Drug culture and music culture have long overlapped, from the psychedelics at 60s and 70s rock festivals to the MDMA, cocaine, and ketamine in modern nightclubs. People bring drugs to these settings not just to facilitate social interactions but also to appreciate the music on a new level. In fact, 69% of 21 to 29 year olds in a recent Detox study said they need drugs to enjoy music.
But the way you experience music depends which drug you’re taking, and even when the same drug is involved, effects vary from person to person, song to song, and night to night. Here are just a few ways drugs can affect how you experience music, according to people who have taken them.
For Stephen, 33, wine unlocks music’s hidden meanings. When he wants to gain insight into his life, he’ll drink wine from Caduceus Cellars, the vineyard owned by Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, and put on Tool or another favorite band. It feels like “the universe is trying to communicate” through the music, he explains.
The effects of alcohol on music, though, totally depend on the drink and the genre, he says. “If I’m drinking whiskey and listening to country music, I just want to get feisty.”
Nadia, 36, says alcohol gives her less discriminating music taste. During her teen years, she says, “alcohol made me able to party to shit music.”
As a musician, Cass, 24, usually analyzes the music and lyrics of every song she hears. But when she’s stoned, she can just sit back and appreciate it.
Peter, 28, similarly finds that weed helps him get immersed in a song. “The mood of the music becomes very perceptible and much more apparent,” he says. “It’s easier to feel like you’re in an artist’s specific world.”
Weed also helps Lindsey, 34, get out of her head and into the music. “I fall into this wormhole of getting into the lyrics or the guitar or synth,” she says. But with edibles, she can sometimes feel the music too much — to the point where it actually makes her nauseous. After eating them at a Mykki Blanco concert, she “could feel the bass through the bench.”
Most MDMA users love how it makes music sound; that’s part of the drug’s appeal. “Music becomes more euphoric, much like the drug itself,” says Peter. “I’m not someone who loves dancing, but on MDMA, I love to dance.”
Nadia describes a similar effect. Ecstasy helped her enjoy dancing to house music for the first time, and often, the music serves as a blissful backdrop to self-discovery. “The dancing resembles a trance, and you can travel in your mind, realize things about yourself,” she explains.
David, 28, likes to listen to trance on MDMA because it’s “engineered to be more emotional and molly gives me the feels.” But, he adds, a variety of music will sound like “the best music ever” on MDMA.
In Peter’s experience, coke doesn’t affect music-listening at all. Nadia believes it actually hurts the club scene by making people aggressive if they get addicted. “Cocaine is not helping the music industry,” she says. “A lot of DJs have replaced it with meditation and clean living. This is how the scene can keep on flourishing.”
Coke makes David “a zombie,” but it does make the repetitive sounds of techno and house more enjoyable for him.
For Nadia, music on K can be a journey through space and time. She remembers one particularly otherworldly experience as “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak played at a club. “It felt like that song lasted forever,” she says. “I went to the beach where the video takes place. I felt like I had lived a whole love story, and then I came back at the end of the song. I asked my friend if they had only played the song once. She said yes… so I had a whole other life experience in four minutes.” Nadia finds that people on K look happier on the dance floor than they do on club drugs like MDMA that can have a harsh comedown.
Daniel Saynt, Chief Conspirator at the New Society for Wellness (NSFW) a private members club which organizes the physician-led responsible drug use class “Just Say Know,” likes pairing K with spiritual music, since the combination helps him turn inward and explore his own psyche.
Richard Goldstein, a former rock critic for The Village Voice in the 60s who used to drop acid with The Beach Boys, previously told me that LSD was “a very aesthetic drug” that strips words of their meaning. This allows him to connect with a more universal meaning that comes from the sound itself.
“We’re all connected through the subconscious, so when we listen to music on acid, it makes us have more of a tribal feeling,” he says.
Peter has the opposite experience, though. On acid, he’s more prone to finding meaning in music. If anything in the music is even remotely related to his life, his mind will pick up on it and make it significant.
Shrooms provide “a feeling that your body is sort of permeable,” making you feel music more intensely, says Lindsey.
For Peter, this shroom-induced connection to music can be ecstatic. “Once, when I was listening to one of my favorite songs on mushrooms, I actually came,” he remembers. “It reminded me of the joy in my life, and I just felt really warm, like I was in the prime of my life.” (In case you’re wondering what song accomplished this, it was “Tunnels” by Arcade Fire.)
For some people, music itself is a drug, bringing their mind to a state of increased emotion, energy, or depth. That’s one reason Nadia’s become a fan of “clean clubbing” — i.e., clubbing without drugs. “There are bits and pieces [of drug-induced experiences] left in your brain, and the effect comes back with the right music and atmosphere triggers, even when sober,” she explains. “The reason I had needed alcohol, weed, or pills before was simply because the music was not good enough. I became a fanatic club dancer even taking myself out alone, sober, on Sunday nights.”
In fact, drugs alone aren’t enough to create the trips Nadia desires. “I can’t imagine doing drugs away from a club or party. I need the cocoon of the loud music and heavy bass on a proper sound system,” she says. “Right drugs and right music combined equal a mini holiday, an educational escape.”