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Does Marijuana Actually Make for a Better Musician? Here's What the Science Shows

On 4/20 this year, Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa will host a "wellness concert" at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. The concert's tag line is "Inhale. Exhale. Recharge," which surprised approximately nobody. The state of Colorado is probably thrilled. If you doubted the duo's expertise, here's a video of Wiz Khalifa, alone in a hot tub, rolling a massive joint:

Although Wiz and Snoop are about to consummate the relationship between marijuana and music, the substance and our sounds have been closely tied for centuries.

Musicians have often cited marijuana as key to their creative process. The first musician to make his marijuana use public was the grinning, gravel-voiced Louie Armstrong. He wrote in his autobiography that ganja or "gage," as he referred to it, was "a thousand times better than whiskey ... it's an assistant — a friend." More than half a century later, Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, the man responsible for writing Rolling Stone's second most important album ever written, echoed Armstrong's notion of marijuana being an "assistant:" "Marijuana helped me write Pet Sounds."

 

The list of musicians who have praised the green goes on and on from there. Everyone from Bob Dylan, The Beatles, OutKast, Alanis Morissette, Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley celebrate the drug as a key creative tool.

But it turns out there's hard science to back up the claim. Marijuana actually does have a strange relationship to musical creativity.

Putting the dope in dopamine. THC in marijuana smoke causes the body to release elevated levels of dopamine. This is the hormone behind the signature placid calm and euphoria of a marijuana high. Most significantly for artists, dopamine can lower one's inhibitions and quiet the "inner editor," allowing thoughts to flow more freely. Numerous writers and artists have asserted that scrutinizing every idea as lands on the page is a great way to short circuit one's creative output. So, for anxious musicians like Brian Williams, the ability to switch off self-consciousness while preserving self-awareness is huge.

Opening up. Few studies exist connecting marijuana and music explicitly, so many of these connections are still left to speculation. In his frequently quoted treatise on marijuana and musical faculties, "Marijuana and Music: A Speculative Exploration," earth scientist Peter Webster claimed the most remarkable effect of marijuana is a greatly enhanced appreciation of musical stimuli.

"The effect seems to be almost universal," he wrote, "and does not fade with experience." He noticed that during "cannabis sessions," people who loved pop music became fascinated by more complex, artful sounds, while people who had previously rejected pop music as "crude and trivial" came to appreciate it more through "cannabis consciousness." This means, then, that artists can have more powerful gut reactions to their own output, enabling them to make stronger creative decisions.

As for listening to pop music, feel free to use this to perform your own scientific study with the following control:

Divergent thought. The biggest claim about marijuana and creativity is also the most hotly debated. Researchers at the University College London found in 2010 that marijuana heightens the brain's automatic semantic priming abilities — or the ability to draw connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. That ability is known as divergent thought, and it's the holy grail of creativity, our best guess at what actually makes a person creative. A study performed by researchers at Temple University found a direct correlation between self-reported frequency of marijuana use and scores on creativity and "adventuresomeness" tests. The higher the frequency of use, the higher the subjects' scores.

But there also are a number of earlier studies that assert the exact opposite. Without getting into all the nitty gritty of experimental design, a lot of the arguments over the validity of divergent thinking tests like these come down to what researchers consider to be "coherent" and "divergent" responses.

On the other hand, there's what Snoop Dogg would consider a divergent response, which definitely seems to benefit from marijuana:

So ultimately Armstrong had it right — weed is an assistant to creative people, not a key. Webster said it well: "It is not that cannabis consciousness itself  'produces' ideas that are creative, or that valuable ideas come during the experience or because of it, but that cumulatively, over time, the kind of perception and thinking initiated by cannabis leads one to be generally more open to alternative and perhaps adventurous ways of seeing things which enrich normal consciousness."

It takes a lot more than a regular intake of marijuana to become a celebrated musician. It takes skill, dedication, intelligence and a rich store of experiences to draw inspiration from — experiences people don't get from sinking deeper into the couch after bong rips.

Even the supreme Bob Marley knew that: "Too much of one thing good for nothing. If you have too much herb, it might hurt you."

There's something there, but there's more to a jam than a joint.

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