behalf of the person who is seeking healing.

Certain repetitive rhythms or chants act as a psychological stimulus, inciting a trance-like state, and catapults ceremony participants into an altered state of consciousness. Furthermore, strong rhythmic patterns connect the shaman with the consciousness of the patient. This rhythmic bond allows the shaman to effectively influence both their psychological and physiological state. Ceremony songs can be either lyric-focused or instrumental, depending on the culture. There are communal chants for all to sing together, and a shaman can also “prescribe” a song for an individual. 

Maria Sabina: The Mexican Medicine Woman

One important healer recognized for her songs is Maria Sabina of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico. She was the first known shaman to open Mazatec mushroom rituals to Westerns. Icons such as John Lennon, Aldous Huxley, even Walt Disney participated in her ceremonies.

Considered a poet as well as a shaman, the specific words Sabina sang and chanted were of utmost importance. She not only invoked the deity with her songs, but she also spoke for them through her words. Through her songs, Sabina would reveal a diagnosis and prescription (delivered to her in the divine language of the mushrooms) to an ailing person seeking her assistance.

The Science Behind Music and Plant Medicine Ceremonies

The extensive research of Susana Bustos, PhD gives us more insight into the importance of music during plant medicine ceremonies. Icaros are “magic” songs whistled or sung during traditional Ayahuasca ceremonies.  Bustos describes the icaros as the “musical manifestation of the spiritual essence of the natural element” – a purposeful, inspired chant. A divine source delivers the song to a shaman. They then give the song as a gift of healing to its recipient. A shaman may intone many different icaros throughout the duration of an Ayahuasca ritual. 

Each song serves a distinct purpose, but its main function is to protect the container. The songs cultivate a safe space for healing to occur and for teachings to be understood. Therefore, a shaman carefully selects the icaros to regulate the ascent and descent of the participant’s psychedelic journey. The song’s specific intent in any moment may be to lighten the mood during difficult introspective work, provoke physical purging, or help ground an individual at the culmination of the ceremony. 

In the traditional view, we can view these ceremonial songs as a metaphorical “jungle gym” for the psyche. The song provides a culturally-shaped pattern, or ladder to assist the person on their upward journey to reach a higher state of consciousness. At the same time, the songs provide a familiar structure to hang onto when grounding is needed. Furthermore, an icaro sets into motion a complex physiological response at the cellular level, which the listener is able to feel and experience. But this significant effect of song combined with psychedelic trip is more than just a reported observation – modern science backs it up. 

The Neurological Power of Music

Oliver Sacks, neurologist, professor, and best-selling author, shared his research on how broadly our brains experience music. In one of his beloved collection of clinical tales, Musicophilia, he explained the extensive impact music can have on the various and distinct regions of our brains.

“There is no one musical center in the brain,” Sacks said. In fact, there are up to 30 different systems or networks spread all over the brain – from the frontal lobes to the back of the brain – which allow us to analyze and interpret different characteristics of music, ranging from pitch to melodic contour, timbre and rhythm. 

Music stimulates so many different areas of our brains. Thus, music can affect executive function, auditory processing, coordination and communication. In addition, it influences our stress response, social interactions, emotional intelligence, and creative expression.

Furthermore, according to Sacks, we are all “…musically individual and distinct.” Therefore, our perception of music and our responses to it (neurological and behaviorally speaking) may be modified when we’re exposed to different conditions. So, with that in mind, what happens when we bring a mind-altering substance into the mix?

The Science of Music and Psychedelics

LSD

One of the most prominent names in the field of psychedelic research today is Mendel Kaelen. Being a neuroscientist and audiophile, he founded Wavepaths Spaces–a psychotherapeutic center offering immersive soundscape sessions to visitors. Notably, Kaelen examines the combined effects of music and certain psychedelic substances such as LSD

In one study, Kaelen observed that LSD on its own can reduce communication between the parahippocampus (an area of the brain associated with memory storage) and the visual cortex. Music however heightened communication between these two regions, bringing increasingly vivid mental imagery that was strongly connected to personal memory. This change correlated to how the brain responded to timbre – the quality of tones that distinguish different voices or instruments from one another. 

