If you’ve ever gotten really high (or even just kinda high) and listened to music, you probably already know that it can be quite an experience. Sounds become deeper, richer, and more vibrant; you can distinguish the timbres, rhythms, and notes more clearly; songs sound crisp, lush, and full of detail. Your sense of hearing seems to be heightened in the same way that your vision is if you put on a pair of prescription glasses.
With higher doses of THC, many users even report some slight synesthesia. The exact effect and experience of stoned synesthesia varies from person-to-person, which makes it hard to describe. Personally, I have experienced an auditory-visual form of synesthesia that intensifies when I close my eyes. The sounds I hear translate into colors and shapes; for example, a guitar chord might burst out in all directions like the spray of a wave crashing against a rock, and a synth lead might dart around my closed eyelids as a blue ball of light, seeking a new position for each note and making each melody into a constellation.
Enough gushing about how fun it is, though – chances are, you already know that music sounds better when you’re high. Keep reading to find out why.
Time dilation is “a difference in the elapsed time measured by two clocks, either due to their having a velocity difference relative to each other, or by their being differently situated in a gravitational field.” That’s how it works on a physical level. On a perceptual level, something very similar happens when you use cannabis. One study found that on average, over a period of 15 seconds, subjects under the influence of cannabis perceived the passage of 16.7 seconds.
Jorg Fachner, a professor of music, health, and the brain at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, states that “…that means your timing units, the time frames 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.” This may be part of the reason that improvisational jazz icons like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie loved cannabis so much – that extra 1.7 seconds per 15 seconds may give musicians just a little bit more time to think about what they’re playing and where they want to go, leading to a better performance.
This altered perception of time may also be part of why music sounds better to stoned listeners, and not just stoned performers. Since you experience time as moving more slowly, perhaps you are able to focus on individual sounds for a longer period of time, allowing you to hear more of the beauty in the details.
Changes in Brain Activity
In 2002, the previously-mentioned Jorg Fachner conducted a study to investigate the relationship between cannabis use and users’ perception of music by studying their brainwave activity. Unfortunately, as with most cannabis-related studies, this one was quite small with only four participants. However, it can still give us some ideas. Fachner found that while subjects were under the effects of cannabis, he could observe an increase in activity in the parietal, right temporal, and left occipital cortices. Respectively, these regions of the brain deal with attention, auditory processing, and spatial processing.
Interestingly, cannabis was shown to increase alpha wave activity in the parietal cortex. Other research has shown that mathematically gifted students show similar alpha wave patterns in this region when solving math problems, which indicates that cannabis may improve (or at least alter) the brain’s information processing.
Fachner also noticed that after using cannabis, activity increased in his subjects’ right temporal cortex, which is the area that processes auditory information. It’s possible that kicking that region into overdrive with some THC enhances users’ ability to process music.
Interestingly, the left occipital cortex – the part of the brain responsible for spatial processing – also plays a role in music appreciation. Fachner says that “when you listen to music, it always has a spatial dimension to it. We need to known where sound objects are coming from—that is evolutionarily important. And of course the visual centers process this.” It’s possible that these changes cause (or at least contribute to) the musical synesthesia that some cannabis users experience.
As long as you’re listening to a record in stereo and not mono, you’ll notice that different instruments are “positioned” differently: some might be panned left or right, while other instruments seem to be closer or farther. Reverb can also be added to give the listener a sense of the fictitious space that a song’s producer intends it to exist in – a hallway, outside in the open air, or inside a cathedral, for example. In short, there is a lot of spatial information contained in an audio recording, so it makes sense that changes to the brain’s spatial processing center would have a significant effect on the listener’s experience.
A fuzzy short-term memory is one of the most well-known side effects of THC. However, it may also enhance users’ music appreciation. Daniel J. Levitin, a music psychologist and professor of psychology at McGill University, says “the disruption of short-term memory thrusts listeners into the moment of the music as it unfolds; 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.”
As a musician, I tend to think of music as existing on two basic axes, with the varies frequencies existing from low to high on a vertical axis, and the rhythm existing on the horizontal axis. We can think of THC’s alterations to our spatial and auditory processing ability as increasing the resolution along the vertical axis, which allows us to distinguish tones and timbres, and increases the richness of individual sounds. If Levitin’s theory is correct, THC also (by decreasing the amount of information we can hold in short-term memory) enhances our ability to “zoom in” along the horizontal axis, riding along with the melody as it plays rather than analyzing each moment in context.
The studies referenced in this article were conducted on a very small scale, like many cannabis-related studies. It would certainly be interesting to have more information on the topic, but considering all of the potential medical uses of cannabis and its various cannabinoids, further research into the ways that cannabis enhances music probably shouldn’t be a high priority. For now, the studies that have been conducted are enough to give us a fairly clear idea of how it works.