The importance of icaros

Research suggests modern psychedelic-assisted therapy should use music to guide patients


Medicine songs like the Amazonian icaros are a standard tool used by shamans in ayahuasca-healing ceremonies. Often sung in Spanish, Quechua, or other Amazonian Indigenous languages, they have a very rhythmic, lullaby-like quality. For millennia, icaros have been used to support communication with ancestors and spirits, and to guide, heal and protect individuals on their psychedelic journeys. They are key to unlocking many of the benefits traditional Amazonian medicine has to offer. 

Research supports the importance of these songs — in psychedelic therapy of all kinds. 

Owain Graham is a University of California, Riverside doctoral student in ethnomusicology with an interest in the relationship between music and altered states of consciousness. He’s spent a lot of time studying indigeneity and ritual music in South America, with a primary focus on icaros. 

Graham recently co-authored a research paper published in AnthroSource exploring the influence and effects of icaros on patients undergoing ayahuasca healing ceremonies. His findings suggest that as psychotherapists and psychologists develop programs for psychedelic treatments in places like Colorado and Oregon, they should consider how and why music is traditionally incorporated into medicine ceremonies. 

“While Western biomedicine’s foundation in science is strong, it has also neglected to explain the connection of mind-body and how music can affect healing,” Graham says. 

He set out to find out. Graham visited Peru’s Takiwasi Center for Drug Addiction Rehabilitation and Research on Traditional Medicines multiple times between 2017 and 2020. The Takiwasi Center uses an addiction treatment model with three core “tools” and principals: psychotherapy, traditional medicines with plants, and cohabitation. It’s a nine- to 12-month treatment program with five stages, three of which take place in-residence at the facility. 

Graham’s paper assessed 180 responses from 12 ayahuasca patients at Takiwasi. They were questioned on the perceived connection between the icaros and their personal healing during their addiction treatment. All of them reported that the icaros helped modify their psycho-emotional states. And all of them said the music improved their healing by helping them with “unblocking.” More than half of respondents reported the icaros helped them with “connection,” and “learning and comprehension.” 

While some said the effect was negligible, others reported full on “supernatural experiences” and a sense of “protection” the music instilled in them. Interestingly, none of them had negative feelings associated with the icaros. 

Graham and the study’s other authors cite previous research on the Takiwasi Center where 86% of their patients showed “improvement” on the Addiction Severity Index, and 53% showed “major improvement.” A full 67% of graduates did not return to substance abuse following the program. 

Graham’s paper is quick to clarify, “Correlating musical experience in ayahuasca sessions with therapeutic results is not the goal of this article.” 

However, previous research published in Psychopharmacology showed a correlation between music in psilocybin therapy and “mystical-experiences” and “insightfulness” reported by clinical patients. In the conclusion of that paper, the authors note, “Crucially, the nature of the music experience was significantly predictive of reductions in depression [one] week after psilocybin, whereas general drug intensity was not.”

Graham believes that as people and companies develop education and certificate programs for psychedelic-assisted therapies (Weed Between the Lines, “Training psychedelic therapists,” Jan. 12, 2023), traditional practices like icaros should be closely studied, considered, and incorporated. 

“Now is the time to be thinking about  how to shape those therapeutic models,” Graham says. “I think [music like icaros] can be an important tool in the tool belt for those therapists.”