The Usefulness of Studying Music During Altered States of Consciousness

Recent research into psychedelic drugs has focused on their therapeutic potential. Naturally, researchers have begun to probe the connection between music and psychedelics. A study from Kaelen et al. (2015) looked at emotional responses to music after LSD ingestion. The researchers report that subjects had significantly stronger emotional responses during music listening with LSD versus placebo-control. Moreover, the subjectively-rated intensity of the overall LSD experience positively correlated with emotional responses to the music.

While the researchers note that increased emotional responses to music in the LSD-induced state could be due to a general effect of the drug, the applications of this type of work are important to consider. In particular, being able to create intensified emotional responses to music under controlled conditions could prove beneficial in therapeutic settings (see Kaelen et al, 2015 for a more detailed analysis). Moreover, heightened emotional responses are a component of the peak experience during psychedelic use, and these experiences have been reported to be of great and enduring significance in a person’s life (Griffiths et al., 2006). Kaelen et al.’s findings suggest that music could be a key facilitator in these impactful experiences. This shows that the altered experiences to a common stimulus like music during an ASC is a relevant domain of study, particularly, in this case, for therapeutically-oriented means.

music treeBeyond therapeutic applications though, what is the point of studying music perception or music-related behaviours in an ASC? I’ve found it useful to think of an ASC as nothing more than an “alternative” state of consciousness to the typical waking state, one that we are capable of obtaining when circumstances permit. ASC’s provide variations upon the usual organisation of reality – upon our thoughts, our memory, and our perceptual experiences- as well as novel ways of interpreting and combining the abundance of information we receive from the world. As an example, psilocybin (an active ingredient in magic mushrooms) has been shown to increase the scope of association between indirectly-related words, suggesting that networks involved in semantic concept association are impacted during an ASC associated with psilocybin ingestion (Spitzer et al., 1996). Similar results have been obtained for states of consciousness occurring with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) ingestion (Family et al., 2016).

  Basic research that examines music listening during an ASC is, to the best of my knowledge, largely non-existent. Studying music perception during an ASC would, however, allow us to study music perception under a broader range of conditions. This type of research can give us an idea as to the possibilities that exist when it comes to perceiving music. Much like the research looking into changes to semantic associations during a drug-induced state, research that focuses on how we understand note associations or phrase structure in music during an ASC can provide us with clues as to the cognitive architecture of music and its flexibility or rigidity.

ASC research reminds us that experience is constructed from information received by an observer, and that the rules or pathways involved in this construction are malleable and varied across time, people, and contexts. In the case of experiencing stronger emotions to music with LSD ingestion, the dynamicity of music perception is made evident. Understanding the type of emotion conveyed by a piece of music and a listener’s detection of and response to the piece during different states of consciousness gives us a glimpse into the possible ways that humans can experience music. ASC research can give us room to think about how music would be different if the ways in which we combine and associate information are themselves different. Ultimately, through ASC research we can explore the bounds of music perception in an effort to understand our own potential, and perhaps personally-unexplored, capacities to perceive and experience music in unique ways.


Family, N., Vinson, D., Vigliocco, G., Kaelen, M., Bolstridge, M., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2016). Semantic activation in LSD: evidence from picture naming. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 3798(August), 1–8.

Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268-283.

Kaelen, M., Barrett, F. S., Roseman, L., Lorenz, R., Family, N., Bolstridge, M., … Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2015). LSD enhances the emotional response to music. Psychopharmacology, 232(19), 3607–3614.

Spitzer, M., Thimm, M., Hermle, L., Holzmann, P., Kovar, K. A., Heimann, H., … & Schneider, F. (1996). Increased activation of indirect semantic associations under psilocybin. Biological Psychiatry, 39(12), 1055-1057.

Wittmann, M., Carter, O., Hasler, F., Cahn, B. R., Grimberg, U., Spring, P., … Vollenweider, F. X. (2007). Effects of psilocybin on time perception and temporal control of behaviour in humans. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 21(1), 50–64.


1 Comment

  1. Shannon, like you, I have been interested in ASC. I would very much like to one day read about the findings of a study where ACS was combined with music perception. You should find a way to study that after finishing here! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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