Marijuana and Music:  Intertwined but not Absolute

Erik Gunderson, MD, FASAM

During the last week I haven’t been able to get out of my mind several
patients for whom marijuana use and music are intimately connected.
In particular, a couple individuals are struggling with early marijuana
abstinence and a perceived need to avoid music to break the association
and stop smoking.   Others would like to decrease their marijuana use
and smoke intermittently, but the integral aspect of music triggers the
marijuana habit, whether through attending live shows, hanging at home
in the evenings, or during jam sessions with friends.  For all these
individuals, life without music would not be living, and avoiding music
to achieve marijuana abstinence or reduction would be unsustainable.

The current post examines the marijuana-music connection from a cognitive, behavioral, and neurobiological perspective, concluding with some music recommendations that are perhaps out of the mainstream.  To the extent that specific songs, artists, or music genres might trigger marijuana cravings and use, hopefully exploration of new music types and artists could lead to marijuana-free associations and facilitate reaching one’s goals for abstinence or intermittent use while keeping the music playing.

External and Internal Cues for Substance Use

Chronic use of any psychoactive substance, whether marijuana, nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs, leads to diverse and complex cognitive and behavioral associations.  Over time, aspects of one’s external environment and internal mind state are paired with the substance.  Consequently, the external and internal factors become a cue to trigger substance use, which may be nearly reflexive.  Some examples related to marijuana and music:

​   • As soon as the lights go down at a live show, en masse smoking is not merely a practical decision to avoid security

      scrutiny, but rather is used to augment the anticipation and excitement of the band walking onstage and starting

      the show.  The lights being turned down are an external cue, whereas the anticipation and excitement are internal.

   • Practicing with the band:  friends passing the “bowl” and marijuana aroma are external cues, whereas the feeling of

      connectedness and desire for greater perceived creativity are internal.

   • The music itself becomes a cue over time and can occur with many genres.  Recent patients have described that

      potential cues include listening to a favorite jam band, reggae, electronic, downtempo, and bluegrass.

​Neural pathways in the brain mediate the process by which cues form and eventually come to trigger substance use. All dependence-producing substances act on reward circuits that are intertwined with memory, emotion, and cognitive processing brain regions.  Some resultant associations can be as mundane as getting in the car and reflexively lighting a cigarette, or walking into the house after the workday and having a beer or glass of wine.  Although empiric data are limited, I suspect that music itself could lead to particularly powerful marijuana-cue connections due to music's independent impact on brain circuitry.

Music and Emotion

Music is capable of evoking strong and vivid emotional memory, which, as outlined in This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, occurs in part through neurobiological activation of the amygdala, a brain region involved in remembering and processing emotional events.  Such effects can be profound.  For me personally, listening to the metal albums Master of Puppets by Metallica and Live After Death by Iron Maiden bring back high school and invariably lead to an adrenalin-like affect memory back to age 17-18.  Some songs elicit a greater response than others on the same album.  Despite an affect surge, the impact is now blended with a tinge of sadness due to missing a deceased high school friend with whom a large group of us used to listen to these albums every other Saturday night.  Other albums available at that time by the two bands may lead to a similar adrenalin response but not the sadness, as I more rarely listened to them with my old friend.  Subsequent metal albums released after 1989, when I entered a jam band phase, illicit minimal effect.  Such changes in affect response suggest not only that affect-memory is malleable and can shift over time, but also that emotional memory effects can be genre-, artist-, album- and song-specific.

Music also may elicit an acute emotional effect that is less tied in with memory, such as relaxation.  Common genres often associated with a relaxation response include classical, downtempo, and some forms of jazz.  Toumani Diabaté’s New Ancient Strings album of Malian kora (harp) music is a personal favorite that is capable of inducing calm even while driving on the Grand Central Parkway in New York City with an infant in the back seat.

Music as a Cue for Marijuana Use

The impact of music on emotion helps understand how once music is paired with a psychoactive, dependence-producing substance such as marijuana, the association may be difficult to break.  In addition, music activates other brain regions involved in movement (cerebellum) and planning and impulse control (frontal lobe), which might further complicate one’s ability to avoid or limit consumption in the setting of internal and external music-related cues.

