Listening to music makes us feel good. The reason for that is chemical—when we listen to music, our bodies release dopamine, a chemical messenger responsible for controlling our pleasure and reward system. Dopamine helps us to see rewards and actively pursue them. It’s what allows us to feel pleasure, and it’s also what makes pleasure addicting.
Cannabis makes us feel good too. The chemicals housed in the cannabis plant interact with our endocannabinoid systems in ways that create feelings of physical and mental wellness and balance. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for facilitating functions like mood, pleasure and reward systems, sleep, metabolism, reproductive health, and more. The interactions between cannabinoids and the receptors that comprise the endocannabinoid system are responsible for the array of medical benefits cannabis offers its consumers.
Cannabis and music seem to have a synergistic relationship as well. In fact, one is often accompanied by the other.
The birth of jazz music was shrouded in a cloud of cannabis smoke. Louis Armstrong described the way it helped Black musicians navigate their love of music along with the racial subjugation most of them faced:
“It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”
Woodstock, possibly the greatest music festival of all time, is notorious for the pervasive use of cannabis by its audience. The New York Times reported that 99% of attendees were smoking pot.
It is widely accepted that music and cannabis go together. But why is that? There is a paucity of research on this question, but Vice interviewed psychological and neural experts to explore possible answers.
The way our brains perceive time may play a role in the enhanced appreciation of music while high. An old study published in a 1970 of the journal Psychopharmacologia found that 15 seconds were perceived on average as an extended 16.7 seconds when intoxicated by cannabis. This perceived elongation of time gives listeners more time to appreciate the melodic intricacies present in music according to Dr. Jörge Fachner, professor of music, health, and the brain at Anglia Ruskin University.
“If you look into the literature on timing, it seems to be that the brain systems that are influenced by cannabinoids are producing a state of mind in which there seems to be a slower backward counting,” he explains. “And that means your timing units, the time frames that you are overseeing, seem to be enlarged. So those who are improvising seem to have a bit more time to foresee the melodic developments in improvisation and to fine grain the rhythmic patterns.”
To put it simply (sort of), cannabis sharpens the way our minds experience sound.
“[Marijuana] works like a psycho-acoustic enhancer. That means you are more able to absorb, to focus on something, and to have a bit of a broader spectrum,” Fachner described. “It doesn’t change the music; it doesn’t change the ear functioning. Obviously it changes the way we perceive ear space in music. It also changes time perception, and if you listen to music, it is a time process, so if you have a different time perception of course you will listen differently to music.”
In addition to this time-lapse effect cannabis has on the brain, Fachner identifies other mechanisms through which cannabis may affect the appreciation of music. Specifically, cannabis changes parts of the brain that directly enhance the process of hearing.
“In the study that I’ve done with the EEG, there are changes in the occipital area, which is processing visual; the temporal area, which is processing the auditory; and then in the parietal.” Fachner continued, “These three connections seem to be of benefit for the listener.”
Dr. Zach Walsh, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia offered another perspective about the way cannabis affects the body. Cannabis’ effects are not confined to one area of the brain—that’s why its therapeutic utility is so versatile.
“When you think about psychedelics, their effects are largely on the serotonergic system, whereas cannabis’ effects are very diffuse,” Walsh said. “Cannabis can facilitate the activity of a bunch of other things—like gamma, which is where you get the relaxation; all the systems that facilitate dopamine, which is why people like it so much. But, when we think about the main effect, a large concentration of cannabinoid receptors are in an area called the hippocampus, which is involved in the formation of memories.”
Dr. Sophie Scott, a British neuroscientist and professor at University College of London believes that the relationship between cannabis and music may be more reflective of culture than the brain.
“I sometimes wonder if the relationship with marijuana isn’t a happy coincidence in two things that might be activating similar brain areas, but also have been so culturally brought together. There may be more cultural bringing together than neural,” Scott posited.
Scott’s inference is about as good as it gets when it comes to research. There just isn’t a lot of investigation happening into this connection. Scott explained that one of the reasons for this is that the people who research music and cannabis have not intersected yet.
“Essentially [music and cannabis] are looked at by two totally different groups of people. The people interested in how drugs affect the brain are not interested in music and vice versa. Even if you see similar [brain] networks getting activated, I don’t think there’s anybody theorizing about that relationship quite so strongly.”
Though low on the totem pole of priorities, research into the relationship between music and cannabis may reveal alternative and pleasurable ways for stressed out and overburdened people to relax and feel a little better.