By Pierre Bouchard, LPC
As a professional DJ and full-time psychotherapist offering ketamine-assisted psychotherapy sessions, I love selecting music for people. Almost universally, clients report a heightened sense of significance and interest in music while on psychedelics. How you select music for your client’s experience can have a profound impact on what they experience and the depth of experience they have.
There are numerous approaches to selecting and playing music for psychedelic work. While the Holotropic Breathwork people have a sophisticated method of making playlists and supporting the arc of a session, they have the added burden of having to play music that is going to work for everyone in a group experience. As a psychedelic therapist, your task is to assist a client in having a powerful non-ordinary experience, and you’ll likely be working with one client at a time. As such, there is room to get more specific and tailored in the approach that will offer a deeper and more powerful session.
Music Selection – Recreational vs. Therapeutic
One of the large differences between recreational and therapeutic psychedelic use is the focus of the experience. While psychedelics can be used in a wide variety of ways that we might consider recreational, using them in a therapeutic context has one key feature- namely that the psychedelic journeyer has the full attention and attuned nervous system of the therapist with them through the experience. This situation allows the psychonaut to go to places internally that they may not have gone without the benefit and psychological safety of being held in another’s mind. As such, people are coming to know their own depth of being in a new way. I would encourage you, dear therapist, to play things for them that will help them go deeper into their experience. You are helping someone have an experience of themselves within a psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy session.
Is the song beautiful or are you beautiful in the presence of the song?
A critical question at the heart of psychedelic music selection that was put to me by a mentor of mine: “Is the song beautiful or are you beautiful in the presence of the song?” A well-curated playlist can be used not only to have a beautiful experience, but to come to know your own depth and beauty and emotional range more fully. One thing that will help your clients go into their experience is to select pieces that are less beat-driven. Here’s a rule of thumb: if you can bob your head to it, don’t play it. This rule breaks down in working with anger/rage. In that situation, the right kind of beat can be very helpful. Generally though, find pieces that are more open and moving than a beat-driven song.
When someone is having a psychedelic experience, they are feeling their sense of self being stretched to new dimensions. Having one’s awareness bent and moved emotionally by instruments and sounds that are less known is akin to being stretched in new ways emotionally. You’ll deny your clients this gift by playing music for them that is within their musical wheelhouse. The point isn’t to have a “good” experience, but a meaningful one. You can play music that will add to that sense by picking pieces they are unfamiliar with and therefore have fewer associations to. Examples include ambient or neo-classical composers. Another critical way of accomplishing this is to play music for them from other cultures, and luckily there is no shortage of absolutely beautiful, deep, emotional world music to choose from out there that is still quite accessible to most North American ears. Middle Eastern, Asian, and African string instruments, chants, and flutes from all over the world bring out an otherworldly quality that can help your client to stretch into new ways of knowing themselves.
How to select
Aside from what to play, let’s talk about how you should select music for psychedelic sessions. I’m of the opinion that a good place to start is with something that is soothing yet stimulating and emotionally neutral. This is a great way to do no harm, musically speaking. There are many playlists out there to give you the inspiration to start. Try searching “psychedelic therapy” on Spotify or any streaming service you use. If you never do more than this, your clients will have a worthwhile experience. However, in this emerging field, I think we can do better.
Here are some guidelines that help me select during a session. When emotions or emotional needs emerge, try matching them musically in tone, or leading with music that has a slightly stronger affective tone. This can also be great for people who are by nature less in touch with their emotions or have less access to certain emotional ranges like anger or sadness. Begin building playlists and finding albums that have consistent emotional tones you can call on- sorrow, sadness, playfulness, anger, confusion, or pensive, heroic or childlike feelings, etc. This way, you’ll have them at hand when you need them. Your collection of playlists can go on and on and get more and more refined as you build your library. For me, the joy of this kind of collecting is to find new pieces that open me up to different emotional tones, and over time, they get more and more nuanced. Then try them with clients and see if they support their experience. You might have a sense a certain song will work, only to find that it falls a little flat when you try it with clients. That’s no problem at all- just as in every other aspect of therapy, you make an informed guess, you try something, and you see how it lands. Put simply, your job in session is to sonically attune to your clients. Keep an eye out for their affect and consider playing something that matches that tone. It’ll help your clients go deeper into their experience and get more out of their session with you because the music offers them permission to keep going where normally they might hold back and where a stock playlist may totally miss them.
I regularly see clients go further and deeper into the range of emotions than they ever have before. And once something that a client didn’t even know was possible becomes an option, their life starts to change. New neural networks emerge to support that experience, and that deep, new experience they had with me in the office becomes something they have access to in other areas of their lives.
Since so much of what I encounter with my clients is relational wounds and developmental trauma, it can be helpful to play music that has the voices of the same gender as the parent they have a particular wound with. If Mom was cold or unavailable, it can be incredibly powerful for a client to hear warm, soothing (non-English speaking) women singing. It offers a missing experience. The same is true with fathers and masculine wounds. I have specific playlists built out of women and/or men singing or music that for me has a particularly gendered expression. I call them “limbic feminine” and “limbic masculine.” With transference, those limbic tones can be a crucial part of healing.
Here are a few examples of different songs:
Mendel Kaelen is also doing beautiful work creating playlists that support people going through psychedelic sessions with gorgeous general arcs.
So to you, dear therapist, I have some suggestions on how you can integrate this into your psychedelic practice.
- Engage in your own work: First and most importantly, you have to keep doing your own work. As is true in ordinary psychotherapy, you won’t be able to take your clients beyond where you yourself have gone. Continue exploring your own depth of being through ongoing work with the medicines you are working with.
- Widen your Music Selection: Listen to lots of things! Search out sorrowful songs, find what instruments produce those best, listen to movie soundtracks for passionate or suspenseful elements, and find music from other countries and cultures that have different instruments and scales. This can go as deep as you want.
- Use Spotify to find new music: If you’re using Spotify, let their algorithms suggest things! I can’t tell you how often I find new stuff through their suggestions based on my playlists.
The collection and selection of music for psychedelic work is an ongoing venture. You’ll get better as you go, and you’ll fall in and out of love with songs or albums. And you’ll get more masterful in your own approach.
At the end of the day, what we’re offering our clients is an education into their own depth and beauty. By selecting music well, we’re saying, “You’re more than you thought you were, and what you actually are is totally welcome here. In fact, it’s fantastic”.
I hope you enjoy the endeavor.
About the Author
Pierre Bouchard is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Boulder and Denver CO and professional vinyl DJ. He specializes in blending somatics, embodiment, attachment theory, and trauma therapy with ketamine assisted psychotherapy. He offers supervision around ketamine assisted psychotherapy and training on music selection. He’ll be opening a clinic soon to expand ketamine access and to further prepare for the psychedelic revolution.
You can find out more here pierrebouchardcounseling.com and on Instagram @pierre.bouchard.lpc