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New study calls into question the unique benefits of Western classical music in psychedelic therapy

Analysis of data from an open-label study on psilocybin for smoking cessation found a slight benefit of using overtone-based music compared to Western classical music. This research was published in the journal ACS Pharmacology and Translational Science.

Psychedelic therapy has largely used Western classical music, with some of the most cited works in psychedelic literature recommending its use. However, individual differences in musical preferences could impact therapeutic outcomes in sessions that involve music. Justin C. Strickland and colleagues conducted analyses to evaluate the effects of musical genre on therapeutic outcomes.

In the target study, 10 nicotine-dependent participants had completed psilocybin therapy sessions, receiving 20 mg/70 kg in the first session and 30 mg/70 kg in subsequent sessions. Two different musical playlists were played during these sessions. The “Western classical” playlist (which can be found here on Spotify) was composed of classical music resembling playlists used by prior researchers, while the “overtone-based” playlist (which can be found here) was less traditional rhythmically and melodically, and emphasized instruments that had particularly strong overtone signatures, such as chimes, bells, and gongs.

After hearing from the two playlists in the first two sessions, participants chose their preferred playlist for the third. Following each session, participants completed two questionnaires assessing for the mystical effects of psilocybin, as well as challenging experiences (also known as ‘bad trips’). Smoking abstinence was determined by a timeline follow back (i.e., prompting participants to retrospectively estimate their smoking), exhaled carbon monoxide, and urinary cotinine level.

The analysis revealed a non-significant trend of greater mystical experiences for sessions that used overtone-based music, compared to Western classical music. Challenging experiences were the same across musical genres, with no observable patterns at the group or individual level. Two of four participants (50%) who had selected Western classical music for their third session were abstinent from smoking at the end of treatment (8 weeks following the first treatment session), and at the 6 and 12 months follow up.

Importantly, this was the case for five of six (83.3%) participants who had selected overtone-based music, with four of six (66.6%) remaining abstinent at the 6 and 12 months follow up. The researchers argue that the observed trends in this data challenge the prevailing notion that Western classic music (or any specific genre of music), is superior in supporting psychedelic therapy.

A few potential limitations are noted. First, the target study relied on a small sample of participants. Second, information regarding participants’ musical liking or acceptance was not collected. Lastly, there was some overlap between the two playlists (roughly 25% of songs), which could potentially limit the ability to fully differentiate between the two genres.

This research, “Set and Setting: A Randomized Study of Different Musical Genres in Supporting Psychedelic Therapy”, was authored by Justin C. Strickland, Albert Garcia-Romeu, and Matthew W. Johnson.

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