Two mandolins enter dreamily. They slowly build, occasionally fluttering, occasionally crescendoing, but always moving forward. This is what you hear in the first minute of a psychedelic treatment that could change the course of your life. The effects of the drug may not be noticeable yet, but one thing is very clear: This is a special space. The swelling soundscape surrounding you is the artistry of psychologist Bill Richards, Ph.D., who developed the playlist specifically for your psychedelic trip.
Richards works with Roland Griffiths’s lab at Johns Hopkins University, where patients get more than just conventional medicine. Instead, they get psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic “magic” mushrooms, so the researchers can investigate whether it can help cancer patients feel less depressed and anxious, induce mystical experiences in healthy patients, and even help smokers quit smoking. The results have been promising, adding to the continued efforts of a handful of researchers to bring psychedelics back into the scientific mainstream after decades of notoriety.
Unlike larger-scale clinical studies, psychedelic sessions are extremely personal and introspective, and as such, says Richards, it’s important for a volunteer to be supported by a compassionate staff and a safe environment. A big part of this is the playlist.
“I make the best musical choices I can, trying to separate the ‘very good’ and the ‘excellent’ on the basis of years of experience with many different people,” Richards tells Inverse.
“There’s only room for so much music in a six- to seven-hour period of time.”
Whether a session is held for treating anxiety, depression, and fear surrounding a terminal illness, or deepening meditative practice through a mystical experience — both things Richards has studied — he values music as a way to support a person’s experience.
It’s not a “trippy” playlist, though. You won’t find any psytrance or techno on the list, no Infected Mushroom, Shpongle, Daft Punk, nor any other music you might associate with altered states. Instead, there’s plenty of Brahms, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Bach. Richards says there’s a good reason for this: Orchestral music is less distracting and less likely to give room for a person to fall back on normal patterns of thinking.
“Except in the final phase, I tend to avoid music with words in the language of the volunteer, so as to discourage the rational mind from following the content of the words,” he says. “The human voice, as a solo or choir, can be very supportive, even maternal, but it is received as ‘another instrument of the orchestra.’”