Psilocybin, the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms, can affect the way we emotionally respond to music, a study by Danish scientists has found.


The drug has previously been used with some success in clinical trials designed to treat depression. These trials typically involve the use of music playlists to support the psychedelic experience.

Previous studies have also found that LSD, another psychedelic drug, can enhance the emotional responses triggered by music, so the team wanted to find out if psilocybin had a similar effect.

To test this, the team had 20 healthy participants listen to a short programme of music comprising Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, before and after taking a controlled dose of psilocybin. After each play through they had them rate their emotional responses according to the Geneva Emotional Music Scale - a questionnaire designed to capture the richness of musically evoked emotions by rating the response in categories such as wonder, transcendence and peacefulness.

They found that the psilocybin increased the participants’ reported emotional response to the music by an average of 60 per cent.

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“This shows that combination of psilocybin and music has a strong emotional effect, and we believe that this will be important for the therapeutic application of psychedelics if they are approved for clinical use," said lead researcher Dea Siggaard Stenbæk, Associate Professor University of Copenhagen.

“Psilocybin is under development as a drug to treat depression, and this work implies that music needs to be considered as a therapeutic part of the treatment.

“Interestingly, some of the music we used, Elgar's famous ‘Nimrod’ variation (the 9th variation) describes his close friend Augustus Jaeger. Jaeger encouraged Elgar to write the variations as a way out of depression, so we’re pleased to see it used again to help understand more about mental health.”

The team now plan to investigate the effect of music on the brain while under the influence of psilocybin using an MRI scanner.

“This is further evidence of the potential of using music to facilitate treatment efficacy with psychedelics,” said psychedelics researcher Professor David Nutt of Imperial College, who was not involved in the research. “What we need to do now is optimise this approach probably through individualising and personalising music tracks in therapy.”


WARNING: Psilocybin and hallucinogenic mushrooms are a Class A drug according to UK law. Anyone caught in possession of such substances will face up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. More information and support for those affected by substance abuse problems can be found at

Q&A: How do psychedelics affect the brain?

‘Classic psychedelics’ like LSD and psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) are chemically similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin produced by the brain. Serotonin is involved in many neural functions including mood and perception. By mimicking this chemical’s effects, the drugs exert their profound effects on subjective experience.

DMT (or dimethyltryptamine) too acts via serotonergic pathways (the system involving serotonin), but also through other routes – for instance, DMT binds with sigma-1 receptors that are involved in the communication between neurons.

Meanwhile, ketamine – among many other effects – blocks NMDA receptors that are involved in the functioning of the neurotransmitter glutamate.

A key brain area for psychedelic drugs’ effects appears to be the temporal lobe, the location of much emotional and memory functioning. For instance, removal of the front part of the temporal lobe (as a radical treatment for epilepsy) has been shown to prevent the psychological effects of taking LSD.

Interestingly, abnormal activity in the temporal lobe, such as during seizures, can lead to events similar to near death experiences.

An effect shared by different psychedelic substances is that they increase the amount of disorganised activity across the brain – a state that neuroscientists describe as being ‘higher in entropy’.

One consequence of this is a reduction in the activation of a group of brain structures known collectively as the ‘default mode network’, which is associated with self-conscious and self-focused thought.

One theory, then, is that psychedelics provoke a spiritual state of oneness with the world by increasing the brain’s entropy and suppressing the ego-sustaining activity of the default mode network.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.