The Role of Music in Psychedelic Therapy
The medicine has been taken. Your eye mask has been pulled into place. Lying comfortably on your couch or bed, you take a deep, centering breath. You’re about to begin your psychedelic therapy session.
There’s one final, and essential doorway into the experience. You reach for your headphones and welcome your virtual guide throughout the session —music.
Aside from your own thoughts and emotions, music is often the only traveling companion you have as you venture into yourself, your heart, and your psyche. This highlights the profoundly powerful role that music has in the context of psychedelic therapy. It is the through-line and the heartbeat of your experience.
Music is a major emotional influence and provides a narrative structure. It serves as an anchor, helping steady you in the ocean of psychedelic experience. This resource explores the power, potential, effects, and overall role of music in psychedelic therapy.
The Makeup of Psychedelic Therapy Sessions
Depending on the container you have chosen, a psychedelic therapy session can be structured in many ways. But there are common themes, and music is often one.
“Set and setting” is the concept that your mindset and immediate environment help shape your response to the medicine. Preparing a calm, welcoming, and comfortable environment is a widely adopted “best practice” for psychedelic medicine. This can be as simple as changing into your favorite pair of cozy pajamas, relaxing into a nook on your couch, and slipping on a pair of headphones with a soundtrack you’ve carefully curated.
Some psychedelic medicine experiences have a longer experiential arc, such as psilocybin at roughly 5-6 hours, or LSD at 10-12. Some experiences are shorter, such as ketamine at 60-90 minutes. Depending on the length of this experience, soundtracks are curated to help someone settle into themselves. This helps to provide an emotional opening before the peak of the experience, a strong peak, and a smooth, calm re-entry into normal waking consciousness at the end. Some light music for integration and journaling after “landing,” may also be helpful.
The role of music in psychedelic therapy is well-known, both by clinicians and practitioners, as well as anyone who has had the experience themselves. Though the specifics of what makes music so powerful, and how to best curate a playlist to assist with this process is still being studied and discovered.
However, over the last few decades of psychedelic medicine research, some clear pillars surrounding music have come to light.
What Music for Psychedelic Therapy Provides
If you’ve ever had a favorite song or listened to an album on repeat for a week, you have an intuitive understanding of the power of music. In the receptive and heightened emotional states that psychedelics bring about, the power and emotionality of music are further amplified.
Music provides a few core services throughout psychedelic therapy sessions, these include:
At a high-level, music provides a kind of scaffolding or architecture to the experience. It signals the beginning, peak, come-down, and end of a session. This lets an individual relax more deeply into the experience, as they do not need to monitor time.
Depending on the playlist, music can also provide narrative arcs such as: overcoming obstacles, redemption, being worthy, or encountering the sacred. It ties the “story” of the psychedelic experience together and presents it as a unified whole.
Music also increases the emotional tone of the experience. Songs can be selected to increase the intensity of feelings of: catharsis, joy, transcendence, sadness, victory, peace, or others. This amplifies the existing emotions present in the psychedelic experience, helping lessons, insights, or feelings penetrate more deeply into the heart of the individual.
Anchoring or support
The psychedelic experience can be intense, strange, or challenging at times. Music provides grounding support as an anchoring mechanism for individuals. If someone is “stuck” or “looping” on an idea, the linear progression of the music can help them break free of that.
If challenging material is surfacing, music can help an individual move into and through it. And if they have an out-of-body or other novel experience, music serves as an anchor to help them return safely to the world.
Opening yourself up, or presenting a challenge
Music and playlists can help open an individual and make them more receptive to information from the experience by helping them feel safe and supported. This increased openness/receptivity is helpful in the therapeutic context of this healing work.
If the individual requests it, dissonant music can also create a challenge, prompting or allowing more challenging or hidden material to the surface. Leaning into the pain is the first step to healing it, and music plays a direct role in that process. We do not recommend using dissonant tones or music unless you are experienced, or have discussed this directly with your Guide/care teams.
A direct experience
Music itself is an experience, just like psychedelic medicine is an experience. It’s an experience of being immersed in sound, of noticing the relationship between instruments, or seeing the visual patterns that arise. This can be an important and powerful experience for individuals, just as much as the emotions, thoughts, or other experiences they may have within a session.
