Ever since antiquity, at various times and to varying degrees, suicidality has been present as a topic—as one can find documented in countless songs, opera arias, and even some instrumental music. Unrequited love, loss, preservation of honour, self-sacrifice, self-destruction, and escape from punishment at the hands of those with greater power are among the motifs to be found in musical and dramatic musical depictions ranging from Theocritus’s bucolic songs to numerous “Abbandonata” arias (of Arianna, Armida, Dido, etc.) and from (murder) ballads such as “Verstoßen oder Der Tod auf den Schienen” to “Suicide Blues” and depressive suicidal black metal. While some works exhibit presuicidal symptoms such as a strong sense of constriction, as does the beginning of Othello’s aria Dio! Mi potevi scagliar with its repeated single note, other songs aim for a deterrent effect in their adoption of a cheery waltz-like character. Numerous songs from more recent times, on the other hand, take a musically unspecific approach that lies within the conventions of their genres, some of which evidently address this taboo-laden theme more frequently than others.
At the same time, music is also frequently said to have actual suicidal effects. By way of example: in psychiatrist Jean-Pierre Falret’s treatise on suicide (1822), a young woman is reported to have felt suicidal listening to arias from the opera Nina; the BBC is said to have refrained from playing the song “Gloomy Sunday” (original title: “Szomorú vasárnap”), widely known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song”, until 2002; and in the USA, the 1980s witnessed repeated lawsuits by parents against heavy metal musicians whose songs had supposedly inspired their children to commit suicide.
Although these lawsuits were all unsuccessful, the genre of heavy metal still sits atop the list of “usual suspects” and hardly ever goes unmentioned in studies on the relationship between young people’s psychological health and/or suicide rates and their musical preferences. This led groups such as the California-based band Suicidal Tendencies, founded in 1982, to react quite pointedly in their songs to the societal symptoms of a “moral panic” that was virulent at the time and led to such things as the establishment of the Parental Music Resource Center by the so-called Washington Wives, who included Susan Baker and—most prominently—Tipper Gore: “Is it responsible to promote teen suicide […] in the midst of a national epidemic?” Gore’s accusatory question, directed at the music industry and musicians themselves, betrayed a lack of critical reflection on the obvious impermissibility of such simple explanations.
Bandwagon effects triggered by reporting in the media and fictional depictions of suicide have been termed the “Werther effect” after the character in Goethe’s novel, and the question of whether portrayals of suicide in literature, film, and/or music actually can cause copycat suicides or even suicide epidemics continues to be controversially discussed. The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, for instance, touched off just such a debate—with the accusation being voiced that the show romanticised the suicide of main character Hannah Baker. This accusation was probably made as loud as it was because the show speaks to a young and hence vulnerable mass audience. Music features prominently in this series, with dark and melancholy ambient music by Eskmo plus a number of suicide-related “teen angst” songs (including Billy Eilish’s “Bored”) from all corners of youth music culture making for a commensurately charged emotional atmosphere.
Another phenomenon, named in a way similar to the aforementioned “Werther effect”, is the “Papageno effect”, which refers to the character of Papageno in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and arises from media reports and other depictions of successfully overcome suicidal crises. In the opera, however, it is the three child-spirits who succeed in stopping Papageno—as they had done before with the lovesick Pamina—from going through with his plans, for which reason one would really have to speak of the “Three Child-Spirits effect”.
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt begins his book My Life with Mozart with the words: “He was the first to get in touch. One day when I was fifteen, he sent me some music. It changed my life. Or, much rather: it kept me alive. Without it, I would long since be dead.” In the introduction to this collection of letters to Mozart, the Franco-Belgian author portrays impressively how experiencing a rehearsal of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Opera of Lyon jolted the book’s deeply hopeless and suicidal young protagonist out of his world-weariness: “My vital spirits returned. […] Mozart had rescued me. […] Healing through beauty…. Without a doubt, practically no psychologist would have ever thought to treat me with such a therapy.” And indeed, the selection of music to which young people listen in order to regulate themselves emotionally may sometimes, at least from the perspective of grown-ups or therapeutic “experts”, seem rather counterintuitive. As we were able to ascertain via a study we conducted in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry, more than a few of the surveyed patients deliberately selected content from the “problem music” categories alluded to above specifically in order to avoid injuring themselves and/or to distance themselves from suicidal thoughts (Stegemann et al., 2010).
A symposium organised by the Department of Musicology and Performance Studies and the Department of Music Therapy, now slated to take place (following two postponements due to COVID-19) on 6 and 7 May 2022 in the Liszt-Saal, will bring together participants from the fields of cultural studies, musicology, medicine, music therapy, psychotherapy, and suicide research in order to examine and discuss this topic from their diverse perspectives. This event will also see music therapy students as well as students from the Music Education for Voice and Instruments (IGP) programme present the outcomes of their seminar on the role of music in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which was held during the 2021/22 winter semester. On the evening of its second day (Saturday), the symposium will conclude with a panel discussion plus a concert with music ranging from Claudio Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna” to Georg Danzer’s “Heite drah i mi ham”.
With contributions by Andy R. Brown, Julia Heimerdinger, Susanne Korn, Thomas Macho, Paul Plener, Hannah Riedl, Dan Rujescu, Claudius Stein, Thomas Stegemann, Benedikt Till, Harm Willms, and students of the mdw. Compilation and rehearsal of the concert programme: Tanya Aspelmeier and Ottokar Prochazka.
Further information at:
Stegemann, T., Brüggemann-Etchart, A., Badorrek-Hinkelmann, A. & Romer, G. (2010). “Die Funktion von Musik im Zusammenhang mit selbstverletzendem Verhalten und Suizidalität bei Jugendlichen – eine explorative Fragebogenuntersuchung”. Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie, 59, 810–830.
Schmitt, É.-E. (2008). Mein Leben mit Mozart. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer Taschenbuch.
Gore, Tipper (1987): Raising PG kids in an X-rated society, S. 107, Nashville: Abingdon Press.