I pulled a black eye mask over my eyes and placed a pair of sound-canceling headphones over my ears. The sound of rain falling over piano notes and a sporadic symbol rang in my ears as a nurse practitioner at Field Trip Health, a legal ketamine clinic in Los Angeles, injected 35 milligrams of FDA-approved ketamine into my left arm.
The sensation of moving backward on a slow roller coaster consumed my body, as I descended to the bottom floor of a black abyss. I entered the upside-down. Low-tone chimes and soft swirling guitar twangs guided me down a corridor of nothingness until I morphed into the surging water that carved out the Grand Canyon. Effervescent xylophones over a soft synthesizer accompanied a visual of my hair becoming moss growing on the sides of stone. My bones formed the edges of jagged cliff sides hanging over the ocean. My body disintegrated into the Earth. An hour later, soft wind chimes layered over rolling waves guided me back into my body.
Psychedelics-assisted therapy is trending. The media regularly hails it as a revolutionary psychiatric treatment, and it’s becoming a health craze similar to CBD and cannabis in terms of the myriad benefits it’s purported to offer. But much of this coverage consistently neglects that there’s a new genre of largely beat-less electronic music forming around experimental psychedelic therapies — and a new industry developing around sounds intended to help heal the array of mental health conditions that psychedelic therapies show efficacy with. (Outlets including The Guardian, Rolling Stone and Marijuana Moment, along with high profile podcasters like Aubrey Marcus, have reported on the intersection of psychedelic therapy and the new type of music and corresponding technology evolving around it.)
“The psychedelic space needs a lot of new music that is designed for it,” says Grammy nominated producer Jon Hopkins, who on November 12 released Music For Psychedelic Therapy, a nine-track album dedicated to the psychedelic liminal space. “Otherwise, you have a playlist made of a hundred different energies. It’s like someone new coming into the room every 10 minutes and bringing their stuff into your space.”
Music becomes a dwelling people inhabit during a psychedelic experience. Making music for psychedelic states is the equivalent of building a house with multiple rooms a journeyer can roam between. It creates a cohesive environment, one with a consistent design, energy and message, which can boost the positive effects of a trip. Cohesive music prevents a journeyer from being yanked out of a vision or other hallucinatory experience and transported somewhere entirely different when a song changes on a playlist.
“It’s longform music,” says Hopkins, who’s globally renowned for making electronic music with high-vibe beats, bass and sparkling textures. “The best way to describe it is like several different places that you imperceptibly move between over the course of [an hour-long] period.”
Indigenous people have utilized this singular format of music for thousands of years in plant medicine traditions. The emergence of longform, Ableton-generated music for psychedelic therapy, then, is the Western adaptation of an ancient formula. Combined with the advent of genres like binaural beats — which claim to make the brain emit beta and alpha waves — electronic music has assumed scientific value. Rave culture’s roots in transcendence via dance music also plays a factor in why electronic sounds are regularly employed in this new treatment, and probably why electronic artists are among the first in the 21st century to design sound for hallucinatory realms.
But longform music for the psychedelic landscape is a relatively new development. In fact, most people who receive Western psychedelic therapy don’t currently hear unified soundscapes. They instead listen to an amalgamation of music on playlists curated by therapists or professional guides. This is partly due to the convenience of organizing songs on platforms like Spotify. It’s also because, until recently, there’s hardly been any music designed specifically for the nuances and duration of various psychedelic terrains. (Hopkins’ new album is an hour long, approximately the same length as a ketamine trip.)
Johns Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research curated a six-hour Spotify playlist for its clinical trial looking at the effect of psilocybin on major depressive disorder. It features Vivaldi, Brahms, Bach, and Gregorian chants, a sound bowl track, one song by Alice Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” as the closing tracks. The playlist is objectively all over the place, but listening to shuffled songs is standard in most psychedelic clinical trial settings.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which sponsors and organizers psychedelic clinical trials throughout the United States and beyond, uses less classically oriented playlists in their ongoing Phase III MDMA clinical trials. “Our music is generally without lyrics because lyrics prompt a story,” says Bruce Poulter, a clinical supervisor for MAPS’ MDMA-assisted therapy research in Boulder, Colorado. “As an organization, we’re using music to support a process, not to drive it.”
Most of these playlists are a mashup of classical, meditation, tribal drums and mellow ambient music. All can effectively guide someone through a psychedelic experience. The clinical trials are evidence of that, considering shuffled playlists, rather than dedicated music for psychedelic therapy, are are often used in these settings.
“Certainly some of the best music being used for psychedelic therapy wasn’t intended for psychedelic therapy at all — in fact, most of it wasn’t,” says Justin Boreta of The Glitch Mob, who’s now making music for psychedelic therapy with his project Superposition, a collaboration with Matthew Davis of the LA Philharmonic — whose EP Form//Less was nominated for best new age album at the 2020 Grammys.
“I think the difference between music for psychedelic therapy and other music used in that setting is intention,” Boreta continues. “This new music invites the care needed to go inward and what an artist would want to be present with someone on that journey. When an artist puts it all together, you start to hear something else emerge.”
Producer East Forest is on this same wavelength. In 2019, he released Music For Mushrooms: A Soundtrack For the Psychedelic Practitioner, a five-hour record created for leading a group or individual through an entire psilocybin experience. (The album hit No. 7 on Billboard‘s New Age Albums chart, where it spent two weeks.) He, Boreta and Hopkins share the same goal: to create a singular voice for individuals to follow through the psychedelic realm.
“Not having music specifically for [this new type of treatment] has been an oversight in the psychedelic therapy space,” says East, who released another psychedelic soundscape entitled IN: A Soundtrack for the Psychedelic Practitioner Vol. II on October 22. “These playlists are fine, but they’re a bit inadequate in my mind. With ketamine clinics and psilocybin therapists and more places starting to come online, people are beginning to realize that the music part in all of this is actually really important.”
