Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Minds in Music

RSS Logo RSS 2.0
20/07/2018 15:11:27

Out with a bang

This is a somewhat bittersweet post for me to make. On the upside, I am presenting a double-header of two of the most interesting interviews I have conducted for the blog.

First up, I am delighted to include an email interview with one of the contemporary artists I most admire- Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer. His literate and inventive songs are an antidote to much of the blander fare in contemporary pop/rock circles and it is a privilege to ask him about his views on various matters, some of which are related to mental health. As a fan, I confess to indulging some of my own more personal interest here too however!

Secondly, (and in some depth!) we have David Meagher, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Limerick, who also happens to be a punk-rock guitar player in the acclaimed band Sons of Southern Ulster. He spoke to me in detail about his love of punk music and related issues.

On the downside, I am sorry to say that this will be my last entry for this blog on the College website. Currently, I find I do not have sufficient time to devote to keeping the blog as active as I would like. Also, at this point, having covered topics from music therapy to neuroscience, genres from electronica to punk to traditional folk singing, and interviews with artists struggling with everyday challenges to more severe mental illness, I feel a sufficient range of material has been traversed to leave the blog standing proudly as a complete series.

It has been a great privilege to write the blog over the last five years and to have the opportunity to interview individuals from a range of professional and personal backgrounds. It’s been an intriguing, highly enjoyable, and thought-provoking experience. I’m very grateful for having had the chance to speak to artists whose music I’ve enjoyed for many years. I’ve learned a lot from digging deeper into some of the questions and topics that have long fascinated me but that I had not previously had the chance to explore in depth.

I would like to take this opportunity to everyone who has helped me with this blog. Firstly, members of the current and past Royal College teams, especially Julia Burnside and David Setchell, who provided lots of technical and administrative support (as well encouragement and patience after yet another text-error by me!), and blog editor Dr Peter Hughes for giving the go-ahead at the outset.

I’d like to thank our readers for their interest and feedback, especially those who have contributed comments online and on Twitter.

Most of all, I’d like to thank all those who gave their time and energy to giving insightful and often compelling interviews, particularly on personal and sometimes difficult topics. I hope the experience was rewarding for you, as it certainly was for me.

I will continue to post on our Twitter account about matters related to music and mental health, and music more generally, and I do hope some of our readers will continue to follow and engage with me there. I also hope to add some further playlists on our our Minds in Music Spotify page.


Thanks again to all and very best wishes.

John Tully

July 2018

20/07/2018 15:11:45

Interview with Destroyer

Interview with Destroyer

< John by>

Photo of Dan Bejar aka Destroyer


A colleague and fellow admirer of your work said to me that he thinks you are both an existentialist and an Adlerian. How would you respond to such charges? Have you any particular interest in psychology and philosophy?

The blank I draw upon being called an Adlerian is probably an answer in itself. I took an existentialism and phenomenology course before dropping out of school, 25 years ago.  I think I'm more attracted to the landscape and era that existentialism is attached to (crumbling 20th Century Europe) than the writing.  20th century, continental poses. The music playing in the background of those discussions, etc. I don't know much about psychology. I think about Stella Adler instead, and psychology in terms of method acting. That's probably about it. Is Cioran philosophy?  I love the titles of his books.


One of your recent songs, ‘Saw you at the Hospital’, appears to address a person with some form of mental illness. However you mentioned in a recent interview that while you are interested in aspects of ‘madness’, you are reluctant to address mental illness directly in your writing. This is somewhat surprising given the range of subjects you have addressed in your lyrics. Why is this? 

With that song I was really thinking about Asylum literature, which I've always loved. Like that really good section in Heart Berries.  Or rock song tropes probably based around ODing poetry. I got really sick on tour with pneumonia once and ended up in a Swiss hospital and in the bottom of my codeine haze started thinking about Rolling Stones couplets. Leonard Cohen is also really into hospital tunes. The language around madness is instantly vivid, you wanna use it. The language around decay is newer to me, but I also want to use it  If I use those kinds of words in songs it's cause something in me wants to at one moment portray the world in an unknowable flurry, or disappearing pallor. I think...


You also mentioned in this interview that you were hospitalised with pneumonia while on tour, and that you were ‘not living well’ at the time. I have spoken to other interviewees about the challenges that a life in music present to musicians’ health, particularly while on tour. How do you cope with these, both on the road and off?

I think I was not living well in very basic senses of the word.  Not sleeping.  Drinking too much.  Smoking out of boredom.  And singing my guts out every night, which I suspect is the most useless antidote for pneumonia there is!  When I'm home I have at least 3 out of 4 of those nipped in the bud!  I think also in your 40s things catch up to you which in your 20s you just seem to outrun with great ease.
Photo of live performance by Destroyer and band


Many of our readers will be interested in the concept of personae. It seems to be that you are part of a lineage of personae in popular music, stretching back to Dylan and Bowie, and more recently, Drag City artists. Can you comment on this? What attracts you to ‘the mask’, or do you think too much is made of this in your writing?

This is interesting to me, but I'm not sure I see it like you. I'm leery of getting into discussions about personae and masks cause as someone in showbiz (singer, actor, dancer, comedian, someone who entertains with their body), well, it seems pointless to intellectualize it too much. Or not pointless, but you know, low-hanging fruit. Bowie's version of personae seemed very drama school. Dylan's seemed on the other hand, freakishly complete, like I can't picture anything left of his actual self. He is more or less a creature that just breathes the air of how words bang off melodies. I love his work, especially Tempest, but he couldn't seem less wise to me. And listening to his music and watching him perform, I can only assume he has literally no life outside of what he sings. There is nothing to be learned from him, except how to write and sing magnificently. The Drag City aesthetic was important for me in the 1990s, when I first started to write songs. Strong personae. Kind of old-fashioned that way.


Further to this, although you have many admirers for both your music and lyrics, you have been accused of being excessively cryptic in your writing style. This seems to align with a school of thought that holds Smokey Robinson and Brian Wilson as the archetypal great songwriter, with a focus on melody and delivery over the actual words, and with a suspicion towards serious, or at least more literary, writing within popular song. Would you agree?

I'm pretty sure the time for what I do has come to a close, or was closed before I even really got going. This strange secret handshake that happened between John Lennon and Dylan in 1965 and they said we will make pop music lyrics high modernist. I mean, as far as Americans and top 40 music goes, the experiment's been over for decades.

How I write is just me documenting how I get off throwing words around or chasing certain concerns down a hole in the most melodious way I know how. Cause melody quadruples the meaning of every single thing that you say. I don't utter a single thing that I don't get some kind of emotional charge out of (I think this is what people refer to as "meaning"). But my project is antiquated, and I don't expect it to come off that well, or different from like a rockabilly act or something.

Black and white photo of Destoryer performing


Related to this, one of the themes of many of your songs appears to be the apparent conflict between so-called low and high art. For example, you make references to painting, opera and classic French cinema in some of your songs, while in others, you clearly make plays on lyrics from pop music. Is this conflict something you have particular interest in?

Cause I spend my life singing in bars, I can't help it. I'm on the wrong side of the tracks. And I love any worldview that boils things down to haves and have nots. And because I know nothing of high art (fine art) and don't know how to have a legitimate reaction to it, like I do when my jaw drops or my heart stops at a moment in a film, or a song, or a line in a poem where I just have to put down the book and stare or shake my head. And I love gangs. Like in The Outsiders, with Greasers and Socs.

So I write about stuff like that. And what little exposure I've had to fine art just seems like court intrigue or a high school mixer, so it's interesting that way. I mean not really interesting at all, actually. I'd rather be able to write about a leaf. As far as me riffing on existing pop songs, I think that's blown way outta proportion.


Another theme in your writing is nostalgia. This appears to be a recurring feature of Canadian writing in many formats- I am thinking of Alice Munro as well as Neil Young. Is this a conscious impulse?

I don't think of myself as nostalgic.  I haven't read Alice Munro since high school, so I can't speak to that.  But there is a nostalgic quality to Joni Mitchell, who is deeply Canadian, and probably the single most important singer-songwriter I can think of.  So maybe that has rubbed off.  Most of my nostalgia seems like moves, completely invented.  Death bed reveries, but I'm not dying.
Black and white photo of Destroyer during the Kaputt era


Your music is informed by quite a spectrum of artistic influences. Can you share some of what you view as your most important influences, musical and otherwise?

My influences have changed.  Chronologically it was - American indie stuff like Pavement/Guided By Voices, then deep into Drag City, then Syd Barrett then 70s glam/late 60s/early 70s Canterbury scene (Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt), Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Patti Smith.

