Playlist for a Psychedelic Journey

An hours-long compilation of carefully curated mostly classical music has proven a crucial tool in studies that use the mind-altering drug psilocybin to treat depression.

Carlos Zamora

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Winter 2021

“It was unbelievably beautiful. It literally moved me to tears.”That’s how Rob Jacobs recalls a life-changing experience that involved listening to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3.

The experience happened a decade ago, after Jacobs ingested a psychedelic drug as part of a formal study at Johns Hopkins. The study was investigating the impact of psilocybin — the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms — on spiritual practices. As he lay on a couch at the research center, wearing eyeshades, Jacobs began experiencing the effects of the psilocybin and feeling a deep emotional connection to the music playing through his headphones: “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.”

Górecki’s 27-minute composition, also known as “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” is one of a collection of mostly classical pieces that help unlock elevated states of consciousness for study participants at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. The seven-hour and 40-minute playlist, developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins, seeks to express the sweeping arc of the typical medium- or high-dose psilocybin session. (There is extra time built into the playlist, as session length can vary.)

This playlist supported the psychedelic experiences of those who participated in a new study published last November in JAMA Psychiatry that found that psilocybin may show promise as a treatment for adults with major depression.

“We’re exploring the human psyche, which might take you through some painful things in childhood,” says psychologist Bill Richards, the playlist’s mastermind, whose involvement in psychedelic research dates back to 1963. “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.”

Available on Spotify, the playlist is divided into segments: background music that plays as the participant arrives for his or her session; music that plays when the drug is starting to take effect, at which point he or she is lying down and wearing eyeshades and headphones; the ascent; the peak; the post-peak; and the “welcome back” music. There are usually two researchers in the room, referred to as guides, who simultaneously listen to the playlist through speakers.

The music in each section is deliberately chosen to accompany a particular part of the psychedelic journey. For example, Richards finds that Samuel Barber’s iconic “Adagio for Strings” works well as participants approach the peak, when the effects of the psilocybin are steadily intensifying. “The music chromatically develops, and it goes up and reaches this exquisite climax and then comes back down,” he says.

Richards says that the music helps keep participants from prematurely returning to normal conscious awareness. “I think of it as a nonverbal support system, sort of like the net for a trapeze artist,” he says. “If all is going well, you’re not even aware that the net is there — you don’t even hear the music — but if you start getting anxious, or if you need it, it’s immediately there to provide structure.”

A decade after his participation in the Johns Hopkins study, Rob Jacobs says his experience with psilocybin showed him that life is a fundamentally spiritual experience. It made him less frightened of death, more centered and more committed to a spiritual path.

That kind of revelation is something Richards has seen from the beginning. “When you’re in the music,” he says, “it’s so different from listening to the music.”

Learn more about the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research: