Disclaimer: Psychedelics are largely illegal substances, and we do not encourage or condone their use where it is against the law. However, we accept that illicit drug use occurs and believe that offering responsible harm reduction information is imperative to keeping people safe. For that reason, this document is designed to enhance the safety of those who decide to use these substances.
This article has been medically reviewed by Katrina Oliveros, MSN-ED, BSN
Music and psychedelic healing have been intertwined for centuries. From ancient shamanic rituals to modern clinical settings, music’s power to evoke powerful emotions, alter consciousness, and spark mystical experiences has been a critical ally in psychedelic journeys.
Psychedelic music isn’t restricted to a specific genre or style. It encompasses traditional ceremonial chants, classical compositions, and even contemporary pieces. The music’s pace, rhythm, and style play a vital role in shaping the therapeutic trajectory of the session.
In this article, we delve into the world of psychedelic music for healing and transformation through the latest research and expert interviews. We explore the history of psychedelic music, its therapeutic value, the research behind it, and how music shapes the flow of all psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Additionally, we’ll be sharing the top playlists and albums curated for transformative and healing psychedelic experiences.
“At this point, the old woman begins to sing. Hers is no ordinary song, but an icaro, a magical curing song that in our intoxicated and ecstatic state seems more like a tropical fish or an animated silk scarf of many colors than a vocal performance.” — Terence McKenna, 1992
The History of Psychedelic Music
Psychedelic music’s history encompasses a diverse range of cultures across the globe.
Scholars trace the roots of shamanic psychedelic music to indigenous Amazonian cultures where healers composed ayahuasca ceremonies with lyrical songs, known as icaros, along with chants and instrumentals, like rattles and drums.
The music experience was crucial in guiding altered states of consciousness, connecting with spiritual realms, and receiving profound visions. Shamans gained sacred knowledge from visions to help diagnose psychosomatic illnesses and attempt to cure or alleviate people of their ailments.
Years later, the synthesis of LSD in the mid-20th century spurred a new era of psychedelic exploration and ceremonial music starting in the 1950s. A decade later, visionary researchers like psychologist Bill Richards and psychiatrist Stanislav Grof intricately outlined and expounded upon music’s valuable function within the realm of psychedelic therapy. Their insights highlighted music’s capacity to communicate non-verbally, fostering optimal conditions for transformative experiences.
In parallel, early psychedelic research pioneers, notably minister, physician, and psychiatrist Walter Pahnke and music therapist Helen Bonny, expanded upon these foundations.
Bonny, Pahnke, Richards, Grof, and others were among the first Westerners to assert that music provides continuity within the psychedelic experience of timelessness. They believed acoustics let patients release control and enter the vast, spacious healing void.
“Music, as a structured envelope of sound, is probably the most effective and safe opener to the doors of the psyche.”
The Research & Neuroscience Behind Music for Psychedelic Therapy
In 1969, Grof and Panhke published some of the earliest psychedelic research, highlighting music’s integral role in LSD’s powerful therapeutic potential.
Bonny and Pahnke developed psychedelic music guidelines a few years later, suggesting that specific musical pieces or styles complemented distinct phases of the psychedelic experience. These stages encompassed the
- Onset of effects
- Peak intensity of drug action
- Return to normal consciousness
Bonny and Pahnke’s music strategy aimed to guide the journey from onset to the return to normal consciousness, aligning seamlessly with the psychedelic effects and the patients’ mental-health goals. Pairing acoustics with psychedelic therapy made sense, considering what modern science tells us about their individual benefits and synergistic relationship.
Music in the brain
Clinical trials don’t yet exist on music paired with psychedelic therapy. But countless studies showcase music’s capacity to broadly engage various neural pathways, triggering plasticity and changes in the nervous system. This process can bypass verbal processing and dig deep the recesses of the mind, enabling access to suppressed memories, dormant traumas, and latent emotions–just like psychedelics.