At one point 15 years ago I said I wanted to reconcile the first 10 Lou Reed solo records with the first 10 John Cale solo records, like a more true but forced VU reunion, also deep Scott Walker fixation around the time of Your Blues, and since around 2004 constant Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan (a kind of triumvirate for me that I always return to). The Fall, Felt, all things Smiths and Morrissey, always American soul music of the early 70s - Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha.  An obssession with the sound of There's A Riot Goin On which I'm sure I share with millions. Certain Style Council records and certain David Sylvian records are very, very important to me. Have probably listened to Loveless more than any record in my lifetime, but I don't consider this an influence, more just a way forward. Leonard Cohen guides me. New Order guides me. Some of the songs by The Doors truly guide me. No brainers like Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra. That's all a list of singing stuff. 

Genre hacks like Michael Mann are really important to me, but I also love Mirror and The Assassin.  I love the later poems of Ingeborg Bachman. I love Rebel Without A Cause. I loved Knight of Cups, I didn't want to, cause it's embarrassing and not good. I love the Selfish Giant. I love Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. I love Tyrant Banderas and the Fleur Jaeggy book I read. I've watched Apocalypse Now hundred times. I've watched La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 too many times (is that existentialism?). Godard was a giant influence on me when I was younger. Visconti then became what I aspired to but could obviously never attain, these immaculate critiques that can only be obtained by being on the inside, and then are too immaculate and then not critiques. I love the Frank Stanford book I just read.

Listen to my Destroyer playlist.


20/07/2018 15:12:11

Music therapy and punk rock

Interview with Professor David Meagher of Sons of Southern Ulster

by John Tully

Photo of David Meagher with anatomical model


You work in general adult psychiatry and you are interested in music therapy interventions. Do you or your clinical colleagues use musical therapy in any form in your clinical practice? How do you think such interventions are best aligned to more traditional models of care?

I think we all recognise the substantial capacity that music has to impact upon mood and general awareness of our milieu, and many of us use it therapeutically in our day to day lives. On the ground, I think that the integration of recovery principles into everyday practice is central to 21st century psychiatry but I often feel that a lot of what is deemed ‘recovery’ is actually contaminated by the conservative values of professionals who are hopelessly middle class and safe. Moreover, the all-consuming determination to standardise practices inevitably forces a ‘one size fits all’ philosophy onto what we do and this stifles the personalised and tailored care that I think many folk need. This is a real battle for clinicians – trying to accommodate the individual need of patients with the seemingly relentless appetite of management for consistency. Similarly, our risk aversity causes us to hide behind ‘professionalism’ as an excuse for not engaging with many inconveniences.

Are there any particular initiatives in which you have been involved?

Along with our OT, I recently started an air guitar group on our inpatient ward.  It’s been really fascinating how what has unfolded is quite different from our prior notions – it’s surprising how well the sessions engage folk from across the age and diagnostic range. Moreover, the determination of participants to facilitate each other’s enjoyment of the sessions has been really pleasing. On week four the session exited the therapy room as a human train of air guitarists to do a circle of the ward! There are times when you smile from the inside out, and that was certainly one for me. As a committed biological psychiatrist, it speaks to how better integrated we have all become in terms of combining all the different available therapeutic elements. Although I am not sure of the actual scientific evidence, it’s my experience that psychiatrists who give time to a more complete biopsychosocial range of approaches are more likely to convince patients that trying medication-based solutions might be a good idea. It also raises the question – beyond the ear candy, how different are mindfulness and mindlessness?
As a training psychiatrist I worked for 18 months with Ivor Browne who is undoubtedly one of the most interesting Irish Psychiatrists of history. He ran a psychotherapeutic programme that included using LSD (and later Ketamine) along with body work and sound therapy to promote re-experiencing of suppressed traumas. With my musical interest I got to control the sounds from an impressive library of samples (from the gentle pitter- patter of rain to the violent screams of a battlefield!) which in retrospect was not dissimilar to running a rave! This was in the late 1980s/early 1990s and understandably was viewed with scepticism by the mainstream of Irish psychiatry. The programme was not continued after Ivor retired which was a pity as undoubtedly many patients who had exhausted the efforts of mainstream services made good progress, but equally the whole programme was pretty wild (and exciting!).


How did your interest in writing and playing music develop and evolve over the years?

Music has always been my ‘thing’. I was not blessed with talent at sports and the moment I encountered punk rock with all its inherent humour and naughtiness my interest in the big world out there took a big leap forwards. My subsequent journey has been played out to a background of music. I am one of those who works best surrounded by noise rather than silence – for some people that the ultimate silence is found in extreme noise was something my father never really appreciated when I was growing up, as he couldn’t get the fact that the louder the music the more intense my studying! In terms of playing music, my generation were blessed to grow up in the punk era as the whole Do it Yourself philosophy (even if you are rubbish!) was a departure from the over technical dinosaur rock era that preceded it.

Photo of band members of SOSU next to statue of Patrick Kavanagh


How did you maintain your interests alongside a medical career?

In the era before continuous assessment you could manage to have an active second life running in parallel with your medical studies and this allowed me to play in bands pretty much throughout my student years. Similarly, many of my fellow (The Panic Merchants) band members were medics. I somehow doubt that our graduate entry medical students at UL are hanging around rock venues strutting their stuff late at night and in many respects that is a pity. Our medical school curricula have become overpopulated with must do’s to the exclusion of developing the person. I use our induction sessions to clinical attachments in psychiatry to challenge students as to how they can stay interested and amused throughout 4-5 decades of a medical career. If you aren’t careful medicine can become the gift that keeps on taking! 
In my case, after a few decades of intense career and family focus, in recent years I have rediscovered the joys of music. Central to that has been writing and performing as The Sons of Southern Ulster. Having produced mostly borrowed copycat music in our student years, Justin (Kelly-singer) and I were absolutely determined to make music that had an identity. Having the privilege over the past three decades of hearing patient’s first-hand accounts of their human journey has encouraged us to emphasise the narrative in our work and it’s been a real joy to find that people can relate to that. Importantly, the SoSU project has allowed me to get a stronger sense of self. Truly courageous folk out there are not rejoicing in the unambiguous or populist notions of world peace or demanding an end to homelessness, but rather are engaged with more contentious areas of need. Life inevitably involves making choices and rationing – being unpopular but following a journey that is more complex takes guts and requires a strong sense of self. The whole SoSU project has really helped me to know who I am – warts 'n' all – and to make choices about what I should do with my energies. Perhaps most importantly, it is a welcome escape from the overly transactional flow of day to day life and I think it has made me a nicer person to be around!

Photo of David Meagher in professorial mode giving a lecture


The band has received acclaim for its insights into small town and rural life. Is this something that especially interests you and the other group members?

We have stumbled back into a world that we had given up on.  As the interest has grown we have become increasingly confident about exposing ourselves as artists – much as you’d like to pretend that it doesn’t matter, in reality positive feedback is an energy that drives you on. We recently did features for RTE and Today FM which were a massive validation that we have an artistic meaning in the now. When we started, we had this notion of being determinedly self-absorbed, but as the more universal aspect of the material has emerged we are enthused to delve deeper – who would ever have thought that songs about growing up in rural Ireland would connect so well? It’s really nice to have an audience that ‘get’ what we are doing and I think that really encourages us to keep doing our thing.   

Photo of SOSU members outside the Irish World Academy


Has being in a band been an added benefit to you, beyond solo performing, say?

Bono recently remarked that U2 saved his life, and that may indeed be so, but definitely the whole SoSU thing has been a major positive for me in recent years when I have felt a bit withered by things. My parents passing, along with the death of my closest academic colleague (Dr Maeve Leonard) and the realisation that I had not managed to dodge the family inheritance of coronary artery disease all served to make me rethink things. I think we all have childhood interests that get suffocated by the serious business of adult life and for me that was music.
It’s interesting that the friendship formed through shared musical endeavour never really disappears – I think that however much you might claim that you are unconcerned about the whole business of art and performance, in reality, there is a degree of shared exploration and narcissistic trust in band mates that endures beyond most things you do in life. Re-engaging with my old band mates has been uplifting – I love working with folk who share a desire to find what is best within us while also having fun – this is something that the modern workplace has lost! I think that we laugh a lot less at work than we used to – partly due to how busy everybody seems, but also the excessive political correctness can suffocate things as we tiptoe around each other terrified that we might hurt somebody else’s feelings! If we are not careful we will find ourselves as stiff as folk back in Victorian times, reduced to overly formal and conservative social interactions.

What aspect of your involvement do you enjoy most- writing, recording, or performing?

I find all aspects fun. I guess for many recording can be a chore but I am a bit of a geek and find experimenting with equipment and different mixes on a par with that first trawl through a new research dataset! I have recently stumbled upon the combination of an Italia Modena with a Vox AC-15 as my primary guitar set up and just thinking about playing those pair brings a sparkle to my eye. Writing has a therapeutic aspect that I benefit from – typically I will work on a piece of acoustic guitar mangling it into different shapes until I am happy that it has a flow and then move to electric. I often lose hours engrossed in this and find it really relaxing and de-stressing. I guess it’s a form of mindfulness. 

