Professor Harry Kennedy is consultant forensic
psychiatrist and executive clinical director at the National
Forensic Mental Health Service, Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum,
Ireland. He is also Clinical Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at
Trinity College Dublin. He studied medicine at University College
Dublin before training in psychiatry and forensic psychiatry in the
UK at Hammersmith Hospital and Maudsley /Institute of Psychiatry,
London. He established early prison in-reach services in
Pentonville, Holloway, Cloverhill and Mountjoy prisons. His
research includes work on the epidemiology of suicide, homicide and
violence; prison psychiatric morbidity; international human rights
law and mental disabilities. He provides expert evidence in human
rights cases including Whitemoor escapers (special secure units),
Napier (slopping out), Z & G v Revenue (same sex marriage).
Professor Kennedy is also a musician. Some years back, I was
somewhat startled to read in an interview with him in a medical
news journal that in another life he would have liked to have been
a full-time musician “in a very loud band”. In this lifetime, he
has been content to play (loud) music on the side, and he speaks
enthusiastically about the beneficial effects of listening to and
of playing music, particularly in collaboration with others. For
the blog, he spoke to me about these issues and other matters
relating to music and mental health.
Who is your favourite musical artist or group and why?
I am listening to a lot of Snarky Puppy lately. I haven’t
seen them live but they are great on YouTube. I like their ability
to improvise around well rehearsed and scored music, and the way
they bring in guests and young musicians. I always enjoy listening
to Emma Kirby, Iarla
O'Lionaird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Trevor Pinnock,
And The Doors, The
Gloaming, Massive Attack...
What was your greatest musical experience?
Hearing Jan Garbarek and
The Hilliard Ensemble playing in St Alban’s Cathedral – they
walked around the aisles and nave ‘playing’ the building itself.
Hearing Brian Wilson live in The Point came close.
You play the bass guitar. What made you choose this? How did
A guitar teacher suggested it. Possibly because of the way I was
trying to play, possibly because there are only four strings. My
great good luck was to find friends who also wanted to play – a
drummer, a guitarist, a keyboard player. Ensemble playing is a
pleasure in itself.
How do you make time to play music alongside your work as a
psychiatrist? What benefits and challenges does this pose?
At home I am teased about my evening work pattern – ten minutes
work, fifteen minutes on the bass, ten minutes work...
Does music have a role in mental health treatment? If so, are
there any particular challenges in forensic settings?
WHO definitions of health can seem a bit perfectionist until you
think about how much hospitalised patients enjoy any opportunity to
be creative. If painting is self-actualisation, then playing music
with other people is self-transcendence. The bands in Dundrum at
the moment have a life of their own and are hugely popular, along
with gardening, bee keeping and other activities that require group
What do you think is the mechanism by which listening to or
playing music can help with mental health issues? We would be
particularly interested with regard to your expertise on violence
Music can as easily stir up violent feelings as friendly or calm
feelings. Think about Wagner in
Apocalypse Now, or the bronze age wind instruments used by
armies going into battle. That’s the use of music for Dutch courage
before acts of instrumental violence. The film Apocalypse Now also
uses Hendrix and the Doors for expressive violence and self-harm
respectively. Then there is the deliberate
misuse of Beethoven in Clockwork Orange. These are examples of
the use of music either to communicate something (the martial use
for instance) or as an individual cue or prompt, a sort of aid to
intoxication – think of the first scene in Apocalypse Now.
But music also works as a way into positive frames of mind – the
countless examples are too obvious to be cited. Music is an emotive
force but how it is used, personally or collectively, positively or
negatively is a matter of choice.
Some of the interviews I have conducted here have raised the
issue of the differences between performance, composition and
improvisation. I know this is something that interests you also.
Can you outline your views on this?
This is where the use of music in hospitals might be located.
Performing is anxiety provoking. Overcoming that can generalise in
all sorts of ways. Performing something written down is always an
act of interpretation and even thinking about that is the
beginnings of learning to think about thinking. This is something
that often occupies the early phases of hospital treatment for
people who are not psychologically minded to start with.
Improvisation then becomes a real pleasure, a form of mastery over
the fear of performance. But improvisation has the added element
that it is generally done in a band setting with other musicians,
exchanging ideas, taking turns, supporting the structure. That has
benefits of its own.
You have also spoken about lecturing as performance and
entertainment. Do psychiatrists, and academics in particular, have
something to learn in this way from watching live music? What are
the main challenges in balancing content with an appealing
delivery? Any landmines to steer clear of?!
Anyone who prepares a talk for an audience should know that you
can’t just read out a text, make no eye contact with the audience
and then leave without further interaction. Planning how to draw an
audience in, keeping an eye on them as you go along, engaging the
audience in an improvisation at the end once the theme has been set
up – obviously that’s a performance. I can remember hell and
brimstone preachers occasionally from the early 1960s – are there
There are bombastic hymns, there are lecturers who sometimes
want to make fun of an audience or a rival point of view – politics
is always a bad intrusion into academic communication. Of course we
should be political, we should write journalism too (like this
piece) but that’s not the same thing at all as speaking
academically. Academic lecturing always includes evidence.
Most scientific communication is a work of collective creativity
and would be impossible unless it was inclusive. The recent attempt
to tighten the rules on authorship seem to me to be mistaken. But I
occasionally hear other researchers citing something I have written
in ways that surprise me – a bit like hearing someone covering a
song you have written in a style you never anticipated.
We would be interested to know a little more about your own
music. What style is it?
It’s very loud. And it’s a collective production, only partly
‘my own’. And a lot better for that.
Can you recommend a song or piece of music for our mental
Regularly playing any music at all with other people would be my
recommendation. Next would be going out to live music.
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