“Whoever said ‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ has probably never watched TED.”
I am a big fan of TED Talks. The forum has managed to bring global attention to some amazing story tellers, brilliant minds and highly engaging speakers. So, I was naturally honored, and humbled, when I was recently asked to give a talk for TEDx in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
I have spent most of my career on the other side of the recording glass, in back of the stage or behind the camera lens, allowing artists far better at the craft of performance to speak or sing for me. I’ve even gotten to sit back and critique, performances by inspiring artists from around the globe. Now it was my turn in the hot seat.
I decided to dedicate a good portion of my TED talk, “The Technologies of Emotion,” to discuss the intrinsic power of music and it’s effect on our cognitive, physical and social development – a subject dear to my heart and at the core of my work. Before going too far, however, I took some time check out who else was talking about the subject on TED and learned I was not alone.
Watching those presentations on the TED site didn’t do much to boost my confidence either. I began to fear I might be preparing to do little more than publicly embarrass myself. On the other hand, I was inspired by my allies in the conversation and further encouraged in my own work. I was reassured to learn that so many intelligent, talented and truly caring people were taking the world stage to share with us their personal stories, passion and steadfast beliefs about the undeniable force of music in their lives and the world around us. With that as fuel, and a solid belief in the necessity to share our collective message, I walked across the coals of my own fears and into the spotlight.
Whoever said “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” an adage that dates back to 1918, originally attributed to Martin Mull, has probably never watched TED. I would argue, in fact, that we need to keep talking about music until we wake up as a culture and embrace how powerful and critical it is to our survival and evolution, starting with putting music back into our public elementary schools. But don’t get me started. I’m not writing today to simply push my views on the importance of music. Rather, I would like to shine the spotlight a little brighter on these highly informative and inspiring presenters and to underline the invaluable messages they brought to the stage to share with us.
With that intention, I have created a list of what I believe to be the Top 10 TED Talks About Music. (Listed below in no particular order.) For the most part, I focused on the message and omitted the TED presentations that were stand-alone performances. I eliminated others that could easily have ranked, and also multiple talks by the same person. Some of those, and other notable presentations, are included in my Runner-Up list.
I would love any feedback, as well as to see what your Top 10 TED Talks About Music list would be.
Without further ado…
1) Benjamin Zander: The Transformative Power of Classical Music
Benjamin Zander is the irresistibly charismatic and highly energetic conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and co-author of The Art of Possibility. Zander is a brilliant presenter with two infectious passions: classical music and helping us all realize our untapped love for it and, through it, for realizing our own untapped potential.
2) Robert Gupta: Music is Medicine, Music Is Sanity
Robert Gupta, a violinist with the LA Philharmonic since age 19, has a passionate interest in neurobiology and the power of music to help address mental health issues. This is one of two equally engaging TED talks by Gupta. He talks about a violin lesson he once gave to a brilliant, schizophrenic musician named Nathanial Anthony Ayers – the same artist who because the subject of the film The Soloist. Gupta’s other talk Music or Medicine is listed below in the runner ups, just to leave a slot for someone else in the Top 10 category.
3) Jose Antonio Abreu: The El Sistema Music Revolution
Jose Antonio Abreu, founder and leader of the acclaimed youth orchestra system in Venezuela call El Sistema, is both a national treasure and a global hero in the field of music and education and in the use of music as a tool for personal development and social transformation. El Sistema has created 102 youth orchestras and transformed the lives of thousands of poor Venezuelan youth, including one of the world’s most acclaimed conductors – the youngest director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic – Gustavo Dudamel.
4) Claron McFadden: Singing the Primal Mystery
Claron McFadden is a soprano from Amsterdam known for her oratorios as well as interpretations of contemporary classical works. McFadden invites us to explore the mysteries of breathing and singing, by sharing a story of her realization of singing as a form of mediation and performs the highly unique 20th Century Classical “Aria,” by John Cage.
5) Michael Tilson Thomas: Music and Emotion Through Time
Michael Tilson Thomas is a renown conductor and music educator. In this epic overview, he traces the development of classical music through the development of written notation, the record, and the re-mix.
