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Why does music sound good when you're high?

Music and cannabis — we explore the science behind one of culture's most pervasive pairings.
Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney with singer Georgie Fame in the Cromwellian Club, London, January 1967. (Watson)

Written by Corinne Przybyslawski

Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac once said, "If you smoke a strong joint, it's mildly psychedelic and it just puts you in touch with things. You journey inside. Things seem to come out of nowhere sometimes; it throws you a bit."

Among the numerous duets that have made cultural history, the coupling of music and cannabis has earned a particularly notorious reputation. Associated with genres such as rock, reggae and jazz, cannabis users often say that the plant helps them to get into the music and get more creative — but what exactly does that mean?

With the legalization of cannabis in Canada upon us, it's an opportunity to ask how many of these anecdotes come down to science.

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, 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's really important because there's pitch, there's rhythm, there's harmony, there's timbre. That's an enormous amount of work the brain does when it listens to music."

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's 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. When Bob Dylan famously introduced the Beatles to cannabis at the Delmonico Hotel in 1964, Paul McCartney thought he'd "attained true mental clarity for the first time in his life." The rest of the party was rolling in fits of laughter, and manager Brian Epstein "became so stoned he could only speak, 'I'm so high I'm up on the ceiling.'" Still, the British pop outfit would go on to experiment with cannabis — among other psychedelic drugs — to influence the evolution of its famous sound.

For some, it might be that the force of habit causes a record to sound so good with a spliff in hand. According to Daniel Levitin, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University, "music combined with marijuana tends to produce feelings of euphoria and connectedness to the music and the musicians." That said, music — with or without the influence of cannabis — enhances activity in the mesolimbic dopamine system. Occasionally referred to as the nervous system's reward pathway, this system in the brain releases dopamine to chemically reinforce gratifying behaviour.

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 (better known as CBD — a compound that has medical benefits, but isn't solely responsible for the "high") than tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive component) 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 behaviours — and coupling them over time.

But what about first-time users who claim that music sounds more profound under the influence? Walsh asserts that, as cannabis inhibits activity in the hippocampus, the interference with the formation of short-term memories locks the listener into the present moment.

"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's 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 formation of short-term memory under the influence is what leaves the listening experience feeling novel.

"The disruption of short-term memory thrusts listeners into the moment of the music as it unfolds," writes Levitin in his book, The World in Six Songs, and summarizes in his TED Talk. "Unable to explicitly keep in mind what has just been played, or to think ahead to what might be played, people stoned on pot tend to hear music from note to note."

It's no stoned delusion to think that time moves a little slower under the influence, either. 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.

Thaut notes that acoustical information is time-based: "The basis of sound are vibrating bodies. Strings on a violin, strings in the piano, and so forth. It's all time-based, so the auditory system that processes music have 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 — trained ear, or not. 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.

What will its legalization mean for how the masses process more complicated — or even highly theoretical — music in the future? With the brain ingesting musical notes at a decreased speed, what we call popular music could experience a shift. Assuming that the legalization of cannabis will popularize the plant's use, it's interesting to consider what effect cannabis might have on radio charts.

As Bob Dylan told Playboy in 1966: "I think everybody's mind should be bent once in a while."

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