Music also mirrors psychedelics by reducing activity in the brain’s Default Mode Network, the mind-wandering center, while increasing connectivity between other regions. For example, music’s rhythmic patterns and melodies stimulate the brain’s reward centers. This progress triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of pleasure and relaxation, fostering a conducive environment for healing.
Music’s neural activation also affects regions related to emotional processing. Like psychedelics, music affects the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, all playing major roles in reactions, sensations, and inner states. These incredible functions allow people to make meaning of the profound insights and visions they receive during the psychedelic therapy process.
Music’s influence extends beyond the realms of cognition, echoing deep within the ancestral “reptilian brain”. By tapping into the foundational brain layers, like the cerebellum, music can evoke responses that span generations, resonating with ancient rhythms encoded in our neural circuitry.
Just as music supports psychedelic journeys, so can psychedelic drugs heighten emotions evoked by music.
In 2015, renowned psychedelic scientists and researchers Dr. Mendel Kaelen, Amanda Feilding, Dr. David Nutt, and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris proved that assertion. Their music study involved ten healthy participants who listened to different instrumental music tracks on two separate days: one with a placebo and the other with LSD, spaced a week apart. After each track, participants rated their emotions using scales.
The results highlighted that LSD indeed enhanced emotional reactions to music, particularly feelings of “wonder,” “transcendence,” “power,” and “tenderness.” Neuroscientifically, this synergy stems from the alignment of brain regions engaged by music and psychedelics.
A few years later, the team released an Imperial College London study, calling music the “hidden therapist” in psychedelic therapy.
The paper showed that music profoundly impacted the psilocybin therapy experience. But impact didn’t always mean “positive” from a subjective viewpoint.
After sessions, most patients reported effects such as:
- Meaningful emotions
- Therapeutic imagery
However, others felt:
- Unwelcome influences
Researchers found that resonating, liking, or remaining open to the musical experience correlated to mystical experiences and insightfulness during psychedelic therapy.
Interestingly, the study concluded that music, not drug strength, predicted positive outcomes like reduced depression symptoms a week later. The team concluded that music’s impact on psychedelic therapy suggests the need for personalized playlist designs, considering patient responses and therapeutic goals.
The Role of Psychedelic Music in Healing Ceremonies
Music may not always resonate universally. But researchers, therapists, shamans, and facilitators agree:
Music is the medicine in psychedelic healing journeys.
Let’s take a look at how.
Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment
Music acts as a guide, holding a safe container so people can release their ego to the unknown.
Carol Gilson, healer and founder of the psychedelic church Divine Spark Foundation, mindfully selects sound at the beginning of sessions to ease clients into the effects of psychedelics:
“Sometimes the excitement of journeying with mind-altering substances can turn into anxiety. So I like using chanting, buffalo drums, or spiritual songs. I feel humans recognize the ancient element of this music, eliciting a feeling of safety and a connection with something outside themselves, something bigger than themselves.”
Emotional release and catharsis
Karina Turtzo, Co-Senior Program Director at Reunion plant medicine healing center, explains that music has an incredible power to evoke soul-stirring release and catharsis during healing journeys:
“Ceremonial music allows you to delve deeper into the emotions that entheogens evoke. Throughout the journey, information, sensations, and wisdom arise from the body and the subconscious–not necessarily the mind.”
Reunion’s other Co-Senior Director, Julian DeVoe, says that music can induce mindfulness, bringing people back to themselves if the experience becomes turbulent:
“Music keeps us immersed in the flow of the experience. It can act as a focal point for a restless mind and a guide for an open heart. It can soothe and it can stimulate. With intention we can journey with the sound as part of the medicine.”
Personal Experiences and Case Studies Using Psychedelic Music as a Psychotherapy Tool
The harmonious interplay between auditory stimuli and psychedelic states holds transformative potential. But the process is not plug-and-play. The case studies below show that context and personal preferences make a huge difference, for better or worse.
