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How Music Helped Heal the Great Composers

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Psychiatrist Richard Kogan speaking at TEDMED in Palm Springs about using music to treat mental illness.  (TEDMED)

Many famous composers may have fended off madness through music. Robert Schumann, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Ludwig van Beethoven all suffered from psychiatric illness, but they were also some of the most talented legends of all time. There is a long history of mental illness in poets, performers and artists.

Dr. Richard Kogan, a clinical psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical Center and a renowned concert pianist, has studied the biographies of many musicians to better understand how mental instability ignited creative genius, and how their passion healed internal chaos.

Kogan recently spoke at the TEDMED conference in Palm Springs. He opened his talk with the story of George Gershwin as an anxious young boy.

Lessons From 'Rhapsody in Blue'

“George Gershwin exhibited enormous behavioral problems,” explains Kogan. “He was involved in fistfights and he set fires. He had trouble in school. He was inattentive. He couldn't sit still in the classroom. I'm convinced that a modern day psychiatrist examining him would give him a diagnosis of conduct disorder and might diagnose him with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and might have started him on one of the psycho-stimulant medications like Adderall or Ritalin.”


But Gershwin was not medicated, because ADHD drugs didn't exist in the early years of the 20th century. Instead, according to Kogan, it was music that eventually taught him how to focus.

When Gershwin heard the sounds of a violin at the age of 10, his wild mind was utterly transfixed. On the spot, the young boy decided to devote his life to the study of music.

“Music provided a sense of order for Gershwin,” says Kogan. “Even though he retained the hyperactivity for the rest of his life, he no longer had impulse control problems or attention deficit problems."

Gershwin listened to the world differently from most people. Many of his masterpieces were inspired by simple chaotic sounds. On a train ride from New York to Boston, the click-clack of the train along the tracks inspired the construction of "Rhapsody in Blue." The sounds of Parisian taxi horns were foundational to the rhythm of "American in Paris."

“I think his exposure to music unlocked something that none of his early school teachers or anybody in his family saw, which was that he had extraordinary creative potential,” says Kogan. “And music was the way it was expressed.”

The Roots of Music and Medicine

Research highlights how music used to play a much more integral role in healing. Kogan points back to the Greek god Apollo, who was recognized as both the deity of music and medicine. In primitive cultures, shamans served as both musician and physician. During the Middle Ages, convents within the Catholic Church offered healing through music. The health benefits of chanting in many cultures have been studied. But over time, the scientific approach to medicine has helped dissolve the relationship between music and healing. Kogan hopes that changes.

"There are researchers who are doing impressive work now in demonstrating scientifically exactly what music does," Kogan says about groundbreaking work in neuroscience. "And I think when the results are in I predict there's going to be an explosion in the use of music as a modality of healing."

Why Mania Ignites Inspiration

There are features of elevated moods associated with mental illness that are conducive to creativity. For example, when individuals with bipolar disorder are in a hypomanic state, they experience increased energy, playful imagination and a decreased need for sleep.

Kogan explains how music helped Beethoven fend off suicidal tendencies in the video below.

Frédéric François Chopin, the Polish composer and virtuoso pianist, suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which caused dark hallucinations of phantoms and corpses. These images likely contributed to his famed funeral march, Piano Sonata No. 2. Kogan shares Chopin's story in the video below.

However, Kogan cautions against the tendency to over-romanticize psychiatric illness.

“Individuals may be reluctant to comply with treatment recommendations because they don't want to give up the creative highs associated with their mania,” says Kogan. “Unfortunately, that mind state tends to be unstable and often rather destructive. Plus, most people who are depressed are too paralyzed to write a symphony. Most people who are psychotic are too disorganized to put together anything coherent. So I think the best clinicians appreciate the potential advantages of mental illness and try to work with it to ultimately enhance creativity.”

That's what many musical legends did without the use of pharmacology. For George Gershwin the creative realm not only provided relief, it made him better than well.

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