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

Minds in Music

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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!

21/12/2017 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.

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

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’.


14/07/2016 10:53:29

Members Interview: Professor Harry Kennedy

Professor Harry KennedyProfessor Harry Kennedy is consultant forensic psychiatrist and executive clinical director at the National Forensic Mental Health Service, Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, Ireland. He is also Clinical Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. He studied medicine at University College Dublin before training in psychiatry and forensic psychiatry in the UK at Hammersmith Hospital and Maudsley /Institute of Psychiatry, London. He established early prison in-reach services in Pentonville, Holloway, Cloverhill and Mountjoy prisons. His research includes work on the epidemiology of suicide, homicide and violence; prison psychiatric morbidity; international human rights law and mental disabilities. He provides expert evidence in human rights cases including Whitemoor escapers (special secure units), Napier (slopping out), Z & G v Revenue (same sex marriage).

Professor Kennedy is also a musician. Some years back, I was somewhat startled to read in an interview with him in a medical news journal that in another life he would have liked to have been a full-time musician “in a very loud band”. In this lifetime, he has been content to play (loud) music on the side, and he speaks enthusiastically about the beneficial effects of listening to and of playing music, particularly in collaboration with others. For the blog, he spoke to me about these issues and other matters relating to music and mental health.

Who is your favourite musical artist or group and why?

I am listening to a lot of Snarky Puppy lately. I haven’t seen them live but they are great on YouTube. I like their ability to improvise around well rehearsed and scored music, and the way they bring in guests and young musicians. I always enjoy listening to Emma Kirby, Iarla O'Lionaird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Trevor Pinnock, Peter McCarthy. And The Doors, The Gloaming, Massive Attack...

What was your greatest musical experience?

Hearing Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble playing in St Alban’s Cathedral – they walked around the aisles and nave ‘playing’ the building itself. Hearing Brian Wilson live in The Point came close. 

You play the bass guitar. What made you choose this? How did you learn?

A guitar teacher suggested it. Possibly because of the way I was trying to play, possibly because there are only four strings. My great good luck was to find friends who also wanted to play – a drummer, a guitarist, a keyboard player. Ensemble playing is a pleasure in itself. 

How do you make time to play music alongside your work as a psychiatrist? What benefits and challenges does this pose?

At home I am teased about my evening work pattern – ten minutes work, fifteen minutes on the bass, ten minutes work...

Does music have a role in mental health treatment? If so, are there any particular challenges in forensic settings?

WHO definitions of health can seem a bit perfectionist until you think about how much hospitalised patients enjoy any opportunity to be creative. If painting is self-actualisation, then playing music with other people is self-transcendence. The bands in Dundrum at the moment have a life of their own and are hugely popular, along with gardening, bee keeping and other activities that require group creativity.

What do you think is the mechanism by which listening to or playing music can help with mental health issues? We would be particularly interested with regard to your expertise on violence and aggression.

Music can as easily stir up violent feelings as friendly or calm feelings. Think about Wagner in Apocalypse Now, or the bronze age wind instruments used by armies going into battle. That’s the use of music for Dutch courage before acts of instrumental violence. The film Apocalypse Now also uses Hendrix and the Doors for expressive violence and self-harm respectively. Then there is the deliberate misuse of Beethoven in Clockwork Orange. These are examples of the use of music either to communicate something (the martial use for instance) or as an individual cue or prompt, a sort of aid to intoxication – think of the first scene in Apocalypse Now.

But music also works as a way into positive frames of mind – the countless examples are too obvious to be cited. Music is an emotive force but how it is used, personally or collectively, positively or negatively is a matter of choice.

Some of the interviews I have conducted here have raised the issue of the differences between performance, composition and improvisation. I know this is something that interests you also. Can you outline your views on this?

