If you have ever gotten high at a concert, you know first hand that, music is better on weed. Music is obviously great to begin with, but with some THC in your system, you may perceive new sonic layers or meanings in lyrics that you never noticed before, and tracks that you have heard a thousand times suddenly sound brand new again.
Whether you prefer relaxing to chilled-out reggae beats or banging your head to something heavier sounding, most people would simply agree that music sounds incredible when you are high. However, figuring out why music sounds better high is far from simple.
Music and the brain
The relationship between music and cannabis begins with understanding how music impacts the brain. According to Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neurology at the University of Toronto, the sound is processed from the spinal cord to the cortex. This means that the entire range of the central nervous system is activated when we listen to a piece of music.
“The brain is really on fire when it listens to music, just from a physiological point of view,” Thaut explains. “That is important because there is pitch, there is rhythm, there is harmony, there is timbre. That is an enormous amount of work the brain does when it listens to music.”
“It enhances present focus, it inhibits searching through memory, and it allows you to focus on music to make it seem more novel and interesting,” he says. “The interference with the formation of short-term memories allows the listener to focus on the present moment, rather than searching the memory to predict what happens next.”
When forming memories, the brain accesses existing information and uses it to predict what is going to happen next. As cannabis is known to disrupt short-term memory, the relationship between expectations and the experience at hand tends to dampen. This inhibited the formation of short-term memory under the influence is what leaves the listening experience feeling revelatory.
The brain’s response to cannabis is equally widespread. Zachary Walsh, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, explains that cannabinoid receptors are among the most prominent receptors in the central nervous system. Known as “CB1” receptors, they become hyperactive under the influence of cannabis, influencing mood, appetite, and sensation.
“There are certainly lots in the hippocampus and in the limbic system, which is associated with emotion and memory,” he says. The trouble with research around music and cannabis is that the reported experiences are often private, subjective, and extremely varied.
Music and cannabis
There are several different theories surrounding the connection between cannabis and sound. Weed is well-known for altering your perception of time. Research has shown that being high causes your internal clock to move more quickly than usual, meaning that external time appears to slow right down.
When this effect is combined with the increased attention and focus that many strains provide, weed may allow you to hear subtle notes that you may miss under normal circumstances. It is also likely that being high will enable you to concentrate more fully on the music itself rather than letting it wash over you while you complete other tasks.
In high doses, cannabis can even induce synaesthesia, the phenomenon of seeing sound as color. Combined with the right tunes, this can make for a very cool and trippy experience.
The relationship between music and cannabis becomes more intertwined when we consider that both activate the pleasure and reward systems in the brain. Cannabis with higher levels of cannabidiol (CBD, non-psychoactive) than tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, psychoactive) is reported to increase the release of dopamine.
In such strains, the amplified activity in the reward system can psychologically condition the user to correlate cannabis with a more positive listening experience. With music and cannabis simultaneously triggering the mesolimbic dopamine system, the brain is chemically reinforcing two extremely gratifying behaviors and coupling them over time.
Cannabis has an impact on our perception of time, as well as the speed of our internal clock. This potentially gives the listener a heightened auditory sense when listening to music and allows them to experience songs in a much more detailed way as they have “more time” to examine what they are listening to.
It is no stoned delusion to think that time moves a little slower under the influence. Cannabis enters the listener into a state of mind that distorts how they perceive the passage of time, and their ability to follow a beat changes how that musical composition comes together.
Michael Thaut notes that acoustical information is time-based. “The basis of sound is vibrating bodies. Strings on a violin, strings in the piano, and so forth. It is all time-based, so the auditory system that processes music has to be extremely good at deciphering time. Does a string vibrate 440 times a second or 450 times a second? That makes a difference in the kind of note we hear.”
This might explain why listeners more readily try to make sense of complex recordings while under the influence. With debilitated short-term memory, time intervals can expand over the course of the high. With time moving more slowly, listeners are under the impression of perceiving more musical information. In effect, cannabis seems to convince the listener of a heightened ability to discern musical notes.
Suddenly, the association of cannabis with freeform, improvisational genres like jazz and blues makes sense; but this enhanced interconnectivity between notes could also be applied in the context of a mainstream listener’s taste profile, affecting the complexity of music one can tolerate.
Focus and attention
According to individual user reports, modifications in internal time can alter our attentional spotlight, facilitating changes in auditory perception.
“When your time perception changes, your focus of attention changes,” says Jorg Fachner, a professor of music, health, and the brain at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. “So when you put on a stereo headset you might have an enhanced ability to select certain information and disregard other information, which could help distinguish the individual sounds a bit more intensively.”
According to Fachner, this enhanced attentional focus to see “the space between the notes” results in music that is perceived to be “much more lively, much more clean, and much more distinct.”
These anecdotal changes in perception have also been shown to have possible neurological underpinnings.
In 2002, Fachner conducted a study investigating the link between cannabis usage, music perception, and changes in brainwave activity. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), a device capable of detecting small changes in electrical activity throughout the brain, Fachner first measured the subject’s brainwave activity while sober both with and without the presence of music.
To reduce biases in behavior that could arise from an artificial laboratory setting, the experiments were conducted in the comfort of a living room. The selected music consisted of three songs that included ensemble chamber music, folk-punk, and a Beatles cover. After a 30-minute rest period, participants then smoked cannabis containing 20mg of THC and listened to the same music while their brainwave activity was recorded.
The results indicated that music-listening cannabis users experienced changes in parietal, right temporal, and left occipital cortices (brain areas that have previously been associated with attentional strategy, auditory processing, and spatial processing, respectively).
More specifically, the parietal (attentional strategy) cortex showed stronger activity in a particular frequency range called alpha. Interestingly, previous EEG studies have shown that students who are gifted in mathematics also display similar increases in alpha patterns in this brain region while solving problems, indicating that this activity pattern might be indicative of more efficient information processing than the average person.
“One of the interpretations that I had from this data is that when it comes to attention, subjects were focusing a bit more on the sound and that this attention also required less mental energy,” says Fachner. “So it is easier to listen, to focus, and to relax.”
In addition, increased activity in the right temporal brain region was also observed in music-listening subjects who were high on cannabis. Because this area is primarily responsible for processing auditory information, these findings further demonstrate that a change in neural processing strategy could underlie altered music perception.
Weed’s influence on musicians
From The Beatles to Bob Marley and Snoop Dogg to Brian Wilson, cannabis use is often synonymous with the creative process for many musical artists, both past and present.
This alludes to the notion that, while many artists will create music under the influence, listeners can also have a heightened connection to the music because of their own mind-altered state, picking out and appreciating subtle nuances that might go unnoticed to the average listener.
Famously, renowned astronomer Carl Sagan often preached the importance of combining cannabis and music during his lifetime. He explained how the change in the state of mind allowed him to hear the music differently and understand parts of music theory he previously could not get a grasp on, such as counterpoint and harmony.