Lsd enhances the emotional response to music

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LSD enhances the emotional response to music

M. Kaelen1*, F.S. Barrett2, L. Roseman1,3, R. Lorenz3, N. Family4, M. Bolstridge1, V. Curran5, A. Feilding6, D.J. Nutt1, R.L. Carhart-Harris1

1 Imperial College London, Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, Division of Brain Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, London, UK

2Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, Baltimore, USA

3 Imperial College London, The Computational, Cognitive and Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory, The Centre for Neuroscience, Division of Brain Sciences, London, UK

4 University of Kaiserslautern Faculty of Social Sciences, Psycholinguistics and Language Department, Kaiserslautern, Germany.

5 University College London, Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, London, UK

6 The Beckley Foundation, Beckley Park, Oxford, UK

*email: , telephone: 02075947052

Acknowledgements: This research received financial and intellectual support from the Beckley Foundation and was conducted as part of a wider Beckley-Imperial research programme. The report presents independent research carried out at the NIHR/Wellcome Trust Imperial Clinical Research Facility. Support for Dr. Barrett was provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Grant T32DA07209. The authors would like to thank Matthew Wall and Nicola Kalk for their help in designing this study.

Abstract (Limit = 250 words, currently 199 words)

Rationale: There is renewed interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). LSD was used extensively in the 1950s and 60s as an adjunct in psychotherapy, reportedly enhancing emotionality. Music is an effective tool to evoke and study emotion, and is considered an important element in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy; however, the hypothesis that psychedelics enhance the emotional response to music has yet to be investigated in a modern placebo-controlled study. Objectives: The present study sought to test the hypothesis that music-evoked emotions are enhanced under LSD. Methods: Ten healthy volunteers listened to five different tracks of instrumental music during each of two study days, a placebo day followed by an LSD day, separated by 5-7 days. Subjective ratings were completed after each music track and included a visual analogue scale (VAS) and the 9-item Geneva Emotional Music Scale (GEMS-9). Results: Results demonstrated that the emotional response to music is enhanced by LSD, especially the emotions "wonder", "transcendence", "power" and "tenderness". Conclusions: These findings reinforce the long-held assumption that psychedelics enhance music-evoked emotion, and provide tentative and indirect support for the notion that this effect can be harnessed in the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Further research is required to test this link directly.


Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a “classic” psychedelic1 drug that elicits profound changes in consciousness with a remarkable potency (Schmid et al. 2015; Passie et al. 2008; Nichols 2004). Although much emphasis has been placed on their hallucinogenic properties, psychedelic drugs have a range of other interesting psychological effects. For example, they have marked effects on emotion, which is one of the reasons why they were used in psychotherapy in the 1950s and 60s. The dominant therapeutic model at the time maintained that by dismantling “ego defences”, psychedelics facilitate emotional release (i.e. “catharsis”) and insight (Busch & Johnson 1950; Leuner 1983). Broadly speaking, this approach is still adopted today in clinical studies with psychedelics (Bogenschutz et al 2015; Johnson et al 2014; Gasser et al 2014a; Gasser et al 2014b; Grob et al 2011).

Music is a classic means of evoking emotion, and like LSD, it has also been used as an adjunct to psychotherapy (Koelsch 2014; Moore 2013). Music has accompanied ceremonial use of psychedelics for many centuries (Nettl 1956), was a staple component in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in the 1950s and 60s (Bonny and Pahnke 1972; Grof 1980) and remains so today (Bogenschutz et al 2015; Johnson et al 2014; Gasser et al 2014a; Gasser et al 2014b; Grob et al 2011). It has been proposed that listening to music during a psychedelic experience is useful for: 1) encouraging the relinquishment of control, 2) facilitating emotional arousal and release, 3) promoting the occurrence of “peak” or spiritual-type experiences and 4) directing and/or structuring the experience (Bonny and Pahnke 1972; Grof 1980). Profound spiritual or mystical-type experiences were reported by a majority of participants in a study with another psychedelic drug, psilocybin, whilst they listened to emotionally evocative music (Griffiths et al 2011; Griffiths et al 2006). This raises the important questions: what is the role of music in producing such profound psychological experiences?

