Music of the Mushrooms: Study Finds Pairing Psilocybin With Music May Help Treat Depression

There’s psychedelic music—like the genre influenced by the 1960s—and then there’s music on psychedelics, which as it turns out, could be an effective part of treatment for depression. 

Psilocybin, more commonly known for being the active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’, has also seen recognition in recent years as an anti-depressive treatment. Now, scientists have found that the psychedelic drug psilocybin can change the emotional state of those listening to music. 

This new research suggests that music could play a beneficial role in psilocybin therapy, a form of treatment of depression and other mental health conditions. This work was presented at the ECNP Congress in Lisbon.


Background: The Magic in Magic Mushrooms

The push to involve psychedelics in psychotherapy is nothing new. Since the 1950s and 1960s, scientific publications have detailed how LSD, ecstasy, psilocybin, and marijuana can be effectively used in the treatment of mental health disorders.

That once-blooming effort was soon put to a halt by national laws and international conventions. As recreational usage of these drugs spread, national and international administrations sought to rein it in. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified these psychedelic drugs as Schedule I, the most stringently regulated category of controlled substances. These restrictions essentially banned their use in clinical trials and laboratories. Three treaties passed by the United Nations extended these restrictions globally. 


These national and international restrictions only impeded research on the usage of drugs, but researchers knew then as they do now that the properties of psychedelics had the potential to work wonders in the world of psychiatry.

Today, with investors and scientists gradually beginning to back psychoactive drug research again, these drugs are once again gaining mainstream acceptance. Studies have suggested that the drugs, when safely administered, can benefit people with disorders like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

A study published in November 2020 found that 71% of people who took psilocybin for major depressive disorder showed a greater than 50% reduction in symptoms after four weeks, and half of the participants entered remission. 

There are, however, risks researchers must consider. In extremely rare cases, psychedelics can trigger a lasting psychotic reaction, particularly in people with a family history of psychosis. The risk of abuse is also prevalent for consumers of psychedelics, as a drug like MDMA is an amphetamine derivative.


Analysis: When Psilocybin Strikes a Chord 

A new study from a group of Danish researchers has shown that psilocybin affects the way music elicits emotions. 

In the study, 20 healthy participants (an even ratio of sex), were tested on their reaction to music before and after given psilocybin. 14 of these participants were also tested after being given ketanserin, an anti-hypertension drug commonly used as a comparison in psychedelic experiments. At the peak of the drugs’ effects, participants listened to a short music program and rated their emotional response.

Their response to the music, Elgar’s Enigma Variations no 8 and 9, and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, was rated according to the Geneva Emotional Music Scale.

“We found that psilocybin markedly enhanced the emotional response to music, when compared to the response before taking the drugs,” said lead researcher, Associate Professor Dea Siggaard Stenbæk of the University of Copenhagen. 

“On the measurement scale we used, psilocybin increased the emotional response to music by around 60%. This response was even greater when compared to ketanserin.”

The results from the study suggest that music needs to be considered a therapeutic part of anti-depressive treatment. The next step for researchers is to examine the effect of music on the brain while under the influence of psilocybin by using an MRI. The choice of music for such therapy is also under consideration. 

“Interestingly, some of the music we used, Elgar famous ‘Nimrod’ variation (the 9th variation) describes his close friend Augustus Jaeger. Jaeger encouraged Elgar to write the variations as a way out of depression, so we’re pleased to see it used again to help understand more about mental health,” said Stenbæk.


Outlook: Music on Drugs Can Treat Depression? 

Some might think that the music selected to be part of therapy should be individualized and personalized, that maybe the tracks on their pre-existing “sad boi” Spotify playlist would suffice. While this is still up for debate, it’s worth knowing that scientists have already curated the perfect psilocybin playlist.

The Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Playlist came from the mastermind of psychologist Bill Richards, whose involvement in psychedelic research dates back to 1963. As s researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, Richards championed the involvement of music in his work.

“We’re exploring the human psyche, which might take you through some painful things in childhood. It may take you into some archetypal or visionary realms that you never knew were possible. It might take you beyond usual consciousness into a realm that feels eternal,” said Richards.

One of the songs on the playlist, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, had a “life-changing” effect on research participant Rob Jacobs.

“It was unbelievably beautiful. It literally moved me to tears,” Jacobs wrote in his post-session report in 2010. 

“It seemed to capture the human condition, the beauty and sadness of existence. Melancholy but majestic. … It was like I could see right into the heart of the matter with crystal clarity.”

For those who may be curious, here’s the link to where the entire John Hopkins Psilocybin Playlist can be found online. 

Candy Chan is a journalist based in New York City. She recently graduated from Barnard College with a degree in History. Follow her reporting on her Twitter @candyschan.