When I was in my masters program one of my composition teachers told me my work would never have the pathos, profundity, or power of the work of someone who had lived through much tragedy. We had recently been diving into the life and works of Alfred Schnittke, who suffered artistic and religious repression under a communist regime. That comment has stuck with me and I have thought about it often. At the time I was in my early twenties, recently married, a new home owner, and happy with my life. In truth I hadn’t yet experienced hardship or suffering. Nor had I experienced any real psychological issues, such as depression.

I have grown and experienced a lot in the decade since hearing that comment. My wife and I have suffered several miscarriages, many of our personal and financial plans have been changed, delayed, or abandoned, we’ve experienced major health issues in our family, I have lost what I thought was a dream job, we’ve been forced to “restart” many aspects of our life, and I experienced real depression for the first time.  In light of my composition teacher’s comment, how has this influenced my music?

This all came to mind recently when I came across an article published on CNN’s website titled, “The dark side of creativity: Depression + anxiety x madness = genius?” by William Lee Adams. You can find it here. In the article Adams summarizes some recent psychological studies that correlate creativity with depression, anxiety, bi-polar behavior, and suicide. Using gene tests researchers have shown that many highly creative individuals have the genes linked with severe psychological disorders. Furthermore, fMRI scans of highly creative people who have already been diagnosed with a psychological disorder lack the ability to properly filter information directly influencing their ability to focus.

As much as it may be true that highly creative people tend to exhibit psychological disorders it is not an excuse to continue living with depression, anxiety, or anything else. Through the way we think, the words we use, and how we take care of our bodies through diet, exercise, and sleep we can control many of these states. Furthermore, if you need true psychological help you need to schedule an appointment with a qualified doctor and discuss options for therapy and possibly medication. I do not believe that experiencing hardship or living with psychological disorders is an excuse to accept a lowered quality of life.

As composers we need to channel these emotions and states into expressiveness and allow them to increase our creativity. I certainly try to. Maybe this is what my professor meant all along—that a lack of life experience and psychological discord limited my ability to fully express. I certainly have a greater depth of experience to draw upon when composing. Furthermore, I can empathize with a wider range of human experience which allows me to write more authentic music and connect with my audience. I hate experiencing depression, anxiety, and hardship. Yet it is through these challenges that I have grown.

Some questions for you:

  • Do you agree with the article?
  • Do you suffer from, or experience, depression, anxiety or other psychological orders? How does this affect your music and creativity?
  • How has your life story influenced the music you write?
  • Do you think what my composition professor said is true? Does a composer have to suffer through many negative experiences before he or she is able to write truly powerful music?

Let me know what you think in the comments.