Music and Depression
June 10, 2005 4:08 AM   Subscribe

The link between Music and Depression

I’m a guy who makes music. I had a moderately fucked up childhood, and am probably naturally introspective rather than supremely bubbly.

I suffered from severe depression about myself in my teens and have got a lot better through my 20’s, but have been feeling very trapped in an unfulfilling job, and very angry and frustrated with my situation rather than myself.

Over the last few days, I have been doing some positive thinking techniques that have made a real difference, learing to have more choice in emotions and not despair about my situation, learning to think positively about the future.

This is a good thing, but now I don’t know where I am with my music. I feel like I’ve lost the connection to the part of myself that the music comes from.

I make music that’s dark and edgy. I don’t believe that you have to be negative to make that kind of thing, and my music isn’t about depression or anything, but it seems like the anger and desperation was fuelling what I did, and now I feel more stable it’s not the same.

I definitely wouldn’t want to indulge in negativity for the sake of it, but I don’t really know where I am now. This is the kind of music I like and that my talent is for making, FWIW.

Has anyone else been through a similar thing?
posted by lunkfish to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Haven't been through this, but I can well imagine. Does listening to like-minded music help get you going? Or reading the right sort of stuff?

If you read the news, you should find sufficient darkness to inspire your music. Go ahead, feel good about yourself, there is plenty darkness outside to go around!

Learn to like something different. Your music doesn't have to be narrow (said he who can't work in a major scale worth a damn!). Triumph makes for rather good sound. precede with some darkness and conflict. Yummy!
posted by Goofyy at 4:20 AM on June 10, 2005

Maybe you should think about this in terms of cognitive energy available. If you are trying to teach yourself new habits of thinking, your mind is devoted to that both consciously and subconsciously. Let it become habit and you may find you are able to reconnect with your music.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 4:59 AM on June 10, 2005

This is going to be amorphous because I don't have the citations that would make it more definite...

I think you're writing about a frequently perceived and thought about link between despair and art. I think it works both ways, I don't make music, but it's crucial to getting me through the day, and my need for it is often proportional to the amount of despair I feel. Some music I have to stay away from when I'm in a good mood because it will instantly flip it into a kind of depression. This isn't a bad thing, it actually says quite a lot about the power of art.

How people negotiate this kind of tension is very interesting. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. When I was in HS I really like The Waterboys because they were so fucked up and depressed, even while the music was kind of transcendent (or seemed so to 16 year old ears). Once the lead singer got married and his life got good, they came out with crappy music. He just couldn't express joy with the same level of intensity and fidelity that he brought to pain. On the other hand, there are people who use past experience to make present music (or whatever). The Mountain Goats is a perfect example. John creates whole fictional worlds that express a kind of desperation and dissolution, even while he's happily married and pursuing a PhD. His choice is to work in fiction, which doesn't mean lies, and to use his past experience to emotionally color the fictions. He is very successful at it.

Now for what I don't have the citation for: In the late '90s William Gass had an essay that I know was collected in a volume of Best American Essays (I'm not sure the year) in which he basically talked about the power of art to help us regulate our emotional lives. He's a great writer, if a bit dense, and a very good reader. His argument was persuasive, and part of it was about Gerard Manley Hopkins and the link between depression and production. He basically pointed out that it's a mistake to think that the poems about depression were produced during depression. They may be for us, the reader, objects of our own depression, but they could only have been produced when Hopkins was feeling decent. If they had been written during despair they would not be as brilliant, they would be attenuated by their lack of perspective. It's an compelling argument because Gass is not only suggesting that art is crucial to understanding our own feelings, but that part of the responsiblity of the artist (and I think everyone) is not to confuse those feelings for something essential. In other words, it's fine to be depressed, but remember that what comes out of depression is just that, what comes out of it, not what keeps one wallowing in it. There comes a time to get up and turn the horror to something useful and good.

