The Myth of the Tortured Genius - Music Depression and You

Can playing music solve your problems - or make them worse?

Ultimate Guitar

In this column I'm going to talk about a difficult subject, but an important one the link between depression (and other mental illness) and music, the idea of the "troubled artist" and the extent to which music and creativity interact with psychological issues. It's a bit different to what I usually discuss, but it's important and links to the other things I usually talk about (recording, songwriting) in more ways than you'd think as will become clear.

Mental illness and music isn't a subject that is often discussed, but it is one that affects a disproportionate number of musicians. Many, probably most of us, can think of a time that music listening to it, playing guitar, writing and performing songs helped us through a difficult time in our lives. I know I can. Playing music is a way of achieving catharsis, to deal with our emotions by expressing them. I'm a long way from the troubled teenager I once was, but even now, there's nothing like grabbing an axe and rocking out to lift my mood if I get low.

The danger, and I have seen this happen too many times to stay quiet about it, is that people with depression or other problems seek solace in their music and do nothing else to solve their problems, and self-destruct as a consequence. I deal with a lot of amateur musicians who want to turn professional. Many of them do. But amongst the ones who fail, this is often the reason why they are just too messed up in the head to succeed, and they think that their music is the way out of their problems when it isn't.

These guys fall victim to what I've started to call "tortured genius syndrome." They fall in love with some kind of romantic ideal of the troubled artist, who expresses their pain and despair with beautiful music. They base their dreams of success on that idea, and cite people like Janis Joplin, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse as their role models.

All those artists certainly did create amazing music fuelled by their pain and distress. They have another thing in common, though they're all dead. Success didn't solve any of their problems. Arguably it made them worse, to the extent that the pressures of fame drove them to kill themselves, either through suicide or substance abuse. Writing about their pain didn't cure it, no matter how many fans they had or how many records they sold.

That doesn't stop troubled musicians from emulating them. In fact, many of them refuse to address their problems, be they medical problems or issues in their lives that are bringing them down, because they somehow think that their pain is the source of their creativity. You can't be a tortured genius if you're not tortured, right? Some of them even deliberately mess their lives up to make sure they have something to be depressed about, so that they can write songs about their self-inflicted misery. I've seen it happen again and again.

NONE of these people succeed, in music or in life. Expressing your pain does not make it go away. Basing your life and career plans on your pain is a one-way ticket to self destruction. I've seen it happen to close friends. Some of them have taken their talent and their beautiful music to the grave. That's not romantic, that's a waste of a life. Those people aren't role models, they're failures.

Music is an amazing pick-me-up if you're feeling down. Believe me I know. But it's not a solution to your problems. If you want to build a career in music, then understand that you are going to need to get your head and your life in order first. Happiness won't kill your creativity. What it will do is give you the mental space and focus you need to overcome the hurdles you will face in getting your music out there. All the money and the record sales in the world won't make you happy if you don't get to the root of the problem. We've lost too many great musicians to that belief, let's not add any more to that list. There's no glory in self-destruction.

If you're down, then by all means use your music as a pick-me-up. But get help. Get happy. Get into a position of strength, and use your music to help others. If you have to put your music to one side for a bit while you sort things out, then it will be more than worth it and you will come out the other side as not only a better person, but a better musician as well. Please. I don't want to lose any more friends.

About the Author: James Scott is a music producer and writer based in London, UK. He works with up and coming artists to get them noticed in the industry. Subscribe to his newsletter for a whole bunch of free songwriting and recording resources.