The significance of music in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has previously been discussed (Eagle 1972; Gaston and Eagle 1970; Bonny and Pahnke 1972; Turek et al 1974) but has never been investigated in a modern placebo-controlled study. The present study sought to address this knowledge gap by testing the hypothesis that the emotional response to music is enhanced under LSD. Participants listened to five different instrumental music tracks on each of two study days: a placebo day followed by an LSD day, separated by 5-7 days. The question “how emotionally affected were you by the music?” was asked immediately after each track and served as the study’s primary outcome. To probe more specific aspects of participants’ emotional experiences during music listening, the Geneva Emotional Music Scale (GEMS-9) was also used (Zentner et al 2008). The GEMS-9 has been developed to measure a range of emotions that can be experienced during music listening and this was completed after each music track. It was predicted that it would be specifically emotions related to “transcendence” that would be enhanced, i.e. feeling “fascinated and overwhelmed” and “feelings of transcendence and spirituality”, as defined by the GEMS-9.

1 The word psychedelic is derived from combining the Greek words psychḗ meaning “mind” or “soul”, and dêlos, meaning “to manifest” or “make visible”. In addition to LSD, other drugs considered classic psychedelics include psilocybin (the major psychoactive constituent of magic mushrooms), mescaline (a psychoactive constituent of peyote and san pedro cacti) and DMT (a major psychoactive ingredient in the Amazonian brew ayahuasca). All these drugs share the property of being agonists at the serotonin 2A receptor. The use of the term “psychedelics” in this paper refers specifically to classic psychedelics such as those listed above.



This study was approved by the National Research Ethics Service (NRES) London – West London and was conducted in accordance with the revised declaration of Helsinki (2000), the International Committee on Harmonisation Good Clinical Practice guidelines and NHS Research Governance Framework. Imperial College London sponsored the research which was conducted under a Home Office license for research with schedule 1 drugs.

Recruitment and screening of participants

Participants were recruited via word of mouth and gave written informed consent before participating. They were briefed on the general experimental procedures, but no information regarding hypotheses of the experiments was shared. Prior to study enrolment, all participants were screened in a clinical research centre at the Hammersmith hospital campus of Imperial College London (the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, WTCRF). Demographic information was recorded and medical history taken. A physical examination was performed, including electrocardiogram (ECG), routine blood tests and blood pressure measurement. A psychiatric assessment was conducted and participants gave full disclosure of their drug taking histories. Participants completed the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) (Beck et al 1961) and the 60-item NEO-FFI personality scale (McCrae & Costa 1987) and were properly briefed on the study and the potential drug effects.

Key exclusion criteria were: <21 years of age, personal history of diagnosed psychiatric illness, immediate family history of a psychotic disorder, an absence of previous experience with a classic psychedelic (e.g. LSD, mescaline, psilocybin/magic mushrooms or DMT/ayahuasca), having experienced a persistent adverse reaction after psychedelic drug use, pregnancy, problematic alcohol use (i.e. > 40 units consumed per week), or a medically significant condition rendering the volunteer unsuitable for the study.

Drug dosing

One thousand µg of LSD freebase (certified 99.4% purity) was reconstituted with 10ml saline and sterile filtered, yielding a 100µg:1ml sterile solution. Since a primary motivation of the study was to determine a safe and appropriate dose of LSD for a subsequent neuroimaging study, the dosage of LSD varied among participants, i.e. one received 40µg, two 50µg, six 70µg and one 80µg. For each administration, the appropriate amount of LSD solution (e.g. 0.7ml = 70µg) was transferred to a 10ml syringe and made up to 10ml with saline. The 10ml solution was then infused intravenously over a three minute period, followed by a 60 second infusion (“flush”) with 10ml saline.

Study setting

Both study days were performed at the WTCRF at the Hammersmith Hospital. All experiments took place in a clinical room, consisting of a hospital bed, physiological monitoring equipment and en suite facilities. Since psychedelics have the potential to induce psychological distress, the clinical conditions of the room were adapted to promote feelings of comfort and safety, i.e. the lighting was dimmed and the room was decorated with soft furnishings (Johnson et al 2008). The setting was identical for all study days.