Copenhagen Music Program Case Study
In 2022, Danish and Norwegian neurobiologists and music experts created a playlist for psilocybin therapy called the “Copenhagen Music Program.” The playlist featured songs like “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt, “A Fairytale,” and “Sylkje-Per, var.” The team tailored the program for a medium-high dose of psilocybin but promoted adapting it to LSD, ayahuasca, and MDMA as well.
A few months later, Canadian researchers published a case study evaluation of the program from an indigenous therapist and psychonaut’s perspective.
The study’s indigenous therapist called the initial music choices “trite and inappropriate,” resisting the influence. Later, she said that “O magnum mysterium” mentally “placed her in the pews of a Catholic Church, where she had no desire to be as an Indigenous victim of European colonization.
The findings corroborated decades of research: Patients must like, resonate, or feel open to music to receive therapeutic value.
Johns Hopkins Playlist Testimonials
In 1967, Bill Richards masterminded a psychedelic playlist while conducting psilocybin and LSD therapy research at the Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville. Thirty years later, Richards joined renowned researcher Roland R. Griffiths, PhD, to bring psilocybin research to Johns Hopkins, updating his playlist with new sounds, including tunes from Helen Bonny’s tapes.
Researchers have updated the playlist over the years, and countless psychonauts continue to journey with its unfolding design.
Rob Jacobs, a patient in a recent Johns Hopkins study, said:
“It was unbelievably beautiful. It literally moved me to tears,” Jacobs, now 52, wrote in his post-session report in 2010. “It seemed to capture the human condition, the beauty and sadness of existence. Melancholy but majestic. … It was like I could see right into the heart of the matter with crystal clarity.”
At-home explorer and Reddit user “tolive89” said:
“I experienced [the Johns Hopkins playlist] for the first time with headphones and a high dosage of mushrooms. I have never had such vivid and deliberate-feeling closed-eye visuals from any other album. It’s a masterpiece. Can’t talk highly enough of it. It’s perfectly constructed in that it feels like it transports you to a new place at the beginning, soothes you, takes you out of your comfort zone, even threatens you, and then the threat is overcome, and then a track of pure ecstasy (deep in the glowing heart), and then from there you’re winding down, feeling good. It’s fantastic.”
Ram Dass chant
Divine Spark founder Carol Gilson recalled an experience of complete unity, self-connection, and joy from a Guru Ram Dass chant called “Healing Miracles.” The chant began playing towards the end as Carol re-emerged into the physical plane of reality.
“My intention was to do work around trauma that limited me from being my full self. The [Ram Dass] song made me feel like my heart was blown open. I saw the self that had been carrying all my “selves” and that [traumatic] wound. I became so happy that I sat up from my mat and in my full voice, sang as loud as I could. Part of my trauma was that I used to be in a competitive choir growing up, and I later stopped singing. But I was born to sing… And I really wanted to open that back up. So I started singing as loud as I could. And I’ve been singing every day since. I haven’t been happy every day. But I’ve been singing.”
Tips for Psychedelic Music Selection
Experienced psychedelic facilitators and therapists typically talk to patients before creating or selecting a psychedelic playlist. They ask patients about their healing intentions, cultural background, and songs that could elicit unwanted triggers. Gathering this information allows guides to curate a list that aligns with their needs.
Many facilitators, like Carol, then “live DJ” the journey, selecting songs based on their patients’ emotional responses. Personalization and adaptation are ideal for therapeutic outcomes.
However, psychedelic therapy sessions are not always so dynamic. Many psychedelic healing journeys occur in groups or at home without customization options.
Fortunately, centuries of indigenous use and decades of research provide actionable tips for creating or selecting a psychedelic music playlist:
1. Lean toward novelty
“The brain loves novelty,” according to Carol Gilson. Originality helps people form valuable insights, whereas high familiarity may prevent this occurrence by fettering the mind with prior associations.
