Have you noticed that many musicians across a variety of music genres have one thing in common? Bob Marley, The Beatles, and Wiz Khalifa – Yeah, you guessed right…it’s cannabis.
Visit a concert or festival today and you would hardly miss the whiff of the smoke in the air. The way music and cannabis seem to follow each other makes one wonder if there is actually a relationship between them.
Is there really a connection between cannabis and music? If so, what is the connection? Is it detrimental to the music or the musician, or even both parties?
After a bit of research, I found that a good number of the musicians that rely on cannabis for inspiration or a spark of creativity actually have good reports of the substance. But to be sure that this thing really works as well as testimonies claim that it does, some history and science research on the matter is in order.
Brief History of Cannabis and Music
Let’s look at what musicians of the past had to say about cannabis. These musicians are not just average musicians. They had huge followerships and their music appealed to many, which suggests that their listeners loved their songs.
In the Beginning, There was Louis Armstrong… and Marijuana
The early 20th century saw the first recorded breakout of marijuana in America. This happened in Storyville in 1909, eight years after the birth of one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Louis Armstrong.
You can imagine what the boy grew into. In his biography, Louis testified that they “always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.”
That was where the earliest connections between cannabis and marijuana was established. Ernest Abel, a cannabis historian, said, “It was in these bordellos, where music provided the background and not the primary focus of attention, that marijuana became an integral part of the jazz era.
Unlike booze, which dulled and incapacitated, marijuana enabled musicians whose job required them to play long into the night to forget their exhaustion. Moreover, the drug seemed to make their music sound more imaginative and unique, at least to those who played and listened while under its sensorial influence.”
Marijuana became the musicians’ logo of that time, especially among the blacks and Mexicans. Music historian, Harry Shapiro, testified to this when he said, “In the early ’20s, marijuana, muggles, muta, gage, tea, reefer, grifa, Mary Warner, Mary Jane or rosa maria was known almost exclusively to musicians.”
The white authorities quickly moved to discourage the spread of the “voodoo” music and the weed itself, but there wasn’t much they could do to stop pot from gaining popularity.
That did not stop the authorities from banning it though. Louis was later caught smoking the illegal substance by the police and was taken to the station. He was received with an uncharacteristic warmness as the police officers themselves were fans of his music.
Marijuana and Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow
After finding his way to Harlem, the headquarters of the black community in America in the Roaring Twenties, Mezz was desperate for recognition. He had to compete with their local musicians if he was to be popular, but he found another way.
He realized that the quality of weed that was sold at Harlem then was far inferior to what he was used to. And that was how he warmed himself to the heart of Harlem and brought his music along for the ride. He shared his first experience with weed in his biography, Really the Blues.
“The first thing I noticed was that I began to hear my saxophone as if it was inside my head… Then I began to feel the vibrations of the reed much more pronounced against my lip and my head buzzed like a loudspeaker. I found I was slurring much better and putting just the right feeling into my phrases. I was really coming on. All the notes came easing out of my horn like they’d already been made up, greased and stuffed into the bell, so all I had to do was to blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other, never missing, never behind time, all without an ounce of effort.”
The testimony of an expert on the effects of weed in the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. James Munch, had a correlation with Mezz’s statement. According to the expert, “Because the chief effect as far as they were concerned was that it lengthens the sense of time, and therefore they could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy… In other words, if you’re a musician, you’re going to play the thing the way it’s printed on a sheet. But if you’re using marijuana, you’re going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians. The idea that they could jazz things up, liven them up, you see.”
The Fab Four were also known fans of pot. After Bob Dylan, who is known for his incoherent lyrics but widely appreciated music, introduced the Beatles to weed, the fab four could never get enough of it.
From that time, the majority of the songs that the four composed were written under the influence of weed. Funny enough, these were the songs that propelled the boys to the peak of their career as a pop group at that time.
John Lennon who was hanging with them at that time said, “The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.”
A friend of Lennon’s, Lester Grinspoon, agreed with him on the goodness of cannabis. Grinspoon himself was a fan of the joint. He once revealed a conversations he had with Lennon where he told John how cannabis appeared to make it possible for me to ‘hear’ his music for the first time in much the same way that Allen Ginsberg had ‘seen’ Cezanne for the first time when he purposely smoked cannabis before setting out for the Museum of Modern Art. He could, with the help of marijuana, break through his incapacity to relate to Cezanne.
John was quick to reply that “I had experienced only one facet of what marijuana could do for music, that he thought it did wonders for composing and making music as well as listening to it.”
What Science Has to Say About Cannabis and Music
Anyone can perceive anything. You only have to be human to do so. That could explain the perceptions of these musicians of cannabis. But for these perceptions to be factual, science has to agree with them. That is why lots of studies have been carried out to see if these musicians’ perceptions of weed actually hold any water.
Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, depending on what you think about this whole thing, many studies have proven some of the claims of cannabis users. According to these studies, getting high on cannabis hastens the perception of your “internal clock”, making the real-time pass more slowly.
And when this happens, the musician may see their music in a new light, listen to it in greater detail, and make necessary adjustments.
A professor of music, health, and the brain from Anglia Ruskin University, Jorg Fachner, said, “If you look into the literature on timing,” referring to a study that discovered that a 15-second interval was perceived to be widened to 16.7 seconds under the influence of cannabis, “it seems to be that the brain systems that are influenced by cannabinoids are producing a state of mind in which there seems to be a slower backward counting. And that means your timing units, the time frames that you are overseeing, seem to be enlarged. So those who are improvising seem to have a bit more time to foresee the melodic developments in improvisation and to fine grain the rhythmic patterns.”
Cannabis in the music of today
Since the 1900s, cannabis has transcended the boundaries of jazz music. It has made its way into many common music genres today.
Some of these genres include reggae, pop, country, and hip hop. Contemporary artists, including Rihana, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa, and many others, have admitted at one time that they used recreational cannabis.
You might still have reservations when it comes to taking weed, and that’s okay. But if there is anything that this study and all the history are all pointing at, it is that there is a beneficial relationship between cannabis and music.