Music Pilots the River: How music tracks frame and transform psychedelic therapeutic experiences, Part 1

This is the first of a two-part newsletter about music in psychedelic therapy. The second part will be published in mid July.

Long before psychedelic substances were widely used medically and recreationally in North America and Europe, indigenous populations made use of them as part of a religious sacrament. These ceremonies always included music, chanting, singing and drumming as an integral part of the experience.

Humphrey Osmond, the Anglo-Canadian psychiatrist, who, in the 1950s, resurrected the vestiges of a 19th century mental asylum, Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada into an internationally-recognized model of progressive, integrative mental health treatment (complete with music and art therapies and patients interacting with the community) was himself a proponent of psychedelics as psychomimetics. Having tried LSD and mescaline, he persuaded staff at the hospital to take them as a means to better understand the lived experience of those suffering from schizophrenia.

During his time at Weyburn, Dr Osmond became interested in the use of peyote in indigenous ceremonies. In 1956, he arranged with Mr. Frank Takes Gun, President of the Native American Church of North America, to take part in an peyote ceremony with the Red Pheasant First Nation outside the city of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

The ceremony began in the evening with prayer. The peyote was handed round at 9pm. Then at midnight, “[Mr. Takes Gun] left us and, walking around the outside of the teepee, blew piercing blasts on an eagle's-bone whistle at the four compass points. The sound shrilled through aeons of space and corridors of time. It echoed to eternity. When he came back to us, he prayed, “... that the Universe may prevail.1” With that invocation,  Dr Osmond felt he’d begun to enter the Native Americans’ world:

“On these wide prairies, where trees and hills are almost equally scarce, sound often conveyed as much as sight. So the Indians call up their past with song, with drum, and with rattle. For them, minute alterations of rhythm and pace evoke ever-changing images. Because we cannot hear as they do, the drumming and rattling seem endlessly repetitive to us. The drumming was the steady running of a man with his dog padding beside him. It was the pawing and thudding of buffalo hooves crescendoing in thunder. It was the gentle crumpling of dung falling or the soft plop of a calf dropping on turf, soundless, yet heard by the hunter. The gourd evoked the endlessly sifting wind, catching at scrub and grass as it passed. It was the hissing of an arrow as it leaves the bow or snakes by one’s head in battle. It was the sizzling of buffalo meat grilling on the campfire and the creak of a hide teepee as the blizzard twists and whirls around it. The drumming was life and death, scarlet blood spurting from a stricken buffalo or from a fallen warrior.2

Dr Osmond’s grasp of the power of music to evoke spiritual messages within the space of a psychedelic experience was mirrored by other members of the psychotherapeutic community, who, increasingly, began to employ music to facilitate peak experiences during psychedelic therapy sessions.

Working at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore in the 1960s and early 1970s, music therapist Dr Helen Bonny and psychiatrist Dr Walter Pahnke noted that music “appears to be involved significantly in the crucial extra-drug variables of both set and setting.3

Dr Bonny and Dr Pahnke described music as complementing the therapy in several ways:

1) by helping the patient relinquish usual controls and enter more fully into his inner world of experience; 2) by facilitating the release of intense emotionality; 3) by contributing toward a peak experience; 4) by providing continuity in an experience of timelessness; 5) by directing and structuring the experience.4

Dr Bonny and Dr Pahnke noted the order and arrangement of the musical experience to be most effective when the genre and cadence of the music tracked the phases of the drug experience itself.

The playlist they developed has become, with some tweaking and variation toward modern tastes, as well as inclusion of more ethnic and world music, the standard track used in clinical trials at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and Imperial College. The Johns Hopkins playlist can be found here.

The importance of musical selection was studied more recently — this time with quantitative research in mind — for the purpose of data gathering and measurement by a graduate researcher at Imperial College. Mendel Kaelen studied 19 subjects suffering from treatment-resistant depression. His results replicated the effects Drs Bonny and Pahnke had observed 48 years prior:

“Analyses of the interviews revealed that the music had both “welcome” and “unwelcome” influences on patients’ subjective experiences. Welcome influences included the evocation of personally meaningful and therapeutically useful emotion and mental imagery, a sense of guidance, openness, and the promotion of calm and a sense of safety.5

The researchers were able to show that the musical experience played at least as much if not more of a role as the intensity of the drug experience in subjects’ mood changes. The music itself was described by subjects as reducing feelings of depression one week after the drug session. The broad sense among subjects was that the intensity of the drug was less important than their experience of music. One detail buried amidst the papers details and not called out in results was patients’ anxiety levels. The music’s positive effects on depression did not carry over to anxiety. Music budged the low mood upwards; anxiety was another matter, a fact which Mr Kaelen et al glossed over.

1

Osmond, Humphrey. “Peyote Night.” Tomorrow, Volume 9, Number 2, Spring, 1961.

2

ibid

3

Bonny, Helen L, RMT, MME, and Pahnke, Walter N, MD, PhD. The Use of Music in Psychedelic (LSD) Psychotherapy. Journal of Music Therapy, Vol IX, Summer, 1972 pp 64-87.

4

ibid

5

Kaelen, Mendel et al. “The hidden therapist: evidence for a central role of music in psychedelic therapy. Psychopharmacology, Vol 235(2), Feb 2018, pp 505-519.