Last year Nicky Fennell made a film documentary about the origins of our album ‘Foundry Folk Songs’ which explores the driving factors behind making the album and how it relates to growing up in the wildness of rural Ireland in the 70s and 80s - Warts n all! It follows us on a tour that culminates in returning to our home town to play in the arts and cultural centre which is an old Methodist church. It was a very intense experience that included feeling quite derealised, but in a really good way! There are very few healthy ways to achieve that sense of Maslovian high and music is definitely one of them!

SOSU They say I live in the past cover


Who are your main music and literary influences?

I have particular love for Kavanagh, Dunleavy and Patrick McCabe. ‘Butcher Boy’ should be mandatory reading for all training psychiatrists. Again, I guess the playfulness of these writers catches me – it’s a terribly Irish thing that in order to be taken seriously you first need to establish your comedic credentials! More recently, I have been enjoying Donal Ryan (e.g. ‘The Spinning Heart’) who has a delightful narrative style that is underpinned by his background in social services. In recent times I have taken a stronger personal stand on the industrialisation of academia and spend much less time doing me-too research and focus upon stuff that is genuinely new (let others do the replication work!). Hopefully that will see me reading some more. I am ashamed to admit that I only read Mark E Smith’s ‘Renegade’ last year and felt swizzed by the fact that I had almost overlooked such a classic!

In terms of musical influences, I grew up surrounded by uncles who were slightly older than me and who were into Dylan, Van the Man and the Horslips. Punk provided my own ‘personal’ scene that was railing against that. The Pistols were a gamechanger - it’s hilarious that they sold themselves as a band who couldn’t play as ‘Never Mind the B…’ is a stunning piece of work that still stands up sonically over 40 years later! After that, of the later punk bands I really liked the Dead Kennedys, again I guess because the humour is so sharp but also East Bay Ray’s guitar is outstanding. Similarly, both the Gun Club and Screaming Blue Messiahs got a real hold of me, while all the Joy Division and Bunnymen post-punkstuff was totally compelling. I guess I am attracted by material that has psychological themes.


In a recent piece in the BJPsych, you wrote ‘psychiatry will always be the punk rock of medicine’, suggesting it is the discipline which most encourages thinking outside the box and challenging convention. Others of course would argue that mainstream psychiatry very much represents the establishment, and that the duty of outsiders, or punk, should be to challenge its values and beliefs. How would you respond in turn?

Strangely, the medical component of mental health has in my view been so downgraded that I sense that as medics we are almost the outsiders now! Certainly, as a scientist and a person of logic, I feel that modern life and medicine in its efforts to embrace the human experience has, perhaps, veered too far into the anecdotal emotional perception of individuals rather than actual fact. I find this frustrating but also a source of fun – If you cannot appreciate the inherent contradiction of being human then psychiatry is really not for you! My sense is that science accounts for maybe 30% of the human experience and we need to try to fill in the rest – the question is with what and how! Interestingly, as we have become more aware of the limits of science and logic, we have also become so intolerant of uncertainty – the rise of the health and safety fascists really concerns me as they have seemingly bottomless capacity to stop humans doing their thing! As a seasoned psychiatrist I have long since embraced the notion that our primary outcome is to help folk to realise their human potential. It seems to me that all these efforts to ‘protect’ people from life’s inherent variability have the net effect of reducing our capacity to function and enjoy life. Yes, it’s a grumpy old man perspective, but enjoy the honesty!

In keeping with this, how do you align your career in a ‘respectable’ profession with being a punk rocker? Has your dual interest and career path led to scepticism from the music fraternity, and/or from the world of medicine and psychiatry? If so, how to you respond to this?

I have never really struggled with being an outsider – if anything I have found the formalities of leadership roles more of a challenge! As a band, we have largely kept our personal lives out of the musical spotlight and I suspect that most folk who listen to the Sons have no sense of my psychiatry background.

I am not sure if that’s just a function of getting older, but I think that as a profession we are increasingly more engaged with the fact that we have lives outside of medicine that can complement and enrich what we do in clinical practice. I have a talk that I do to introduce the SoSU documentary (see above) that I call ‘Neurasthenia, medical grotesquery and the Sons of Southern Ulster’. In essence I explore the options to us as medics when we look beyond the everyday grind and seek greater purpose from our professional efforts. There are many options – private practicus, health managericus (a particularly grotesque option!), athletics nervosa and tortured articus – the latter being my excuse for the whole SoSU thing! In reality, I think keeping yourself engaged, amused and titillated in medicine is essential to doing your best as a clinician, which is our ultimate responsibility. Interestingly, in recent years I have started to diversify a lot more and some of my closer psychiatry comrades have goaded me by referring to it as ‘Langian drift’ which is an amusing put down! But in reality I suppose that while you discard the foolish absolutisms of early adulthood (and I trained in an era where we believed biological psychiatry would find solutions to most mental illness during our lifetimes!) it’s actually just good fun and at a certain point in your career you occupy a position that affords you the opportunity to veer outside the manual a little. I increasingly recognise that a big part of my career has been research into cognitive disorders but equally the main legacy derives from my efforts to promote  undergraduate and postgraduate structures that create a community of clinicians that will endure way beyond my passing.

Many music fans acknowledge that while punk was heavily influential, much of it is almost unlistenable. What is your view on this?

I suppose that depends on what you find aurally appealing – I like my noise to be jerky and abrasive. I cannot stand bland elevator music and, frankly, classical and traditional music have little or no purchase upon my nucleus accumbens! I think the best punk music has an edge that you can be energised and amused by. For me, much of the later punk (e.g. the Oi movement) lost its sense of humour but thankfully post punk recaptured that along with a new depth (e.g. Joy Division and the Smiths). More recently, I have been really enjoying Idles – their debut album ‘Brutalism’ is a genuinely important document of now that speaks to identity (especially male identity) in the modern era more profoundly than any other work I know of out there. I think for many folk (myself included) music needs to catch your attention and the power of its meaning often follows.


What is the legacy of punk in your view, and who are the contemporary artists who best represent its spirit? Does punk need to have a political message, or is attitude enough?

I think punk was a movement of permission and possibility. This is the cultural legacy. Amongst contemporary artists I think Idles are a good example of how that attitude can be powerful. In amongst all that depth of noise are some really astute observations about modern life and how we can maintain values and identity in a toxic and confusing world of fake news, stifling political correctness and Godlessness.  Also, I am impressed by John Lydon’s continued ability to challenge lazy thinking – legacy? I think he’s still up there with the best of conventional voices. Personally, I think any political or philosophical message comes as secondary to an attitude of respecting human spirit and our capacity to embrace life.


Can you give us a selection of tracks that have been formative in your life and career to date?

Ooogh, this is a big ask and provokes the civil war within me, but here goes:

Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks: I was always surrounded by music growing up, especially on my mother’s side where her brothers were all into the music of the early seventies. My grandfather was a bookmaker in Co. Tyrone and always took the newspapers and my uncles sneaked in the popular music press into the weekly order so that I was exposed to the NME and Sounds and such like before many of my peers. However, it wasn’t until I heard the Sex Pistols for the first time that I encountered that WOW factor. They were so utterly naughty and in all honesty I think the biggest swindle was fooling the world that they were musically rubbish when a listen back to Bollocks now over 40 years on quickly clarifies that the production and music was of a high standard. As psychiatrists we must never settle for “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery!”

The Fall: Live at the Witch Trials: This was my first Fall album and I remember thinking that they were less musical than the other bands of this time (I was only starting to appreciate the glory of anti-music!). However, there really is something about the Fall that’s hard to pin down – they really do reach the parts that other bands don’t. Sometimes they can try your patience but always you return. From a creative perspective, an evening listening back over the Fall’s catalogue never fails to inspire new ideas. Early Fall is much easier to penetrate in terms of meaning and this album has lots of psych-posturing with ‘Psychic Dancehall’, ‘Psychomafia’, ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’ etc that certainly appealed to this young Psychiatrist in the making! The repetition and vortex effect of the lyrics means that even if you don’t have the foggiest what a song is about, it still brings you to a meaningful place – weird but most definitely wonderful!

The Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables: Just when you thought punk couldn’t get any naughtier the DKs arrived on the scene. Beneath the abrasive exterior lies a depth of musicianship that rewards again and again. Is there a better guitar riff than Holiday in Cambodia? Definitely not for my ears! This is probably the album that most bound my teenage pool of friends together – listening to this and wearing DK’s badges in Co. Cavan gave us a taste of being deeply subversive! And that’s a pretty addictive feeling. In recent years I have met Jello Biafra (singer) but find him a little too preachy these days – the DKs had a special ability to capture that perfect mix of humour with the political message.