Science backs the significance of music in psychedelic therapy. According to a 2021 study by the European College of Neuropharmacology in Denmark, psilocybin increases participants’ emotional response to music by an average of 60 percent. Other studies show that music plays the role of a “hidden therapist” in guided sessions. Within the context of legally sanctioned trips, this suggests that music facilitates the efficacy of these treatments.
To help fill the sound void, neuroscientist Dr. Mendel Kaelen developed Wavepaths, a music app for psychedelic therapists and practitioners. Through adaptive AI music-generation technology, the program builds supportive sound environments for tripping patients based on different factors, including emotions and the type of medicine a person consumes. It’s essentially a tool that allows therapists to build a sound experience for journeyers while the app’s technology strings together an original instrumental.
“What is it that conveys the process of letting go or breaking out in tears due to sadness, love or beauty?” says Kaelen, who spent nine years as a researcher at Imperial College London. In 2015 he authored one of the first studies looking at music’s role in psychedelic therapy, and it found that LSD significantly increases people’s emotional response to music. “You’re dealing with the building blocks of music at that point, which is what I’m interested in. There’s a philosophical component to what we [at Wavepaths] do that is essentially re-inventing the way music may happen. A consequence of that may be that there is a new genre in the making.”
Kaelen has worked with 22 professional musicians — including Hopkins, East and Boreta — thus far to build Wavepaths. Musicians are paid a fee determined by how much music a they provide to the system, plus royalties. Every sound package recorded becomes exclusive property of the Wavepaths platform to ensure freshness and novelty for all listeners.
Wavepaths is the only app of its kind that delivers music for psychedelic therapy based on data from decades of research. According to Kaelen, the program is licensed out to 300 legal clinics in over 30 different countries. Therapists and clinics subscribe to the app and pay a monthly fee based on the number of sessions a clinician leads or how big a facility is. Field Trip Health ketamine clinic is one of Wavepaths’ biggest clients, with clinics in over a dozen cities around the US and Canada.
According to Ronan Levy, co-founder and executive-chairman at Field Trip, Wavepaths is the standard for psychedelic therapy music. “Field Trip uses Wavepaths because they are the clear market leader with the most sophisticated technology and the most history around developing music for psychedelic experiences,” he says. “Working with organizations like Wavepaths that are data-focused, doing the research and are evidence-based is very consistent with who we are at Field Trip.”
Field Trip Health also commissions musicians to contribute to their app called Trip, which assists people with creating their set and setting, intention, journaling and integration after a consciousness-expanding experience. Each artist’s contract is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, according to Levy, while the music is licensed by Field Trip Digital LLC, the subsidiary that owns Trip.
East Forest’s latest album IN debuted on Trip three months before it was released to the public. Superposition also has music licensed to the app. “I certainly think there’s going to be a vast genre of music designed to support psychedelic therapies. There are artists already doing this, so you can see the genre already forming,” says Levy. “We have a whole bunch of musicians, including East Forest, Superposition and Laraaji, producing music for our app. It’s a cool way for people to start experimenting with the music that speaks to them in non-ordinary states of consciousness.”
While this new therapy music isn’t going to start a party on the dancefloor, it’s still tourable, and it’s already flipping the conventional concert format on its head. East Forest performs his music live for audiences who take in the sound while laying on yoga mats. Earlier this year, Hopkins played his new album to a meditative crowd in an immersive listening environment in Austin, Texas. The vibe of these shows is BYOM- (bring your own medicine)-and-journey-to-the-music. Boreta is also working on plans to play live for group psychedelic therapy sessions. “I think as legalization continues to happen and there are more opportunities to do this,” he says, “there will be more group therapy sessions with sitters and live music.”
It’s impossible not to acknowledge the role of Indigenous traditions in the formation of this new genre, particularly when considering group therapy sessions. Music designed for ceremony is a tradition as old as time: Ayahuasceros in the Amazon sing Icaros, Tarahumara shamans from Mexico’s Chihuahua desert chant rhythmic peyote prayers and West-Central Africa’s Bwiti people play drums pounding at 170 beats per minute. Each style of music serves a different purpose. The Mazatec people from Huautla de Jimenez, a mountainous region on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico, chant and sing poetic songs in mushroom language.
“The curandera, the healer, is singing and talking from the mushroom’s perspective. The voice of the healer is the voice of the mushroom being transcribed for the patients or ceremony participants,” says Elizabeth (not her real name), a woman involved in the lineage of the Mazatec tradition. (The Mazatec people were put on the map by author and ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson after he wrote a non-consensual feature in 1957 for Life magazine about Mazatec curandera, Maria Sabina.) “The songs are geared to go into the healing process of the journeyer. That’s why [the songs] are improvised in the moment: the healer is a conduit speaking for the patient or the group.”
While psychedelic music is a well-established sound, this new genre of therapy music is the West’s first intentional foray into making music for the psychedelic realm. It’s also the first time western culture has put aside its moral qualms with drugs to participate in a healing tradition that fundamentally recognizes the accuracy of Indigenous wisdom. “Perhaps this is becoming more of a genre in modern music for Western therapy,” says East, “but obviously, music is the essential guide and vehicle for the ceremony, and in many ways it is the ceremony. It’s been this way for millennia.”
If psychedelics are the medicine, then music is part of the healing agent. It’s something humans have always known and science is just starting to prove, and it’s catalyzing the emergence of a new music culture in the West.
“Music will guide you into certain places, and we haven’t mapped that terrain in the West at all,” Hopkins says. “I feel like there’s a new synergy between modern electronic music and the forms of consciousness we can finally start to explore.”