What’s The Best Playlist for Psychedelic Therapy?

What’s The Best Playlist for Psychedelic Therapy?

How can you create the best playlist for psychedelic therapy?
We believe there isn’t one.

A formula for creating the best playlist for psychedelic therapy does not exist. The arc and range of experience during a psychedelic therapy session is unique to each individual. Therefore, music can either support positive therapy outcomes, or have a counter-therapeutic influence and the same music can have different impacts for each patient.

Our research at Wavepaths has shown that when music resonates with the inner experience of an individual, it encourages openness to the therapeutic process and predicts treatment success. Therefore, it is important that the music is reflective of individual needs and therapeutic intentions.

Scientifically Approved Playlists for Psychedelic Therapy

Music has been used to accompany altered states of consciousness throughout human history and more recently, within the field of psychedelic therapy.

The arrangement and delivery of music in the form of playlists has been used to support psychedelic therapy sessions since the conception of the field in the mid 20th century. It is an approach with enduring value among therapy and research communities today.

Some playlists maintain prestige status for their carefully chosen musical arcs in-line with the phases of a psychedelic journey. Beloved to care-providers, care-seekers and music lovers alike, playlists have evolved as important auditory artefacts of the psychedelic therapy field, both for their transformational potential and trusted, skillful curation.

Prior to founding Wavepaths, our own Mendel Kaelen earned a reputation for his intuitive playlist designs. He created playlists for landmark clinical trials including the 2016 psilocybin for depression study at Imperial College London and MAPS MDMA-assisted therapy trial for PTSD. His playlists continue to resound through clinical spaces, retreat centres, and private homes today.

Playlists live on in our hearts as an important and relevant medium. It has defined the modern history of psychedelic therapy in musical terms and continues to inspire the personal transformation of those undergoing treatment today.

Playlists open up countless avenues of experience for the modern listener and are lauded for their accessibility. However, they may not always be suited to the highly dynamic, fluid, profoundly personal and often unpredictable experience of each individual during a session.

Live music for psychedelic therapy: Playlists vs. personalisation

Among certain indigenous rituals and contemporary practices, we find a traditional and culturally ingrained use of music and psychedelics. Here, Shamans and music-makers alike call upon an array of instruments, voice and songs to befit the immediate and evolving needs of an individual, group, and occasion.

This highly attuned, live approach to guiding a ceremony with music represents an ancient and evolved technique. It is deeply responsive, intentional and supportive of altered states of consciousness within a particular cultural environment.

Playlists on the other hand, offer a predetermined and static music journey. Music is not able to be easily personalised to the cultural context and preference of individuals. To do so involves the creation of unique music journeys for each client. This is offered by some practitioners in-line with the person-centred values of their therapeutic training. This approach, however, can be time consuming and requires a level of guesswork

Selecting Music for Psychedelic Therapy

The Limitations of Playlists for Psychedelic Therapy

Playlists also present certain practical limitations due to their pre-planned and stop-start nature:

    • Potentially disruptive and jarring effects of transitions between songs.
    • Inability to make live adjustments and alter the trajectory of a playlist mid-session.

This represents a key departure from live-guided methods and a shortfall of using standardised playlists during psychedelic therapy. They are unable to be attuned to the ongoing, ever-evolving emotional state of an individual. This flexibility is crucial in supporting music resonance; a fundamental variable contributing to treatment success. As a result, counter-therapeutic experiences become a greater possibility when using standardised playlists during psychedelic therapy.

From Playlists to Personalisation

Mendel observed these limitations while working directly with playlists during his research. This inspired him to found Wavepaths as an attempt to go beyond the predictable nature of a standardised music journey and cater to the unique experience of each individual. In addition, he wanted to empower care providers with an accessible and evidence-based music solution (for psychedelic and non-drug therapies). Learn more about Wavepaths person-centred approach and design.

To stir and to cure and to help the soul endure, there is nothing like music.

– Murray Stein, PhD

The playlist as we know it today emerged out of a lively era of psychedelic research in the late 1960’s, accompanied by a growing interest in set and setting.

It was preceded by a more hands-on approach, utilised by psychologist and playlist pioneer Bill Richards, that included the live and spontaneous curation of music journeys with a turntable and selection of records. This in-the-moment mentality aligns with a more personalised approach to music selection, used to this day by DJ-savvy practitioners and psychedelic guides. This approach is also embedded as a fundamental design characteristic of Wavepaths, which takes the guesswork out of creating personalised music experiences and adjusting or mixing them on the fly.

In the late 60’s, music therapist Helen Bonny began to contribute her corpus of work, insight and music, further uncovering the role and function of music in psychedelic therapy and greatly influencing the future of the field. Among these contributions were a selection of playlists in the form of cassette tapes, designed to suit particular parts of the psychedelic journey.

