Here's Why Music Sounds So Much Better When You're High, According to Science
Ancient Sufis preached it. Hippies dug it. Rappers repeat it like a mantra. Each of these groups has had their own way of expressing it, but each have agreed on one truth about marijuana: It elevates the act of listening to music to a whole nother level.
Marijuana has helped some great minds come to a new understanding of and appreciation for music. It helped astrophysicist Carl Sagan finally understand the principles of harmony and counterpoint. It helped author Norman Mailer finally get jazz.
"With the powers pot offered, simple things became complex; complex things clarified themselves," Mailer once so poetically told High Times. "These musicians were offering the inner content of their experiences to me."
However, for as ancient and anecdotal as this knowledge is, there's been little research into how music and marijuana actually interact in the brain to produce such profound experiences. Theories abound, though, and taking the marijuana studies we do have and comparing them with music-related neurological research can shed light on why marijuana and music are such tight bedfellows.
A review of dope literature: One of the early landmark studies on the subjective experience of the marijuana high, Charles T. Tart's On Being Stoned, focuses acutely on the marijuana's effects on music and sound perception.
"Effects on sound perception are some of the most characteristic effects of marijuana," Tart wrote. "Further, all of these effects were perceived as emotionally pleasant or cognitively interesting, leading to greatly enhanced enjoyment of sound and music."
Daniel J. Levitin, music psychologist and professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University, took a stab at the "why" in his book The World in Six Songs. He pinned much of his explanation to marijuana's and music's ability to stimulate the brain's pleasure centers and alter our sense of timing.
"Music combined with marijuana tends to produce feelings of euphoria and connectedness to the music and the musicians. THC — the active ingredient — is known to stimulate the brain's natural pleasure centers, while also disrupting short-term memory. The disruption of short-term memory thrusts listeners into the moment of the music as it unfolds; unable to explicitly keep in mind what has just been played, or to think ahead to what might be played, people stoned on pot tend to hear music from note to note. Subconsciously all of the usual processes of expectation formation are still occurring, but consciously, the music creates what many people describe as a time-standing-still phenomenon. They live for each note, completely in the moment."
"When it hits you, you feel no pain." A host of neurological research has established that drugs like marijuana and music both stimulate our brain's pleasure receptors — as do with food, sex and all life's good things. When music and marijuana act in concert, they can have a "synergistic effect," Anna Ermakova PhD, Science Officer at the Beckley Foundation, a U.K.-based think-tank and U.N.-accredited NGO dedicated to funding drug research and policy initiatives, explained in a phone conversation.
"Cannabis provides a strong emotional response, and music provides an emotional response," she said. "Together they produce an even stronger one."
Marijuana also accesses a special neurotransmitter system, the endocannabinoid system, which regulates appetite, pain, mood and memory. The way the plant activates this system explains a lot of the unique effects it has on music listening.
"No one quite understands it, but the cannabinoid receptors seem to be involved in producing a watchful, alert state," Alice Flaherty, an author and neurologist whose practice focuses in part on the roots of creativity, said during in phone conversation. "Anyone who's smoked has probably had the sensation of getting fixated on something. I remember once for me it was this doorknob; it was the most interesting thing. That's kind of joke, but if it had been a piece of music, I would have said, 'Oh my God! I just had this profound experience!'"
A good blur — Additional research suggests that marijuana produces a mild synesthesia, or a criss-crossing of sensory information. A 2011 fMRI study showed that THC causes modulations in auditory and visual processing. Yet one theory holds that this blurring effect may not be limited to the subconscious.
"The different areas of the brain have these very vague borders," Joe Dolce, author of the upcoming book Brave New Weed, which explores cannabis from cultural, business, medicinal, and scientific perspectives. "They're controlled chemically, and the theory is that cannabis somehow loosens those borders, so for instance we could feel music more deeply. We don't usually think of feeling music, we think of hearing it. But when people speak about listening to music while using cannabis, they describe it as richer, more textured; it has more depth."
The way marijuana also intensifies tastes and physical sensations, like orgasms, may also draw from this blurring effect.
Music may actually help smooth out the rough parts of a marijuana high. One of the biggest downsides of cannabis is its tendency to create feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
"Studies show that music actually helps calm anxiety and stress," Ermakova said. "So in some sense, music can actually counteract some of the negative effects of cannabis and make it more of an overall pleasant experience."
However, there may be an extra-chemical portion of the marijuana's power to affect music as well. The expectation that marijuana will intensify the experience of music might be enough to make that a reality; call it a contact high, or the dopest placebo affect imaginable.
"There are certain genres and artists that are specifically associated with smoking cannabis — Snoop Dogg and Bob Marley," Ermakova added. "When many people smoke, they expect the music will be better and that may put them in the mindset that when they put in on, their expectations are justified."
No matter how you explain marijuana's effects on music, treat yourself right this 420, and make sure your playlist is as dope as your dro.