Photography: Oliver Catherall

“To draw you must close your eyes and sing.” Pablo Picasso

Music is many things – soundtrack to the good, bad and everything in between, changing our mood, emotion and outlook in a profound way. Music Therapy, which uses the power of music as a therapeutic tool, is one longstanding interpretation of this. But what about those who engage in music’s creative process in general on a more day-to-day basis? What can we draw from the process of creating and how can it impact upon us?

The Open Door Centre provides support to young people around depression and anxiety. They also look to inspire discussion around mental health issues at their monthly Wax Lyrical event at The Brink, combining live music with conversation. Bido Lito! asked The Open Door Centre’s P.Lee to bring together one of Merseyside’s leading songwriters, David McDonnell (The Sand Band), and Mary Clayton (Co-ordinator of MusicPlace Northwest, who has over 25 years of experience delivering Music Therapy), to explore the notion of using music as a tool for positive mental change…

Mary Clayton: The core element of music therapy is using music as an interactive tool for communication. The music is the medium. To be able to respond to someone, in the moment, with music. Also, to improvise, so that when you are with the person you can find a piece of music that fits with them in some way. It may be a good idea sometimes to take the word therapy out, so people don’t run in the opposite direction.

P.Lee: So it is using improvisation to reflect how they feel at that time and then working with the music that’s created?

Mary Clayton: Yes, but it may also be pre-composed songs. Working with people with dementia, for instance, may require music from their childhood. It is very much about responding to the person who you are working with. It is not prescriptive work, rather about taking a cue from a person, with some background information; working in the moment.

David McDonnell: Documenting your thoughts through music is definitely a form of therapy. There are songs from times in my life that, although I am not in that place anymore, the song still resonates. When I listen back to it I wonder if it makes other people think or feel that and whether they have connected with them. Leonard Cohen calls his songs confessional, and they really are. He’s got the talent that he can say something and you think he is saying it to you. I think everybody thinks he is saying it to them and that’s an art, isn’t it, as much as constructing the verse and the melody. If you can say all things to all men with just your experience then that is amazing. I think I can write something better than I can say it, and by using vocabulary something is being conveyed. At first I am just saying one thing to one person, a line of communication, but after that it becomes everybody’s. PJ Harvey says the same thing.

P.Lee: So for you the songwriting process is about being able to say in a song things which you can’t say in day to day life?

David McDonnell: My musical language and vocabulary is far more developed than that which I would say openly. I spend far more time writing words and music to one person than I do in conversation, which is more spontaneous. With music I spend a lot of time thinking about the notes and the music, because it’s all part of conveying something.

P.Lee: Is that a conscious thing, entering the process aiming to convey a feeling or an emotion that you wouldn’t usually say, or is that secondary?

David McDonnell: I think it’s different for everybody, as music is so broad. It is usually about something which has made me feel something, then I will try and mirror the feeling of the song with the lyrics. Or sometimes I will just sit and write lyrics about a situation. It sounds like that is applicable to what you do, Mary, in that it’s a narrative between two people?

Mary Clayton: That’s a really good description. The fact that you are listening, with listening being a key word. I have to listen to the person first and the narrative for me is the person’s narrative, it’s not my narrative. It is different if I was writing about myself or writing songs; in the therapeutic setting I am trying to facilitate somebody else’s story.

P.Lee: Facilitate the creative process?

Mary Clayton: Yes, whilst helping them to find theirs.

"My musical language and vocabulary is far more developed than that which I would say openly. I spend far more time writing words and music to one person than I do in conversation, which is more spontaneous. With music I spend a lot of time thinking about the notes and the music, because it’s all part of conveying something." David McDonnell

P.Lee: It may be that music provides a direct link inside a person, where feelings and true thought exist? Maybe singing, and playing a musical instrument, can communicate these feelings; writing original music takes it another step further, providing thoughts and feelings with a canvass? In a practical sense, music can impact upon an individual physically. Brain waves can resonate in sync with a strong beat, with faster beats bringing sharper concentration and more alert thinking, and a slower tempo promoting a calm, meditative state.

David McDonnell: Soundwaves and lightwaves are not so far apart. Martin Hannett was obsessed with frequencies and getting them right and if you don’t then it will bug you. I’m really interested in those sorts of things, how different keys of music affect you in different ways. Some keys and songs overall have a hidden therapeutic power, a healing one almost. It can be if you nail the sentiment, it becomes its own thing. Like Head And Heart, by John Martyn or, Scattered Black And Whites, by Elbow. I go to both those songs when I need to right myself. Within them there’s only love, they put me back on the right path.


P.Lee: What attitudes have you come across with regard to how music therapy is appreciated?

Mary Clayton: It is a challenge for the profession to establish itself as mainstream, especially in a medical context. People don’t always accept that it is as important as other interventions. The research and science that backs it up now is helping, as there is much more reputable research which backs it up, so it is changing.

David McDonnell: Music is for everyone and it should be used for everything, not just enjoyment. Someone might listen to a piece of music and think it is too down. But if you feel a certain way and you listen to a piece of music then it could make you feel less alone; you might feel someone else has felt that or someone else has been here. It could be like a lifeline to some people.

P.Lee: Yeah, say you are feeling down someday, it is not always the best thing to put the happiest song ever on, it could have the polar opposite effect.

Mary Clayton: I totally agree with that and [it] sums up the way [in] which I work. In that it’s finding music that fits with how someone is feeling, not necessarily trying to cheer them up. There may be a point when you move to that but it can be the worst thing, if you feel sad and for somebody to say ‘never mind, it’s all right’, when in fact it is not and you really do mind.

David McDonnell: Nick Cave talks about what one person views as celebratory or down may be exactly what the person needs at that moment. It’s called Saudade, there is no English translation. It’s longing and sadness; it can be longing for somebody who you have not even met. I hear that in a lot of Nick Cave’s music, Neil Young’s music; they deal in it specifically. There is melancholy even when they are doing a song that is celebratory; a sadness within it. Sadness should not be dismissed. It may be what makes you think back to a certain person or look forward to getting home to your family, it can be so powerful and evoke everything from your past. To say that ‘that’s too sad’ is such a bad interpretation of a song.

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