Anyway, I really recommend the essay. You can probably find Best American Essays for each year at your local library, and certainly at a decent University library. I wish I could tell you the title of the essay.
posted by OmieWise at 5:29 AM on June 10, 2005

I'm also a musician who has struggled with depression, and I have felt the same way that you do for a very long time. A couple of thoughts:

1) Personally, I have found that along with depression comes a fear of change, particularly self-transformation. One of the obstacles to getting better/becoming happier is the fear that we will lose something precious in doing so, or that we will discover something about ourselves that we don't want to face up to. We also have all sorts of rationalizations about our present persona to defend ourselves against change - for example, "being depressed may suck, but it makes me a creative and edgy sort of person." Don't let that fear get in the way of the change that you're making. Its scary to consciously will yourself to change - even if that change involves becoming more content and happy. Perhaps you feel similarly; if so, maybe this can itself serve as an impetus for your musical expression.

2) On a larger level, there is a widespread and long-standing belief in the myth of the tortured artist, that melancholia (or schizophrenia or insanity) and artistic expression go hand-in-hand. Certainly there are plenty of artists and musicians who have been totally fucked-up, and have fed on that energy in order to make beautiful and disturbing art. But plenty of others have been well-adjusted, normal, happy people. There is no necessary link between our overall demeanor and the music that we create; but its very hard to shake the feeling that there must be.

3) Finally, have confidence in yourself and the music that you make! Take a chance; see where your music takes you. Chances are that the darkness will never fully disappear, it will be transformed and will come through in different ways. However your music turns out, it will be a representation of who you are and what you are thinking and feeling. I remember a number of years back a friend and I started making music together. We both loved dark, depressing, intense, heavy music almost to the exclusion of anything else. But the bulk of what we wrote was actually rather stark and pretty. I think that was one of the first moments that I realized that life encompasses a vast and complicated emotional terrain, and it is perfectly fine for music to express that.
posted by googly at 5:58 AM on June 10, 2005

You might want to read Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
posted by Gyan at 6:24 AM on June 10, 2005

I'd use whatever emotions you have. Ennui, hunger, exhaustion, frustration, arousal, love, hate, happiness, sadness - just use whatever you feel when you sit down to work. There's certainly more to you than depression, so why not tap into it?
posted by orange swan at 6:26 AM on June 10, 2005

I understand a little how you feel. I used to write poems. A lot. Some were about the way I felt inside and some were about the world around me. It wasn't something I ever had to think about doing- I would just get a feeling that I needed to write and I would sit down and it would all flow out. I don't think I was ever clinically depressed or anything but I did a good job of letting my emotions run my life. (Especially the negative ones)

Somewhere along the line, something changed. I think it was a combo of rediscovering my faith and falling in love. Anyway, all of a sudden, I couldn't write anymore. Not that I didn't- I enjoyed it and wanted to with all my heart- but I couldn't. Even now, eight or so years later, I've got nuthin'. Oh sure, I could sit and write some crappy Hallmark-esque poem but nothing like I used to. I occasionally still flounder, wishing I could write again.

But to me the trade-off is worth it. The personal fulfillment of a life based on the beauty of life is much greater than any thing I could have created from my dark feelings. Any renown I received from my writing was happily given up for stability and contentment. I'm grateful that for me it was something that could change. There are way too many creative types suffering out there- I don't need to choose to live that way.
posted by wallaby at 6:42 AM on June 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughts. I hope that it will settle down. I hate the idea that I won't be able to come up with anything good again.
posted by lunkfish at 7:52 AM on June 10, 2005

Do you have a good technical knowledge of music? If you have a strong grasp of composition and music theory, it'll be easier to create the musical effects that you want, regardless of your mood. Having to feel a certain emotion as a prerequisite for creating can be very restrictive. It sounds like it would help to associate your music more with your analytical mind than your emotional mind, at least for now.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:20 AM on June 10, 2005

When you take the pressure off yourself, you miss it. It's what you've gotten used to and what you push against. When I started feeling better, I worried, wondering when I'd get blind-sided. When I got down, it hurt, but at least I knew what I was up against. That may be the hardest thing to let go of.

