Cannabis and Music by Anonymous

Appreciation of music is frequently cited as a beneficial effect of moderate use. In preparing a PhD theses on cannabis and music, Anonymous offers a detailed view on the influence of its effects on aural perception, evolving from his early encounters with musicians and their improvisations.

In my little hometown there was a tiny old house that always had some jazzy music coming out of it. It sounded as though the musicians were improvising because I didn’t recognize a real song or a chord line. Some jazz does involve a fixed chord line, like a jazz standard or a popular song on which you improvise. But you can improvise on a modal tune without a fixed chord line, just creating a groove or rhythmical sound pattern or short melody and then experiencing what happens when you expand it. That is what they were doing in the house. For both kinds of improvising you need to listen very closely to what the other musicians are playing to fit your ideas into the web of sounds.

One day a musician came out of the house, and I asked him if I could join in for a jam session. The next evening I went there with my guitar. I was 16 and these guys were much older. The owner was an organ player with a weird, unusual technique. He was also a painter, and his psychedelic drawings and light installations created an ambience of fantasy and delight. They offered me some marijuana and I played stoned for the first time in my life. The music seemed more intense, and I discovered that my playing was better when I just closed my eyes and let go. They seemed to like my playing too, and eventually I joined the band. We used to tape our sessions and listened to them afterward. It was strange to listen to a piece of music you improvised the night before. Sometimes you felt as though there was something coming out of the Nordic night. Somehow, to listen to it properly, it had to be louder, and of course you had to be stoned with closed eyes. It was real “stoner’s music.”

As my musical interests developed, I began to use echo chambers, reverb, and modulation effects, trying to create rooms and space in the emerging soundscapes. When I was improvising stoned, I had a better sense of the correlation between the notes. It was as though I was looking into the space between them. I sensed them as a blurred harmonic structure behind the groove of the bass and drums, but I did not feel as though there were “too many notes.” I discovered that the quality of my playing was better when I tried to let myself go, while at the same time getting a sense of upcoming changes in the sounds played by the others. It was especially exciting at moments when we all changed at the same time. Most of the time I looked at my instrument and led my hands according to my musical ideas; sometimes I just closed my eyes and tried to let my hands do the music by themselves. I was even writing and singing spontaneous lyrics that way. I put words and images together without thinking whether they had a coherent sense, and when I read them the next day, most of them did. Some had strong personal meanings that I discovered years later. Cannabis allowed me to trust my fingers and my ears.

When you use cannabis, ideas and changes come out of your hands as if they are waiting to be played. Your fingers are running over the frets, hitting the right notes, and your soul integrates them into a structure. If you are in a certain mood, that mood is expressed just as if it was waiting to be played in that way. I didn’t need to control the music and its harmonic and rhythmic structure. I didn’t need to decide what to play. It was like making a journey with friends. During sequences of intense playing, I would open my eyes and look into the faces of my fellow musicians. Sometimes this gave me a strange feeling of reading their minds and gestures, their joy and excitement.

We had some really good black Nepalese hash that we used to smoke with a little tobacco in a water pipe before jamming. It became a kind of ritual, cleaning up our minds before playing. One day when I had smoked this hash, I closed my eyes and saw Oriental mosaic patterns and figures rushing through my head. When we started jamming, I suddenly felt one of the paintings in the room becoming very vivid and changing in size. The fantasy creature in the picture started talking to me, and it seemed as though the painter understood me and was talking through the music and his pictures. It was like being in telepathic contact. Then I heard a strange voice, and I was surprised to realize that it was my distortion guitar and phaser. It was a powerful psychedelic experience that reminded me of the Doors’ song, “Break on Through to the Other Side” (383 kb mp3 file).

That experience changed my perspective on life and became the basis of a decision to go deeper into the mystery of music. I decided not to be just a musician. I studied psychology, social science, and musicology. I worked in a physiology department and learned how to handle measuring apparatus like the EEG. Today I am in my thirties, working in the music department of a European university to help therapists and clinicians find scientific literature relevant to their problems.

I am also writing a Ph.D. thesis on cannabis and the perception of music, relating my cannabis experiences to scientific experiments on auditory perception and other musical topics. Under the influence of cannabis, time is stretched and so is rhythm, providing more free space within and more room to be filled. It is much easier to catch the basic beat and the pulse, to get into the groove of a phrase or a melody. As any jazz, rock, or folk musician will tell you, cannabis intoxication provides a wonderful basis for musical improvisation by expanding time perception, changing body image, enhancing sensitivity to movement patterns, and evoking auditory and visual cross-modal relationships, heightened association patterns, and vivid imagery. Other features of stoned music are an attraction to higher frequencies and expanded metric units of frequency intensity ranges, as well as enhanced three-dimensional perspectives on the sources of sound. All of this is relevant to the mixing of sound in modern studios. (Cannabis is not used so much for recording complicated musical structures or for performing.) I have found that when we listen to music while stoned, an area in the rear of the brain that processes auditory and visual information becomes especially active, indicating a physically relaxed but aware receptive state. The brain wave patterns also suggest synesthesia-like effects. The activity of the right hemisphere increases, and the experience thus becomes more interesting from an informational point of view. Because of the changes in time perception, more things and events are experienced as being present at the same time. As the space between the normal information processing patterns is opened, you “see” information that is normally censored or “useless.” This may explain why we hear music differently when stoned, and why some stoners make music that creates a rhythmical trance-like soundscape.

This is just a brief insight into the possible dimensions of the subject. I think there is a lot more work to be done, and I hope I will find some funding to go deeper into these questions. Meanwhile, I pursue the adventure of learning more about the mystery of improvised music. I still listen to the tape of the session that was my breakthrough, and I still play improvised music on stage and in the recording studio while working with people who use it to heal.

3 Responses to “Cannabis and Music by Anonymous”

  1. Steve Haag says:

    Clearly a lot of evidence of the value of cannabis use. Who would want to suppress such interesting experience? Why would society demonize such an enhancing substance? I feel I should be able to answer this question, but even with all my looking into it, I still find it difficult to give a clear explanation for the clamp down against cannabis use. Why the universe would create beings who wish to thwart the expansion of others, I can’t really figure, unless it’s some basic survival mechanism fixed to alpha dominance positioning. Perhaps those who wish to control society don’t like how cannabis can liberate individuals.

  2. Java says:

    “Under the influence of cannabis, time is stretched and so is rhythm, providing more free space within and more room to be filled.”

    Fantastic description! I’ve never been able to put together the right words to describe that exquisite feeling, but you’ve nailed it spot on. This is an extremely interesting topic… the developments in this field are very very exciting. You should share your thesis here when it’s done. I would be a pleasure to read.

  3. Adam says:

    I can certainly agree that higher frequency musical sounds are enhanced, and the music seems much ‘clearer’, as if it has been passed through a filter. Perhaps due to this effect I have found it much easier to hear and understand the lyrics of a song. For example, after getting high and listening to a song that I have heared many times before at ‘baseline’, the lyrics become comprehensable and I can even understand the ‘story’ that they are telling in the song.

    Many times this is accompanied by ‘visual’ (as in my mind’s eye) storytelling which can often become quite emotional.

    A strange phenomenon for me is the ‘coming up’ phase, where all of a sudden the music will just go into overdrive like somebody has just cranked the volume up and run the music through an expander.

    Truly breathtaking stuff that more people should experience!

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