The hunt for the perfect psychedelic playlist


4th Oct 2023 Inspire

5 min read

The hunt for the perfect psychedelic playlist
As psychedelic therapy gains traction in medicine, another healer is showing promise: music. We trace the history of the psychedelic playlist for healing trips
The last time scientists considered the therapeutic potential of music and psychedelia, we were in the throes of the 1960s counterculture, fuelled by lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). 
Alongside the wah-wah guitar pedal and surrealist vocals—which birthed revolutionary music from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Beatles—scientists were experimenting with psychedelics as a treatment for major depression. 
LSD and psilocybin – the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms—showed immense promise in clinical conditions. But by the end of the decade, psychedelics were banned in the US, and the long shadow of researchers like Timothy Leary—whose ethics in the lab remain controversial—left psychiatric research hamstrung. 
"Your brain comprises a series of well-worn pathways"
Shifting attitudes in the 21st century mean that a new frontier in scientific research is emerging, which touts psychedelics as a game-changing remedy for conditions like treatment-resistant depression, alcoholism and smoking addiction
The key to psychedelic therapy is neuroplasticity. If you imagine that your brain comprises a series of well-worn pathways, then administering a substance like psilocybin or ketamine allows those to be remoulded. Neuron growth accelerates, new synapses flourish, and old entrenched behaviours or thought patterns become easier to shift. 
But it’s not enough just to trip. Music is emerging as the vital second ingredient, according to a growing number of scientists—and the hunt is on to find the perfect soundtrack for psychedelic healing.
Psilocybin in magic mushooms used in psychedelic therapy

Tune in, drop out

A version of the first psychedelic playlist dates back to 1967, when the Spring Grove Hospital Centre in Catonsville investigated the use of LSD and psilocybin to treat substance abuse and depression caused by terminal cancer
The music therapist Helen Bonny, who was then working on her doctorate, sought to match the intensity of her patients’ trip with music, labelling cassette tapes with tags like “peak experience”.
She viewed music as a supportive presence, which helped her patients to relinquish self-control, achieve a sense of emotional release and glean insights about themselves and their lives. 
Her colleague, Bill Richards, later joined the Johns Hopkins Centre in 1999, where he devised a playlist based on Bonny’s findings. 
"At the end, the gentle notes of The Beatles’ 'Here Comes The Sun' ease the patient back into reality"
He matched sections of the playlist to the trip’s shifting intensity: first, the arrival music, for when the patient enters the session; the moment that the drugs start to take effect; the ascent, when the psychedelic experiences intensify; the peak; the post-peak; and what he called the “welcome back to Earth” music. 
Richards relied heavily on the Western classical canon. He favoured “Adagio for Strings” for the ascent, for example, and also tapped into Vivaldi, Brahms and a Russian Orthodox chant. 
At the end, the gentle notes of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” or Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” ease the patient back into reality.

Electronic pulses

It would be decades before the psychedelic playlist was revisited at Imperial University London, where a landmark 2016 study found that the trippy mix of music and LSD stimulates the parahippocampus—the area of the brain responsible for mental imagery and memory.
“This is the first time we have witnessed the interaction of a psychedelic compound and music with the brain's biology,” Michael Kaelen, one of the paper’s lead authors, said at the time.
"The trippy mix of music and LSD stimulates the parahippocampus—the area of the brain responsible for mental imagery"
Kaelen took inspiration from Bonny and Richards’ original playlists when he published his PhD the following year, but argued that the chosen music—saturated as it was in Western classical and religious Christian traditions—was too familiar to modern listeners, so left little space for unexpected revelations during the trip. 
He also thought it would be unsuited to patients with other religions or no religion at all. 
Kaelen created an updated playlist, which still draws from the trip’s shape that Bonny laid out, but includes a broader variety of genres, including ambient, jazz and neo-classical, and more contemporary artists like Brian Eno, Max Richter and Jonny Nash.

A primeval drone 

Drone music, Harry Swords proposes in Monolithic Undertow, is a doorway to “primal catharsis” performed by “agents of primordial sonic ablution, enablers of psychic transferral to a different menial plane.”
The American Chemical Society might tend to agree. In 2021, it published a paper that showed that, when paired with overtone music rather than Western classical, psychedelic therapy was marginally better at helping participants to quit smoking.
Overtone music is rich in harmonics, the higher notes that sound when one fundamental note is played. When the American Chemical Society compiled their own playlist, they emphasised instruments like Tibetan bowls, gongs, didgeridoos and the sitar—or, as lead author Matthew Johnson puts it, "a lot of droning".
Drone’s suitability to therapeutic trips could be deep-rooted. In his book, Swords points out that the mesmeric, elongated note is similar to sounds heard in the womb or the background radiation that has soundtracked the universe since the big bang.
However, the American Chemical Society’s researchers took a less mystical view. They concluded that playing music tailored to the individual patient, rather than one centralised playlist, could be most effective in psychedelic therapy.
Aboriginal musician playing overtone music on didgeridoo

AI and patient-centred playlists

Someone else who shared this perspective was Kaelen, who went on to found Wavepaths, an app that generates personalised music for psychedelic therapy sessions. 
Kaelen had previously spent six months living in the Amazon rainforest, where he observed the Ayahuasca rituals practised by traditional shamans. Central to these ceremonies are pieces of music called icaros, which the shamans hum, whistle, sing or play on instruments to help direct their listener’s trip. 
“One shaman explained to me that they view icaro almost like a telephone number, and each icaro is a very specific calling to a specific spirit—the spirit of a plant, the spirit of a natural element—and that spirit is called in to assist with healing work,” Kaelen told Project Immersed
"One shaman explained to me that they view icaro almost like a telephone number"
That notion of music as a portal has shaped how Wavepaths’ own musicians compose. “Can we stop thinking about music as a track?” Kaelen said. “Can we start thinking of music more as a world that you evoke? And with that world having a particular spirit, a particular essence.”
Working with Wavepaths, artists like Jon Hopkins, Brian Eno and Greg Haines have reflected on what “essences” might be required in a therapeutic setting, and then composed music to conjure them.
Much like the shamans, therapists then draw from this library to shape their psychedelic therapy sessions, using artificial intelligence to curate a personalised stream of music tailored to each patient.

The hidden therapist

The success of a healing trip increasingly seems to hinge on the music playing in the background—and whether it evokes positive or negative feelings. 
In the Imperial College London study, participants for whom music triggered positive experiences—like feeling safe, guided or calm—were more likely to gain profound autobiographical, or even “mystical”, insights, and see a reduction of depression symptoms
"Music itself is such a powerful medicine"
The drug’s intensity, on the other hand, had little bearing on participants’ depression, leading researchers to conclude that it is music that plays the decisive role. 
If substances like psilocybin increase our brain’s neuroplasticity, then music holds us as we trace new paths through our psyche. Kaelen calls it the “hidden therapist”. 
“Music itself is such a powerful medicine,” he told Project Immersed. “Psychedelics radically enhance our response to music—vividness, emotionality, everything becomes just less filtered, more associative.”
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