Dr 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
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
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
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
The beautiful afro house of Henrik Schwarz’s
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
Paul will be performing at an electronic
music event in East London on March
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