As you can see, music plays a powerful and multi-faceted role in the context of psychedelic therapy. It is an experience unto itself, and can also catalyze and support a variety of other experiences within the psychedelic states of mind.
From increasing openness/receptivity, to creating narrative coherence, music is a central part of the psychedelic experience for good reason.
How Music is Structured for a Psychedelic Therapy Session
While all medicine experiences vary between the specific compound, the specific individual, and the specific intention/healing at hand, there is a standard experiential arc for music design that is often used.
It closely follows the classic arc of the psychedelic experience, breaking it down into 5 core sequences.
Most psychedelic medicines have an onset period, where the medicine takes some time to absorb, and the individual begins feeling the effects. The music used here is often calm and welcoming, inviting the individual into a space of openness, safety, and receptivity.
2. Come Up
As the medicine starts to take effect, the music may slowly increase in intensity as well as complexity. Tempo changes may occur, or new instruments or sounds introduced as the next “stage” of the experience begins.
The aim here is to accentuate the effects of the medicine, and to begin moving the individual toward their intention. This helps them turn more deeply inwards, and to bring anything that needs to be healed to the surface.
At the peak, the individual is experiencing the full effects of the medicine, and the music rises up to meet this intensity. It may be joyous, it may be active, it may be complex, but it is here that the power of music shines.
It brings out the best of the medicine and the individual, helping release anything that needs to be healed, and creates transcendent and deeply connected experiences. New sounds and rich complexity often accompany this part of the experience.
4. Come Down
Depending on the length of the experience, such as with psilocybin or LSD’s longer durations, there may be a few “rounds” of peaks and valleys. With medicines like ketamine, there is often a single peak followed by the come-down period.
Here the aim is to help support and guide the individual. They may have had some emotionally intense or challenging experiences arise during the peak, and there is likely still a process unfolding during this time. The music softens, becomes warm and inviting, to allow the catharsis, ongoing processing, or deep feeling that the individual needs at that moment.
As the effects of the medicine begin to fade, the individual slowly returns to their body, to the room, and to normal waking consciousness. Music helps facilitate this process, allowing for a smooth landing with slower music, brighter tones and emotionality, and a smooth rhythm to help the individual orient themselves.
Eventually, the playlist may stop here, or transition towards integration and journaling music. A soft ambience that allows the individual to be with themselves and reflect on the experience is often desired.
As always, these are broad generalizations of an experience which is unique and dynamic. However, most psychedelic experience can be placed on this experiential arc, and the role of music at each of these stages is notable.
Considerations & Notes
The power of music in psychedelic therapy should be apparent by now —and it’s important to consider its responsible use.
Music can shape and influence an individual's experience at a moment in their life where they are open to suggestion and influence. It may surface challenging emotional material like trauma or grief.
It is important to consider some musical themes or aspects that may have an undesired affect on the experience. For example, it’s recommended to avoid using tracks with vocals in them if possible, as well as those that are overly reliant on dissonant tones. It’s important that care is taken to align the music with the experiential arc of the medicine, and with consideration to the individual's musical preferences.
It is possible to create your own playlists for psychedelic therapy. However, if you have any doubts at all —whether for yourself or in creating a playlist for someone else— it is best to rely on playlists and soundtracks that have been created by experts in the field.
Some individuals may prefer not having any music accompany the session at all. For new clients, we recommend trying the sessions as designed, with the music, before making a decision on this.
Music isn’t the entirety of the psychedelic experience, but it has a large influence on how powerful or challenging the experience can become.
If this field of study interests you, it’s possible to dive deeper into the world of music and psychedelics. There is ongoing research around the role, impact, and effective design of music within psychedelic therapy.
While some best practices and general structures have emerged thus far, the study of music’s use in psychedelic therapy is still in its early stages. The power and potential of music to assist in transformative healing experiences is well-known, yet often overlooked. Continued research and testing serve to benefit the community and client.
If you’d like to experience the power of music and psychedelic therapy together, you can see if you are a candidate for Mindbloom ketamine treatment by taking the client survey here.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.