Throughout the course of history, both drugs and music have been an important aspect of the human experience. Despite the fact that drugs and their use have become stigmatized, particularly in the United States, over the past century or so, both drugs and music have long been used for the purposes of individuals attempting to achieve a music-induced transcendental experience, as well as to convey the nature of that experience to other people (Fuller, 2000).
Drugs and music have also long performed the function of bringing people together, either through a sense of recognition based on common interests and experience, or because of the powerful potential of expression that both mediums offer to their users (Fuller, 2000). Borrowing a phrase from Aldous Huxley, both drugs and music ultimately provide access to “‘culturally uncontaminated’ levels of thought,” and they do this not only by creating an entry point into another world, but also by contesting the reality of the world in which we live (in Fuller, 2000, p. 79).
Although many contemporary musicians, their listeners, and cultural critics recognize that there is a close relationship between drugs and music, the long history and the specific quality of that relationship often gets cheapened and obscured in the lyrics and the promotion of modern music. Unfortunately, this confusion has created the widespread misperception that some types of music—namely psychedelic 1960s and 1970s tunes, rap, and grunge rock, among others—promote maladaptive drug use. While it may in fact be the case that the lyrics, the sounds, and even the marketing material used to promote these genres seem to promote illicit drug use, a more plausible explanation is that the relationship between drugs and music is the same as it has been for centuries: music itself serves as a drug, an antidote to the pain and frustration of living in an imperfect world.
The history of the human use of drugs and music, as well as the relationship that has been forged between the two, extends far into the past, and possibly even as early as the dawn of human history itself. Throughout the world, notes Fuller (2000), many cultures that differ from one another in notable ways have all used drugs and music as a means of “altering an individual’s state of consciousness in such a way as to ‘tune’ individuals into an alternate reality” (p. 9). The use of drugs such as peyote, datura, and tobacco among Native American groups has been documented extensively, for instance (Fuller, 2000).
These drugs were used—and, in some cases, are still used—in ritual practices and performances that are intended to “assist individuals in their vision quest” (Fuller, 2000, p. 9). Music, especially drumming and the use of flutes, has also been an important part of that ritualistic process, and performances typically occurred in conjunction with or in the context of drug use. African tribes have also been documented as having maintained a close and companionable relationship between drugs and music, used for many of the same reasons as the Native Americans (Fuller, 2000). The careful maintenance of the relationship between these two aspects of social life served to “provide a specific context in which the resulting ecstasies are understood to have spiritual significance” (Fuller, 2000, p. 9).
In the early days of human history, then, the relationship between music and drugs was rarely a problematic one. Neither was stigmatized; in fact, both were elevated as important components of cultural life and of specific communities, as both music and drugs—often in combination– had a meaningful role to play in the advancement and protection of social beliefs and norms (Fuller, 2000). What is important to emphasize and understand is that these early societies had a clear understanding of why and how both mediums of expression and transcendence were to be used. Furthermore, both drugs and music were administered by specific figures within the culture and the use of each was controlled, not to prevent indulgent excesses, necessarily—that idea would emerge much later in human history—but to demonstrate that these two aspects of social life were so important that they needed to be entrusted to a wise elder figure, or someone who had otherwise been trained or qualified to recognize the power of the mediums and to use them appropriately for the purpose of advancing social values and fostering community identity and cohesion (Fuller, 2000).
Although the true nature of the relationship between drugs and music has remained relatively constant across the course of human history, musical expression itself has evolved considerably, as has drug use, the latter with respect to the variety of drugs available and the increasing diversity of reasons for their use. By examining these evolutions, it is possible to arrive at an understanding of how the relationship between drugs and music has become so misunderstood. In dramatic contrast to the value that drugs and music had in early human societies, over time, both music and drugs would come to be stigmatized, and the closeness of the relationship between the two would become subject to profound suspicions and even paranoia. Music would be accused of fostering drug use and drugs would be fingered as the culprit for the emergence of musical genres that were deemed socially deviant and which seemed to threaten the very foundations of social order.