While cannabis intersects with many facets of U.S. popular culture, none are probably quite so apparent as the innumerable connections between music and weed. Beginning with historical jazz classics dating back to the early 20th century and continuing with the multigenre cannabis anthems of the modern day, people have been both referencing the substance in their songs and blazing up to bangers for generations.
From Cab Calloway to Snoop Dogg, Sublime to Lana Del Rey, artists who write songs about weed have a long history of producing timeless hits (pun very much intended). Although odes to cannabis have origins in jazz, reggae and hip-hop, songs about weed span across myriad genres, including country, rock and, more increasingly, pop and alternative/indie.
Hit songs that feature lyrics referencing weed have increased over the past three decades, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. Three out of four Top 40 songs in 2016 mentioned cannabis — more than any other drug, such as alcohol, included in the study. Researchers found that the increase in references mimicked national trends in mainstream culture, which were shifting toward cannabis acceptance and destigmatization.
Pot has quickly cemented itself as one of the most used motifs in music today, and it’s not really that surprising to see why. Aside from sweeping legalization efforts across the country and changing attitudes, the substance has long been thought to amplify how we perceive, make and enjoy music.
You’ve often heard from cannabis connoisseurs and activists that weed simply makes everything better. In earlier iterations of my column, I discussed the magnifying qualities of being high: the way cannabis can enhance creativity and pleasure, stimulate the senses and boost focus on certain sensations. At the same time, given weed’s biphasic effect and the complex ways it interacts with cognition and perception, cannabis can produce opposing results — leading to hyperconcentration and overstimulation, whereby the brain is overwhelmed by the sensory input from its surroundings.
So think about the multidimensional, interwoven layers that make up any song — the beat, instrumentals and vocals — and how that could, and does, captivate the casual stoner and immerse them in a world filled with sensory overload (in my experience, usually in a good way). Plenty of anecdotal evidence supports these claims, but empirical data, as always, is lacking in the cannabis field.
Cannabis consumption usually results in slower time perception, or a faster inner clock, which can improve musicians’ ability to improvise and experiment with their tracks, according to Jörg Fachner, professor of music, health and the brain and co-director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research. This was particularly useful at the height of the Jazz Age; melodies lit up as musicians did, allowing the genre’s greats, such as Louis Armstrong, to envision the patterns within their rhythms and fine tune them.
Another potential explanation for why music sounds better while stoned is that THC binds with receptors in the brain responsible for controlling memory, disrupting the retention of information in the short term. As the high mind attempts to rapidly process the ever-changing auditory input from songs, it inadvertently forces itself to live in the moment, forgetting the note played prior. Simply put, for stoners listening to music, time seems to come to a standstill.
“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,” writes music psychologist Daniel Levitin in his book “The World in Six Songs.” “They live for each note, completely in the moment.”
Anecdotal evidence also seems to suggest the interplay between listening to music and smoking cannabis produces a synergistic effect, where one heightens the effects of the other and vice versa. Since both produce strong emotional responses, they in turn feed off of each other to produce a greater reaction.
This notion is supported by a 2011 study that showed cannabis produces a mild synesthesia, or the blurring between sensory information. While the different regions of the brain are not remotely distinct, weed, in theory, can cross the boundaries between each processing area, meaning that the way we experience melodies is richer, deeper and more intense.
A 2008 neurological study also demonstrated that cannabis produced increased activity in the brain similar to the patterns found when gifted mathematicians solved problems, indicating that people who listened to music while high were more relaxed and had less trouble concentrating and listening to the melodies. However, since the study only tested four subjects, the research cannot be extrapolated to far-reaching conclusions about cannabis’ effect on music processing.
Fachner, who conducted the study, also found early links between cannabis and hearing therapy. According to his research, cannabis could help those with hearing impairments improve their listening capabilities, differentiate between sources for sounds and hear higher frequency sounds more clearly.
Since there is a lack of sound data-based evidence linking weed to better auditory perception, it’s possible that the expectation that music sounds better after smoking — something we’ve been trained to believe through widespread adages in popular culture — produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we think music will sound better when we’re high, it most likely will.
Before I lay out my pot playlist, don’t hate me if your favorite classic stoner jam isn’t on it; I figured I’d keep it short for the stoners who will inevitably feel like they’re listening to a five-hour-long tracklist and for those who will let it replay three times before thinking, “Wait a minute…” While I love Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” as much as the next gal, and though Afroman’s “Because I Got High” never fails to put a smile on my face (and I can’t — I won’t — forget Nicki Minaj’s iconic “You don’t want smoke with me, this is a laced blunt” in “MotorSport”), I had to settle on the songs I consistently come back to when I’m mellow.
With stay-at-home orders in effect across many U.S. cities, what better time than now to smoke weed and listen to music? In all seriousness, though — because we can’t go (and shouldn’t be going) anywhere right now, this is the perfect time to pull out your bud and your quarantunes playlist. To help get you started, here are some of my favorite odes to weed, whether lyrically or sonically, to kick off your monthlong 420.
- “Sativa” — Jhené Aiko
- “Habit” — Still Woozy
- “Young, Wild & Free,” ft. Bruno Wars — Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa
- “I Got 5 On It” — Luniz
- “High By the Beach” — Lana Del Rey
- “High for This” — The Weeknd
- “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” — Arctic Monkeys
- “Sadderdaze” — The Neighbourhood
- “Addicted” — Amy Winehouse
- “Wild Irish Roses” — Smino
- “SUMMER” — BROCKHAMPTON
- “Lover Is a Day” — CUCO
- “Your Hand Holding Mine” — Yellow Days
- “Habits (Stay High)” — Tove Lo
- “Wait a Minute!” — WILLOW
Natalie Oganesyan is a junior writing about weed culture and politics. She is also the Associate Managing Editor. Her column, “To Be Blunt,” runs every other Friday.