Women conducting music, with neon lights.

Music in Psychedelic Therapy

Psychedelic therapy sessions are conducted blindly. As the experience unfolds you lay down on a couch or bed, and your eyes are blindfolded. Then a pair of headphones is placed over your ears, from which you’ll listen to a playlist of carefully selected music. It’s all part of the set and setting to encourage you, the patient, to look inwards. 

Music has always played an integral role in the psychedelic experience. Ceremonial use of psychoactive plants among indigenous people often involved drum circles and other instruments. In the 50s and 60s, music was played during psychedelic research and therapy sessions. When psychedelics became Schedule I substances,facilitators on the underground continued to develop ways to incorporate music into their sessions. Today, amid the psychedelic revival therapists and patients can tailor playlists with smartphone apps. 

As the DJ of a psychedelic therapy session careful attention is given to the selection of music. It’s all about timing and using intuition to read the room. By DJ, I mean it’s usually the therapist choosing the music, often in collaboration with the patient’s musical tastes. The songs are played in-sync with the natural progression of an experience (on-set, peak, return.) The diagnosis (depression, anxiety, etc) is factored into the music choice. Even further, the music differs whether the patient is given MDMA, psilocybin, or LSD.

In the 60s and 70s classical music was the go-to genre. Today a variety of genres, both conventional and experimental, are thrown into the mix. Ideally the music selection is entirely new for the patient. Familiarity with a song (via past experiences) can sway interpretation and influence the therapeutic outcome. Instrumentals, like ambient music, with a forward momentum tend to work best.

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A music playlist by Mendel Kaelen of Wavepaths.

For decades researchers used music to support patients through personally meaningful (peak) psychedelic experiences. It wasn’t until the past few years (2017-2018) that empirical data was collected on the central role music plays in psychedelic therapy. Patients that found the music selection a “welcoming influence” said it led to feelings of guidance, openness, direction, and support. Likewise patients that had a distaste or “unwelcome influence” from the music selection had feelings of resistance, discomfort, fear, and dissonance.

As the DJ, a bad remix can throw the entire dancefloor off rhythm. They could be booed off the stage. Or they can find a way to salvage it and pull off a smooth transition to a whole new mood to keep the dance floor moving. And as the DJ/therapist of a psychedelic session changing the song to a more appropriate tune can make all the difference to turn a difficult experience into a transformative therapeutic experience.

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