The collaborative efforts of those who brought about, and developed early playlists, methods, models and guidelines for supporting psychedelic states came to a close in the 1970’s as research freedoms were abolished, inspired by a political and cultural backlash to psychedelic compounds. Specialists such as Bonny departed from the psychedelic field, going on to develop non-drug therapies such as GIM (Guided Imagery and Music) and explore the therapeutic potency of music alone.

The public resurgence of psychedelic playlists would go hand in hand with a pivotal reissuing of psychedelic research grants in the 2000’s and resurgence of Western psychedelic research. Once sequestered theory, practice and music resurfaced in a new digital era: the psychedelic playlist now resonating beyond the walls of the therapy room, out of the pockets, and into the hearts and minds of many.

The contemporary music landscape has also evolved markedly since the early days of psychedelic therapy. From early playlists which relied on intricate and crescendo-laden classical, Baroque and instrumental genres, to modern iterations which call upon a broader array of music styles. Depending on the curator and nature of the therapy, contemporary playlists commonly include a range of classical, overtone and instrumental music alongside selections of electronic and fusion genres. As music technology and human ingenuity has evolved, so has the capacity of music to support and speak to a new generation of care-seekers.

It is the capacity of music to express nuances of emotional meaning and give voice to inner experience beyond the verbal domain that defines its power as a therapeutic medium, and its effectiveness in guiding psychedelic states. We believe this power is harnessed when music resonates with the inner experience of a listener. For music to resonate it must be aligned with the abstract musical preference of an experiencer as well as their immediate and evolving emotional state. This can include emotionally challenging music which may initially provoke a sense of rejection, but go on to inspire important therapeutic processes. This brings to light the responsibility involved and delicacy required in guiding music for vulnerable psychological states.

The Importance of Music During Psychedelic Therapy

Even though the standardised playlist has reached a place of eminence in psychedelic therapy as a go-to approach, up until recently its limitations were left largely unaddressed.

Music can either support or undermine (make or break) the patient experience, impacting patient outcomes and inviting us to consider the importance of a personalised approach.

In his research, Mendel Kaelen found that certain music – if not aligned with the genre preferences of individuals and their immediate emotional state – can lead to counter-therapeutic experiences.

“.. the music was playing a trick with me, sort of giving me a false sense of security”

“I just felt as if I was being manipulated, being duped almost.”

The unwelcome effects of music outlined above relate to a mismatch between the music and subjective experience of the listener. Conversely, personalised music experiences may lead to an increase in resonance and support an individual’s ability to be open to, and accepting of their experience – a key component of the therapeutic process. This insight is broadly acknowledged within the music therapy field and is gathering steam among psychedelic therapy practitioners, inspiring a new wave of research and practice. Learn more about Wavepaths person-centred approach.

“It felt like the music picked you up and carried you to the next point, it was the vehicle that moved you. It felt like it all fitted the experience.”

“This music drove the most beautiful experience of my life”

These reports not only exemplify high resonance, but portray music as a potent therapeutic medium able to influence emotion, guide experience and produce states that are profoundly significant and personally meaningful.

It is important to acknowledge that a degree of error may still be present when intuiting the right music journey for a patient and making live adjustments during a session, no matter the approach. We believe this degree of error is minimised with music that is mapped to the distinct phases of a psychedelic session, personalised to individual preferences and adaptable to the evolving needs of a therapy session – music that is carefully composed to support vulnerable psychological states and drive therapeutic experiences.

Wavepaths’ core offering is designed to minimise guesswork and instil a level of confidence in the person-centred use of music for psychedelic therapy in a way that supports, guides and comforts patient needs in the moment. Needs which may not always follow the path laid out by a playlist.

In Review: Choosing the Right Music for Psychedelic Therapy

Playlists have and continue to play a fundamental role within psychedelic therapy: artfully selected music journeys that embody a growing pool of human music innovation and mastery. They have helped launch a new era of psychedelic science and self-guided psychedelic voyaging, able to arouse and support profoundly meaningful states with enduring therapeutic implications. Playlists have also inspired a new wave of research and development into the role, function and application of music in psychedelic therapy, inviting us to think of new ways to assimilate their strengths and transcend their boundaries.

Here is a recent example of a playlist created for ketamine therapy that exemplifies thoughtful curation, well-suited to those with an electronic music preference.

We believe there is no one size fits all approach to playlist design and acknowledge that predetermined music journeys can increase the likelihood of counter therapeutic experiences. As ketamine assisted therapy (KAT) is legal in the clinically-prescribed setting, many therapists are now using generative music to assist their ketamine therapy.

With deep respect and honour for traditional, live and contemporary approaches to supporting vulnerable psychedelic states with music, Wavepaths broadens the horizon of person-centred music, offering an evidence-based solution built upon the artistry and emotional nuance of human composed music and designed to speak to unique patient needs, as they evolve.

Designed for practitioners, composed for patients

Wavepaths supports practitioners to work with confidence with music in a person-centred way.

Wavepaths is committed to expanding access to safe, ethical and effective psychedelic therapy, with a profound respect for the therapeutic process and heartfelt understanding of the urgent need for a new paradigm of care.

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