If you’re reading this, you probably know by now that set and setting are the two crucial elements to consider before embarking on a psychedelic journey, therapeutic or recreational. The “set” refers to your mindset going into the experience—How do you feel inside? Where’s your head at?—while the “setting” refers to the external—Where are you? Do you have everything you need? Are you safe and free from distractions?
The term has been used since at least the 50s, before Timothy Leary got his mitts on it and popularized the idea throughout the counterculture. Today, it’s considered a fundamental aspect that needs to be considered before embarking on any psychedelic journey, by trippers, therapists and scientists alike.
Yeah, alright Leary, but what about the soundtrack?
As psychedelics claw their way back into society, so too does the art of curating a psychedelic soundtrack. But there is an art to it. It’s not just a case of throwing on some lo-fi hip hop beats to study-slash-relax to, and hoping for the best. Research centers like Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, Imperial College London and MAPS all offer up scientifically-informed psychedelic journey playlists, while artists like East Forest continue to explore new ways of creating guided experiences, whether that’s through standalone albums, or other innovative means that utilize modern technologies.
The synergy between music and psychedelic experiences goes back much further, too. Anyone who has let ayahuasca wrap her vines around them will vouch that the Icaros sung by shamans during a ceremony have a quality that transcends the physical; the word Icaros literally translates to magic song.
So what does the science say? Does music really have an impact on the potential of these compounds to heal? According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, “music has the ability to evoke meaningful experiences and memories and connect us to our sense of self.” Here’s a TEDTalk for more on that.
With all that in mind, we figured we’d give you a helping hand in getting ready for your next journey through consciousness. Consider us your personal vibe technicians as we run down some of our favorite guided journey playlists. Science-approved, of course.
Johns Hopkins University’s Psilocybin Playlist
Compiled by Dr. William Richards (a scientist who literally wrote the book on peak experiences with Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences), the Johns Hopkins’ University Psilocybin Playlist was curated as a tool to be used in their 2020 study that examined the effects of psilocybin on major depression.
Clocking in at just under six hours (more than enough to keep you going for the length of your trip and then some), this science-approved compilation drops you in with a mostly classical build up, before sliding in some Enya, The Beatles and Ladysmith Black Mambazo for good measure. It all ends on Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” by which point you’ll be in emphatic agreement: What a wonderful world, indeed!
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/67XgZSDPcxj9NobKPcx4cw
Imperial College London’s Psilocybin for Depression Playlist
Tailored for a single medium-to-high dose of psilocybin (roughly 25 mg), this collection was used in the Phase 1 clinical trials for psychedelic treatment of depression at Imperial College London.
Curated by Mendel Kaelen, who happens to be a leading figure in the guided journey playlist scene (yes, really), this collection blends the neo-classical with the ambient to great effect. At times it drifts into yogavator music (that’s yoga music you’d expect to hear in an elevator, if you ever expected to hear yoga music in an elevator), but the missteps don’t last long.
List on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2mT6LpOU4ipJ0BkoCigAiw
Chacruna Institute: A Playlist for Psilocybin
Curated by researcher Kelan Thomas for the Chacruna Institute, this playlist follows the multiphase model of a psychedelic journey that was developed in the 1970s. That means it’s a journey in itself: starting slow and building up to multiple climaxes before coming to a satisfying, gentle resolution in its final hour or so.
This one’s heavy on the new wave and post-rock. For those who need something a little more dramatic to guide their flights, it takes in many peaks and troughs, with periods of much needed relief built in after all the drama.
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2szSJ3rB6oQUn6ywghEGzO
East Forest: Music for Mushrooms
Yes, alright, we love East Forest. But we couldn’t put this article together without giving the legendary multi-instrumentalist and journey guide a much-needed mention.
Trevor Oswalt has been creating music for journeys for well over a decade at this point, and his work takes many forms. There’s the Music For Mushrooms: A Soundtrack For The Psychedelic Practitioner album that does exactly what it says on the tin, the playlist he’s created for the Trip app and the whole Journey Space project he’s pioneering, which hosts guided journey sessions from a range of artists in the scene.
Our recommendation? Start with one of his live sessions that took place on YouTube early in the pandemic and see how that vibes with ya.
Watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/ilysYCIY3uI
Jon Hopkins: Music For Psychedelic Therapy
Over on the other side of the Atlantic, Jon Hopkins (no relation to Johns Hopkins University) is doing a similar thing with his Music For Psychedelic Therapy album. It’s a gentler, more subtle affair than what East Forest creates, but could provide a calm cushioning for those not used to the murky waters of psychedelic experiences.
Listen on Spotify:
The Alan Watts Musical Philosophy
This writer’s personal favorite psychedelic soundtrack. You’re probably aware that there are hours and hours (and hours) of Alan Watts’ recorded lectures available online. What you might not know, is there’s a whole genre of music out there—commonly referred to as “Wattswave” since Akira The Don’s collection of the same name—that pairs Watts’ wisdom to house, trip-hop and ethereal beats. This Spotify playlist curates the best of them, has been evolving for over half a decade and is over 17 hours long.
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/16DtRPkSPPNOwsvgC7xA6w?si=df292a53f0704346
Guide Your Own Journey
Confident in your curation chops? Then choose your own adventure!
You know better than anyone else what music resonates with you and moves your soul. Maybe all of the above is a bit too on the nose. Maybe it’s death metal that really speaks to you. Or maybe you’re an old hippie that only trips to The Grateful Dead. Whatever, man, you do you.
However you might like your sonic highway paved, allow us to offer a couple of tips when curating your own journey playlist:
- If you’re using YouTube, make sure you’ve got an ad-free set up. Same goes for Spotify or any other app. You do not want to be hearing about the incredible benefits of BlueChew when getting pummeled by acid. Trust us on this one.
- Better yet, stay offline. Burn some CD-Rs. (Are we showing our age here?) Or just make sure that playlist is downloaded and your phone is on Airplane mode before lift-off.
- A psychedelic experience has its moments of tension and release, just like life, and just like any good album, song, or DJ set. As Timothy Leary and pals laid out in The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, each psychedelic journey has three parts: a come up, a peak and a period of deflation. Depending on your medicine of choice, the lengths of each period differ. Your soundtrack should follow this general map, but don’t split hairs over it. Let your intuition guide you, too.
- Finally, use the music that resonates with you. You want to be comfortable. You might want some semblance of familiarity as you explore your consciousness. Or you might want something totally new to you.
- Lyrics can be distracting, but they can be equally profound. We’re not saying keep it all instrumental, but choose your songs wisely. Song after song of metaphor-dense verbiage can get hella stressful when you’re exploring other realms.
And if all else fails, do as McKenna would: eye mask on, earplugs in, darkened room, nothing but silence. It��s the psychedelic equivalent of “Look, mom! No handlebars!” As always, have a safe trip. Remember that the Fireside Project is on hand if you get into difficulty out there, too.
Andy Ritchie is a writer based in Barbados.
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