Building New Music Associations

Recent patients have reported that specific artists and genres of music are often paired with marijuana use and cravings, as mentioned previously.  Given that music is integral to so many people’s lives, and I personally can’t imagine life without it, perhaps exploring new genres of music and artists not yet paired with the marijuana habit could allow music to remain an integral part of life for these individuals without prompting marijuana use.

Below are a few music recommendations that may not be completely in the mainstream, yet still are exceptional in different ways.  Hopefully at least a few will help facilitate non-marijuana associated listening for those attempting to abstain.  Perhaps those with less interest in reducing or stopping marijuana use would consider a self-experiment: what are the effects of a brief pause and ‘feeding your head’ with the mind altering effects of music alone?  Either way, the result should be insightful.

​Top Picks


Toumani Diabaté (mentioned above): Kora (harp) music from Mali.  Check out New Ancient Strings, in collaboration with Ballake Sissoko.  The recording and mastering engineer got this one right, recording with omni-directional mics in a natural acoustic setting (if I recall from the liner notes, a stone church) with minimal processing.  The natural reverb augments the music, which is truly sublime. The CD was at the top of our listening list for over 5 years, probably more than any other album since I wore out my Rush records as a teen.

Another good one from Toumani is In the Heart of the Moon, a collaboration with guitarist Ali Farka Touré, which won the

2006 Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album.

Ernest Ranglin, guitarist from Jamaica, is without hesitation

my favorite living musician.  ​Modern Answers to Old Problems

integrates many diverse styles. Below the Baseline is more reggae

influenced, and Rocksteady, ​a collaboration ​with Monty Alexander,

includes more jazz influenced reggae standards.​

T. P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo:  Kings of Benin Urban Grove 1972 – 80.
Many reissues have accompanied the Afro Funk resurgence of recent

years. For a classic track that starts strong and gets into a great

groove, access here. 

Habib Koité: His set at 1997 Jazz Fest in New Orleans was the best

of the weekend and started my exploration of African music.  All of

his albums are excellent. If you have to choose, start with Ma Ya.


During the past decade in NYC, the World Music Institute (WMI)

sponsored many excellent concerts from Indian, Persian, and Kurdish

musicians.  I’m grateful for the organization, and here are four

emotive favorites:

     Kayhan Kalhor, master of the Kamancheh or Persian spiked fiddle: listen here.

     Ali Akbar Moradi plays the traditional Kurdish tanbur (lute). Listen here.


     Ghazal Ensemble blends Persian traditional and Indian classical with   

         Kayhan Kalhor & Shujaat Husain Khan. Listen here.


     L. Shankar, double violin maestro and inventor. His 2004 WMI performance

         with Gingger, also on double violin, was among the best shows I've seen.

         The studio releases don't quite capture the deep resonance, which drops

         to the double bass orchestral range, but Raga Aberi is close. Listen here.



​Michael Brook (ambient musician) and U. Srinivas (electric mandolin from India) team up on Dream, an experimentalism collaboration that will appeal to the ambient as well as jam band listener (hear track 1 here).  If Dream doesn't satisfy your Indian and electric mandolin craving, pick up U. Srinivas' Dawn Raga, which has a warm, meditative feel and was recorded live from 430a-630a with the musicians facing the sun (listen to samples here). ​

Thievery Corporation has a self-described outernational sound.  All their albums are great, consider Radio Retaliation to start and listen to one of their best-known songs (Lebanese Blonde) here:


The Ethiopiques series includes about 20 Ethiopian compilations.  Of the 7 – 8 albums I’ve listened to, my favorite is Vol 4. Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969 – 74.  Most tracks were arranged by Mulatu Astatqé, who integrated Latin music with “jazz harmonies and arrangements applied to the dark modalities of Ethiopian traditional melodies,” as described by ethnomusicologist Banning Eyre.  His review and samples are accessible here.


