In 2015, Mendel Kaelen and his colleagues at Imperial College conducted the first modern placebo-controlled study to investigate the role of LSD on enhancing the emotional response to music. The team set out to understand the effects of LSD on music-evoked emotion, and in doing so reinforced the long-held assumption that music gains additional importance under the influence of psychedelic drugs, which may be harnessed for therapeutic benefit.
Music’s ability to evoke emotion has been leveraged in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (1,2), impacting several aspects of the psychedelic experience, from facilitating emotional release and promoting the occurrence of “peak” or spiritual-type experiences, to stimulating the imagination, encouraging the relinquishment of control, and structuring the experience (3,4). Peak or spiritual-type experiences are common when music is used during psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (5,6,7) and these are associated with sustained improvements in well-being, life satisfaction (8) and openness (9).
Despite this, the importance of music in driving these improvements was unclear before Kaelen et. al’s first modern placebo-controlled study, which provided empirical evidence for the way that music-evoked emotions are enhanced under LSD.
The ten study participants received placebo (saline) and LSD intravenously on two separate study days. During each session, participants relaxed with their eyes closed, using high-quality stereo headphones to listen to a playlist that was specially designed to ensure emotional potency, high liking and low familiarity. The playlist was introduced by ambient music by Stars of the Lid, which was followed by five neo-classical and ambient tracks by Greg Haines (now a Wavepaths artist contributor), Ólafur Arnalds, Arve Henriksen and Brian McBride.
Immediately after each track, participants rated how much the music affected them emotionally, and to what extent they experienced specific emotions in response to the music (10).
Participants were consistently more emotionally affected by all music tracks when they were under LSD compared to placebo, and felt a more enhanced experience of all music-evoked emotions. The strongest enhancement was seen in the emotions “wonder” (filled with wonder, dazzled, moved), “transcendence” (fascinated, overwhelmed, feelings of transcendence and spirituality), “power” (strong, triumphant, energetic) and “tenderness” (tender, affectionate, in love).
The intensity of LSD’s effects was also measured at regular intervals, with the most common subjective effects being “my thoughts wandered freely”, “my imagination was extremely vivid”, “I felt amazing”, “things looked strange”, and “I felt an inner warmth”.
The intensity of LSD’s effects was linked to both the emotional arousal to music and to increases in feelings of “transcendence”.
This study provided empirical evidence for LSD enhancing the emotional response to music, while confirming the ability of music to reliably enhance and study emotion (11, 12). In doing so, the researchers reinforced the assumption that music takes on an intensified quality and increased importance under the influence of psychedelic drugs, an effect that can be harnessed for therapeutic benefit (3).
This has important implications for music in psychedelic therapy. First, the team showed that the music-LSD combination specifically drove “transcendence” and “wonder” - two emotions at the core of peak and spiritual experiences (13,14). Secondly, as peak and spiritual-type experiences are known to predict sustained improvements in well-being, life satisfaction (8) and openness (9), and as music increases the likelihood of these experiences occurring, they provided evidence for the importance of music as an essential component of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
This work demonstrated that music plays a key role in driving the personally meaningful experiences that underscore successful therapeutic interventions. As well as being a core component of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, music alone has the potential to facilitate deeply personally meaningful experiences, impactful on a range of mental health conditions (15). This work brought to light the untapped potential that music has in facilitating experiential therapies, and showcased the potential that personalised music interventions have to enhance personally meaningful experiences even further.