6) Eric Whitacre: A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong
Eric Whitacre is a contemporary choral composer, conductor and musical innovator. In a moving viral video, composer Eric Whitacre leads a virtual choir of singers from around the world.
7) Vusi Mahlasela: Sings “Thula Mama”
Vuis Mahlasela is a South African singer-songwriter, musical activist and humanitarian. He was a crucial artistic voice during the fight against apartheid and remains so in the new modern-day nation. Vusi tells the story of his Grandmother then dedicates a song to her and to all women, mixing traditional African music with soul and blues, powerful vocals and poetic lyrics.
8) Charles Hazlewood: Trusting the Ensemble
Conductor Charles Hazlewood talks about the role of trust in musical leadership and how music making can be used as a vehicle to create trust. He conducts the Scottish Ensemble onstage and shares clips from two of his musical passion projects: the opera “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” and the ParaOrchestra. See also his talk: The Debut of the British ParaOrchestra.
9) Emmanuel Jal: The Music of a War Child
Emmanual Jal is a highly acclaimed conscious hip hop star and an activist for kids in war zones. Jal grew up as a child soldier in the Sudan until he was rescued by an aid worker and found his road to inner freedom and sanity through music. In words and lyrics, he tells the story of his amazing life.
10) Italy Talgam: Lead Like the Great Conductors
Italy Talgam is an Israeli conductor-turned business consultant. By demonstrating the unique leadership styles of six great 20th-century conductors,Talgam instructs us in the ultimate leadership challenge: creating perfect harmony and a committed set of followers without saying a word.
TOP 10 RUNNERS UP
1) Evelyn Glennie: How to Truly Listen
Dame Evelyn Glennie is an accomplished percussionist and composer that has been deaf since since the age of 12. Her humorous, engaging talk teaches us that listening is more than just sound waves hitting your ear drums- it’s a joyous, full body experience.
2) Bobby McFerrin Plays the Audience
Bobby McFerrin is a rare breed of singer, artist and creative wizard who can spontaneously create music, inspiration and joy for audiences with his voice and body. He is also a huge proponent for music as an intrinsic and integral part of what makes us human. While not officially a TED talk (thus not in the Top 10) – TED picked this short video up from McFerrin’s presentation at the World Science Festival.
3) Gustavo Dudamel Leads El Sistema’s Top Youth Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel, the greatest young conductor in the world and musical director of the LA Philharmonic, is himself a product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s life-changing music program for youth. In this TED presentation, Gustavo conducts The Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony N. 10 and takes a break between movements to share his feelings on music and El Sistema.
4) Peter Gabriel Fights Injustice with Video
Peter Gabriel is world renowned musical artist and human rights activist. In this profoundly touching video, he shares the story of why he was inspired to cofound WITNESS, an organization that empowers human rights activists and witnesses of injustice by giving them a powerful tool- video.
5) Robert Gupta: Between Music and Medicine
Robert Gupta is a violinist and activist for mental health issues. A member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since age 19, he is also a scientist and conducts research on degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. His two TED videos are so incredibly fascinating that I couldn’t help but include another one on my list.
6) Tod Machover and Dan Ellsey Play New Music
Tod Machover, of MIT’s Media lab, is an innovator of ground breaking music technologies. In this talk he introduces us to several of the technologies he’s created that engage people with music (including Guitar Hero).
7) Charity Tillemann-Dick: Singing after a Double Lung Transplant
Operatic soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick tells the astonishing story of her return to the stage after a double lung transplant.
8) Abigail Washburn: Building US-China Relations by Banjo
Boundary defying musician Abigail Washburn discovered she didn’t need to become a lawyer to get involved with developing relationships between the US and China. All she needs is her banjo.
9) Charles Limb: Your Brain On Improv
Surgeon and musician Charles Limb gives a remarkable talk about his research on the brain, music, and our understanding of creativity. This is your brain on jazz!This is your brain on jazz! See also his talk: Building the Musical Muscle
10) David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve
Pop music icon David Byrne shows how music to be performed in different venues through history – from CBGB’s to Carnegie Hall – would be created differently. From outdoor drumming to Wagnerian operas to arena rock, he explores how context has pushed musical innovation.
For more articles on music by Frank Fitzpatrick, check out his WHY Music Series.