Experimental procedures

Participants were carefully prepared for the drug experience at screening and the study was conducted in accordance with guidelines for the safe management of psychedelic drug sessions (Johnson et al 2008). After screening, eligible participants attended two study days, with at least five days in between, and were told they would receive LSD on one of these two occasions but were not told which. Placebo (10ml saline) was always administered on the first day, thus avoiding potential carry-over effects (e.g. residual psychological effects) of LSD. Participants were blind to the condition (i.e. drug or placebo) but the researchers were not. Volunteers arrived at the research centre between 10:00am and 11:00am on testing days, were briefed about the study procedure, gave a urine test for drugs of abuse and pregnancy (where relevant) and carried out a breathalyser test for recent alcohol use. A cannula was inserted into a vein in the antecubital fossa by a medical doctor and secured. Subsequently, volunteers were encouraged to close their eyes and relax in a reclined position before a 10ml solution of saline alone (placebo) or containing LSD was intravenously infused over a period of 3 minutes. Blood pressure was measured prior to dosing (baseline), 45 minutes after dosing and at the end of the study day (prior to discharge). Heart-rate was recorded at regular intervals, together with self-ratings of the subjective intensity of the drug effects on a scale of zero (“no effects”) to ten (“extremely intense effects”). These measurements were taken every 1-5 minutes during the first 45 minutes post-infusion, and then continued in intervals of approximately 30-45 minutes until the end of the experiment. During the initial 45 minutes post-infusion, participants were encouraged to relax with their eyes closed and maintain a supine position while listening to music by the ambient music artists “Stars of The Lid”. This music was only played during the initial 45 minutes, and not during the subsequent psychological testing. Participants reported first noticing subjective drug effects between 5 to 15 minutes post-dosing, and these approached peak intensity between 45 to 90 minutes post-dosing. The duration of a subsequent plateau of drug effects varied among individuals but was generally maintained for approximately three hours post-dosing. Psychological tests were performed within this time-frame. Five music tracks were played to each participant during each session at the following time points post-dosing (minutes: mean, SD): 44 ± 17 (Track 1), 101 ± 25 (Track 2), 139 ± 33 (Track 3 and 4) and 250 ± 53 (Track 5). Once the subjective effects of LSD had sufficiently subsided participants completed a 29-item questionnaire enquiring about the drug’s subjective effects (see Carhart-Harris et al 2012). Following this, the study psychiatrist assessed the participant’s suitability for discharge. Participants remained in the research centre for an average of six hours post-infusion. The results of other psychological tests performed during the study are published elsewhere (Carhart-Harris et al 2014).

Stimulus selection and task design

Two playlists were compiled (A and B), each containing five different music tracks. One version was heard on the first study day and the other on the second, with the order of the playlists counterbalanced across participants. The emotional potency of the two lists was balanced based on pre-study ratings from a separate sample of 9 participants. Pre-ratings were provided for 16 instrumental music tracks of the classical, neo-classical, ambient and new-age genres using the GEMS-9. In addition, the tracks were also rated for general liking and familiarity. It was from the subsequent ratings that 10 tracks were selected for the study. Specifically, tracks were chosen that produced highest liking and lowest familiarity, and a two-tailed paired t-test confirmed no significant differences between the playlists on liking, familiarity and GEMS-9 scores. The final five tracks selected for each playlist consisted of neo-classical and ambient music composed by the following four contemporary musicians: Greg Haines, Ólafur Arnalds, Arve Henriksen and Brian McBride (see table 1). Each music track and all rating scales were presented via Psychopy presentation software (Peirce 2008). Before listening to a music track, participants were instructed to close their eyes and relax. Music was played via high-quality stereo headphones (Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro) and participants were allowed to adjust the volume via remote volume control. When the music ended, a pre-recorded voice instructed them to open their eyes. They were then presented with the question “how emotionally affected were you by the music?” Participants gave ratings via a continuous visual analogue scale from 0 (“not at all”) to 100 (“very much”). Following this, a digitalized and shortened version of the full GEMS, the GEMS-9, was presented (Zentner et al 2008). A particularly important instruction given prior to completing the questionnaire was that participants should rate how he or she personally felt in response to the music, and not what he or she thought the music was trying to communicate to them or how he or she felt in general. The GEMS-9 consists of 9 items or categories of emotion, with sub-items presented in brackets: wonder (filled with wonder, dazzled, moved), transcendence (fascinated, overwhelmed, feelings of transcendence and spirituality), power (strong, triumphant, energetic), tenderness (tender, affectionate, in love), nostalgia (nostalgic, dreamy, melancholic), peacefulness (serene, calm, soothed), joyful activation (joyful, amused, bouncy), sadness (sad, sorrowful), tension (tense, agitated, nervous). Each item was scored from 0 to 4: 0 = “not at all”, 1 = “somewhat”, 2 = “moderately”, 3 = “quite a lot”, and 4 = “very much”.

Table 1 The two playlists utilized for the study.