43 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Profound stuff. As a musician with depression I have experienced first hand what is being spoken about here, at my lowest points I have written some of my best stuff, one song in particular about being lower than you thought you could be. I was going through a horrendous time, and the mood of the song captures the negativity and worthlessness I felt. No one has ever heard that song though. I have taken steps to deal with my problems, and had success, I'm not there yet though. But I have also written some of my best songs from a position of happiness and clarity. One of these songs, 'Wrong' is on my band's page - I'm not using this to promote my band, more that one of my finest moments came from a clear head. James talks a hell of a lot of sense. The dark times can inspire brilliance, but don't stay there to feed it, draw on the experiences, come back stronger and better for it, and the music will benefit.
    I can't see your soundcloud band link. If you ever see this comment, please send me your band's link through PM.
    Great article. I'd suggest you look up the genre DSBM(Depressive Suicidal Black Metal) to dig deeper into this. It's a genre consisting of dark but dreamy music, which feels very clouded and anxious,along with tortured screams. It creates a sort of depressed trance to cleanse yourself, you go to the deepest parts of your inner self and dwell in it. Feeling better for a short(!) time. Sadly I've had some experience with it, so you can contact me if you have some questions. Bands in the genre are: -Tristram -Thy Light -Sun Devoured Earth -Suici.De.pression
    I would add to that Woods of Desolation, Nocturnal Depression, Shining (old Shining though), Sombres Forts, Heretoir Traumatized Soclusion, Lost Inside and Coldworld.
    The Swedish Shining, too. There are two big Shinings; one of them has saxophones. You can guess which one we're talking about.
    Velcro Man
    Honestly, when I feel down, I lose all motivation and inspiration to pick up a guitar...
    Thank you for this post. Very touching and a good reading indeed. I'm a sad, depressed, malinchonic or what you want to call it person and use my music to express my deepest feeling and to help myself as well. I'd love to make music my life since it is the only reason that I see to still be there surviving day after day. I love music and it is the one and only true love and friend you will have in life.
    Wow, I think you really helped me with his article. I see how I fell for the "tortured genius syndrome". I have a lot of problems in my life that I thought if I just express my feelings in my music I will not only work these things out I will have great, emotionally connected songs. As a vocalist, this seemed like killing two birds with one stone almost. Thank you, I will get help and make sure I don't become self destructive like the great artists you listed.
    Queue Kurt Cobain murder conspiracy theorists...
    What do you mean "murder"? I thought he was abducted by aliens.
    Cue people assuming the worst about human nature and being dissapointed by our ability to stay on topic and have sensible conversations.
    This was great! I love reading things like this! Don't get caught up in your suffering but use it empower you to get better! We've come here to enjoy life so why choose suffering
    Good article. When I started playing guitar, I was a mess myself but then I found release. Music somehow got rid of my problems and I've grown from the person I was four years ago. It wasn't a solution to my problems but it a release from the world. It was like I was in my own little world. I still had to see a counselor because of the crap I got myself in. I still got in trouble that whole year with the school board and the teachers and stuff. Honestly, music is not a solution to world problems but it is a release. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, I know what you're talking about from personal experience. Music should only be a release from the problems but it shouldn't be the thing to fix your problems. Very good article and I'm glad I read it.
    This is very true. The bottom line is despair & depression won't get you anywhere in life. It might inspire writing a piece of music, but when it comes down to practicing it with your band, to performing, to recording, to selling your vision to someone, or selling the music itself? It will be impossible. A musician must believe in himself, must have a vision or a goal. a bad mood should just be one mood of many. Being a successful musician is about enjoying what you do.
    Music to me has always been about releasing ego, not expressing it. Fuck that selfish *****. Music, or art in general, is a lesson in humility, an exercise in wisdom, IMHO.
    Mental illness + music = Buckethead
    I doubt you've listened to much Strapping Young Lad.
    Devin Townsend used to act like a Schizophrenic o.o
    James Scott
    Devin Townsend has bipolar disorder. He comes of his meds to write, then goes back on them to tour and generally function.
    Hmm...that doesn't sound like a good idea. But as long as he can function in society in general, whatever.
    He did the whole getting off his meds thing during the making of Alien back in his Strapping days, but that was almost ten years ago. He's doing just fine now with his meds and all, is completely sober, and still making awesome music in the process.
    Are you sure about that? I remember reading on his twitter he said it may have been a misdiagnosis because of substance abuse.
    I find song writing is the best method of stress coping, but the songs I write when I'm down, I never look at again because there are some places I don't want to go back to...
    I may have had a bout of a couple years with this, I was a very quiet and shy person, but I loved playing guitar. I think it's good to write sad songs not depressing ones, I wrote a sad piece in D minor, but I felt good when I was writing because I was learning and figuring out how music worked and it got me using my brain hehe. I think it was more my drinking and smoking that caused the depression and lack of creativity to write any because I think I was afraid and unwilling to open up. The other musicians I hung out with were also like me. They are about five years older than me, and I said to myself I didn't want to be like them in five years, fooling myself that I'm a good musician, but have no songs of my own. I desperately needed a reality check, the person that I was in my mind was not the person I was on the outside. Music taught me discipline, I quit drugs and started leading a healthy lifestyle and I recently joined a band for fun and I'm really looking forward to get that going, 6 years is finally starting to payoff.
    im half and half on this sect of musicians. i love emotional music, so i of course write my music with as much passion as i can. but i dont bury myself in sadness to do so. happiness and anger are emotions too, and you dont feel like killing yourself when feeling either; you may want to kill others on that second feeling though lol
    Emenius Sleepus
    Music is all about communication - I've always seen it as the medium between the written word and image/film. The people that are the subject of the article probably couldn't say what they wanted to any other way. - Especially the ones that are depression-prone or otherwise on the fringe of regular existence.