From Playlist to Personalisation— the therapeutic implications of music in therapy

In order to improve the efficacy of psychedelic therapy we must acknowledge the importance of a person-centred approach to music experience, and future research that further investigates music’s therapeutic functions.

From Playlist to Personalisation— the therapeutic implications of music in therapy

A summary of the review paper "Psychedelics and music: neuroscience and therapeutic implications." International Review of Psychiatry, 30(4), pp.350-362. Barrett, F.S., Preller, K.H. and Kaelen, M. (2018).

Since research into the therapeutic use of psychedelics began, music has been consistently used to guide or support the therapeutic experience. Research findings point to the central role of music in supporting meaning-making¹, emotionality² ³ and mental imagery⁴ during a psychedelic therapy session, and facilitating positive clinical outcomes. This review explores the history and contemporary research landscape of psychedelics and music, arguing for more detailed and rigorous investigation into the mechanisms underlying their combined therapeutic impact. 


"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.” – Hoffer, 1965⁵


Up until recently there have been no set protocols for playlist design, with studies approaching music selection variously: from the use of person-centred playlists which are adapted to each patient, to a more standardised approach where all patients listen to the same predetermined music journey. Responding to this, Wavepaths is currently developing protocols for playlist design that will be made accessible to affiliated research centres in 2021. 

Research findings point to the central role of music in supporting meaning-making¹, emotionality² ³ and mental imagery⁴ during a psychedelic therapy session, and facilitating positive clinical outcomes.

A well-known example of a playlist used in psychedelic therapy can be experienced below, curated by our own Mendel Kaelen for the landmark psilocybin for depression study at Imperial College London. The playlist design was informed by the work of Helen Bonny and Stan Grof who defined different phases in psychedelic therapy, with each phase representing a distinct set of needs that music can support (pre-onset, onset, building towards peak, peak and return)⁶ ⁷.



The recent use of standardised playlists was seen as favourable from a research perspective, ensuring a level of control over a potentially confounding variable. However, new insight into the capacity of music to augment and ally the psychedelic experience reveals significant limitations to this approach. Essentially, the use of playlists preclude research into specific music variables that are key to positive therapeutic experiences, as well as those that can result in unwelcome effects:


 ".. 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."


Unwelcome effects of music describe a level of misguidance by the music, evident in the reports above from Mendel’s PhD research⁸. This response to music relates to a low level of resonance: defined as the degree to which music is in-tune with a listener's internal state. Resonance also relates to an individual's ability to be open to, and accepting of their experience - a key component of the therapeutic process.

Due to the pre-planned nature of music playlists, the music may not always be suited to the highly dynamic, personal and unpredictable experience of each individual. Therefore, the use of predetermined playlists can increase the likelihood of unwelcome effects and limit the therapeutic potential of psychedelic therapy. Furthermore, music playlists are non-adaptive and thus unable to respond in-the-moment to the evolving emotional landscape of a psychedelic state. This is in stark contrast to the ritual analogues of psychedelic therapy, such as ayahuasca, peyote and Iboga ceremonies, where performed music is able to respond intuitively to the evolving needs of individuals and groups within a ceremonial context. 

.. the use of playlists preclude research into specific music variables that are key to positive therapeutic experiences..

Conversely, therapists univocally advocate and protect the flexible use of music, aligned with the person-centred values of their therapeutic training and practice. In accordance with these values, personalised music experience may lead to an increase in self-reported measures of resonance, and in turn positively influence treatment outcomes - an insight that has inspired a new wave of research and thought on the significance of music in psychedelic therapy.


 "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. Psychedelics also augment music experience in significant ways: from the alteration of acoustic perception⁹ ⁴ ³ (response to timbral complexity), enhanced emotional responsivity² (meaningfulness) to greater absorption and perceived beauty and significance of music¹⁰. Consequently, psychedelics allow for a fuller experience of music and the features of music that promote the occurrence of personally meaningful experiences. 

Taking the interactive effects of music and psychedelics into careful consideration, the authors propose a re-evaluation of music delivery in research. Rather than standardising preset music playlists, standardising the process and technology that provides personalised, adaptive music can both optimise patient experience and therapy outcomes, as well as empower therapists and facilitators in their work. Moreover, an innovation of this kind will help to expand an understanding of the synergistic therapeutic effects of music and psychedelics, by inspiring future study that is directed towards enhancing patient experience and investigating related brain mechanisms.

Rather than standardising preset music playlists, standardising the process and technology that provides personalised, adaptive music can both optimise patient experience and therapy outcomes, as well as empower therapists and facilitators in their work.

Research is yet to fully comprehend the specific parameters of music that dictate positive therapeutic results, although preliminary studies are revealing consistent features of music that support the therapeutic experience¹¹. Wavepaths is leading research and development in this space, exploring the capacity of music to be optimised and adapted in real time to suit the needs of individuals during psychedelic therapy. This is achieved through combining and layering music from award-winning artists with artificial intelligence to provide adaptive music environments designed to increase resonance and openness, driving therapeutic experiences and reducing unwelcome effects. Importantly, the Wavepaths interface is engineered to make the process of music adaptation intuitive, accessible and effortless.

Wavepaths is currently working in collaboration with McGill University on research related to ketamine-assisted treatment for biopolar and unipolar depression, and plans to support clinical studies around the world with adaptive, personalised music across patient indications and drug types (MDMA, psilocybin and ketamine). 

If you are a therapist or researcher and would be interested in accessing our music technology, you can get in touch here. If you would just like to experience Wavepaths music for yourself, you can access a generative stream here, designed to put you into a state of calm.


Go to review paper