This is where the use of music in hospitals might be located. Performing is anxiety provoking. Overcoming that can generalise in all sorts of ways. Performing something written down is always an act of interpretation and even thinking about that is the beginnings of learning to think about thinking. This is something that often occupies the early phases of hospital treatment for people who are not psychologically minded to start with. Improvisation then becomes a real pleasure, a form of mastery over the fear of performance. But improvisation has the added element that it is generally done in a band setting with other musicians, exchanging ideas, taking turns, supporting the structure. That has benefits of its own.

You have also spoken about lecturing as performance and entertainment. Do psychiatrists, and academics in particular, have something to learn in this way from watching live music? What are the main challenges in balancing content with an appealing delivery? Any landmines to steer clear of?!

Anyone who prepares a talk for an audience should know that you can’t just read out a text, make no eye contact with the audience and then leave without further interaction. Planning how to draw an audience in, keeping an eye on them as you go along, engaging the audience in an improvisation at the end once the theme has been set up – obviously that’s a performance. I can remember hell and brimstone preachers occasionally from the early 1960s – are there modern equivalents?

There are bombastic hymns, there are lecturers who sometimes want to make fun of an audience or a rival point of view – politics is always a bad intrusion into academic communication. Of course we should be political, we should write journalism too (like this piece) but that’s not the same thing at all as speaking academically. Academic lecturing always includes evidence.

Most scientific communication is a work of collective creativity and would be impossible unless it was inclusive. The recent attempt to tighten the rules on authorship seem to me to be mistaken. But I occasionally hear other researchers citing something I have written in ways that surprise me – a bit like hearing someone covering a song you have written in a style you never anticipated.

We would be interested to know a little more about your own music. What style is it?

It’s very loud. And it’s a collective production, only partly ‘my own’. And a lot better for that.

Can you recommend a song or piece of music for our mental well-being?

Regularly playing any music at all with other people would be my recommendation. Next would be going out to live music.

18/04/2016 15:55:05

A Life On Tour: Niall Connolly

Niall Connolly













Niall Connolly. Photo: Anthony Mulcahy

Niall Connolly is a modern troubadour. Over the last 15 years, he has toured extensively throughout Europe and the USA, playing hundreds of concerts in a wide variety of venues. He has played house concerts in Holland, folk festivals in Germany and cafes in rural Belgium. He has also taken the stage at prestigious events and venues such as CMJ in New York, the Olympia theatre in Dublin and Glastonbury. He has played support to some of Ireland’s most successful modern music acts, including Mick Flannery, John Spillane and Declan O’Rourke. His admirers include Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner (“I cannot remember when I heard such a moving collection of songs”) and Glen Hansard of The Frames/Swell Season fame, who recently tweeted his support. He has performed for movie stars (Gabriel Byrne and Daniel Day Lewis at The New York Irish Arts Centre Gala) and heads of state (including recently as a ‘warm up’ act for Bill Clinton). His recent tour blog offers a witty insight into some of these adventures.

After beginning his career in his hometown of Cork, Niall moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2006. There he formed the Big City Folk Collective, providing a forum for a community of songwriters and musicians to perform and to hone their craft. During his time in New York, he has been instrumental in maintaining a live folk music scene throughout the city’s boroughs. The respect his fellow musicians and songwriters have for him is evident in their recording of a tribute album of his songs released in 2012.

Niall’s impassioned, vibrant and humour-laden performances have received wide critical acclaim, including from the Chicago Tribune and ‘No Depression’ magazine. He is also a respected recording artist. In 2001, his impressive debut album received warm praise from Hot Press magazine. Over time, his musical style evolved from the folk-infused lyrical songwriting of his 2003 album ‘As Tomorrow Creeps from the East’ to incorporate a fuller indie-rock sound, demonstrated on recordings such as 2010’s ‘Brother the Fight is Fixed’ and 2013’s ‘Sound’. A great admirer of Leonard Cohen, Niall’s songs exhibit a similar poetic fluency and emotional honesty. They also demonstrate a political awareness which calls to mind Billy Bragg and Steve Earle, a short story writer’s gift for condensed narrative, and a taste for spikey social commentary in the vein of Loudon Wainwright. While his songs are skilfully written and intelligent, they, like his live performances, are also warm and inclusive. His latest release, ‘All We Have Become’ (2015) is perhaps his most well-rounded album to date, incorporating songs from across his range of styles.