For this reason, therapists recommend choosing novel tunes unless the patient wants to work through a particular trauma that familiar music could help invoke and resolve. Most facilitators lean toward non-English songs for this reason as well.
2. Design with the Arc in Mind
Most psychedelic playlists follow the psychedelic journey arc, with music to match the medicine and maximize the emotional response throughout each stage, namely ingestion and early medicine onset, ascent and peak, descent and “welcome back.”
Ingestion and early medicine onset:
Onset sounds are typically soft and easeful, playing just after ingestion while the patient is lying down and wearing eye shades and headphones.
“We typically ease in with something softer and melodic, nothing jarring. We don’t want to trigger the nervous system into fight or flight. We want to create a sense of safety so you can release and surrender. Nature sounds can reconnect us to a primordial knowing. This is a beautiful way to begin a journey, with support from the natural world.” – Karina Turtzo, Reunion
“Lyrics, even in unknown languages, can pull hypervigilant people out of the experience.” — Carol Gilson, Divine Spark Foundation
Onset music can include:
- Nature sounds
- Spa music
- Religious or spiritual music (as long as it resonates)
- Non-lyrical acoustics
The ascent and peak:
As the journey evolves towards its peak, Karina and Julian begin adding deeper sounds, like instrumentals that carry a sense of resonance with the medicine. These powerful vibrations can create discomfort, but Julian points out that overcoming resistance can create invaluable resilience.
“We encourage journeyers to be open, curious, and investigative about what’s coming up in their experience, especially if it is uncomfortable. Moments of discomfort are indicators that we’re touching into parts of self that need attention, re-evaluation and expression. They point us in the direction for further inquiry and invite us to lean in. Resistance is also a signal that unprocessed emotions are surfacing so they can be looked at, felt and healed. The medicine aided by music, instrumentation and directed sound can gift us with new perspectives, move stagnant energies and help us to integrate our learnings.” — Karina Turtzo and Julian DeVoe, Reunion plant medicine center.
As journeyers reach the peak, Carol Gilson selects songs with triumph.
“I often use [epic] movie scores to match the big, emotional, uplifting moment. These songs can feel really great. We’re celebrating a journey, after all. So, I want the music to mirror that huge expansion vibe and help the person reach that peak.”
Ascent and peak music can include:
- Shamanic, rattling, or earth-based sounds
- Film scores
- Songs that inspire joy
Descent; and the “welcome back”
Next in the sequence is the return, calling for gentle, soothing, and perhaps even familiar tunes
“I love to end with reverent music that makes the heart feel open and proud. You should feel proud. You’ve worked hard and discovered parts of yourself. Post-peak music should solidify the celebration in some way.”
Descent music typically looks like onset music:
- Slower paced
Welcome back music can be anything, joyous or calming. For example, Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Playlist’s final songs include:
- “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong
- “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles
- “Ocean Waves” by Jeffrey Thompson
3. Go loud
High-quality speakers and a comfortable environment alongside powerful volume allows participants to immerse themselves in the auditory experience emotionally and somatically.
Carol uses Harman Kardon surround sound speakers, with music so loud it shakes the floor, drowns out distracting sounds, and vibrates through the body.
We are mostly water. We’re vibrational beings. Music plays through us. [So if we can play it loud enough] to feel the frequency with our whole body–that’s incredibly powerful.
Music’s frequency traverses through every atom and nervous system tendril via the body’s liquid medium. The reverberation can stir latent energies, emotions, and even suppressed traumas.
Drawing from the famous book on trauma, “The Body Keeps the Score,” it’s clear that sound can function as a powerful catalyst for psychological issues interwoven with the entirety of one’s being.
4. Align the playlist with the journey duration
The timing and integration of music within a therapeutic session are key considerations.
Most curated psychedelic playlists are five to six hours, matching the typical journey duration for psilocybin and ayahuasca. However, the Johns Hopkins University playlist is nearly eight hours to account for people who might metabolize the medicine more slowly.
