Reviewing Qualitative and Quantitative Features of Music Reported to Support Peak Mystical Experiences during Psychedelic Therapy Sessions Psychedelic Assisted Therapy

Review of paper by by Frederick S. Barrett, Hollis Robbins, David Smooke, Jenine L. Brown, and Roland R. Griffiths.


This paper looks into qualities of music best suited to support peak/mystical experiences in the context of psylocybin assisted therapy sessions. The researchers surveyed experienced therapy facilitators, asking their opinions on suitable music choices leading up to and during peak experience. These choices were then analysed to detect commonalities

The study had a small sample size and it seems this, combined with the demographic of the respondents may have skewed aspects such as genre (there is an overrepresentation of new-age music which might not be such a surprise). But it does still seem to suggest that there might be a difference between aspects of music suited to peak and prepeak states. Somewhat interestingly, musical analysis of each of the categories lead the researchers to suggest music with simple time, very little harmonic movement, and slow, predictable melody we best suited to support peak or mystical experience. In other words these are works that David Huron might describe

  • music suggestions during peak experiences are described (in other terms) as being “low in information” as Huron might describe it.
The survey was restricted to therapists, rather than those receiving psilocybin for any given purpose, since individual responses to music can be idiosyncratic with both the patient and the goals of a psilocybin session (e.g., personal growth, exploration of consciousness, or seeking healing), and therapists are more likely to have a generalizable sense of what types of music may be optimally supportive for individuals undergoing psilocybin therapy or research procedures.

Given musical perception is a subjective phenomenon primarily built atop a subjects' listening history, lacking the input of participants musical preferences may impact ones' musical perception. For example, the experience of listening to a specific recording that one is familiar with is going to involve accessing veridical memory, whilst and unfamiliar piece may more actively involve dynamic or schematic memory. That is, unfamiliar pieces will be more surprise-laden, possibly less enjoyable, or more cognitively demanding.

It may be wise to assess familiarity, alongside preferences of genre, and past listening history, when investigating more deeply the effects of music in psychedelic assisted therapy.

Composition of novel pieces as mentioned in the paper could be one way of levelling the playing field, so to speak, ensuring a more consistent listening experience, although preferences of genre, era, musical tradition etc should probably still be taken into account.

The musical elements below, chosen by the participants for the peak experience, strike me as being indicative musical preference (ie a genre that one might label as “tribal”):

* Tonic drone (often prolonged by an instrument such as a tanbura or a didgeridoo)  
* Non-western instruments (bamboo flute, didgeridoo)  
* Vocals unintelligible or in an obscure language

* Overtone singing  
* Ensemble, such as strings (no one instrument can typically be identified)  
* 80 s synth-pad sounds  
* Brass instruments uncommon

* World-music influence  
* Drumming, but not for forward motion (as in a one measure drum loop that is repeated without much change) Use of cyclic, tabla drumming more common than drumset

Personally, if I was subjected to a long, unmodulating piece of music that made liberal use of tabla and didgeridoo, I would have trouble not making associations with cliches of new age buskers playing a Roland wavedrum and a didge through a delay unit. Not my cup of tea, personally. Perhaps it is less of an issue for a broader audience. (note 1)

This genre-bias seems to be consequently confirmed later in Table 1 with genres of pre peak and peak musical pieces listed as New Age (potentially with a world music influence). This could also be a result of the limited number of included respondents (10), with 6 or so of those aged between 55 to 64, potentially introducing a kind of generational bias. The authors note they chose to interview people who facilitated psychedelic therapy sessions over those undergoing therapy may have idiosyncratic tastes. This is almost certainly true, but it seems by narrowing the cohort they have inadvertently selected for the idiosyncratic preferences of psychedelic therapy givers instead. A broader, more inclusive survey, in particular one where those who have had peak psychedelic experiences whilst listening to music, is likely to throw up a much more diverse (and noisier) data set that may in any case shed light on commonalities. It would also be useful to know the listener’s history with the piece of music, artist, or genre, and any other associations that might be relevant. This strays somewhat from the bounds of a therapy session, but if we are to untangle the preferences of therapy givers from those of receivers it would seem to be a valid direction.

The lack of variation in the peak music selection is suggested to support mystical experience by reducing distractions or surprise:

Great variation during this time period, the introduction of jarring transitions, and lack of predictability in composition may lead to a sense of uneasiness, an attempt to predict what will happen next, or some form of vigilance or attention that might be disruptive to a state of consciousness marked by mystical experience.

This seems to be a reasonable conclusion, and may highlight reasons why these musical features are almost polar opposite to features in genres of music generally labelled as psychedelic.

note 1

It strikes me that musicians (or musically invested individuals) may have a different set of requirements here also - I am reminded of The Most Wanted Song, and The Most Unwanted Song. This was an art project that attempted to empirically create a song to be enjoyed by the largest section of the population, and conversely, a song to be least enjoyed by the largest section of the population. Interestingly, musicians were found to prefer the Most Unwanted Song, likely due to its high novelty (opera singing + tuba + kids choir).