According to Kaelen, “we saw increased brain activity in response to timbre…these changes were localized in regions specializing in processing emotion and attributing meaning to sound.” Thus, when seeking a therapeutic or emotionally transformative psychedelic experience, tonally rich music enhances the desired effects of the substance (LSD specifically).

Science of Music and Psilocybin

Another of Kaelen’s studies investigated the influence of music and psilocybin in patients with treatment-resistant depression. Researchers constructed a dynamic playlist, beginning with calming, ambient music. Then, the music grew and diminished in intensity throughout the duration of the session. The peak of the psychedelic experience intentionally featured more emotionally evocative songs. 

Kaelen’s playlist served essentially the same role as the icaros in an ayahuasca ceremony. First, the music creates a calm, safe atmosphere for the session. Then serving as a guide for the trip, it stimulates mental imagery, intensifies emotion, and deepens the overall experience. 

Music is Still Subjective

Although individual experiences and preferences varied, participants consistently identified a few positive influences. Many appreciated the emotional intensification and guidance offered by the music. Several listeners also experienced a vaster feeling of “openness” to face and process inner conflict.

On the other hand, a couple undesired effects were noted. Some participants felt that the music decreased the effects of the psilocybin. For them, the music created a sense of disharmony when a song did not reflect their present mood. For other participants, the music manipulated their trip too much. Thus, they resisted the music-evoked experience.

This feedback, in any case, clearly demonstrates the power of music. What you hear can completely alter the course of a trip. So, it is definitely worthwhile to spend some time considering the appropriate soundtrack for your next psychedelic experience.

The Perfect Trippy Playlist

While there may be some general agreement in discussing the “trippiest” music out there, it’s nearly impossible to narrow it down to one single artist, album, genre or style. Consider the diversity of Miles Davis, Jefferson Airplane, Talking Heads, The Flaming Lips, Animal Collective. All properly psychedelic in their own ways. Also remember Oliver Sack’s assertion that is backed by research. Each of us is musically distinct in our preferences.

Following several studies, Kaelen determined that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to crafting the perfect playlist. Participants reported a wide variety of preferences that seemed to keep the trip flowing in a forward direction. This included: tribal, neoclassical, classical, instrumental, music featuring vocals and lyrics, calming music, sentimental or cinematic music, and rhythmic songs

Preference

With so many options, and with so much amazing music at our fingertips, where do you start?

To state the obvious: start with something you like! There is no standardized formula since personal experience and preference greatly influence any psychedelic journey. Disliking the music you hear during a trip may decrease the desired effects of the substance and take you out of the moment. Likewise, hearing music you enjoy can enhance your sense of openness and foster a more willing attitude to dive deep into the introspective and possibly therapeutic aspects of your psychedelic experience. 

Intention

Set an intention for your experience: are you craving more introspection, relaxation, or dynamic action? Will it be a solo journey or shared adventure? Answering these questions will help guide your selection of musical genre, tempo, and ambience.

If you seek a particularly therapeutic or emotional experience, include some tracks you connect deeply with (based on lyric content or associated memory). The more tonally rich in timbre, the better.

Additionally, try and choose tracks that resonate with your present emotional state. If you’re feeling “kumbaya,” better skip the Jungle Brothers and opt for something more mellow. 

Substance

Consider the functionality of your preferred substance and match your music accordingly. For example, lush melodic landscapes complement the effects of substances like LSD and psilocybin, whereas rhythmic, energetic grooves of EDM suits MDMA better.  

Arc

Order and pacing of your playlist is greatly important. Try to create an arc that follows the different stages of your psychedelic journey, including the pre-onset, ascent, peak, descent, and re-entry or return. Strive for a balance between emotionally evocative songs and more ambient tracks. Give yourself some time to fully process your present experience. 

Whether you’re into acid-jazz, psychedelic rock, or progressive trance, it is undeniable that music can powerfully enhance your psychedelic experience in a positive way. When planning your next trip, it is well worth the effort to spend some time building your own, personalized playlist. Get inspired. Let the music be your guide to new psychological heights.

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