Articles, Blog

Robert Gupta: Music is medicine, music is sanity

January 17, 2020


One day, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was walking along the streets of downtown Los Angeles when he heard beautiful music. And the source was a man, an African-American man, charming, rugged, homeless, playing a violin that only had two strings. And I’m telling a story that many of you know, because Steve’s columns became the basis for a book, which was turned into a movie, with Robert Downey Jr. acting as Steve Lopez, and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, the Juilliard-trained double bassist whose promising career was cut short by a tragic affliction with paranoid schizophrenia. Nathaniel dropped out of Juilliard, he suffered a complete breakdown, and 30 years later he was living homeless on the streets of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. I encourage all of you to read Steve’s book or to watch the movie to understand not only the beautiful bond that formed between these two men, but how music helped shape that bond, and ultimately was instrumental — if you’ll pardon the pun — in helping Nathaniel get off the streets. I met Mr. Ayers in 2008, two years ago, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He had just heard a performance of Beethoven’s First and Fourth symphonies, and came backstage and introduced himself. He was speaking in a very jovial and gregarious way about Yo-Yo Ma and Hillary Clinton and how the Dodgers were never going to make the World Series, all because of the treacherous first violin passage work in the last movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. And we got talking about music, and I got an email from Steve a few days later saying that Nathaniel was interested in a violin lesson with me. Now, I should mention that Nathaniel refuses treatment because when he was treated it was with shock therapy and Thorazine and handcuffs, and that scar has stayed with him for his entire life. But as a result now, he is prone to these schizophrenic episodes, the worst of which can manifest themselves as him exploding and then disappearing for days, wandering the streets of Skid Row, exposed to its horrors, with the torment of his own mind unleashed upon him. And Nathaniel was in such a state of agitation when we started our first lesson at Walt Disney Concert Hall — he had a kind of manic glint in his eyes, he was lost. And he was talking about invisible demons and smoke, and how someone was poisoning him in his sleep. And I was afraid, not for myself, but I was afraid that I was going to lose him, that he was going to sink into one of his states, and that I would ruin his relationship with the violin if I started talking about scales and arpeggios and other exciting forms of didactic violin pedagogy. (Laughter) So, I just started playing. And I played the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And as I played, I understood that there was a profound change occurring in Nathaniel’s eyes. It was as if he was in the grip of some invisible pharmaceutical, a chemical reaction, for which my playing the music was its catalyst. And Nathaniel’s manic rage was transformed into understanding, a quiet curiosity and grace. And in a miracle, he lifted his own violin and he started playing, by ear, certain snippets of violin concertos which he then asked me to complete — Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius. And we started talking about music, from Bach to Beethoven and Brahms, Bruckner, all the B’s, from Bartók, all the way up to Esa-Pekka Salonen. And I understood that he not only had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, but he related to this music at a personal level. He spoke about it with the kind of passion and understanding that I share with my colleagues in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And through playing music and talking about music, this man had transformed from the paranoid, disturbed man that had just come from walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles to the charming, erudite, brilliant, Juilliard-trained musician. Music is medicine. Music changes us. And for Nathaniel, music is sanity. Because music allows him to take his thoughts and delusions and shape them through his imagination and his creativity, into reality. And that is an escape from his tormented state. And I understood that this was the very essence of art. This was the very reason why we made music, that we take something that exists within all of us at our very fundamental core, our emotions, and through our artistic lens, through our creativity, we’re able to shape those emotions into reality. And the reality of that expression reaches all of us and moves us, inspires and unites us. And for Nathaniel, music brought him back into a fold of friends. The redemptive power of music brought him back into a family of musicians that understood him, that recognized his talents and respected him. And I will always make music with Nathaniel, whether we’re at Walt Disney Concert Hall or on Skid Row, because he reminds me why I became a musician. Thank you. (Applause) Bruno Giussani: Thank you. Thanks. Robert Gupta. (Applause) Robert Gupta: I’m going to play something that I shamelessly stole from cellists. So, please forgive me. (Laughter) (Music) (Applause)

100 Comments

  • Reply Timo Timo March 26, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Hahahahaha! HAHAHAHA! BWAHAHAHA! HAAHIIHIHIOHOHOHOAHAHAHAHAHA!!! HA!HAH!HAHAHAHA!HAHA!H!HA!HA! HeheheehHihihi!hHAAHAhihihihohoho… oooohh.. haha…

    You just made my day! xD

  • Reply holdmybeer March 26, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    @ boqallaf

    not his neck! he has no neck. LOL

  • Reply baronmorris March 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    better to say, music can be medicine. it can also, like any drug, be an intoxicant of less positive and healing emotions. ie, gangsta rap, death metal, etc.

    but here's to the healing power of music!
    cheers!