When you make a basic change in your life, you need a while to get used to it. Give yourself time for the echoes to quiet down. It could take a year before you're really comfortable. Start looking for more subtle things that appear out of the background. As I've gotten better emotionally, my music making has gotten quieter, and the range of expression has gotten larger, because the quiet things aren't drowned out any more.

Also, I find that I can let the phrases speak for themselves, rather than pouring my own feelings into them. These days, my music is less about showing how deep my own feelings are, and more about evoking those feelings in my listeners. Let it come out pure and clear. Connect with just one person in the audience, offer the essence, let him/her have his/her own reactions and send them back to you.
posted by KRS at 9:01 AM on June 10, 2005

Sure, the whole depressed-artist-archetype thing may be overplayed, as googly says. I do, however, suspect that chronic depression tends to render people more solitary and prone to solitary pursuits. If the depression isn't so acute that you're incapable of getting _anything_ done, it's easy to spend a lot of time doing introspective things. [For me, art very definitely falls under that category - it's something I do alone, something that's almost like meditation in some ways.] When people are not depressed, I think they're a little more likely to channel that kind of energy towards other people. This is, of course, purely anecdotal, but I've seen similar changes in people starting anti-depressants and people getting into new relationships - suddenly, people are less likely to spend time doing solitary things like making art or music, and their energy is directed towards other things or people. This has been a pretty big consideration in my decision to avoid taking anti-depressants...

However, a few days isn't a long time. I find that sometimes I can create things, sometimes I can't - it's possible that a random dearth of creativity's coinciding with your attempts to deal with depression. Don't panic yet, and don't give up on it. It may take a while to adjust to this new emotional state, anyways.
posted by ubersturm at 9:06 AM on June 10, 2005

I know exactly how you feel. When I finally began to dig my way out of my lifelong severe depression, the music went away.

I do believe that if I applied myself, I could probably write melodies, but lyrics were always driven by the misery I needed to express.

For me, it was easy to move on to other goals, because I had other consuming interests that still held my attention (and, frankly, that I was better at). If you still have the drive to make music, I believe you can--but the nature of your music may change.

Personally, I'd give it up all over again to have my current happiness.
posted by frykitty at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2005

I have a lot invested in this question, being a musician as my career, so I don't know how objective I can be. BUT - I've thought about this a lot, so I feel the need to chime in:

I definitely recognize in myself certain myths that connect artistry and loneliness, or poverty, or unhappiness in general. I think these myths are bullshit. Sure, we can all think of examples of DEEP art that is dark and miserable and could only have been produced by someone with intimate familiarity with the abyss. But what about artistic expressions of joy? As an artist, do you find expressions of darkness to be MORE satisfying than expressions of joy? That is to say, what makes good art good - the subject being expressed or the expertise of the expression?

For me, I'm blown away whenever an artist expresses something in a beautiful way, and the subject being expressed is almost a secondary consideration. (I do, of course, need to have SOME kind of emotional attachment to the sentiment. But in the broadest general terms, whether it's happy or sad, I don't really care - as long as it's GOOD.)

Stupid little examples for my personal library of faves: I love "Exit Music", by Radiohead - their telling of Romeo and Juliet. "We hope that you choke" - indeed. On the other end of the spectrum, there's a tune by XTC called, of all things, "We're All Light" - it's all bubbly and glorious and about new love. In both cases, I think the topics were handled with complete expertise. Also, both of those feelings - new love and, well, doomed love - resonate in my experience, in my soul, really.

Point being, I believe that we all have the capacity for a wide range of emotions, and our task as artists is to express those emotions, the good ones and the bad, in the hopes that our efforts will resonate with our audience and we will thereby create something like communication and connection.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:11 AM on June 10, 2005

I've thought about this one a lot. I make funny animal comics, not music. Still, I think I can relate. Because I really used to think feeling shitty and being creative were inseparable.