Nightmares on Wax - Smoker's Delight revolutionized downtempo or chill out music, integrating with soul, dub, and trip hop.  Certainly the album has been paired with marijuana use, hence the name, but either way I bet you’ll be able to chill with or without.  Link to full album here:

Tony Allen was the music director and drummer for Fela Kuti’s Afrika 70 band (Nigeria).  His solo albums are a bit out there compared to traditional afrobeat.  Consider starting with electronic dub infused Black Voices, though you won't go wrong with Home Cooking, a fusion of afrobeat with London hip-hop according to  For Fela, there are too many to chose from, but Shakara/London Scene would be a good start, and listen to an epic track (Lady) here.

Boss Hog is a garage rock, blues-punk band usually considered a side project for the John Spencer Blues Explosion, who’ll be at the Jefferson Theater this January (should be the reverse IMHO). Boss Hog’s more melodic, funk-inspired riffs never got their due.  If you’re into the White Stripes or Black Keys, start with Cold Hands (1990) or the self-titled Boss Hog (1995).  Sometime around 1994-5 they added a key board to their live shows, which decreased some of the angst, and Whiteout (2000) is more polished. Listen to a recent live show here, video here, and samples here.

Wayne Krantz: is beyond the typical jazz fusion guitarist and more rock-oriented. His best lineup, K3, includes incredible musicians Keith Carlock (dr) and Tim Lefebvre (b).  If possible, try to see them live for a life altering experience.  If not, probably the next best option is Your Basic Live '06 (access here).  In 2003, I recorded most of their weekly 55 Bar gigs, and for a limited time, Wayne used to post shows and lessons for download.  Keep an eye out for new live releases & hopefully re-releases "from the vault" & perhaps the upcoming DC show with Jimmy Herring 2/2013 (here)​.


Budos Band - Staten Island afro-soul from Daptone Records.  Per their site,

“tight rhythms, blistering breakbeats, blaring horns and, yes, perhaps even

a tinge of psychedelic doom-rock.” Indeed, and you must listen here:

Dub-is-a-Weapon: Brooklyn’s premier dub band led by Dave Hahn.  Their

music is hard driving, meditative, and moves beyond typical dub with

excellent solos weaving in and out (don’t worry, there’s still ample

spacey delay/reverb). Check out their site here, which has some streaming

tracks from the recent release, Vaporized, as well as free downloads.

Their live shows are outstanding, and they promote sharing of live

recordings, accessible here.  I mastered a soundboard-audience mic

recording from one of my favorite sets at the Knitting Factory, NYC in

2003, which I’ll try to post online or at least have on my laptop if you

want to stop by with a flash drive.


David Crosby: The post wouldn't be complete without a mention from

the late 60's/early 70's. I recently came across If I Could Only Remember

My Name, a remarkable electric/acoustic free-flowing jam. The songs are

less catchy but no less compelling than classic CSN&Y, members of whom

collaborated on the project.  Recorded in San Fransisco in 1971, the album

credits include a partial who's who of the era as additional collaborators

(suspense purposeful). I'd love to talk about the recording session with

engineer Stephen Barncard, who captured both a live feel and sonic perfection. 

Reggae: Last but certainly not least, the reggae genre could take up the whole post, which already has expanded beyond what I expected.  Consider checking out ​Barrington Levy, Linval Thompson, Luciano, and some early
​Burning Spear.  There are some great harmony groups such as the Congos and Meditations.  For dancehall, try Sizzla, The Story Unfolds, in which most of the tracks include roots standards.  Also, every Saturday morning on, Carter Van Pelt’s Eastern Standard Time is streaming live.  He usually starts at 10a with uplifting ska and rocksteady, then gets more into roots for the last hour concluding at noon.

Ernest Ranglin (photo C Van Pelt)

Habib Koité, (photo C. Van Pelt)

B. Spear (R) & drummer, Horsemouth
(photo: C. Van Pelt)​

Center for Wellness and Change, LLC                     Telephone: 434-202-8612               Site content:

1007 East High Street, Charlottesville, VA 22902    Fax: 434-321-5181                         © Center for Wellness and Change, LLC