  • Reply rudy4histo March 26, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Hey John,
    Yoyoma is a very famous classical musician.

    R

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 26, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    @baronmorris

    "be an intoxicant of less positive and healing emotions. ie, gangsta rap, death metal"

    Music is music. From the aspect of music as medicine (again, it can be medicine, but it would probably be better termed as "therapy"), if it truly has a therapeutic effect is from the fact that it's music you like. If you know of any studies into this that prove me wrong, I await to hear of them.

  • Reply google2com March 26, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    he's a famous musician.

  • Reply Jeffrie Gasca March 26, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    /watch?v=S6yuR8efotI

  • Reply mikwid March 26, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Music has such divine power! I am greatful for it every day of my life. Thanks for this great share!

  • Reply melancholiac March 26, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Yo Yo Ma is a musician. Violinist i think? Maybe a cellist.

  • Reply Bananer March 26, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    "A" Yo – Yo Ma is a person silly. He is a Wonderful virtuoso cellist and composer ūüôā

  • Reply theseanze March 26, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Good point, I think maybe a better way to put it is that communication is better medicine than superficial cures, and whatever cuts through the crap to get to what's deep inside is what's going to help us all stay sane.

  • Reply pisaniforprez March 26, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Yoyo Ma is a celloist. He's very talented.

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 26, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    @theseanze

    " I think maybe a better way to put it is that communication is better medicine than superficial cures"

    I would classify this as one of those superficial cures… It's not doing anything, it's just delaying having to deal with it. Even Mr. Gupta was making it clear this wasn't a "cure" for the schizophrenic, but a reprieve, at least that is how I took the schizophrenic starting to lapse back into his symptoms.

  • Reply Adrian March 26, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    @Cyrathil I think that depends on the genre. There is no doubt music that has similar effects on the mood of a majority of people. The kind of music "Emos" listen to, can enforce their hopeless and suicidal attitude, wouldn't you agree?

  • Reply Adrian March 26, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    @boqallaf Yeah, i always wondered about that, seems like a really problematic posture.

  • Reply Adrian March 26, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    yomama!

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 26, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    @HiAdrian

    "The kind of music "Emos" listen to, can enforce their hopeless and suicidal attitude, wouldn't you agree?"

    Not necessarily. It can be a negative reinforcement, but I wouldn't say it is all that large a factor.

    Now, if it's able to be shown that someone who has a generally cheery disposition can be turned into a hopeless/suicidal/negative disposition and this can be shown repeatably, then I would be more willing to agree.

  • Reply SourcesAreEverything March 26, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    "Music is what feelings sound like."
    -Anonymous

  • Reply Adrian March 26, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    I would argue so. If we take something like The Fountain OST (YT search: The Last Man) by Clint Mansell for example. Wonderful music, but i can't listen to it for too long, because it gets me into a gloomy/nihilistic mood. Now one could argue that it triggers subconscious memories that are specific to me, but i can't say i perceive an occurrence of such. And a proper hiphop track could lift me out of this in 20 minutes i'd say.

    Personal experience of course, but i suspect this to be universal.

  • Reply JohnWoo March 26, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    @JohnWoo Some people can't take a joke? Of course I know who Yo-Yo Ma is, and it's actually Ma Yo-Yo, because he's Chinese.

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    @HiAdrian

    "Now one could argue that it triggers subconscious memories that are specific to me, but i can't say i perceive an occurrence of such."

    The problem is you can't, almost by definition, perceive if something is happening subconsciously. It's the subconscious, you're not aware of it.

    After listening to the six minutes of the specific example you gave, I wasn't any different than before. Again, it's not necessarily true that any genre of music has an effect, in and of itself.

  • Reply mars Cubed March 26, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    I read in newScientist recently that maths and other intellectual pursuits such as brain training games, are as effective as anti psychotic drugs at 'curing' schizophrenia.
    It seems that music is one of the activities which are able to turn brains back on.