Screaming Blue Messiahs: Good and Gone: When I first heard Bill Carter’s guitar playing on this six-track EP I realised that I had found the guitar style that most interested me – dirty, rhythmic and  slightly evil, for me his playing embodied selling your soul at the Crossroads for six string genius! I was lucky enough to see the Messiahs at the Mean Fiddler in 1984 – it was a truly crazy evening with a relentlessly energetic mosh pit. Halfway through I retreated to the bar where I got into drinking with Paul Fox of The Ruts fame and come the end of the night there was a posse of us planning to go back to his place but I declined. For years not going back to Foxy’s was in my top ten regrets of life! I met Segs and Ruffy (remaining members of The Ruts) at a punk literary conference in 2015 and recounted my tale of regret to them at which point they burst into laughter revealing that his wife would have almost certainly chased the lot of us! I had carried the weight of that regret for many years!  

The Gun Club: The Fire of Love: I spent the Summer of 1983 in San Francisco living with friends who worked in local radio and who had access to the heart of the music scene. I encountered a shed load of mind-expanding music but the most enduring was this absolute gem of an album by the Gun Club. I think there’s a bit of the swamp blues monster in all of us and these guys found their mojo with this creole-infused collection of bad bad songs! ‘She’s like heroin to me’, ‘Jack on Fire’’ and ‘Ghost on the highway’ just hypnotize you into another place that has a dark dark soul. Play late into the night and very loud!

Billy Bragg: Workers Playtime: This album has stalked me across time, popping up in the oddest of places and on the most unexpected turntables. There’s a freedom about these songs that soothes the very core of your soul. Speaking as a psychiatrist who has heard the many stories that characterise the human journey, the narratives have a romanticism and hope that is truly uplifting. I’ve had the considerable pleasure of meeting Mr Bragg a few times and he’s a top bloke – and, even better, a Hammers fan to boot! I think the resonance with our efforts in SoSU is pretty obvious, and the final track of the album ‘Sons of Southern Ulster’ was written with Billy’s fabulous ‘Between the Wars’ in mind and even played on a Burns steer which was his preferred axe of that era.

Sparklehorse: VivaDixieSubmarinePlot: In all honesty, all four Sparklehorse albums are magnificent but Hammering…and Cow put this on another level. The silky textures, bold guitar sonics and earthly lyrics are truly pleasing. I saw Mark Linkous and his band in Galway in 2009 and had the pleasure of chatting with him afterwards. The man exuded melancholy and kindness. The best thing I could think of to say was to thank him for such beautiful songs and tell him that Sparklehorse are my preferred last thing before bed music when I am in wine-enhanced out of bodyness mode on a Saturday night (Yes, I am thinking Eyepennies here!). One of life’s real pleasures is recommending Sparklehorse to the uninitiated.

Lift To Experience: Texas Jerusalem Crossroads: Wow, what a gem! I love albums that are like a novel rather than a collection of individual pieces and this is a double album of celestial greatness! Incredible singularity – it’s like a psychotic manifesto recounted to the backdrop of truly angelic guitar playing. After a 16 year hiatus Josh T Pearson and the boys returned for the Edinburgh festival last year and I was there amongst a sea of believers – even better, it was all it was billed to be and some more. Total cowboy shoegaze with a hall full of folk who absorbed every last note. It’s a mad and very deep tapestry but try it – I do, often late at night when other folk are in slumber!

From an Irish perspective, I was part of that post-U2 one thousand bands of Dublin era. Looking back two bands stand out – A House for their musicality and the Virgin Prunes for their truly International outrageousness. I recently got to meet with Gavin and Guggi and was reminded how  they say don’t ever meet your heroes – I think there’s a presumption that they may disappoint but I wonder if actually it is because it is you rather than them who will fall short - I was truly star struck and almost speechless!

In terms of more recent bands I guess if I was making recommendations I really enjoy the narrative aspect of bands like Richmond Fontaine (check out ‘You can’t go back….’), Arab Strap (and subsequent Moffat activities), Sleaford Mods (everything!) and John Murry (‘The Graceless Age’). God is an Astronaut are an Irish band that really push that astral awareness thing and I have been lucky to cross paths with them while at medical meetings in all sorts of interesting places like Athens and San Francisco.

I could go on but…

Foundry Folk Songs is available on Spotify etc., or hard copies from Avalanche Records.
Paddy K’s Mescaline Diaries is due out in early Autumn.
For upcoming gigs see the SOSU website  or follow us on Twitter.

09/02/2018 15:41:47

Rock star psychologist: Adam Ficek

Adam Ficek is an English drummer, songwriter, DJ and psychologist. He has had a fascinating career in music, including a 5-year stint as the drummer of Babyshambles, the group led by Pete Doherty of The Libertines. He holds an undergraduate degree in music from Middlesex University and a Masters degree from the London College of Music. He has also achieved success as a DJ.

Adam is currently training as an integrative psychotherapist at the Metanoia institute in London. He currently divides his time between work within the NHS, voluntary sector and private practice, alongside his work as a performing musician and DJ. Details of his recent musical output are available on his website.

Adam Ficek

Adam has spoken openly about the turmoil which led to his exit from Babyshambles in 2010, and I was particularly interested to know how this has influenced his life and subsequent decisions in his career, including his recent initiative to provide mental health services to those in the music industry.


You've had a rich and varied career in music. What is your proudest achievement in your career? What's been the biggest disappointment?

That’s a tough question to answer! I think the proudest achievement in my career wouldn’t necessarily be an event or artefact. As I reflect on my ongoing career I think it is simply the fact that I am still involved in music. I did previously hold playing Wembley and Glastonbury as momentous occasions, but with more insight I no longer feel that is the case.


Why is that? What factors led to your disillusionment with the music industry?

At ‘peak’ of my career, I found myself in a situation of feeling burnt out, anxious and generally commoditised within the music industry framework. I went from high level touring and exposure to a sense of shamed insignificance. Admittedly, this transition was in part contributable to my own upbringing (and adverse childhood experiences), but it was also fuelled by the lack of any ‘duty of care’ within the infrastructure.

It is a contentious area, as some could argue that I was in fact operating as a self-employed person, but at the time I felt I had a framework around me. It was only after I became distanced from the band that I realised how quickly forgotten and unimportant (as a commodity) I had become.


Adam (furthest right) in his Babyshambles days


Did this lead to your interest in providing mental health services for musicians? How did it develop from there?

Yes, the disbelief, anger and frustration caused me to re-assess my position as a musician and as a person and also to investigate ways to help others in this position. I realised though that I needed more knowledge in all areas of the mind to enable me to continue my ‘music & mind’ endeavour. I initially enrolled on an introduction to music therapy course through Nordoff Robbins which was incredibly rewarding. I found the course enjoyable yet I felt that it didn’t meet all of my needs regarding the depth of psychopathology and emotion I was drawn towards. I then started my psychotherapy training which has, and continues to broaden my knowledge in these important areas.

Adam Ficek on guitar

Adam Ficek on drums

Adam in singer and drummer modes


How do you feel about your involvement in the music industry now?

It took several years of re-evaluating my own musical process to regain my sense of joy in music. Eventually, I discovered the same passion and jubilation which initially propelled me to learn to play as a teenager. From this exploration, and the growth from my own therapy, I now feel I have a greater sense of authenticity within my own self and my creativity.


Readers will be interested to know how you have balance your training in psychotherapy alongside your musical career? What has been the biggest challenge?

Well it is challenging. For example, I am currently studying for an MSc in integrative psychotherapy at the Metanoia institute which is based on a relational and psychoanalytical model. For a while, my musical output had to be slowed down (though not stopped), as I couldn’t balance everything that needed to be done.

The biggest challenge was the clinical practice, as it required a solid time commitment without jeopardising the relationships and work that was being done. To fulfil the practical requirements I spent the majority of last year in a variety of placement settings ranging from voluntary to NHS settings, long and short term. Thankfully, I’m now at the tail end of my initial training, so luckily have time to re-ignite my musical endeavours.

Adam Ficek


You are also interested in research in this area. Can you tell us a little about this?

My initial academic interest in how emotions and music intertwine came about through my dissertation for an MA in music production. For this research, I sent out two versions of my own album. One in an ‘un-produced’, raw ‘demo’ form and another in a much more polished presentation. I used the feedback to evaluate the extent to which the production had influenced the emotional impact.

More recently, I submitted my PhD proposal which will outline the ways in which the music industry contributes to psychopathology. The thesis investigates how pre-existing mental health conditions react with the industrial environment. The study broadens the recent research that suggests that the music industry is destructive, yet involvement in music is constructive in terms of mental wellbeing. From my own first-hand experience, and from conversations with many of my peers (some of which are still at the top of their game), I have found it to be a rich and controversial subject.


At the moment, what do you enjoy the most – DJing, recording, playing live, or your work as a professional psychotherapist? Is having a mix of all of these important to you?

I think all of the above roles have their own merits. My therapist work is incredibly connecting and gratifying in a deep and meaningful way. DJing and performing is much lighter in that respect and enables me to connect in a different context. I also see performing though as a necessary part of the process of creation. Once I have written new material, it has a need to be aired and shaped with a live audience.

