The Psychedelic Nature of Music
Unpacking the power and art of carefully curated music for psychedelic journeys (and beyond)
When it comes to the setting for your psychedelic journey, there’s little that has a greater impact than the music you’ll be listening to.
Music provides structure and a narrative for your experience. When you trip, your sense perception is altered and you get to experience music in a profoundly new way. You’ll become one with the music, and as the borders between the listener and the listened blur, you’ll find yourself “in the music”. Music can also play an important role in integration.
The most fascinating connection between music and psychedelic experiences, however, is that some music aims to communicate the very reality psychedelics allow you to experience: the ineffable beauty and timeless nature of the universe. Arguably, music is the only thing that gets close to conveying this truth, whereas words and other art forms often fall short. Music can be the greatest prayer to the spiritual nature of the universe.
Let’s dive into what role music plays during psychedelic journeys and how music itself can be psychedelic. Below I will also be sharing some specific recommendations.
The Role of Music During Psychedelic Journeys
The critical role of music is well-known to underground psychedelic guides and clinical researchers alike. Music affects some of the same regions in our brain related to emotional processing that psychedelics work on. That’s why an intentionally curated playlist is always a key component of the equation for psychedelic therapy, even in clinical trials. Researchers have also investigated the impact of music and concluded that it’s critical for positive clinical outcomes, as it supports meaning-making, emotionality, and mental imagery throughout the journey.
Architecting a musical container for trips
A great playlist follows a very simple structure: opening, come-up, peak, and re-entry.
During the opening, the goal is to calm the mind, signal safety, and set the emotional tone for your experience. Once that’s achieved and the psychedelic experience intensifies, you’ll want to select music to guide you through the come-up, ultimately bringing you closer to your intention. Eventually, music to listen to while you peak is ideally both activating and comforting. The peak is the time for more complexity, tempo, and transcendence. As effects wear off and you come down, slower, ambient music facilitates the re-entry into regular waking consciousness.
I’ve created some playlists that broadly follow this arc which I will link down below.
Music as an anchor for challenging experiences
Music can also be an excellent anchor to regulate your experience. There aren’t many — the whole psychedelic experience is about the surrender of control — but music is certainly the most impactful factor that will always be under your control.
On the most fundamental level, when things start getting tricky and you feel overwhelmed, your best bet is to put on some super slow and relaxing mediation-style music. This will help calm down your nervous system and may lower the intensity of your experience.
There’s a twist, however.
If music is bringing up specific emotions in you — such as sadness, grief, or anger — it’s not in your interest to change it. That’s because the #1 rule of navigating psychedelic journeys is that you always want to turn towards something rather than away from it. If the music you’ve chosen is triggering something in you, that’s because it’s meant to trigger something in you. It’s in your favor. Something is being brought up for a reason. You’ll want to take advantage of the opportunity to work through and release it, which will only happen when you don’t interrupt the process.
So, how do you know when to change the music and when to stick with it?
If you’re overwhelmed by the experience itself and confused about what is happening, change it. If it’s bringing up specific thoughts and emotions that you’d rather not look at, and you feel the urge to turn away from them, then you know it’s better to stay with it. Put on your meditation hat and observe the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that the music is bringing up and ask yourself why this experience is so uncomfortable right now. Get curious without judgment, and you may find yourself at the cusp of great insight or an overdue release soon enough.
Music for Integration
Finally, your musical journey doesn’t need to end when your psychedelic journey ends.
I’ve curated entire playlists with the sole intention to facilitate the integration process. Whether you listen to a few songs from your journey or ceremony in the mornings, meditate on them, or incorporate them into your embodiment practices (such as dance or yoga) - there are many ways to continue creating a container for your integration through music.
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When Music Becomes Prayer: Late Beethoven & the Sublime
It’s only recently that I learned about “Late Beethoven”, which denotes a distinct period of the world-renown composer’s life and work admired by many for its mystical and deeply spiritual qualities.
As I began to read about the “sublime” qualities of Late Beethoven’s composition, I was shocked at how well I could find myself and, more precisely, my previous psychedelic experiences (specifically that with 5-meO-DMT) in the words used to describe this distinct sliver of classical music.
According to philosopher Immanuel Kant, "sublime" is the feeling of awe and reverence that certain unlimited, immense, threatening, or incomprehensible phenomena seem to provoke in us. These phenomena are “accompanied by the unconscious realization that we are in possession of ideas that can never be satisfied in human experience”. They “include our ideas of God, the Soul, and the World, and are evidence of our status as non-material, transcendent beings”.
Late Beethoven was denoted the "sublimest" of all composers:
His music induces terror, fright, horror and pain. It awakens that endless longing which is the essence of romanticism, opens the realm of the colossal and immeasurable, and leads the listener away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.
The wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.
This is precisely the place where 5-meO-DMT took me just a few months ago.
When I first experienced one of Late Beethoven’s core pieces, the piano sonata No. 111, it put me right back into the visceral experience of the sublime. The ineffable space of transcendent, overwhelming beauty.
The toad and Beethoven were communicating the same truths about our universe, I realized. Identical. It was the first time I was able to experience this truth just through music, and it left me breathless.
Some Music for Your Next Journey & Further Resources
I have several playlists to share with you, two of which I created myself for the sole purpose of accompanying psychedelic journeys.
Playlist #1, “golden teacher” is a mix of music created by “psychedelic soundscape artists” such as East Forest and Jon Hopkins, mixed with some modern classical.
Playlist #2, “magic” is similar, except it also includes some Indian Raga (which works extremely well for psychedelic journeys but is definitely more “activating”), as well as some “classical” classical music. (There’s a bit of an overlap between the two).
There’s also a Spotify playlist that houses all the music researchers at Johns Hopkins University use in their studies on psilocybin therapy for depression. This one’s mostly classical music (Vivaldi, Brahms, and lots of Bach - which also seems to be Michael Pollan’s favorite).
Finally, if you’re a provider of psychedelic therapy, you may also want to look into Wavepaths. It’s a software solution for psychedelic therapy that provides music for sessions in a super cool, flexible way. It’s essentially an inifinte stream of beautifully designed soundscapes, which can be regulated and adjusted by the therapist along multiple dimensions such as intensity.
If you’re curious about the neuroscience of music during psychedelic journeys, this is a great article from Wavepath on the topic.