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

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.

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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.