    It may also explain why more educated people lose religious fantasy too.

  • Reply Synthetic_Future March 26, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    It's a well done speech with a nice story. A shame we didn't get a duet with Nathaniel, but then again a schizophrenic person in a situation like this might be a bad call. Well played on the violin anyways

  • Reply Mark Proffitt March 26, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist (cello player)

  • Reply Aaron Tringle March 26, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    5 minutes in is where the reality really is

  • Reply Chris Lockwood March 26, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    a some just sweet !!! check out my music if you want

  • Reply Joseph C March 27, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Yoyo Ma is a very well-known cellist.

  • Reply christopherawesome March 27, 2010 at 12:56 am

    super famous cellist.

  • Reply christopherawesome March 27, 2010 at 1:08 am

    i don't think that his message really was about big pharma being evil, just not right for everyone, and that music should be looked into more as being an alternative or used alongside traditional methods of medicine and therapy.

  • Reply timabad March 27, 2010 at 2:15 am

    this guy is a little too dramatic… just give us the facts man.
    he could have summed up this talk in 3 sentences or less.

  • Reply Lawes27 March 27, 2010 at 3:32 am

    I really enjoyed the way he told this. I consider this a story rather than a formal presentation although I'm certain others would describe it more effectively than me. He was fully engaging and the story was not once boring for me. Also his performance was fantastic! I am definitely going to read the book as this has inspired me such.

  • Reply Fr√©d√©ric Yonnet March 27, 2010 at 3:38 am

    now, that's funny!!! Lol

  • Reply 150buckfifty150 March 27, 2010 at 3:53 am

    i like how he folds his hands at the end ūüôā respectful and talented!

  • Reply Swidhelm March 27, 2010 at 4:09 am

    Would be Who is Yoyo Ma. He's a renowned Chinese cellist. See Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon soundtrack.

  • Reply adj789 March 27, 2010 at 4:26 am

    I can relate, I like to make music, even if no one listens

  • Reply themindminder March 27, 2010 at 4:35 am

    @piotrezzz
    I believe that Oliver Sacks is writing a book whose thesis is that W A Mozart had Tourette's Syndrome.

    I agree that music can be like medicine, but also music, (in my case) like death metal and some angry rap music is like poison!!!

  • Reply Firstname Lastname March 27, 2010 at 4:45 am

    I could do that, easy as cake. Piece of pie.

  • Reply Worldbelow09 March 27, 2010 at 5:17 am

    MAN THE HARPOONS

  • Reply James Post March 27, 2010 at 6:01 am

    his ego can be forgiven for his playing

  • Reply freesk8 March 27, 2010 at 7:28 am

    Music soothes the savage beast.

  • Reply Ing√≥lfur Snorrason March 27, 2010 at 9:00 am

    I would like to say that PASSION is sanity. In this case you have a mentally ill person who has a great passion for music. The same applies for other cases and people. Doing the things you are passionate for creates harmony and well being.

  • Reply EmmaDelamare March 27, 2010 at 9:04 am

    The movie Shine tells a simalar true story, it seems to me reserch into how music affects us is worth doing.

  • Reply niupaidanui March 27, 2010 at 10:18 am

    5:16 – he went over time :p

  • Reply illtrax March 27, 2010 at 10:29 am

    @piotrezzz – I can't confirm the rumor obviously but I think it's very possible he had Tourettes. I seen a BBC documentary on pianists with Tourettes and observed how the most severe symtoms vanish as soon as one played. It was extraordinary.

  • Reply Promatheos March 27, 2010 at 11:22 am

    The delivery of his talk was distracting because it sounded so rehearsed like an amateur thespian; overly dramatic. The story is touching without trying to force it to be touching.

  • Reply magus March 27, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    poetic

  • Reply theseanze March 27, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    @Cyrathil Yes, but much of the problem w/ people who have mental disorders isn't only biological, but psychological. Sometimes the problems are just related to neurosis or compulsive thinking that only happens when they have nothing to occupy their brain on some track…that's how a lot of geniuses are. In these cases (maybe John Nash is sort of an example), it seems the only choice is between suppressing the brain with medication or letting it fly at full speed in some constructive way.

  • Reply David Peyton March 27, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Worst performance of Bach I've ever heard.