Niall is also a good friend of mine. I know him to be a robust and resourceful person who has carved out a career in a very competitive environment. I was interested in what he would have to tell us about the strains that life as a touring musician place on his mental health, and his experience in coping with the demands of such a lifestyle. Following his recent tour of the UK and Ireland, Niall took some time out to speak to me about his life on the road, and in music.


Niall on stage in Coughlan's, Cork
















Niall on stage in Coughlan’s, Cork, April 2016. Photo: Anthony Mulcahy.


JT: You have toured widely in many countries over 15 years. One of your early songs was called ‘Kindness of a Stranger’, about one of the encounters you had. How important has it been to you that strangers or relative strangers have lent a helping hand on your many journeys? Aside from practical help, how does this make a difference for you?

NC: I’d forgotten about that song! Touring for me is something of a tightrope walk. The safety net appears when I get on the rope. People are generally very open and kind to musicians. I wonder if it stems from people's respect for the gamble of a life less ordinary. It is such an unlikely way to live and in my experience of touring, people often connect with that and want to help.

People often tell me I am lucky or I am brave. I think it isn’t solely either of those things. Though the kindness of strangers certainly makes me braver and I know I am lucky. Still, it does take a lot of work to stay lucky.

Touring and consistently finding the kindness of strangers does give me a great lust for life. I so frequently get to see people at their best. In these dark times, I keep my eyes open to the everyday, random acts of kindness that people offer each other.
You have also spoken to me about the many stresses and strains of touring. A recent Guardian article made reference to this (though I felt somewhat conflated mental health problems with career dissatisfaction/existential angst!). What in your experience are the main problems that arise from being on the road? What are the best ways to deal with them? And the not so good ones?

The problems of touring are similar to those present in everyday life for everyone. But they are exacerbated by the nomadic aspects of life on tour. Poor diet, lack of exercise and sleep, too much drinking, loneliness, and financial stress can easily join forces and cause issues on tour. And the adrenaline of performance and the comedown that comes with it are additional factors.  Any combination of these can cause mental discomfort, if not mental health problems.

I try to be aware of all of these aspects. I try to be as prepared and as well researched as I can for tours, though of course there are aspects of tour, as with life, that are out of my control. A key issue is that I need to be ‘on’ when I am on stage. So much effort has gone into getting myself to the gig on time in any given city, that I do try to make sure that my mind is sharp while on stage. I plan my tours in as much detail as possible before I leave. I try to drink less than I want to. I walk as much as I can. I spend money on accommodation- sleep is not a luxury! I also pack (and sometimes use) a pair of running shoes- running serves the double purpose of providing exercise and also an opportunity for some time alone to reflect during the tour.

Does it get harder or easier over time?

I’ve gotten better at recognising where problems arise for me. For example, hangovers and travel are a horrible mix. I try to make reasonably healthy choices along the way. So physically, touring has actually become easier as I have gotten older, as I have become a bit more organized and developed a small bit more "sense".  A small bit! The hardest aspect of touring for me is being away from my wife. I hate being away for prolonged spells.

You have met many accomplished musicians from many different backgrounds. Have you noticed any common personality traits? What do you think are the characteristics that make it more likely a musician, particularly a touring musician, will endure or succeed?

Nearly all of the very successful people I have met are genuinely very nice people. They are shielded by confidence and belief in their work. This is not to be confused with arrogance- the belief is more in creating music rather than in themselves. Many of them seem very aware, and wary, of the more tenuous aspects of success.  They tend to be very interested and invested in their creativity. Most also chose their battles wisely. They are not afraid to say no to inappropriate gigs. Learning to know when to say ‘no’ is an ongoing lesson for me. 

