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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Electronic music - Dr Paul Whelan

Pablo Del MonteDr Paul Whelan is an honorary consultant psychiatrist at the National Psychosis Unit, South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust.  He qualified in Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and undertook his psychiatric training in general adult and old age psychiatry in London.

Paul is also a DJ and producer, working in electronic music. His interest in dance music started in medical school, and early in his medical career he DJ’d under his own name, forming the band ‘Electro Convulsive Therapy’ (the name being a reference to both the style of music he was making at the time and his chosen medical speciality). His records have enjoyed commercial success - he has performed live on BBC Radio One and he was featured in a BMJ article on doctors in music in 2006. Paul is largely self-taught, although he has studied electronic music composition. Now based in London and using the name Pablo del Monte, he recently set up East Recordings, a specialist house music label.

I interviewed Paul for the blog and he provided some insight into this perhaps lesser-known musical genre.

For this blog, I have come across several doctors who are also musicians. You have had quite a unique experience, in that you have enjoyed commercial success from your music, as well as successfully pursuing your medical career. Has this made your decisions about which career path to follow easier or more difficult over the years?

First off, thanks for asking me to do this interview.  Yes, it has made it very hard in that I had to make a decision to leave music just at a point when we were on the point of considerable success so that I could focus on my membership exams.  I know a number of doctors work part time, and I do currently, but I didn’t feel at that point in my training I could do both.  Medicine can be quite all-consuming as a career and it can be very hard to find the correct work-life balance.

What drew you to electronic music? Have you completely immersed yourself in this or have you an interest in other genres?

I was drawn to electronic music the very first time I heard it.  I don’t know why but I prefer the sound of synthesisers to guitars, for example. I had four piano lessons as a kid (and gave up) but aside from that I’m not trained musically.  There are distinct advantages to me with regard to electronic music in the sense that I can write music using a sequencer in a computer without having to play it on a keyboard.  In fact, I rarely touch a keyboard. I do listen to other genres though. 

As well as DJ-ing, your involvement at Brick Lane Studios must have provided you with an insight into the world of business and marketing. You mentioned to me that healthcare services, in particular the NHS, may have something to learn from independent, start-up type businesses- can you tell us how?

As mentioned, I left music previously to finish my post-graduate medical training and I only started making music again three years ago.  In the interim two things happened in music: the internet boomed and cheap music-making software became available.  There is no price barrier to making professional music now and, as such, the number of people doing so has exploded exponentially.  At the same time music is being consumed in a very different way (i.e. streaming).  The net result is more people making music but less revenue available. 

As such, it is only those people who can successfully market themselves who can make a living from making music nowadays.  An artist has to be very social media savvy.  Businesses too.  Obviously the primary role of the NHS is to provide healthcare, but I think we are missing a trick, especially so in relation to public health medicine, by being less effective at social media than other sectors.  That said, the trust I work for (South London and Maudsley) is better at it than most, and I’ve noticed a trend in academia for increased use of social media.

I still don’t have the empirical evidence, but I do believe a disproportionate amount of psychiatrists are interested in music and the creative arts. Is there any link between making music and the choice of psychiatry as a medical specialty do you think?

I tend to agree.  Psychiatry is as much an art as it is a science.  Psychiatry is the medicine of thoughts and emotion.  Therefore it doesn’t surprise me that people who are more drawn to the creative arts choose it as a specialty.  But I wish I had a more concrete answer too as I always get asked this question at job interviews!

You mentioned your interest in the neuroscience of music and a recent piece here dealt with this to some degree. Have you come across any particularly interesting material in this area? How do you think research in this area might help move things forward in a practical way?

There have been huge strides in the field of cognitive neuroscience, i.e. the study of emotions, in the last decade.  We listen to music for a number reasons but primarily because it makes us feel (be that happy, or the cathartic effect of a sad song) and to feel connected to the world the people in it through cerebration or dance.  Music therapy has been around for years and Oliver Sacks book ‘Musicophilia’ covers this.  Music, at a very fundamental level, is sound vibrations and there is an interesting article on the American Psychological Association website about music being used to heal a range of health conditions through this mechanism.

I have a number of loose theories about music, but if I try and answer your question specifically and scientifically then I suppose research would need to clearly map the physical, cognitive, emotional and sociological process involved in experiencing music, drill down into which of these are therapeutic and then design trials to test these hypotheses in order to derive evidence-based music-based treatments- EBMBT, anyone?

Can you select some pieces of electronic music that may have healing properties? Or just some favourites to share with our readers.

I’ve selected four pieces that all have in common the elements that comprise good electronic music: they speak emotion with no words, simple repeated musical phases and textures.

The world’s first-ever ambient album, “Music for Airports”’ by Brian Eno.

Techno may not be your bag but I challenge you not to be moved by Maceo Plex’s “Conjure Dreams”.

The beautiful afro house of Henrik Schwarz’s “L’abeille”.

My friend from Dublin, Glen Brady’s “Once was Glamour” on my own label, East Recordings is a fine example of chill-out.

I can’t speak to their therapeutic properties, but “Music for Airports” certainly works for me whenever I get a bout of insomnia!

Paul will be performing at an electronic music event in East London on March 12th.


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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.