The use of music in Psychedelic Therapy (Part 1)
One of the most important elements of psychedelic-assisted therapy is the strategic use of music. During the psychedelic therapy session, music is played from the beginning to the end of the experience and fed to the participant through high quality headphones.
Long before the medicalization and therapeutic use of psychedelics, traditional cultures across the globe have combined music and sacred plant medicines for millennia. In ceremonial settings, singing and drumming are the heartbeat and vessel for the journey. This practice is carried (translated) into the clinical setting and, arguably, plays as critical a role as the facilitator or guide. Music and psychedelics have a powerfully synergistic effect, and research suggests that proper music significantly enhances good outcomes.
So what makes good psychedelic therapy music?
Well, it depends. This is super nuanced, and not something anyone can ultimately “know” for certain; and sometimes, ironically, the wrong music choices make for right experiences, and the right songs fall flat. To be honest, there is no final answer here (isn’t it awesome to explore though?). Curating psychedelic therapy soundtracks is an art, not a science, although we do our best to integrate and synthesize lessons from both worlds.
At the Institute for Integrative Therapies (IIT), we curate playlists that are designed to carry the psychedelic journey, and resonate with the unique stories, personal struggles and life experiences of our clients. In the preparation process, we explore the topic of music and work collaboratively with clients to personalize their sonic guide.
In selecting music for the psychedelic journey, there’s a wide range of sounds, styles and vibes to consider, and there’s also some GENERAL parameters that help guide us in determining what works best (remember, these rules are flexible):
1. No lyrics*
Typically you don’t want many words in the songs, so that your attention isn’t drawn towards trying to comprehend the lyrics. Lyrics are lovely, but in the psychedelic therapy experience, they can make things too cerebral, and often lead us to focus on the content of the song, the songwriter’s “message” and generally, the sense-making function of our minds. That being said, sometimes sparse lyrics can be used to great effect when timed just right (it’s not uncommon to have such a rule broken by songs like, “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, near the “return” part of a psychedelic session- always good to consider the cultural implications).
While lyrics are usually avoided, vocals are DEFINITELY fair game- choral singing and harmonization can certainly hit home and has been a feature of ceremonial medicine music for eons. Lastly- lyrics that are in a language that’s not spoken by the listener is generally acceptable, but good to watch out for familiar song structures and patterns of singing.
2. Emotionally relevant, deeping, meaningfuland moving music:
Music should act as a soundtrack to the psychedelic journey and be relevant to the “main character’s” story (often times this has an archetypal quality- consider the Hero’s Journey). In psychedelic therapy, people come seeking to heal from various forms of suffering- trauma, grief, harmful self-narratives, and emotional injuries- and bring unique intentions for what they are hoping to gain from the psychedelic process. At IIT, we personalize music based on these factors, in addition to considering the individual’s personality, style and tastes. Sometimes music can be used to move towards those emotions that someone is disconnected from, and other times it can be used to move away from those feelings that someone may be too entangled with (and need some distance from).
A beautifully sad orchestral piece might help facilitate the processing of grief for one person but may not be helpful for someone else who’s feeling “stuck” in a depressive cycle (maybe this person could benefit from a well-placed “triumphant”, or just plainly pleasant song).
At IIT, decisions around which type of music is utilized are made in collaboration with the therapist and client (For example, we might ask,“are you the type of person who likes to listen to sad songs when you’re sad, or happy ones?”). Typically, we will try to match the music to the feelings as they present in session, and frequently DJ the sessions in the moment.
3. Nothing familiar*
Songs should almost never be ones that the traveler knows well. Even though you might love a specific tune, having so much emotional and cognitive attachment to a particular song tends to disrupt the process-and lead a person to think about their personal associations and attachments to the song, instead of what is naturally unfolding, organically.
In psychedelic therapy, we aim to cultivate a safe setting, so that the conscious mind can “let go” and allow your unconscious mind to present you with the experience you most need, in order to heal. Songs that are familiar typically active the more conscious, “thinking” and rationalizing aspect of the mind, leading you to “think” about your experience and story, instead of surrendering to the movements of your unconscious “inner healing intelligence” (or “higher self”, or “innate healing drive”, etc.).