Adam Ficek on DJ dutiesAdam on DJ dutiesHowever, I do struggle with the exposure and vulnerability of performing, especially when I am playing guitar and singing solo. It was much easier being a drummer, when I could hide at the back and just take a foundational position as there was far less pressure. DJing is much more relaxed and less pressured I don’t feel as if I am on ‘show’ to the same extent.

All in all, yes, I do think that I need a constant mix of all of these factors to enable me to feel satisfied and balanced. Music does provide an important stimulation but at times this is not enough, hence my academic and other pursuits.


What do you think are the biggest problems faced by musicians, relating to their mental health? Are substance misuse problems almost ubiquitous, as we are led to believe?

I think there are many innate struggles for the aspiring professional musician. Many of these have always been apparent yet some are becoming ever more problematic. Currently in London we are faced with the increasing amount of venue closures, which limits the performance opportunities for professional musicians. Together with the financial devaluation of music sales, this has put even more pressure on the modern musician.

Traditionally, ‘being a musician’ has always been a difficult path with factors such as late nights, touring, relational stress and financial insecurity contributing negatively to mental health. Substance misuse also has a big impact. Although drink and drugs are rife in the music industry (especially in my genre), I do feel people are becoming more aware of the damage that can be caused. There seems to be an overt attempt to learn from the mistakes of the previous generations which also goes hand in hand with the current trend of health consciousness.


Are drummers really an especially eccentric group?!

From own experience of being a drummer I don’t feel that we are an especially eccentric group. On the contrary, I think that we are the more stable of the group, especially nowadays when we are competing with a drum machine or a laptop!


In a previous blog post, I made reference to an article on mental health issues in music, and how it is important to consider differences between normal life challenges and more serious mental health problems. Aside from therapy at an individual level, what sort of initiatives might help at a group level?

I feel this is a complex area as indeed there is a great overlap between the two. What could be construed as a serious mental health problem by one person could perhaps be a normal life challenge for another.

From my work as both a musician and a therapist, I think the most impactful resource we all have is connection. To be able to connect deeply and authentically with another, to feel truly heard, is the most potent thing we have. Unfortunately in our age of social media I feel we are in fact doing the opposite. We construct our false selves to appeal to others then wonder why we lose the sense of who we really are.


I'd imagine that listening to music is a major part of your life. Outside of listening for professional reasons, how does this fit in to your daily life? What do you listen to for relaxation?

I don’t listen as much as I used to, but I generally use my travel time to listen to new music. When it comes to relaxation I listen to a lot of folk music, I like the simplicity and humanness on which it is built. The less production, the better. I look for purity and connectedness.


Can you give us a few selections of music that's been especially important in your life and career?

Important tracks in my life have been the following:

The band were my first love which inspired me and a bunch of school friends to want to be in a band and escape our council estate detainment.

This track was incredibly therapeutic for me during a bleak and troublesome period in my late teens. It was the closest to ‘non-being’ I have ever encountered and the music of The Smiths somehow helped to connect me to a resilience I never knew I had. Something about the timbre of the vocal, more so than the actual lyrical content, helped to soothe during difficult times.

I had managed to clamber up and embark up on a degree in Jazz and knew nothing about the genre. Bebop was confusing with no sense of melody back then and this track helped me to understand how soulful it could be. I subsequently evolved and now spend many hours indulging as an aspiring bebop guitar player!

I played the drums on this track. it was my first commercial recording and I was proud to see my name on a real musical artefact. It was during this time where I became aware of the merits of music production especially in regards to drum programming and the limitless creativity it beholds.

The was our first top ten single which set me on my journey of becoming a bona fide Z-list ‘rock star’. It was messy, under-produced, substance fuelled and emotional like our joint states of mind at the time. During the recording of the song both my mother and the guitar player’s father died of cancer and the band was on the verge of implosion. It was an incredibly fractious time.

This track was my first single as a solo artist which enabled me to get signed to EMI. The company was subsequently taken over and my album became embroiled in a legal stand-off. I eventually retained ownership. The song is a somewhat twee and naïve insight into the beginning of my own adventure of moving out from behind the drums.

This is from my most recent EP. I feel like I’m just getting near to where I want to be in terms of musicality and prowess on guitar.


Given your background, we'd also be interested in any tracks you think have therapeutic potential.

Therapeutically, I feel it is a total subjective choice. I’ve recently read a good book by Trisha Ready called ‘Music in Therapeutic Practice’, in which she discusses letting her patients chose their own music. I like this idea, as many people have their own reactions from their musical choices whether this be nostalgia, lyrically or musically informed.


I will be chastised if I don't ask for at least one rock and roll story – can you give us one?!

We were in Italy playing a club called the Piper Room when suddenly I felt a heavy blow to my face. An audience member thought it a fantastic idea to launch a bottle which subsequently struck me full in the face, unsettling four of my teeth. I didn’t realise what had happened so attempted to gather myself and play on. I finished the song and collapsed!

21/09/2017 10:56:53

Instrumental and ambient music

I’ve been listening to more and more instrumental music over the last few years. While I continue to appreciate quality songwriting and lyrics, for me, the absence of words perhaps allows a more direct or visceral connection with the piece. In particular, I think that the relaxing and meditative qualities of music may be best enjoyed in this format. This tradition in western music can be traced back to classical composers, for example JS Bach and Chopin. However, it was Erik Satie who was the first to express the idea of music specifically as background sound, for example at social gatherings, where its role was to create an ambience, rather than exist as the focus of attention. Satie did not believe that such music was inferior, rather that it simply fulfilled a different function.

Erik SatieErik Satie

I believe there is a natural progression from Chopin through Satie to the works of Bill Evans and other jazz musicians in the 20th century, and later to minimalist contemporary composers like Phillip Glass. In this way, the category of ambient music was in emergence well before Brian Eno and others formalised it in the 1970s. However, Eno’s Music for Airports (recommended by electronic musician Paul Whelan in our interview) remains a highlight of the genre, and a touchstone for many artists since. I can say from personal experience that it certainly takes the edge off queuing at Stansted and Gatwick!


Therapeutic qualities

On a more serious note, ambient music has been shown to ease physical pain and has been associated with reduced agitation in dementia. I’ve long suspected that ambient music may also have utility for the many individuals who suffer from a distressing level of baseline anxiety in their everyday lives. This recent piece (and accompanying video) supports this view and gives a useful insight into the mechanisms by which the subtle and spacious sounds of ambient music may reduce anxiety. Eno himself has gone on to explore the therapeutic potential of ambient music within some interesting projects, as discussed here.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno


Contemporary ambient music

Ambient music moved into the modern era mainly in the form of electronica, through the work of pioneers such as Aphex Twin. However, its influence has also spilled over into other genres such as hip-hop, indie rock and folk. This excellent collaboration from Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita (who play at the Barbican soon) could perhaps be classified as ambient world music. I find the connection between West African and Cuban music to be fascinating, and this is a fine example.

Ambient music is derided in some circles, and certainly for the more critical listener, some varieties are best avoided- sorry, Enya. However, it has also come to be appreciated by music critics. Other recent exponents of the ambient tradition include critically acclaimed ECM artists such as Tord Gustavsen, interviewed here in 2013, and Nils Frahm, who plays two sold out shows at the Barbican next February. Frahm’s variety of output and crossover appeal has led to enormous popularity, which continues to grow. While the tempo and tone of his work varies, his quieter albums (such as Solo and Screws) certainly have a meditative quality. In a Guardian interview last year, he spoke about his wish to ‘act as a psychologist’ in engaging with his audience in live performance.

Nils Frahm

Nils Frahm

Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita

Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita


Final thoughts

I thought I would conclude this piece by adding a playlist for our readers and listeners to enjoy. Hopefully somewhere in the coming weeks, it might provide a starting point for anyone looking to turn to ambient music for relaxation and dealing with everyday anxiety, or at least aid some of our followers on a stressful commute home! I would be delighted for readers to send further suggestions to add to the mix (email at or find us on Twitter @MindsinMusic).

A final note for now is to mention that I am continuing to try to broaden the scope of the blog, to incorporate a wider selection of musical styles, and people from different backgrounds. Women, and those from outside of the UK and Ireland, remain underrepresented here, despite my efforts to include. The role of hip-hop in mental health has been well covered by HipHop Psych, but I would love to hear from anyone with an interest in music from outside the western tradition, such as traditional African and Asian music. As ever, I am open to suggestions on any matters related to music and mental health.




Other reading

21/12/2017 12:18:22

Music, grief, and dying

Many people, including many mental health professionals, feel that normal grief is wrongly and increasingly pathologised. Symptoms of grief are certainly not the exclusive domain of mental health professionals, and often our role is quite peripheral. Yet developing insights into coping mechanisms may be beneficial to us and our patients.

Music may have a role here. At a clinical level, there is some evidence for benefit of music therapy in complicated grief and for bereaved children and adolescents. Music may also useful in palliative care, where tentative findings suggest it may be beneficial for dying patients, and for potentially for caregivers. Beyond this, music may also have a role in helping with acceptance of death as part of our lives and finding meaning through experience of grief.

