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Creating Music For Psychedelic Therapy [Toolkit]

The use of psychedelics as a catalyst for transformation has been around for centuries, however, it is currently on the rise more than ever. Research shows that the therapeutic potentials of psychedelics are enhanced when coupled with he healing power of music and sound. This notion opens up a new pathway for artists and music creators of all kinds, as there is a need for music to support these spaces and experiences.

Michael Sutherland is a musician, producer, and recording engineer with a Commercial Music Degree (with Honors) from Massey University NZ and a certificate from MAINZ both of which focused on songwriting, composition techniques, recording, and music production. He is the man behind a revolutionary composition titled "Music & The Mystical Experience", a 6-hour project for Psilocybin Therapy created from years of research into music, neuroscience, and psychedelics but recorded in the context of a community ritual.

Michael along with the Health & Bass platform are committed to supporting creators who are interested in making music for psychedelic therapy and psychedelic experiences of all kinds. Michael has been gracious enough to provide us with a toolkit full of resources that will be outlined in this blog.

Which musical traits are supportive?

Traits of music shown to be useful for “Peak Experiences” from “Qualitative and Quantitative Features of Music Reported to Support Peak Mystical Experiences during Psychedelic Therapy Sessions” (2017 Barrett Frederick S., Robbins Hollis, Smooke David, Brown Jenine L., Griffiths Roland R.)

  • Slow tempo around 60-Bpm

  • Simple Triadic Harmony

  • Cyclical

  • Slow-Build to Climax

  • Endlessly Spinning Phases

  • Breath Length Phrases

  • Static or Slowly Building

  • Few Sudden Events (avoid sudden bangs,changes,jolts)

  • Meter usually 4/4, sometimes triple, mixed or odd meter very uncommon

  • Instruments or vocal made unrecognizable

  • Overtones & Harmonics (including overtone singing)

  • Drumming that is cyclical (rather than repetitive)

  • Reverb (obviously)

  • Drone

  • Key Changes uncommon

  • Typical chordal harmony

  • Synth, Vocal & orchestral pads

  • Mostly major, minor mode more present in pre-peak phases

Which instrumentation or genres are supportive?

Overtone based music was shown to be more supportive compared to Western Classical music in this study “Set and Setting: A Randomized Study of Different Musical Genres in Supporting Psychedelic Therapy” (Justin C. Strickland, Albert Garcia-Romeu, and Matthew W. Johnson) This study showed an increase in smoking cessation when using overtone-based music playlist however the results were not in a range to be considered statistically significant. Overtone based and Indigenous music with instruments such as Tabla, Didgeridoo and containing Foreign languages may be more supportive providing a more free-associative state in the musical setting. However, what is “foreign” to someone will not be to someone else - therefore it is unclear whether this is because the research is in-fact eurocentric, whether certain styles of indigenous music and instrumentation contain more of the supportive traits listed above by their nature or a combination of both. So take this piece of research with a healthy dose of critical thinking and consider the cultural context you are creating music within.

What shape should my playlist take?

Aligning the Playlist with the intensity of the medicine: For “Music & the Mystical Experience” this involved correlating the entire 6-hour project to the psilocybin experience with ambient and supportive music during the onset, which intensifies in the second hour, with intense and cinematic music at the peak phase, and returning slowly to more ambient and supportive music for the return.

Participants commonly undergo a “challenge” around the 2-hour mark in the pre-peak phase. Whilst anxiety is not therapeutically useful per-say, encountering a challenge and moving through it is very therapeutically useful, especially if resolved with a feeling of unity and oceanic-boundlessness.

This knowledge can be leveraged both compositionally but also by strategic playlisting. For this reason we also developed “Playlisting Data for Guides” for our project- this is a resource for guides to navigate between songs, in session with patients with therapeutically relevant information about each track such as bpm, instrumentation, languages and intensity.