This is particularly true for songs you know really well (ie. your favorite song with the lyrics you know by heart), but also applies to some extent with song structures and elements that you’re familiar with- we don’t want you to be so familiar with the style and structure of a song that you’re anticipating or predicting familiar patterns or changes, even though you’ve never heard this specific track.
This is often why we use music that defies familiar structure or “comes from” a different cultural style than the listener is most connected with-this might include music from a different country, or from a genre unknown to the listener. There is one big caveat here- we also don’t want the musical style to be SO unfamiliar that its novelty becomes disruptive to the individual (there’s always a balance). If someone hears a type of music style that’s too completely strange to them, they might shift focus away from their journey and become preoccupied with thoughts about the music (“what the hell is this music?”).
This does not, however, mean that someone should necessarily like the music- sometimes challenging music can evoke difficult emotions and memories that can be processed in the service of healing and growth.
All this being said, there are also occasions where a favorite tune can be inserted at the right moment and its associations used to enhance the experience (it’s all about intention and function). Again, thoughtfully breaking rules is always something to consider.
4. Good production
This one is pretty short and sweet- make sure the song recording SOUNDS good. This means different things for different music- some songs are best captured in lo-fi, while others can be “over-produced”(so “well” produced that they sound fake, or lose their heart), and vis-versa.
5. Culturally considerate
We always seek to understand someone’s cultural identity (or identities), and how this may impact the music we curate for them. For example, some types of choral music (multiple voices harmonizing) can be beautifully uplifting for one person and be a trigger for someone else who has religious trauma (ie. experienced abuse within the church, and such songs remind them of church choir).
6. Ordering it right (follow the effects curve of the psychedelic substance)
One of the most challenging aspects of curating psychedelic therapy music lies in trying to time and order things just right. It’s one thing to find “good” songs but deciding when and how to best order them is a whole different beast (and making vary different styles and sounds flow together seamlessly).
In order to organize a psychedelic playlist, we first consider the effects curve of the psychedelic medicine- the effects curve describes the common duration and intensity of a particular substance with the average person. For example, clients receiving oral/sublingual doses of Ketamine generally begin feeling the “effects” around 10-20 minutes, have their “peak” effects around 45-70 minutes, and “return” around 90-100 minutes after their initial administration. Compare this to an Intramuscular Ketamine journey, where the effects begin to take hold 30 seconds to 5 minutes after administration, peak around 5-10 minutes, and return 45-70 minutes after the 1st injection…. Whereas something like MDMA tends to last more like 6-8 hours, psilocybin 8-10 and LSD10-14 hours.
Sometimes we have a list of amazing songs, but they just don’t sound good next to each other, and this leads us to “sacrifice” “good” single tracks for the purpose of making the “whole” sound better. This is similar to how bands put together good concept albums- everything in service of making the “chapters” fit properly into the whole story.
These are only a few elements to consider when curating playlists for the psychedelic experience, and there is no ultimate “right” way of doing things. As we’ve noted previously, sometimes the rules can be thoughtfully broken to positive effect (just like good jazz music).
In psychedelic therapy, the substance is like water (always flowing, moving through various landscapes- sometimes a lazy river, sometimes a rushing white water rapid). The music is your vessel. Music helps to carry the participant through the ever-changing landscape and to deepen the emotional impact.
This topic is not one that can be “covered” in 1 blog post and is a topic we will continue to revisit (hence I’ve called this “Part 1”).
Some Sample psychedelic therapy songs
Here’s a few songs that I’ve found to be interesting and have used when curating psychedelic therapy music. I encourage you to listen and notice what types of emotion they evoke. A QUICK NOTE- if you’re making your own playlists, BE CAREFUL in using an app version that contains commercials!!! (commercials or other general music disruptions can be jarring and distressing- that’s why we always download the playlist onto our iPad in the event WiFi goes out, and we only use paid Spotify and Apple Music accounts).
Alexandra Stréliski- Plus tôt:
Phillip Glass, Michael Rieskman & Lyric Quartet- TheHours:
Nils Frahm- Kaleidoscope:
Christian Löffler- Bergen:
Jónsi & Alex Somers- Happiness:
Chancha Via Circuito- Sueño en Paraguay: