Close your eyes, quiet your mind, and listen. We are surrounded by the constant shimmer of sound: a sound that can spark creativity, impel insight, and change our bodily chemistry. The ability to hear is deeply primordial. Our auditory faculties become functional long before we take our first breath.
When we engage mindfully with sound, we become open to the possibility of altering our perception. When we engage with sound during psychedelic journeys, we can profoundly shift our experience of self and the wider world.
The blending of psychedelic substances and soundscapes has been practiced for centuries. Music and sound are fundamental features of the mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatec Indians, the peyote ceremonies of Native Americans, and the ibogaine rituals of Bwiti in west-central Africa. Icaros, or ritual songs, form part of traditional ayahuasca journeys and are considered essential in facilitating physical and spiritual healing. In all of these rituals, sound represents an elemental aspect of the experience, cultivating a dynamic inner landscape in which transformation can take place.
Beyond traditional and ritual significance, sound and music also significantly influence the psychedelic experience in more concrete ways. Waves of LSD research in the 50s and 60s saw psychiatrists and neurologists dedicated to exploring the therapeutic benefits of the compound. Early on in this research, music was identified as a factor that could potentiate the psychedelic experience dramatically. Music soon became recognized as one of the most vital elements of the setting, capable of supporting and enhancing the therapeutic process. Setting, in psychedelic research, refers to the environment and context in which the journey takes place.
Early psychedelic music therapy research found that the presence of music profoundly altered the patient’s perceptions during the trip. One prominent Canadian researcher, Abram Hoffer, observed:
Very often, sounds which normally have no particular aesthetic appeal, were heard in a most unusual manner. Subjects who were indifferent to music, were enthralled by it…This property of the experience is very useful in bringing out the psychedelic reaction. Carefully selected music can be very powerful in altering the subject’s mood and associations.
These findings were not only limited to LSD. Research into the effects of music on psilocybin, the primary psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms and truffles, echoed similar results. Participants listening to music after consuming mushrooms reported an intensive, exhilarating sound experience that compelled them to fully surrender to the music. In one 2018 study exploring the effects of music and psilocybin therapy on depression, a participant reflected:
I feel the music, in large part, drove a lot of the experience. Under the influence of psilocybin, the music absolutely takes over. Normally when I hear a piece of sad music or happy music, I respond through choice, but under psilocybin, I felt almost that I had no choice but to go with the music.
In this study, researchers referred to music as “the hidden therapist”, as it profoundly influenced the participants’ psilocybin experience. Their analysis correlated psychedelic therapy music with mystical experiences and insightfulness. Participants shared that music intensified their imaginations, personal memories, and emotions. Music also guided most participants and carried them forward on the journey, offering a sense of continuity and cohesion throughout the trip. Additionally, many reported that music was physically and mentally calming, and promoted openness during more challenging aspects of the journey. Most critically, the nature of the music experience (whether the individual liked and resonated with the music or not) was strongly predictive of a reduction in depression a week later..
Other studies also indicate that music contributes to enduring benefits long after the psychedelic experience is over. For example, individuals become significantly more open when listening during a psychedelic journey. Researchers theorize that this openness may impact the individual in the long term. Openness represents one of the big five personality traits, encompassing open-mindedness, imagination, creativity, and feeling comfortable with new experiences. Being more open can lead to questioning prior assumptions and promoting self-insight that positively alters one’s behaviour and outlook.
Sound forms a central component of Beautiful Space retreats. A 2021 study suggests that sounds, rather than music with an identifiable theme, can improve outcomes during a psychedelic experience and are preferred by those who are journeying with psychedelics. An emphasis on ambient sound, free of melody and structure, is also a hallmark of Jon Hopkins music for psychedelic therapy. Hopkins, an electronic music producer, set out in 2018 to conceptualize a new genre of music engineered to enhance psychedelic trips. His soundtracks provide a spacious mural of sound designed to support people as they undertake their psychedelic vision quest.
In our retreats, sound baths and sound healing help to encourage self-enquiry and prompt deep listening to the body. Sound is used to create a meditative, therapeutic experience, using healing instruments such as crystal singing bowls, gongs, chimes, and percussion. These instruments not only cultivate an evocative soundscape, but also produce frequencies that can entrain the brain and soothe the body, promoting feelings of openness, relaxation, and creativity.