An excellent resource for this question in regards to psilocybin is “The hidden therapist: evidence for a central role of music in psychedelic therapy” (Mendel Kaelen, Bruna Giribaldi, Jordan Raine, Lisa Evans, Christopher Timmerman,Natalie Rodriguez, Leor Roseman, Amanda Feilding, David Nutt, Robin Carhart-Harris)

Key Takeaways from the Hidden Therapist:

  • Music shown to increase emotions, visions and imagination

  • Music Intensifies memories about oneself (shown in other studies too)

  • Visuals & geometry correlate to the music (this is may be why simple triadic harmony & meter is preferred)

  • Dissonance experienced as a “mismatch” to the experience or “tricking” the patient

  • 86% report the importance of the challenging aspects of music (don’t make it all serene)

  • More positive statements about ethnic music (again eurocentric but perhaps some validity)

  • Ambient and supportive music for onset and return

  • Intense and cinematic for peak phase

Tips straight from Sutherlandsounds

  • Take care of your own set/setting in the studio

  • Make your individual or group recording session is a sacred / ritual practice

  • Maximize creative flow by simplifying social roles, being kind and elevating the irrational.

  • Make prompt cards for yourself or your musicians (with traits which support ASC)

  • Use and manipulate high quality field recordings if you can

  • Obscure your instruments (especially western) with creative sound-design techniques

  • Don’t be afraid to have challenging sections but avoid too much dissonance

  • Avoid loud and sudden events

  • Avoid listener fatigue, make your mix ready for 6-hours of listening, not too loud, not too bright, not too bassy too often.

  • Align the project with the medicine you intend it to be used for

  • Try to create a living musical environment rather than a “song” or “composition”

  • When mixing or writing try to listen with your body/emotions not just your mind and ears

  • Keep vocals linguistically simple or non-lyrical

  • Exaggerate harmonics as much as possible with instrumentation, engineering & mixing

  • Don’t be too goal oriented the process is just as important as the result

  • Do your own research to investigate the traits of mystical-type experiences and express those artistically in both the music and the process.

  • Honor your artists and collaborators

Traits of the Mystical Experience

(F.S. Barret, R.R. Griffiths 2017)


"a sense that what is encountered is holy or sacred"

Noetic Quality

"ultimate reality, more real than usual reality"

Deeply felt positive mood

"awe, joy, ecstasy, peace"


"experience can not be put into words"

Transcendence of Time & Space

"traditional notions of time and space have no meaning, non-temproal"

About Music & the Mystical Experience

"Music & the Mystical Experience" a 6-hour project for Psilocybin Therapy created from years of research into music, neuroscience, and psychedelics but recorded in the context of a community ritual. With improvisations guided by prompt cards, projection visuals, field recordings, and pushing a world-class recording studio to its absolute limits with 28 musicians and artists involved. This project aligns with the intensity of a psilocybin experience and is filled with musical traits which support mystical-type experiences. Completed for Michael's postgraduate studies at Massey University in Wellington New Zealand.

Link: Research:

Why is this music perfect for psychedelic therapy?

- Aligns with the intensity of the psilocybin experience over a 6-hour session, with appropriate styles at each phase

-With ambient and supportive music ( for peak & return) and intense and cinematic music ( for peak) - as per (Mendel Kaelen, 2017, The hidden therapist: evidence for a central role of Music in psychedelic therapy) -Filled with the musical traits which support mystical-type experiences - as per (Barret, 2017 Qualitative and Quantitative Features of Music Reported to Support Peak Mystical Experiences during Psychedelic Therapy Sessions) -Recorded in a multi-million dollar, world-class recording studio with highly trained engineers and professional musicians at Massey University, New Zealand - We utilized a variety of instrumentation, styles, and forms from a diverse range of musical and cultural backgrounds -We took the "musical traits which support mystical-type experiences developed prompt cards and correlated them with projection visuals during recording, so the projectionist could conduct with psychedelic visual stimuli during recording" - We used field-recordings from nature, which spontaneously came over performer's headphones during recording to guide aesthetic performances -We correlated the macrostructure of the musical project with the psilocybin journey to create one consistent musical journey -We researched musical improvisation and how to use ritual to induce the ideal state for our performers in the recording process, connecting the neuroscience of flow and improvisation with the anthropological concepts of ritual, communitas, and collective effervescence for creative benefit. - We used psychedelic session reports were used to influence vocalists for lyrics and vocalizations

Why is this project important?

