When we think of the effects of psychedelics, it is often in terms of the alterations they cause in cognitive processes and visual perception. Changes in auditory perception are often secondary, but have a very significant place, particularly in the context of entheogenic healing and psychedelic ritual. Anyone familiar with psychedelic dance parties will know that virtually everything sounds amazing on LSD, but we tend not to think about how and why this is the case.
Music is integral to psychedelic journeys among the many entheogenic traditions across the world. The Mazatec in Mexico, for example, combine psilocybin mushrooms with prolonged rhythmic chanting and clapping to structure their curing ceremonies (Caceres, 1984). R. Gordon Wasson (1980) described the singing of the renowned Mazatec healer Maria Sabina as being a kind of ventriloquism, the song changing direction, seeming at one moment very near, at other times coming from far away.
The Bwiti religion of Gabon in West Africa is known as “The Way of the Harp” and music is integral to their use of the Iboga plant. Uwe Maas and Süster Strubelt (2006) report that the music used in Mitsogho iboga initiation has a constant measure of 5-6 beats per second and an ambivalent division in 6 x 2 and 4 x 3 impulses, the former rhythm representing the “other world” and the latter the mundane world. The constantly changing accent between these two rhythms is designed to move the initiate backwards and forwards between worlds, while the beat itself supports the induction of theta waves, a neural oscillation pattern associated with REM sleep, dreaming, suggestibility and hypnosis.
Rhythm is widespread in collective trance and involves the mechanism of rhythmic entrainment, similar to the way that the pendulums of two clocks suspended on the same wall tend to swing in synchrony. Within entheogenic rituals, whether it be Bwiti ceremony in West Africa (Fernandez, 1982) or Desana Banisteriopsis caapi rituals in Colombia (Reichel- Dolmatoff, 1975), the effect of collective rhythmic entrainment is expressed in similar symbolic terms: as hearts beating as one, as being of one body, or as inhabiting a collective womb. This womb metaphor points to an important element in some South American Indigenous theories of shamanic healing: that after an initial phase of loud and intense rhythmic music a more melodic atmosphere develops where the patient is guided in a regression to infancy, where they can be nurtured and restored to balance.
Certain plants and fungi may be described as auditory hallucinogens. The puffball Lycoperdon mixtecorum is said to induce ‘hallucinations’ of echoes and voices and is eaten by the Mixtec of Oaxaca, Mexico for divination. Little is known about L. mixtecorum chemistry or pharmacology (Hofmann et al, 1984). Heimia salicifolia, a herb of the Loosestrife family (Lythraceae) is also said to induce changes in hearing. The plant is known in Mexico as Sinicuichi, Sun Opener and Saint Francis’s Herb. Calderón (1896) described the auditory effects of Sinicuichi tea as if the tea made it sound as though noises came from further away. The garlic vine Ajo Sacha (Mansoa alliacea) is regarded as a panacea and plant teacher in the Mestizo shamanism of the upper Amazon. The plant is known for its ability to teach through dreams, which become more vivid and auditory. The spirit of Ajo Sacha is said to teach icaros (magical healing melodies). It is also a tonic for the voice and enhances musicality in general (Beyer, 2011).
Psychedelic Journeys that Distort Pitch
There remains a small class of auditory inebriants that temporarily induce a reversible form of amusia. Amusia is the disturbance of the perception of pitch, rendering music inharmonious. The best known drug of this type and probably the most extreme in the class is a psychedelic tryptamine invented by Alexander Shulgin called DIPT (n,n diisopropyltryptamine). The initial effects of DIPT are similar to a low dose of psilocin. There is physical stimulation, apprehension and psychedelic ideation. Then, at some point around the hour mark, the auditory distortions commence. Everything sounds lower. High notes, like a countertenor singing the note C5, might just sound a little bit flat, but lower notes can drop in bizarre ways: a C3 played on a cello might sound like F#1, for example. Consequently, DIPT demolishes all music built on harmonies. Tempo, rhythm, and the meaning of words are not affected. However, pitch and timbre are profoundly distorted. The experience is in many ways unpleasant, but can also be every bit as profound and “mind-manifesting” as any other psychedelic. The following quotation illustrates the distressing aspect of the loss of the sense of harmony:
“(with 250 mg, orally)… DIPT was the body of Satan. The voices of people were extremely distorted—males sounded like frogs—children sounded like they were talking through synthesizers to imitate outer space people in science fiction movies. In fact, I felt that I was somehow sent into an anti-universe where everything looked the same as normal but was a cold and empty imitation. I felt I was a fallen angel. (Shulgin and Shulgin 1997, p. 405).”
The following notes from the author’s own diary (written the day after an experiment with 250 mg, orally) emphasise the profoundly unusual nature of the experience and the insight into auditory experience DIPT can afford:
“My, what a curve-ball that was… Totally not expecting such a completely novel and unique effect. Nice to know the mind still has some totally bizarre surprises. Not exactly pleasant, actually quite offensive, but SO interesting. So glad to have pitch returning to normal, tones no longer transposed and harmonic relationships restored. Well mostly. VERY persistent effect: 24 hours of sound distortion. I absolutely didn’t know that was all possible. Grateful for the intensely odd experience, but most definitely not my cup of tea.”
About 4% of the population are born with congenital amusia. These individuals are unable to accurately perceive pitch and hence do not experience music as a pleasant complex of sensation (Sacks, 2007). For the remainder of those not affected by hearing loss, pitch perception and musical appreciation is remarkably robust. The brain seems to have evolved in such a way that pitch perception is well protected from environmental and pharmacological assaults. So much so that drugs that alter pitch processing are strikingly rare and so much so that the faculty of musical perception remains intact in many forms of dementia, pointing the way for new therapeutic strategies in geriatric medicine.
This preservation of the musical sense brings us to the overall subject of this essay: why do psychedelic journeys and entheogenic practices so often focus on sound? Perhaps it is because the perception of harmony is the most resilient faculty most of us have: the last ordered sense to go; a bridge of sound across the void; the thing that remains when ego dissolves on the psychedelic dance floor; the golden thread through the dark night of plant medicine; a language transcending reason.
Artwork in Header Image is by Danny Stanley.