  • Reply Frey12 March 27, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Considering he switched it from the chello to violin I thought it was a pretty good performance of bach cello suite 1.

  • Reply Shaunt1 March 28, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Any relation to Sanja Gupta?

  • Reply nothersheep March 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    @midij That's an over-simplification. The same part of the brain is implicated, but that only means that music also involves things like patterns. Music also incorporates things, and uses parts of the brain that computing/mathematics doesn't.

  • Reply Scout14885 March 28, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Actually Yes, I think you are!

  • Reply oneworldfamily March 28, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    I know what you mean. Many sound like stereotypes and talk in clichés. Perhaps it has something to do with the people at TED who select the speakers and the time limit for the talks.

  • Reply bornearth March 28, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    despite all the music these people made, they still suffered from severe mental health problems.

  • Reply elminz March 29, 2010 at 1:56 am

    I like how his neck engulfs the end of the violin.

  • Reply KateLouise March 29, 2010 at 3:14 am

    @freesk8 though oft misquoted, the saying is even more apt in its original form "music hath charms to soothe a savage breast" It is not the animal in us that is soothed by music, but the savage human heart that can so tear itself apart in a way no other creature would or could.

  • Reply annfoxshao March 29, 2010 at 3:51 am

    I like his speech but his performence is just horrible!

  • Reply freesk8 March 29, 2010 at 4:07 am

    @KateLouise Wow, thanks for the data!
    Sounds like Shakespeare?
    The proper form of the quotation seems to have MORE relevance to this video than the misinterpretation I was laboring under!
    Thanks.

  • Reply Centigonos March 29, 2010 at 11:37 am

    @crimsoncitizen "he's a disgusting fatass" You may or may not like the speech or his performance (and I don't like it myself), but there's no use in berating him in such a vile manner.

  • Reply AI fan March 29, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    @KateLouise

    I'm not sure what your heart does but mine pumps blood.

    Please save your metaphor and poetry for literary works. The use of it in this context is condescending, pretentious and worst of all, confusing.

  • Reply ThePrattre March 29, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    agree!!

  • Reply OrangePoetry March 29, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Im glad you watched it!

  • Reply Se√°n O'Nilbud March 29, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    @oneworldfamily At this momentous time (overlong pause) when so many (of them) are struggling and so much is controlled by so few (of us) we must vaguely waffle about how shopping is Human, and values can be added.

  • Reply brbn93 March 30, 2010 at 1:05 am

    @crimsoncitizen is he making more money than you? Is he getting interview in front of people wanting to listen to him? yes. What have you been doing in your life? When you get to his level or higher than him, you can say anything you like and he won't do nothing about it. Until then, sit back, relax and enjoy the vid that you "accidentally" chose.

  • Reply Centigonos March 30, 2010 at 8:25 am

    @crimsoncitizen
    – "[fat people] are less than people" – wouldn't "more" be more appropriate than "less"?
    – "fat people aren't people." – now you're really putting the word "moron" into "oxymoron".

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 30, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    @Sleeplesscam

    "The line between unhealthily ignoring problems, and healthily distancing yourself from problems"

    The line is unnecessary, because you're still not treating the cause. The person might very well experience a natural declination in symptoms, because even if you still have the disease/disability it might lessen in intensity on its own, but it's not right to classify music as an actively curative therapy. You're not ignoring the problem, you're just not treating it.

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 30, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    @Sleeplesscam

    Treatment is necessary, and saying it's "superficial" wasn't meant to mean it isn't useful to try.

    "what then is the cause, the setting, or the condition?"

    More than likely, it will be both the setting and condition, specifically "ailment". But in terms of medicine, it's impossible for the doctor to make sure the setting is being changed, so the ailment is our focus.

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 31, 2010 at 1:39 am

    @Sleeplesscam

    "you may have actually helped me a bit with my thesis"

    The problem is that it's not a problem. We're not "unwilling" or forced into treating anything as if it was static. It's not that we just reject the social/environment condition, we ignore it because the doctor isn't able to follow a patient around every day and try and correct the social influence.

  • Reply Timothy Simmons March 31, 2010 at 1:42 am

    @Sleeplesscam

    As an auxiliary point: diabetes has a genetic component to it, at least some versions of it. The person who has it isn't going to necessarily get it, there is a environmental factor. The best a doctor can do is suggest a lifestyle change, and set parameters (again, we don't have to ignore the environments roll), and treat the symptoms, until whole-body/-system DNA manipulation is practical, because while changing the environment helps the symptom, it's not curative.