- This project is full of musical traits which support mystical-type experiences - The intensity of the music correlates with the intensity of a full psilocybin experience

- Fully human, real recordings, no overdubs, and performed by great musicians in the best recording environment possible - Will be sent to therapy centers around the globe - World's largest psychedelic music project (that we know of?) - 100% New Zealand made with indigenous instruments and musicians playing Taonga Pūoro (Native New Zealand / Māori Instruments)

Other Conversations about the project: RadioActive Re-charted: Mauri Medicine Podcast:

Future Music & Research with Rangiwaho Marae

Collaborating with an amazing team of humans from Rangiwaho Marae to Portugal, the Amazon, Australia and around Aotearoa including neuroscientists, counselors, analytical chemists, mycologists, artists, music engineers, nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, rongoā practitioners, cultivation experts, regulatory experts, Indigenous rights advocates, phyto-pharmaceutical professionals and of course the whānau haukaenga.

For this new project we intend to have the mushrooms as musical collaborators by taking their electrical signals and converting them to music with MIDI, CV voltage to control synthesizers, and other ambient instruments. Also we are interested in creating new musical delivery protocols looking into participants using wearable sub-frequency speakers this is where the SUBPAC will be used.

Rhythmic Consonance & the SUBPAC

The neurons in the auditory cortex fire synchronously with pitch and harmony, whilst the EEG patterns in brain regions to do with motor-planning, movement and the body synchronize with bpm, beat and meter.

Using musical ratios/mathematics we can “tune” our pitch/harmony to our BPM/rhythm leveraging these phenomena to harmonize brain activity across the brain. This novel musical concept was pioneered by Sutherlandsounds is called “Rhythmic Consonance”. So much trauma is held in the body and this technique may have therapeutic benefit causing more in-phase & synchronous brain activity, and may be use-full in combination with somatic musical delivery systems such as SubPac.

“Myself, the artists and others within the clinical trial and new music project are very excited that we will be receiving a SUBPAC to put these theories to the test and help heal our communities in a fully embodied musical experience.” “Thank you SUBAC!“ -Michael Sutherland

About me:

Michael Sutherland is a musician, producer, and recording engineer with a Commercial Music Degree (with Honors) from Massey University NZ and a certificate from MAINZ both of which focused on songwriting, composition techniques, recording, and music production. He plays electric/acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and synthesizers and is a competent arranger, composer, singer-songwriter, and loop-pedal artist.

Michael has a wealth of experience mentoring, recording, and producing projects from various genres mostly in the Wellington Region. He has been involved in hundreds of records ranging from solo pop artists to rock bands and also engineering larger jazz & orchestral ensembles such as the NZSO. Michael learnt the art of engineering and recording by working alongside some of the best in New Zealand's music and film industry, and has a talent for blending the hands-on practice of the golden era of recording with the mind-bending possibilities of modern audio production.

Michael also developed a full suite of music for Float Tanks in 2019 for Dreampod LTD which was the first professionally recorded music for sensory deprivation and is now used in 70+ centers around the globe. This included a year of research development, recording and developing music for listening with ears submerged underwater in the Float Tank environment.

Michael is continuing to develop & compose music for Psilocybin Therapies based on the research pertaining to music and mystical-type experiences, collaborating with clinical trials to create music that heals communities, brings incredible artists together, and teaches us more about music's incredible role in these breakthrough therapies and consciousness in general.

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