Trends: How marijuana has influenced modern music

Despite the negative connotations, marijuana has been a part of the creative process for many musical geniuses because of its function as a psycho-acoustic enhancer.

by Joe Daher | 4/28/22 2:10am

Marijuana has long been present in music genres like psychedelic rock and reggae, even before the emergence of marijuana usage into the cultural mainstream. Despite historically being stigmatized, weed has progressively become decriminalized and legalized across the country, and recreational usage no longer draws as much scrutiny as it once did. And while marijuana, like any other drug, has the potential for dependency and abuse, it is better known for its euphoric and stimulating psychoactive effects. These effects have inspired musicians throughout history, enhancing their music and creativity.

Weed can be first seen in popular music way back in the 1920s, especially in jazz. Legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong was a staunch aficionado of marijuana’s soothing and creative properties, recording an instrumental track called “Muggles” in 1928, which was named after a slang term for weed. But weed was not mainstream at the time — it is important to note that weed’s association with Black culture and music gave it a negative connotation in society and law enforcement that still persists to this day.

Perhaps one of Bob Dylan’s biggest claims to fame besides his own music is introducing John Lennon to cannabis. The Beatles would go on to introduce weed (and psychedelics) into the broader mainstream of white counterculture with subtle references in songs like “Got to Get You in My Life.”

“Now these things aren’t drugs; they just bend your mind a little,” Dylan said about opium and cannabis in a 1963 Playboy interview. “I think everybody’s mind should be bent once in a while.”

With the popularization of the electric guitar, the effects of spacy guitar pedals birthed psychedelic rock, in which a simple guitar riff could evolve into a web of sonic complexity. This counterculture peaked with the 1967 “Summer of Love” and the landmark 1969 Woodstock Festival headlined by artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Jefferson Airplane who performed psychedelic sets.

The influence of psychedelics and cannabis on rock music largely retreated in the 1970s, though marijuana remained a common theme in Caribbean music styles like reggae and dancehall. Beyond his influence on reggae and ska, Bob Marley was one of the most prolific advocates for cannabis of his time. As a Rastafarian, Marley used cannabis as a natural aid for spiritual meditation and religious growth.

Cannabis was a recurring theme in the 80s and 90s era of gangster rap, again entrenched in a culture of a marginalized minority demonized by conservatives and president Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. Snoop Dogg, once a rapper on the streets of Long Beach who turned into a pop culture icon, remains one of the most recognizable figureheads of cannabis consumption.

Today, weed’s omnipresence can be seen across the musical spectrum, from down-tempo indie pop to gritty SoundCloud trap. In the past decade, artists as varied as Lana Del Rey’s “High by the Beach”, Bruno Mars’ “Smokin’ out the Window” and Future’s “Drankin n Smokin” have all implicitly or explicitly referenced cannabis usage in their songs. Weed is no longer perceived as belonging to hippie or Black culture — I doubt college students today perceive smoking weed as the act of rebellion it once was. One could even argue weed culture has become mainstream because it has been so commonly adopted by white musicians.

It is interesting to compare marijuana’s perception and presence in music to that of other drugs — especially alcohol, a party drug so ubiquitous in media that it is often not treated as a drug. Alcohol also tends to lend itself more to higher-energy music — anecdotally, it pairs better with the monotonic repetitive and driving nature of electronic dance music than spacey psychedelic rock or vibey rhythm and blues. Recurring mentions of drug usage in contemporary hip-hop often pair marijuana with MDMA, cocaine and other drugs, further blurring the distinction with the low potential harm of marijuana. But the accessible psychoactive properties of marijuana also place it as a primary gateway influence of the umbrella of psychedelia: Including genres like acid jazz, chillwave, hypnagogic pop, psychedelic rock, psytrance and trip hop.

Given the social stigma against cannabis usage in academic and professional circles, the interplay of weed and music remains largely an unscholarly endeavor. However, there’s a growing body of interdisciplinary research on musicology, neuroscience and psychology.

Jörg Fachner, a professor of music, health and the brain at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, explained the relationship between marijuana and music in an interview with Vice Magazine.

“[Marijuana] works like a psycho-acoustic enhancer,” Fachner said. “That means you are more able to absorb, to focus on something, and to have a bit of a broader spectrum. It doesn’t change the music; it doesn’t change the ear functioning. Obviously it changes the way we perceive ear space in music.”

Daniel J. Levitin, music psychologist and professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, explained how marijuana changes the brain to enhance the effect of music in his book “The World in Six Songs.”

“THC — the active ingredient — is known to stimulate the brain’s natural pleasure centers, while also disrupting short-term memory,” Levitin said. “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.”

In other words, Ed allows a listener to zone into the music. Compared to other art forms, music is strictly temporal, unfolding with time on a predetermined path. Music is a natural complement to being high — unlike reading a book or watching a movie, you don’t have to consciously rationalize the music. The euphoric sensation lies in our brain’s pattern recognition ability to identify harmonics, melody and rhythm. Weed’s ability to trigger “hyper-priming” — or connecting to seemingly abstract and unrelated concepts — may lead to more creative lyrical interpretation by listeners, as well as increased creative output by musicians themselves.

Artists portrayed weed in their music in unique ways — just take a listen to the differences between songs by J. Cole, Rihanna, Arctic Monkeys and Lana del Ray.

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