Niall Connolly NYC















Niall oversees his kingdom of New York. Photo: Art-Heffron


What about the life of a full-time musician in Brooklyn/New York? What are the main changes that have happened in the last 10 years do you think? Have any of them been for the better? We would be interested in the role you feel the internet has played.

Venues are closing and changing hands with alarming frequency. Despite its reputation as a centre for creativity- or perhaps alongside this- the city seems to also have an endless appetite for banks, coffee chains and chemists. For example, Greenwich Village in Manhattan is now littered with chain stores.

The internet has certainly made booking and promoting gigs easier, but it has made the gigs themselves harder. We live in the age of distraction. In Brooklyn, like in any big city, people have so many options to choose from in every aspect of their lives. Even when people do choose to go out, and come to a gig, so many appear chained to their devices. In my experience, this is markedly worse in the US than in Ireland or Germany, for example. While video never quite killed the radio star, the smartphone seems intent on killing or at least maiming live performance.

The internet has also made it easier for people to record and distribute music, but it has also devalued it immensely. At one point, I had stern words with a friend for giving away CDs on tour. I used the argument that if it is not with $10 or $15 to you, the artist, why would anyone listen to it? We, the musicians, have to put a value on our work.

The internet has changed all industries. The music industry has changed and continues to change, so I need to be industrious, and become my own industry.

Many of our readers are interested in the link between mental health and inspiration/creativity. The cliché of the perpetually tortured artist doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny when examined closely: Will Oldham, who I featured some time back, made some interesting points on this, and Van Morrison has said he rarely feels inspired to create unless he has peace of mind. I know you are a big admirer of Tom Waits, who made arguably his best work when his personal life was most stable. Can you give us your perspective on this topic? What are the ideal conditions in which to write or compose, or is it different for each song?

I think it is certainly true that our experience of the world is different when we are at our wit's end, even exhausted, and it is certainly possible to create something different in that frame of mind. However, I don't ever seek that out, for it is equally true that I will experience the world differently when I am fully rested! Or after reading a great book, seeing a great film, or having a great conversation with an old friend.

As for writing- I gather ideas constantly. I eavesdrop. I keep my eyes open. I take notes. I write a lot on trains. The songwriting itself, the music part, well for that I need privacy or the illusion of privacy. Even my best songs are awful till they are good. My wife and I rent a railroad apartment in Brooklyn- it is long and narrow, so I can go to one end of it and pretend she can't really hear me strangling a song into shape.

I know you listen to an impressively broad range of music. How did your own tastes develop?

I started deliberately seeking out and listening to music at about 13. I liked REM, Nirvana, James, the Frank and Walters, the Sultans of Ping, indie pop, grunge and some of the more melodic punk stuff. My sister had some Dylan, Cohen, Waits, and I started delving into that too. Later, I worked in the music library in Cork for a spell. I broadened my listening somewhat there but I was, and still am, essentially drawn in by melody and words.

Can you select a few songs, ideally from different genres, which have been inspirational to you over the years?

Ahhhh... where to start?  This is an almost impossible task. So I won't overthink it and will just type what comes to mind.

Gillian Welch- Everything is Free Now
King Creosote and Jon Hopkins- Bubble
PJ Harvey - Sheela Na Gig
The Frank And Walters - Landslide
Ger Wolfe - the Curra Road/ She Scattered Crumbs/ One Star Left in the Window
Avro Pärt - Spiegel im Spiegel
We/Or/Me - The Dusty Roads
Will Oldham - I see a Darkness
Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Rain Coat/ Alexandra Leaving
Roesy - Take It With Me (Tom Waits Cover)
The Straight Story - Soundtrack
The Pixies - Where is My Mind?
Hawksley Workman - Safe and Sound
John Spillane- Who Will Burn Brightly?
E.W. Harris - Only Wind Up Dead

What do you listen to most on the road?

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. Those are great for solo travel. As I can switch off and still learn something. I actually listened to my first Audiobook in its entirely on the last tour. "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine". That was good for perspective!


23/02/2016 17:56:41

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.