The music people turn to at times like this will of course vary, and may not even explore death or grief as themes. However, I find music specifically about these themes to be an interesting, if challenging area. A balance must be struck between profundity and potential for transcending or alleviating sadness. Successful examples abound in classical music, and some of these are discussed here and here. Lyrics about grief, on the other hand, are a trickier business. This is perhaps because expressing such life changing experiences in words is somewhat more difficult, especially in a time of mourning. I thought I explore some of the more successful examples here.


Neil Young’s classic double-bill on grief

Two albums by Neil Young released in the early 1970s have become legendary as raw evocations of grief and mourning- Tonight’s the Night (recorded in 1973 but released in 1975) and On The Beach (1974). The death in 1972 of Young’s bandmate Danny Whitten, within days of being fired by Young, has been well documented. Young himself was awash in a haze of alcohol and drugs during this period, and had watched various peers, some close to him, succumb to heroin addiction. His live performances had become confrontational and ragged, and his relationships were breaking down.

Remarkably, he managed to create some of the most interesting and challenging music of his career at this time. While ‘Tonight’s the Night’ can be a hard listen, requiring some framing in context, ‘On The Beach’ contains some of his deftest songwriting, particularly on side two (must be listened to on vinyl of course!), and pleasingly unorthodox melodic compositions. Nice overviews are available here and here, but those interested in a glimpse into both the heights and hazards of 1970s rock and roll lifestyle should turn to Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 biography of Young, for a rollercoaster read.

Album covers for Neil Young's 'Tonight's the Night' and 'On the Beach'

Iconic album sleeves for Tonight's the Night (left) and On the Beach (right)


Contemporary examples

Some more contemporary songwriting also warrants a mention here. ‘Carrie and Lowell’ by Sufjan Stevens and ‘The Soft Bulletin’ by The Flaming lips are repeatedly cited as well executed albums on themes of death and grief. While the music and lyrics are often direct, inventive instrumentation and harmonies prevent the music being bogged down in sorrow. ‘Electro-shock Blues’ by Eels also features on lists of best works about grief. This album is notable as the band’s central figure ‘E’ (Mark Oliver Everett) was mourning not only the death of his mother from cancer, but the suicide of his sister, who suffered from mental illness. Again, the album is inventive, and the grim humour infused in some of the lyrics offers respite from the weighty themes at hand. These three albums are all discussed in this thoughtful piece.

More recently, David Bowie’s brilliant ‘Blackstar’, released immediately before his death in 2016, is essential listening for anyone interested in this area. It showcases Bowie’s defiance and even audacity in the face of his terminal illness, and features some of the most inventive music of his career. Similarly, ‘Soul of a Woman’, the last album by soul legend Sharon Jones, was posthumously released to some acclaim this year.

'Blackstar'-era David Bowie

‘Blackstar’ era Bowie

'E' from Eels

‘E’ from Eels

Also released in 2016, ‘Skeleton Tree’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds has received a lot of attention, as its release followed the tragic death of Cave’s son, Arthur. Although the songs were composed prior to the tragedy, and much of the recording had also been completed, some lyrics were rewritten and improvised afterwards. Whatever the timeline, the musical production and vocal performances are certainly riveting, even chilling at times, and there are parallels with ‘Blackstar’, in that it is impossible to disentangle the songs and music from associated events. The lyrics do not perhaps meet Cave’s usual standards of craftsmanship and poetic nuance, but perhaps the more direct style represents his yielding to the gravity of his situation. A recent live performance, consisting mostly of these songs, was hailed as a triumph.

Cave has been criticised at times throughout his career for wallowing in darker themes, supposedly without having the sufficient life experience to address these. However, he struggled with heroin addiction in the 1980s, having lost his beloved father as a teenager, something he discussed with psychoanalyst in Darian Leader 2014’s ’20,000 Days on Earth’. To my mind, his consistent creative response in the face of tragedy carries a hopeful message, rather than a bleak one.

Nick Cave in a still from ‘One More time with Feeling’

Nick Cave in a still from ‘One More time with Feeling’, a film documenting the

making of the album ‘Skeleton Tree’


Final thoughts

On that note, I’ll promise to kick off 2018 with a somewhat cheerier piece! We’re continuing to develop ideas for the blog and are currently looking at a potential affiliated event in the coming year. Here, I’m continuing my new strategy of including a Spotify playlist, which I hope our readers will enjoy. As ever, I welcome suggestions to add, and discussion here and on Twitter.

01/06/2017 10:42:42

Music and cognitive styles- -

David M GreenbergDavid M Greenberg is a music psychologist at the University of Cambridge and City University of New York, and a visiting researcher at the Autism Research Centre. His research has explored how personality and thinking styles predict musical preferences and musical ability. He also researches musical talent in autism and how music can improve mental health. In 2015, he was awarded the Early Career Research Award by the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM) for the development of a novel model of musical engagement.


His work has been reported on CNN, BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and The Atlantic, among others. He has appeared on television and radio and has worked with companies like Spotify and National Geographic to create scientifically informed formats for users. He also created the Musical Universe Project, where people can take various scientific music and psychological quizzes and receive feedback about their scores--over 100,000 people have taken part so far. 

I found this interesting article online, based on research David conducted alongside Simon Baron-Cohen and others. As well as piquing my interest as a music fan, it made me curious about the possible research and clinical implications of his findings. I spoke to him about this and his own experiences in music and psychology research.



What drew you to this type of research?


Music has been my passion since I was born. I’m convinced that music helped save my life when I was in the hospital for an illness at just 2 weeks old. Throughout my entire life since, I’ve gravitated to the healing aspects of music and its transformative nature. Research is one of the ways that I try to unlock the many mysteries about music. The other way is through my pursuits as a musician. Most musicians are scientists but don’t know it - their testing lab is on the stage in front of a live audience.


What insights do you think this research can add, that more traditional cognitive psychology approaches may not?


It’s been my long-standing belief that musicians know many of the answers to the questions that scientists are trying to explore. They are living and breathing it every day. However, when musicians enter the scientific arena, this is when interesting findings begin to emerge. One of the researchers I admire most is Dr Charles Limb.

He’s a saxophonist and pianist, but also a surgeon and scientific researcher. He’s done some great work on how improvisation is linked to autobiographical memory using brain scanning. [See here for an example].


You have gone to some lengths in your 2015 study (published in PLoS one) to be specific about the types of music you select, moving beyond traditional definitions of genre and using categories such as ‘sophisticated’ and ‘unpretentious’. It might be argued though that such categorisations are somewhat subjective, and that an individual song might fall into more than one category. How do you identify songs or pieces of music which best fit these categories?


In a further study published last year, we found that musical attributes could be organized into three basic dimensions: arousal (energy in music), valence (emotions in music), and depth (intellect and complexity in music). Thus, we could take any piece of music and give it a rating on each of these three dimensions. It’s not that a song fits into just one category, but rather we can score any song on all three of these dimensions. We can also get more fine-grained and rate each song based on 40 detailed features (e.g. specific emotions, moods, or sonic elements). These dimensions and attributes are based on people’s perceptions of music and for the most part they have high agreement about the qualities that they’re hearing in the music.


People who score high on ‘systemising’ favour intense music, and tend to dislike mellow and unpretentious musical styles





People who score high on ‘systemising’ favour intense music, and tend to dislike mellow and unpretentious musical styles






What do you think are the most important implications of your research? In particular, we would be interested to know about effects of music on empathy and potential applications to clinical settings.


The most important applications are for health and clinical settings and also for industry. We are now using big data to try and see how music facilitates changes in mood, behaviour, and personality, in the short and long-term. One of the main traits we are targeting is empathy. We are trying to map the types of music that can increase empathy for individuals and groups. We are also interested in understanding how music can facilities dialogue and bonding between groups and cultures that are in conflict. There are already orchestras, choirs, and organizations around the world that are doing this work first hand, and we’re trying to establish a scientific basis to clarify phenomenon that we perceive exists.


Further, we’re working to apply this knowledge to industry settings so that music is delivered in an optimal way to the listener. I am continually approached by cutting-edge companies wanting to learn more about the links between music and personality. This is a good thing, because ultimately it will enhance the musical experience for people around the world.


We also want to take music research and make it applicable and useful for music therapists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. Further, we want to apply this research to hospital settings. We already know from research that listening to music post-surgery increases recovery rates. But little is known how different types of music can speed up the process. We want to further this research so that music will be used as a supplement to pharmaceuticals to ease pain for people who are ill or who are in recovery. 



David M Greenberg







David in musician mode















Do you think listening to live music has a bearing on how it is processed? I would suggest that watching a jazz or classical musician master their instrument might increase both understanding of and empathy for the music, for example. 