  • Reply Heimir J√≥sefsson March 31, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Beautiful!

  • Reply Gwenette WriterSinclair March 31, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Our understanding of how we can "communciate" with our own brains/consciousness of others and ourselves is just beginning to blossom. We know not what we are . . . yet:)))

  • Reply landownunder March 31, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    brilliant and so very true

  • Reply shjakes April 1, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Amen! Amen!..Music IS food and Medicine!

  • Reply John O'Shaughnessy April 10, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    The connection between the music, our heart and our minds is nothing short of amazing!

  • Reply WobbleKun April 12, 2010 at 4:19 am

    This can really be applied to almost everything though. Some stuff clicks with people, other things do not. That being said, I am glad his friend found his calling. However, I do agree that music is powerful, and great things can be done when put into application.

  • Reply Lechiffresix six April 20, 2010 at 7:23 am

    I'd love to play chello

  • Reply ben fischer July 27, 2010 at 5:24 am

    brilliant therory of the relation between music and the mind. It was a true pleasure to listen thank you.

  • Reply Facu Sacco September 3, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    LA TRADUCCION ES UN DESASTREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
    LO QUE DICE EL TIPO ES GENIAL, ALGUIEN PODRIA POR FAVOR TRADUCIR BIEN ESTO?

  • Reply PhattyMo September 24, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Without music,I think I would die. Seriously.

  • Reply Daniel Jones November 6, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    violins cost so much it sucks

  • Reply twintl1 December 15, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Just excellent talk and performance………God Bless

    Piyush and so called "Niki" your coments are not relevent to Mr. Gupta's talk and performance.
    Please educate youselves first…………..

  • Reply Shayne Gryn January 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Did he say double-bassist?

  • Reply Mary Lang June 30, 2011 at 5:45 am

    The cello suite definitely sounds better on the cello . . . or viola.

  • Reply Slivarito February 12, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    @shaynegryn Yep, the double bass is the large bass in the orchestra.

  • Reply Michael Makhal August 17, 2012 at 9:51 am

    He is a fantastic Violinist and I loved his speech on "Music is Medicine".

  • Reply faakid September 16, 2012 at 3:12 am

    cello*

  • Reply Mu51kM4n October 3, 2012 at 2:59 am

    I seriously think music is a connection to a part of our being that we can neither explain nor fully understand. So, I agree whole-heartedly. If it was not for music or art in general, I think we would all die, maybe not physically, but mentally, physically and spiritually. We would cease to be human beings, but simply robots.

  • Reply Milly May 14, 2013 at 8:50 am

    i can totally relate to this story – music keeps me going despite my depression

  • Reply Angloth July 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    douchebag

  • Reply efrinUTK September 22, 2013 at 7:17 am

    What's the name of the piece at the end?

  • Reply efrinUTK September 22, 2013 at 7:18 am

    What's the name of the piece at the end?

  • Reply efrinUTK September 22, 2013 at 7:19 am

    What's the name of the piece at the end?

  • Reply Christopher Edwin Johnson December 23, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    @efrinUTK¬†Bach¬īs Cello Suite No. 1

  • Reply Amy Rene February 12, 2014 at 6:47 am

    Awesome speech!

  • Reply avedic May 27, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    Why doesn't this have far more views? I'll never understand why some TED talks never go viral….and other lamer ones do. Oh wells…

  • Reply kstswei December 1, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    remarks on the significance of music to Nathaniel 4:34 to 4m56s, and to life in general: 4:56 to 5m24s

  • Reply Tomasz Skaba January 31, 2016 at 1:49 am

    Marvellous speech.

  • Reply ~Natalie~ May 1, 2016 at 1:31 am

    I'm researching and following columnist Steve Lopez for a school assignment and am glad I found this video. This speech opened my mind more to the power of music and why I should play an instrument. I will definitely watch "The Soloist" and that ending piece was so cool!

  • Reply Sue Cooper August 1, 2018 at 6:05 am

    It was a cello, not a violin. Big difference.

  • Reply Firdevs Dede Artist Dyslexia Specialist October 6, 2019 at 11:59 am

    Excellent!

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