I would look at someone like Sting: he's never felt better than now, after therapy, yoga, coming to terms with a bunch of crap, etc. So how's his music? Useless. Undigestably bland compared to the music his younger less-well-adjusted self made. In interviews he claims his music has never been better. In fact, it's never been worse.

Or take John Cleese, who hasn't made a funny movie let alone a sketch, since he came out of therapy. So I was convinced. Getting better destroys your creativity.

But then I heard something Seinfeld said, which made me re-think things. He was asked about the comedian's inner darkness, and said he had none of that stuff. He said feeling bad or feeling good doesn't have anything to do with comedy. It's about your sense of humor, and that's unrelated, he said. And, he added, he was sort of irritated that people make a big deal about creative people feeling crappy. Nobody cares about the depressed people driving bread delivery trucks. Why do creative people think they're so special? That their depression is noble? Or something like that.

This made me think a bit. And it gave me some hope, that you can somehow reconcile mental health and creativity. The key is to retain your sense of music, or humor, or whatever, and not have drugs or therapy cure that alongside with your depression. How? I haven't the faintest.
posted by Panfilo at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

In her essay "The Education of the Poet", Louise Gluck talks about having dry spells when she was seeing a therapist for her depression:
I'd turn to my doctor with the old accusation: he'd make me so well, so whole, I'd never write again. Finally, he silenced me; the world, he told me, will give you sorrow enough.
Poet Li-Young Lee, in the Lannan Foundation conversation transcribed here, (or as Real Audio) talks about how his work transitioned from being very angry to more peaceful. He noticed that he was actually cultivating rage within himself in order to write. That freaked him out quite a bit and when he learned how not to manufacture that anger he found there were still poems that needed to be written.

Something to consider, kinda in light of that stuff about Lee: this life is a flushed range of emotions, consider letting your music reflect a wider spectrum. I'm not saying your music ought become bubbly/silly, but i suspect if you let it, this new lightness within yourself could find some sort of a place in your music.

Great question!
posted by verysleeping at 1:05 PM on June 10, 2005

Oh, and good luck lunkfish! I hope the music returns.
posted by verysleeping at 1:16 PM on June 10, 2005

If you are making your music as therapy then yes, it'll probably go away once you no longer need what it's providing for you. If you are making your music because if you don't you will explode, then you'll be fine.

(Oddly enough I lost my ability to enjoy music while on Paxil. Probably not related.)
posted by kindall at 5:49 PM on June 10, 2005

i think there's a danger to an artist in becoming satisfied and complacent with his life ... my experience has been that happiness can certainly derail one's expression ... but so can stressful life situations ... either can be a distraction

it's a function of how well you're talking to yourself, i think ... how open you are to the unconscious forces within in you and how willing you are to follow them into creative acts ... that's part of it ... and later, a transition occurs, when you're looking outside of yourself for the same kind of clues and inspiration you used to get by being introspective ... i think you may be ready to go for that transition ... and eventually, you'll learn to do both at once

the most important thing about art is that it's a form of alchemy ... the projects you create are secondary ... it's how you're creating yourself that is the real work ... art is a tool for this ...

and on preview ... this would not be therapy, but a spiritual path ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:57 PM on June 10, 2005

Yeah, that would be in the "you must create" category, I think. You want the experiences that only creators have as a means of personal growth. Therapy would be like "I've really got to get how I'm feeling right now off my chest" and could be served equally well by talking to someone.
posted by kindall at 8:35 PM on June 10, 2005

On topic.
posted by peacay at 12:34 AM on June 11, 2005

"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."--Wordsworth

A similar sentiment to what I wrote before, but more focussed. If only I could write like Wordsworth...
posted by OmieWise at 2:42 PM on June 11, 2005

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