Although listening to music or recording r live streaming is beautiful, and useful for many settings and objectives, there is nothing like listening and participating in live music. The way in which the emotions and energy of the music is transmitted is on an entirely different plane, than when listening with headphones. This is why music therapy is so important and effective—live music interaction can be healing and transformative and can’t be replaced.


You are a trained saxophonist. Can you tell us a little about your own musical background, and how you developed your skills?


My first instrument was saxophone, but I am now diving more into voice, African drums, and sacred music. I was very lucky to have music teachers growing up who taught me the fundamentals and importance of and improvisation and musical self-expression. My saxophone teacher Dave LeCompte had been taught by one of John Coltrane’s teachers, so he taught me from that perspective—he unlocked everything for me. And my high school jazz band teacher Robert Reimer, taught us about where to find our heart inside the music—and perhaps even more important, taught us through music about self-respect, pride, and what it means to be a team member, each person responsible for the other. These are people that I’ve been blessed with to have had around me to teach me what music is all about—because it’s about much more than just learning how to play music.


Do you play much music now? If so, how do you balance this with your professional career? What are the main benefits of continuing to play do you think?


I play music every chance I get. Now that I’m into voice, I sing anywhere I can, including while in transit on the NYC subway, which would be hard to do with a saxophone or drums. It doesn’t always work out though—just a few weeks ago there was a 5 year-old girl on the subway train who started yelling at me to “stop singing”. It was quite funny.  


Like I mentioned I was trained in jazz improvisation, but what I loved the most was the spiritual side of jazz and the music of John Coltrane and others. Recently I’ve been learning more eastern and sacred music and have been learning from teachers who have that inclination. I’m not only learning about how to play and use the music but also their belief systems about music. There’s music that’s been passed down for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they have incredibly powerful healing qualities.


Currently, I’m very interested in teaching people about music and how it can unlock creativity and healing. In my undergraduate Psychology of Music class, I would bring in the djembe and teach songs that we sang as a group. We created a type of singing community. By the end of the class each of the students was teaching the class their own melodies and songs that they created. We can rediscover ourselves through music, and my hope it create a platform for people to do that.


Can you select some of your favourite pieces, ideally from different categories of your novel system?


Here’s a visual that a writer at Stanford University created based on the Arousal, Valence, Depth model.

Arousal, Valence, Depth model

















01/03/2017 11:21:27

Music Therapy

Need for a critical perspective

Music TherapyI recently came across this excellent article in the Lancet (co-authored by Professor Desmond O’Neill, who I also plan to interview soon). It calls for a need for a reflective and critical perspective on the role of the humanities in healthcare.

This very point has been on my mind of late. As someone with a strong interest in music in particular and the arts more widely, I realise that I am not without bias in exploring the potential applications of music and arts therapies in clinical settings. These interventions are mostly viewed by the public and doctors as benign and harmless at worst, and as potentially wondrous and life-changing by some. Yet, like all interventions in healthcare settings, they need to be subject to scrutiny for effectiveness, cost analysis and, importantly, potential unwanted outcomes. What works for some may not work for others and pressurising anyone into a potential form of therapy raises ethical questions.

Music TherapyI have touched on some evidence base in the blog before, but mostly the blog has been speculative on this front. With this in mind, I did some further digging on the benefits of music therapy in mental health settings. I was mostly interested in high-quality evidence, from systematic review and metanalysis. I recall having read a 2008 Cochrane review, which suggested that while music therapy may have some benefits, the number of quality studies was very small and caution was required.

I was pleasantly surprised then to find that more recent work in this area, at the level of RCT or systematic review, has suggested benefits not only in depression, but also in other mental disorders including psychosis, dementia, autism, acquired brain injury. As a forensic psychiatrist, I was encouraged to read of work in correctional settings, where high rates of mental disorder are common. Further, music therapy appears to be well tolerated by almost all patients, and no specific adverse effects have been reported on, though it is not always clear if these have been considered.

So the current state of the field looks more promising, thanks to what seems like an increase in better quality research in this area over the last decade or so. Gaps remain however in our knowledge about precisely how these interventions work, what components may be especially useful, and which patients will respond less well. These areas warrant further exploration.

A music therapist’s perspective

A music therapist’s perspectiveI thought readers might also be interested in what music therapy specifically entails. The British Association of Music Therapists website gives an overview, including an historic perspective. Mind’s website provides some useful information also, stating ‘you do not need to have any artistic skill or previous experience of dance, drama, music or visual art to find arts therapies helpful. The aim isn't to produce a great work of art, but to use what you create to understand yourself better.’ This echoes Carl Jung’s view of art therapy, which he quite clearly delineated from actual works of art.

To further our understanding, I spoke with music therapist, Hannah Smith, who has experience across a range of mental health settings.

How did you develop an interest in music therapy? Are you a musician yourself? What qualifications did you pursue?

My personal background stems from having a musical family of sisters playing music, and growing up wanting to be part of the groups they played in having seen them perform and the friendships they made through their music. I learnt violin and bassoon through my school years, and was always motivated by playing with others.

As I got older, I wanted to maintain my music and had a keen interest in psychology and counselling/therapy - someone then uttered the term 'Music Therapist' at a careers evening in my GCSE years, and I looked in to the profession. I started by meeting a Music Therapist in a local hospice, volunteered there and in numerous other relevant settings, and studied Psychology and Music for my Undergraduate Degree, before applying to the Masters in Music Therapy at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I still play in an orchestra for my own enjoyment and musicianship.

To be a Music Therapist, it is also imperative that you play at least one instrument to a high level (usually diploma or above is required), the psychology and therapy theory and techniques are what are taught and developed during training.

Can you tell us a little about your current work in this area?

I currently work two days a week in secure and forensic services for the NHS, and previously worked in an acute mental health hospital, also for the NHS. In both settings, I have provided a mixture of group and individual sessions, both on and off ward. Sessions are tailored to client need, with thoughts around timing, context, duration, and therapeutic aims. In forensic services, there is also consideration of a client's index offence – both in terms of work to be done in therapy, and aspects of safety and risk.

Some group sessions are open to all patients on a given ward – I run drumming groups to promote engagement in accessible group music, active participation, group cohesion and the widely evidenced benefits that drumming is known to have upon mental and physical health. Others are closed, by referral only, and involve a more ‘classic’ approach of engaging clients in improvised music making, for self-expression, rehabilitation, emotional regulation, building insight and developing relationships with others. I also work in children’s services for another NHS Trust, three days per week.

What are the main challenges you face as a music therapist?

The most common questions asked of Music Therapists, are ‘What is Music Therapy?’ and ‘Does it work?’. I used to find this very frustrating in the early days, feeling like I was constantly having to justify my chosen career, until a colleague made the valid point that as a relatively small profession, for most people we meet in life, we will be the first Music Therapist they have ever met. Realising the weight of this, changed my view, to consider the importance of these questions, and the importance of being open to them in order to nurture individual and societal understanding of the work we do, how, why, and the developments our clients make.

What aspects do you find most interesting and rewarding?

I find group music making with adults can be incredibly rewarding. To facilitate a group of individuals, who may initially be unsure about attending and reticent of making music together, and to support them grow and come together, engaging in improvisation, to share the moment that they may discover or rediscover their own creative capacity, take risks to express themselves authentically, can be very special.

To offer an alternative means of interacting, to gain insight into parts of a person which may not be accessed or observed by other professionals, is a privilege. When these groups ‘let go’ and are able to ‘be’ in the music, in that moment, the significance in the room is palpable. This may take many weeks to achieve, or occur within a single session. At times I can go a step further and break from my own music making, when I am no-longer essential to holding the group sound, and the group has the strength and confidence to maintain its own music. I love to sit out and listen, observe and re-join the music once my clients have hopefully realised what they have achieved together.

Any particular success stories you would like to share?

I would say that the moments of success are what matter to me – the group coming together, the individual managing to stay in the room for the full session time without their anxieties overwhelming them, the individual holding a CD that we have recorded together of songs they may have written or covered which having meaning to them, or even the client that initially couldn’t bear to identify an instrument to play but who manages to be at ease within the room and explore items with a sense of curiosity and trust for the therapeutic space.


20/12/2016 11:42:12

So Long, Mr Cohen

Leonard Cohen


Songs of
Love and Hope



Due to the insightful nature of his work, and its thematic content, I have considered featuring Leonard Cohen for some time in the blog. His recent passing prompted me to complete this piece. Several modern musical greats have died this year, and to many, he is one of the greatest.

Alongside Bob Dylan, Cohen was instrumental in evolution of the poetic tradition in popular song, from the 1960s onwards. His style differed from Dylan’s, being leaner and arguably more finely crafted, reflecting his background as an established poet and novelist prior to his songwriting career. Leonard Cohen

Cohen’s fascinating life story has been well covered in several biographies and some excellent profiles, including a recent and prescient New Yorker piece, and ‘Bird on a Wire’, an intriguing documentary from an early 1970s tour. Cohen however hated clichés and I think he would also dislike much of what was written before and since his death, which has repeated hackneyed stories about his life and music. Hence, I will spare him, and our readers, any (further) mention here of Janis Joplin, American Idol covers, or trite interpretations of his songs as 'suicide’ music. 

