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Researchers Want to Know the Best Beats for Psychedelic Therapy

February 18, 2021 10:31 am ET
Researchers Want to Know the Best Beats for Psychedelic Therapy

Note: Veriheal does not support illegally consuming therapeutic substances such as cannabis, psilocybin, and other psychedelics. But it’s acknowledged that it transpires because of the current illicit status, which we strive to change by advocating for research, legal access, and responsible consumption.


Psychedelics and music have long had a love affair but now, their relationship stands to take on a more therapeutic role and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is here for it. The university has conducted research that studied the best music to include in psychedelic therapy. Previous notions suggested that classical music to the likes of Mozart and Chopin, made the best match for psychedelic therapy but the study suggests that it may have no significant value. Instead, the study found that other types of music may be better. Let’s explore.

What is Psychedelic Therapy

Psychedelic therapy can be defined as “a technique that involves the use of psychedelic substances to aid the therapeutic process”. Before psychedelics such as LSD and Magic Mushrooms were made illegal, they were used as entheogens to induce spiritual experiences during religious ceremonies. But now, it’s believed that these substances can help an array of conditions including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction. Music can be considered a standard feature in psychedelic therapy because sound and environmental settings help drive the overall experience. 

Since psychedelics are still illicit (despite decriminalization in parts of the US), there is no standardized method of administration. However, the following has been found to be common amongst psychedelic therapy: patients are administered a low to moderate dose of the psychedelic, they are supervised by a professional during the process with 1-2 weeks between sessions. If you consider this type of therapy, keep in mind that these substances are illegal throughout most of the world and that LSD poses a much greater risk to your health and body than Magic Mushrooms do since it’s of a synthetic nature. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) may have complementary effects when taken appropriately

Possible risk of psychedelic therapy includes negative psychological reactions to the psychedelics (this is commonly referred to as a “bad trip”), possible personality changes as well as the dangers associated with self-treatment using substances purchased through illegal avenues. Obviously, the risks largely depend on which psychedelic you are consuming, how much and how often you’re consuming, where you got it from, your emotions, personality, and setting. Our goal at Veriheal is to promote responsible consumption and harm reduction and we encourage those who are interested in these types of therapies to approach with extreme caution and arm themselves with as much research and education as possible. 

Johns Hopkins Explored Which Music Genres Work Best

The study was published on the 29th of December 2020 and can be found in the publications of American Chemical Society (ACS) Pharmacology & Translational Science. The team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine wanted to examine how “set and setting impacts subjective and therapeutic effects”. The team “analyzed the effects of musical genre played during sessions of a psilocybin study for tobacco smoking cessation”.  

Each participant received psilocybin in three sessions, two of which had different types of assigned musical genre, while participants chose the musical genre for a third session. The administered psilocybin doses were between 20-30 milligrams per 70 kilograms (±154 pounds) of body weight.  The participants completed the study during a 15 week period where they received “cognitive-based therapy (CBT), elements of mindfulness training, and guided imagery for smoking cessation that was delivered in four weekly preparatory meetings prior to the first psilocybin session”. The participants were then required to smoke 10 cigarettes a day and report on their desire to stop smoking.

Participants who were listening to overtone music were more successful at quitting smoking at two points including immediately after therapy and 30 months afterward. The researchers also found that “traditional laboratory contexts that contain overtly ‘sterile’ stimuli (such as white walls, the scent of disinfectant and medical tools) have been suggested to increase the likelihood of negative reactions”. They also go on to suggest that psychedelic therapists have been playing western classical music due to recommendations of early guidelines, but that the collection of overtone sounds may be more important than the music itself. In other words, the significance may lay in the collection of sounds that complement the psychedelic experience. 

The researchers wrote that ‘western classical music has long been assumed to be the standard in psychedelic therapy,” and that “the present data challenge this notion that Western classical music, or for that matter any specific genre of music, is an intrinsically superior form of music to support psychedelic therapy, at least for all people at all times”. The team continued to comment on the superiority of western classical music, or rather the lack thereof, by stating that “the lack of superiority of the Western classical playlist is even more interesting considering that some of the overtone-based playlist tracts consisted of sounds without traditionally identifiable melody and/or rhythm and therefore might not be classified as songs or music by some,” and that “this suggests that the sounds capable of supporting psychedelic therapy sessions may go beyond the bounds of traditionally defined musical genres”. 

In a Therapeutic Setting, Certain Music Produces Better Outcomes

The team went on to explain that while there were no significant differences between the musical genres being studied, they did find that the “overtone-based playlist resulted in somewhat better outcomes and was preferred by a larger portion of this small sample participants”.  The overtone-based music featured gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, and even didgeridoos. Although the Western classical music and the overtone-based music were around the same, the overtone playlist did do better. Matthew Johnson, one of the researchers, even stated that “apparently classical music is not such a sacred cow for psychedelic therapy”. 

The significance of this study is that it “provides the first contemporary and within-subject experimental manipulation of session set and setting factors in psychedelic research” and this study is also the “first fully randomized test of different musical genres supporting psychedelic therapy”. Researchers concluded by suggesting that they support the possible more effective solution which is “developing a process for generating patient-specific musical selections rather than providing standardized music” and that this “may improve therapeutic outcomes”. 

The researchers at Johns Hopkins also made their playlists used during the study available for the public. Individuals can access the playlist on Spotify and will find the likes of Ron Korb, Paul Horb, Antonio Vivaldi, Russill Paul, and The Beatles. One of the researchers did note on Twitter that the playlist on Spotify was missing some of the songs and that there is a “25% overlap with the classic playlist we compared it to”. 

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