The timing and integration will ultimately depend on the medicine and the dosage. For example, IV ketamine experiences range from 30 minutes to an hour. LSD can last up to 12 hours. And ibogaine up to 24.
5. Download the playlist beforehand
Technology is an ally in psychedelic therapy until the wifi or power goes out.
To prevent a jarring end to mid-journey music, explorers, therapists, and facilitators should always download playlists beforehand and play music on a Bluetooth-enabled device.
Top Playlists for Psychedelic Therapy
Some of the most renowned institutions have curated playlists to enhance the psychedelic therapy sessions. The below playlists (which are not listed in any particular order) feature compositions ranging from classical music, like Johannes Brahms, J.S. Bach, and Antonio Vivaldi, to ambient tunes and ancestral drums.
1. Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Playlist
Developed by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, this playlist is vital to the center’s therapeutic research sessions. Most of the playlist is Western classical blended with primarily overtone music with non-English text.
Listen to the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin playlist on Spotify.
2. East Forest – Music for Mushrooms
Crafted by the artist East Forest, the playlist creates a sonic environment that resonates with the reflective and transformative nature of magic mushrooms. It merges ethereal melodies, soothing soundscapes, and evocative textures that guide listeners through various emotional and sensory states.
Listen to the East Forest Music for Mushrooms playlist on Spotify.
3. Usona and NYU Langone Health’s Psychedelic Therapy Playlist 2
Psychedelic research organization, Usona Institute, and NYU’s Center for Psychedelic Medicine originally created Psychedelic Therapy Playlist 2 with Wavepaths. This technology company also creates ketamine therapy music. Usona’s playlist, however, was created for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy-for-depression studies. The tones include gentle rhythms and harmonious melodies with classical and rhythmic beats.
Listen to NYU’s and Usona’s playlist on Spotify.
4. Chacruna Institute – A Playlist for Psilocybin
Chacruna is an educational institute that fosters cultural awareness regarding psychedelic plant medicines. Researcher Kelan Thomas, PharmD, MS, BCPS, BCPP, created the Institute’s Playlist for Psilocybin to include indie, new wave, and post-rock.
Listen to Chacruna Institute’s playlist on Spotify.
5. Imperial College London – Psychedelic Therapy Playlist 2
Dr. Mendel Kaelen created Imperial College London’s Psychedelic Therapy Playlist 2 for psilocybin therapy research at the organizations. Tunes include mainly neo-classical and ambient music combined with jazz, classical, and indigenous music.
Listen to Imperial College London’s playlist on Spotify.
Psychedelic Guides Picks (songs, playlists & artists)
- Equanimous (artist)
- “The Devi Prayer” by Craig Pruess & Ananda
- Monroe Institute – Hemi-Sync playlist (for ketamine therapy)
- “The Manifested [Morphic Field],” by Sapien Medicine
- “Oneness Chant,” by Lauren Monroe
- Nora En Pure (artist)
- Living Light (artist)
- Desert Dwellers (artist)
- Suduaya (artist)
- Shpongle (artist)
- DJ Taz Rashid (artist)
The Bottom Line
Psychedelic music has transcended cultures and centuries to become an integral component of modern therapeutic practices. From its roots in ancient ceremonial rituals to its current role in clinical settings, music guides individuals through profound states of consciousness and healing.
As research unveils the intricate relationship between music, the brain, and psychedelics, the potential for deep transformation through music-assisted therapy becomes increasingly apparent.
With institutions like Johns Hopkins, experienced therapists and shamanic practitioners leading the way, the future holds exciting possibilities for the continued integration of music in the realm of psychedelic therapy.
Looking for qualified coaches, therapists, and facilitators who specialize in guiding music-based psychedelic journeys?
Visit Third Wave’s Psychedelic Directory to find the support you need to navigate transformative experiences safely and meaningfully.