Instead, I thought the best approach would be to create a themed playlist (available for Spotify users here) from his formidable body of work, which is relevant to mental health, and broader contemporary concerns. I have selected mostly lesser-known songs which I hope might provide another perspective on his skills as a writer and observer of human nature. He was a master of economy in his writing, and thus I have also tried to keep it brief! As ever, I welcome feedback and commentary, and I am particularly interested to know of readers’ favourite songs, especially those which may be less widely known, and of personal experience with his music.

This is my last blog post for 2016. Next year, I hope to feature a range of subjects, from choir singers and music therapy to female rock performers and the role of music in later life. I am open to suggestions and perspectives from any source, and on any genre. 

The Weight of Depression

I always found criticisms of Cohen’s music as ‘depressing’ to be very superficial. He interjected his work with distinctive black humour, and enriched it with philosophical reflection and references to religious and historical texts. Many of his songs reflect great hope and belief in the better nature of individuals. Personally, I find most of his music to be soulful, meditative and soothing.

However, his output over many years did suggest that he struggled with mental turmoil beyond average experience, starting with the haunting ‘Teachers’ on his eponymous debut album. In an interview in 2012, he described his experience of depression as "the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse.” Eventually, he reported, “by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life.” 

I have chosen four songs that perhaps reflect these struggles the most. ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ are both from ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ (1971), perhaps Cohen’s bleakest album. Amongst other things, both powerfully capture the hopelessness and self-loathing that can result from a depressive illness. ‘By the Rivers Dark’ and ‘Almost like the Blues’ are more recent works, rich with allusion to religion and his spiritual life, but which may also be interpreted as commentaries on his experiences of depression.

Social consciousness in a tumultuous era

Something of an elder statesman, or at least older brother, by the time he arrived on the music scene in the 1960s, Cohen witnessed massive social and political upheaval in his lifetime. Here, as ever, he did not follow a prescribed path, expressing for example a fascination with war and being close to war zones in the early 70s. His political views, when articulated, appeared more complex and subtle than the mores of his 60s contemporaries or simplistic left-right definitions would allow. Nonetheless, it is clear that social issues, particularly about violence and moral decay, concerned him throughout his life. This is reflected in the songs selected below. At the end of this year of political turmoil, they offer the perspective of a compassionate and sensitive individual, aghast at cruelty and inequality, but alternately hopeful about humanity.

Leonard Cohen

The Future

Everybody Knows

The Land of Plenty

Heart with no Companion

Conflict between the spiritual and material world

Cohen’s fascination with spirituality is widely known. Proud of his Jewish heritage, he frequently referred to the bible in his songs. He also pursued other religious traditions, including Hinduism and most famously, a 6-year retreat to a Buddhist monastery in California in the 1990s, where he led a spartan existence. On the other hand, he was also a bon vivant, who relished smoking, fine wine, expensive suits, and romantic encounters with beautiful and glamorous women, many of which have been well documented. He was conscious of this apparent contradiction and the conflict that it created in his life, and he spoke about it insightfully and with great humour in many interviews throughout his career. There was also a tension between his unerring commitment to his craft and his reluctance to commit to conventional roles as a partner and a father. The songs listed here explore these dilemmas, with his characteristic intelligence, compassion and of course, poetic flair. ‘It Seemed the Better Way’ is from his final album, released weeks before his death. 

Leonard Cohen

Waiting for the Miracle 

A Thousand Kisses Deep 

Did I Ever Love You

It Seemed the Better Way





14/10/2016 09:44:13

Jazz Icons on Film

Jazz Icons on Film

Two recent film releases have prompted this piece, though several of the artists featured here have been on my list for a while. They all share a history of drug problems, complex lives and artistic brilliance.

The films in question are ‘Born to be Blue’, and ‘Miles Ahead’, loosely based on the lives and times of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, respectively. There are striking similarities between the films. Both concern gifted trumpet players with a history of heroin use. Both focus on periods leading up to comebacks in the musicians’ respective careers. Interestingly, both also take what may kindly be dubbed an ‘improvisational’ approach to their subject, perhaps in keeping with the music in question. Large segments of each film may be viewed as extrapolations based on real events- or outright fiction, depending on one’s persuasion. I should confess that I am not usually a fan of this style of bio-pic (The King’s Speech being a particular bugbear of mine), but in the spirit of appreciating a good jazz solo, I decided to go with the flow in both instances. Two great soundtracks helped, of course.


For my money, ‘Miles Ahead’ is the more rewarding effort. Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis to great effect, complete with intimidating swagger and trademark rasp. Although the fictional sub-plot (complete with gun-toting villains and car chase) is distracting, Ewan McGregor’s character, a believably amoral music journalist, provides an interesting foil for Cheadle’s portrayal. This is of a burned out Davis, stubbornly avoiding the world, while on one level desperately seeking a way to reengage with his talent and career. Though factual accuracy is not high on the agenda, there is verisimilitude in the film’s capturing a spirit of initial hopelessness and subsequent revival in keeping with Davis’ actual biography in the mid to late 1970s.


Disappointingly, ‘Born to be Blue’ is less successful. Chet Baker has been on my list of potential subjects for some time, due to his enormously colourful personal life, as well as his splendid music. Renowned for having great ‘natural’ ability, Baker was widely respected as one of the most talented trumpeters of his generation and combined his musical skill, fervent ambition and exceptional good looks to create a brilliant early career. Yet Baker was also a recalcitrant individual, whose extreme behaviour and drug use led to continuous conflict with authorities, including an 18-month prison term in Italy in the early 1960s. He left behind a string of broken marriages, tarnished by his domestic abuse, and appears to have woefully neglected his children. He could be manipulative and deceitful, often in his quest to maintain his drug habit. ‘Born to be Blue’ reflects some of this, but while the portrayal by Ethan Hawke is skilful in reflecting Baker’s mannerisms and approach to music, it is ultimately overly sympathetic. Due to the sheer volume of potential material to be covered in a feature-length film, ‘Born to be Blue’ may perhaps be forgiven for fusing together characters and incidents from Baker’s life into simplified versions, but few of Baker’s less appealing characteristics are captured, and the lingering feeling is one of an incomplete portrait.

Chet Baker - Let's get lost


Bird and Round Midnight


For a more satisfying take on the real thing, readers should seek out Bruce Weber's Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’. Though sometimes meandering, the film is unflinching, moving and sometimes unsettling, revealing deeper truths about Baker’s life, including the trail of emotional destruction he left in his wake. While Weber greatly admired Baker, and was clearly sympathetic to his struggles with addiction, he also gives voice to many intimate contacts who were betrayed or ill-treated by his subject. The result in a much more nuanced and realistic account of a brilliant and troubled individual. To my mind, he would probably have met criteria for antisocial personality disorder, to my ears, his music retains its allure.

Two further films from the 1980s merit a mention here. Firstly, ‘Round Midnight’ (1986), directed by the French director Bertrand Tavernier. The film stars legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner, a fictional American jazz musician in the 1950s. Turner is thought to represent a spiritual likeness of real-life contemporaries of Gordon, namely Lester Young and, particularly, Bud Powell (whose tragic biography is synopsized here). The film is understated and slow-moving, but enlivened by the performance of Gordon, who received an Oscar nomination for his outstanding portrayal. Again, the soundtrack is hugely enjoyable, and the Paris jazz-club scenes are captivating. Secondly, Clint Eastwood’s ‘Bird’ (1988), about the life of Charlie Parker, is a must-watch for anyone interested in jazz or the lives of its icons. Not without its critics, again largely for playing loose with the facts, it is nonetheless a fascinating work. Highly influential in the development of bepop jazz, Parker was probably the first jazz icon to be widely known as a heroin addict, and tragically died as the result of his drug use at the age of just 34. Forrest Whitaker’s startling portrayal alone is worth the watch- all 155 minutes.


I welcome feedback on these films from readers, and suggestions on other jazz films of note. We also have an active Twitter account for the blog, where I am always happy to take suggestions for other pieces and interviews.


(Note- I will feature ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ in a future piece on Billie Holiday.)


Other suggested reading:


Richard Brody’s hard-hitting takedown of the widely-lauded ‘Whiplash’.


Joe Queenan’s Guardian review of ‘Born to be Blue’ and ‘Miles Ahead’



Musical recommendations:


Miles Davis ‘The Pan Piper’ from ‘Sketches of Spain’, one of his most celebrated albums.


Chet Baker sings and plays ‘Almost Blue’, written by Elvis Costello, inspired in turn by Baker.


Dexter Gordon in ‘Round Midnight’.


Charlie Parker (as played by Forrest Whitaker) in ‘Bird’.


Login - Members Area

If you don't have an account please Click here to Register

Make a Donation

Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.