Playlist A

Playlist B


Artist name

Track title


Track title



Greg Haines

183 Times





Brian McBride

Toil theme part 2 & part 3


Supposed Essay on the Piano



Ólafur Arnalds

The Wait


Autumn Day



Brian McBride

Mélodrames Télégraphiés Part 2


Mélodrames Télégraphiés Part 1



Arve Henriksen

In the Light


Leaf and Rock


Data analysis

All statistical tests were performed in Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) for Windows, Version 21.0. Scores for the question “how emotionally affected were you by the music?” for each stimulus were averaged for each subject per condition. A paired two-tailed t-test was performed to test for significant difference between conditions.

Since the 5 possible ratings for the GEMS-9 were ascribed a relevant number (e.g. 0 = “not at all”, 1 = “somewhat”) and the resultant data was normally distributed, two-tailed paired t-tests were used to analyse between-condition differences. Subsequent false discovery rate (FDR) control was used to correct for multiple comparisons (Benjamini & Hochberg 1995).

Finally, a Pearson’s correlational analysis was performed to evaluate a hypothesised relationship between the peak intensity of LSD’s subjective effects and the intensity of emotional arousal in response to music under LSD (i.e. the average score for all music stimuli to the question “how emotionally affected were you by the music?”) as well as the relationship between peak drug intensity and increases in the GEMS-9 item “transcendence”.


Participant demographics

Ten healthy volunteers participated in the study (1 female; mean age = 34.2 ± 7.4, range = 26-47 years). All had at least one previous experience with a classic psychedelic drug (mean estimated LSD uses = 65 ± 90, range = 0 - 250) but not within 21 days of the study (mean last use of LSD = 1829 ± 2348, range = 30-5000 days). Self-estimates of other drug use were as follows (mean, SD, range): weekly alcohol units = 9.2 ± 9.1, 0-26; daily cigarettes = 3.5 ± 6.6, 0-20; lifetime cannabis uses = 822 ± 377, 20-1000; lifetime MDMA uses = 79 ± 117, 3-400; lifetime psilocybin/magic mushroom uses = 19.5 ± 14, 6-40; lifetime ketamine uses = 51 ± 84, 0-200; lifetime cocaine uses = 23.1 ± 31, 0-100. Beck Depression Inventory scores at baseline were: 1.9 ± 1.6, 0-4; NEO-FFI scores were: neuroticism = 13.2 ± 6.5, 5-26; extraversion = 32 ± 8, 20-44; openness = 31 ± 3.8, 26-35; agreeableness = 35.7 ± 4.1, 32-45; conscientiousness = 34.2 ± 6.5, 25-42.

Physiological effects of LSD

Measurements of blood pressure and heart rate under placebo and LSD are displayed in table 2. Systolic blood pressure was slightly elevated under LSD relative to baseline and placebo but these changes were not statistically significant after correcting for multiple comparisons.

Table 2 Physiological measurements for placebo and LSD displayed in rounded mean values + standard error of the mean.

Systolic blood pressure

Diastolic blood pressure

Heart rate








125± 5

123 ± 4

72 ± 4

78 ± 4

78 ± 5

77 ± 5

45th minute

120 ± 3

132 ± 6

69 ± 3

76 ± 4

75 ± 4

77 ± 4

180th minute





65 ± 3

79 ± 5


118 ± 3

134 ± 5

68 ± 3

74 ± 4

68 ± 3

74 ± 4

Subjective effects of LSD

Subjective drug effects were first noticed between 5 to 15 minutes post-LSD and approached peak intensity between 45 to 90 minutes post-dosing. Drug effects maintained a subsequent plateau for approximately three hours, and showed a gradual decline in the following hours. These results suggest that compared with oral administration of LSD (Schmid et al 2015; Passie et al 2008; Nichols 2004), intravenous administration produces a quicker onset, and (slightly) shorter lasting experience. Interestingly however, the speed of onset and duration of effects produced by oral and i.v. LSD are more similar than when oral and i.v. psilocybin are compared (Carhart-Harris et al 2010; Hasler et al 2004).

LSD produced a range of subjective effects (see fig. 3 in supplementary material). The five VAS items that were scored highest under LSD were (in descending order): “my thoughts wandered freely”, “my imagination was extremely vivid”, “I felt amazing”, “things looked strange” and “I felt an inner warmth”.

Effects of LSD on the emotional response to music

Mean scores for all music stimuli to the question “how emotionally affected were you by the music?” were significantly higher for the LSD condition (0.71 ± 0.14) than for placebo (0.51 ± 0.18), t = 3.559, df = 9, p = 0.006 (fig. 1)

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