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DJ Your Own Personal Psychedelic Journey

By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
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When you drink ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon, the shamans chant songs to orchestrate your experience, in every sense of the word. Known as icaros, the songs amplify your visions and drive the medicine deep into where you need it most. 

Humans have known for centuries that music is the wind beneath the psychonaut’s wings, a tool that both fuels and helps to navigate sacred plant and fungi journeys. From the music that accompanied ancient Aztec mushroom and cacao ceremonies to Dead shows at the Fillmore, a great playlist is essential to a great trip.

Psychedelic therapists have been making playlists for therapy sessions since the earliest LSD experiments, and you can find a lot of them on Spotify and YouTube, along with current offerings from the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Conscious Research and many others (search “psychedelic therapy playlist,” “psilocybin playlist,” “LSD playlist,” or “MDMA playlist”). You can even find recordings of Maria Sabina, the first Mexican curandera to allow Westerners into psilocybin mushroom rituals in the 1950s. A little caution, however: Sabina was exploited by Americans and then persecuted by the people in her village for her generosity, so I’m not sure I would bring that into my sacred space. 

The Johns Hopkins Center’s playlist follows the formula established in the 1960s, heavy on Western classical music. If that just doesn’t do it for you, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) offers two playlists for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy featuring ethnic and New Age music, and the Chacruna Institute’s psilocybin playlist on Spotify features indie, new wave, and rock. 

The Chacruna playlist was developed by Dr. Mendel Kaelen, a neuroscientist who calls music “the hidden therapist.” In an article about the playlist, Kaelen explains: “The idea here is to create a sense of ebb and flow that the participant can feel as a series of tension-and-release experiences. A playlist with multiple peaks can also help to titrate the experience and keep it from getting too intense; periods of relief are built in.”

In his own practice, Kaelen’s patients didn’t respond well to Western classical music. He plays music that is personally meaningful to each person, which results in more positive experiences and more significant reductions in depression. He found that the wrong music can be distracting and make for a gobstopping trip, amplifying feelings of resistance and negative emotions. His app, Wavepaths, allows therapists and patients to make their own musical sequences, leaving out anything that might bring up unwelcome memories or resistance. Triggered by classical music? Brahms Sonata in B never has to be a part of your journey.

Curating your own soundtrack for tripping is the best way. If you need inspiration or guidance, Helen L. Bonny and Walter N. Pahnke, researchers at the Maryland Psychiatric Center in Baltimore, published a template for selecting and structuring psychedelic playlists in 1972 that therapists still follow today. Their sequencing flows like this: 

Pre-onset (0 to 1½ hours): quiet, neutral 

Onset (1½ to 2 hours): melodic, rhythmic 

Building toward peak intensity (2 to 3½ hours): long, flowing phrases and dynamic crescendos

Peak intensity (3½ to 4 hours): powerful, strongly structured

Re-entry (4 to 7 hours): lighter, familiar

Return to normal consciousness (7 to 12 hours): your favorite tunes. 

Tuning In

A recent study published in the Journal of Music Therapy found music integral for meaningful emotional and imagery experiences and self-exploration during psychedelic therapy. “Music could convey love, carry listeners to other realms, be something to ‘hold,’ inspire, and elicit a deep sense of embodied transformation,” the authors wrote. “Therapeutic influence was especially evident in music’s dichotomous elicitations: Music could simultaneously anchor and propel.”