Top Ted Talks about Music - SchoolofComposition.com

Top 10 Ted Talks about Music Every Musician Must Watch

I’ve probably watched hundreds of TED talks over the years but as a composer and a music teacher, a great talk about music can really make my day (if not my week!). I love sharing inspirational stuff with my students so here some of the best TED talks about music.

In no particular order, here are my 10 favorite TED talks about music:

  1. The Transformative Impact of Classical Music by Benjamin Zander
  2. Music and Emotion Through Time by Michael Tilson Thomas 
  3. How Architecture Helped Music Evolve by David Byrne
  4. The Unexpected Beauty of Everyday Sounds by Meklit Hadero
  5. Releasing the Music in your Head by Tod Machover and Dan Ellsey
  6. How Sampling Transformed Music by Mark Ronson
  7. The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us by Julian Treasure
  8. The Voice of the Natural World by Bernie Krause
  9. How I Found Myself Through Music by Anika Paulson
  10. The Mad Scientist of Music by Mark Applebaum

Let’s look at what we can learn from these talks, see what they’re about and read some notable quotes.

1. The Transformative Impact of Classical Music

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9LCwI5iErE

Conductor and music director Benjamin Zander presents us with a passionate talk about the positive effects that music can have in people’s lives. Zander is an absolutely wonderful teacher and his love for music is just infectious! This is by far one of my favourite talks about music I’ve ever watched.

The Idea

A piece of music goes through a journey. Zander invites us to listen to his performance of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor and observe how it travels from ‘away’ to ‘home’.

Lessons Learned

Apart from teaching the audience to anticipate the arrival on the tonic (the musical term for the note that feels like ‘home’), Zander proves that once they know how to listen everyone can be moved by music. On his way of explaining this, Zander sprinkles a few life lessons too.

Notable Quotes

“Everybody has a fantastic ear!”

“Here is a B. The next note is a C. And the job of the B is to make the C sad.”

“This is about vision. This is about the long line, like the bird who flies over the field and doesn’t care about the fences underneath.”

“My definition of success is how many shining eyes I have around me.”


2. Music and Emotion Through Time

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FD5ZKi-moMU

Michael Tilson Thomas is a pianist, conductor and composer. In this talk, Thomas takes us on a brief journey through music history to show us how music, and its purpose, transformed over time.

The Idea

Over the course of its history, music changed to reflect its culture. Music developed through the invention of new tools and technologies, such as notation, printing and recording.

Lessons Learned

The objectives for composers were different in different eras: from praising God to imitating the majesty of the night sky to expressing the emotions of mankind, the purpose of music changes with its culture.

As the purpose of music changes, so does the music itself. Music has evolved from Gregorian chant to complex harmony and other developments to fulfil its purpose for the time. 

People’s attitude towards music is also changing through the ages.

Notable Quotes

“Classical music is an unbroken living tradition that goes back over a 1000 years and every one of those years has had something unique and powerful to say to us about what’s it like to be alive.”

“The improviser senses and plays the next cool move but a composer is considering all possible moves, testing them out, prioritising them out until he sees how they can form a powerful and coherent design of ultimate and enduring coolness.”


3. How Architecture Helped Music Evolve 

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se8kcnU-uZw

David Byrne is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and the founder of the band ‘Talking Heads’ who released 8 studio albums in the span of 16 years.

The Idea

A fascinating look at how musical styles are intimately connected with the venues they are intended for. From outdoors African drumming to Gregorian chant, from classical orchestras to jazz bands, from car stereos to mp3 players, David Byrne explores how the location (or device) where music is played, influences the genre itself.

Lessons Learned

Music is influenced by the culture that it is part of. And this includes even the venues in which it’s performed.

Musicians, composers and songwriters have been adapting to their environment in fascinating and intricate ways.

Birds adapt their ‘music’ too. Their whistling, chirping or singing varies depending on their habitat as well as how high or low they tend to fly.

Notable Quotes

“At one point music diverged. There’s live music and there’s recorded music and they no longer have to be exactly the same.”

“This is a reverse view of things from the romantic view that first comes the passion and then the outpouring of emotion – and then somehow it gets shaped into something.”


4. The Unexpected Beauty of Everyday Sounds

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAkkckxE9i8

Meklit Hadero is a singer-songwriter known for her unique style of combining jazz, folk and eastern African music in her songs.  

The Idea 

Inspiration for new music can be found everywhere: in nature, in language and even in silence.

Lessons Learned

Musical ideas can be found everywhere if we listen openly and closely. There is a lot of melody in birdsongs and animal sounds. In everyday words and phrases there is a clear melody as well as rhythm. All these can be inspiration for musical material that can be explored and developed further.

Notable Quotes

“The everyday soundscape can be the most unexpected inspiration for songwriting.”

“A healthy environment has animals and insects taking up low, medium and high frequency bands in exactly the same way as the symphony (orchestra) does.”

“The world is alive with musical expression. We are already immersed.”


5. Releasing the Music in your Head

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zj2QoLhfwew

Tod Machover’s work at MIT’s media lab experiments with bringing new technologies that encourage and enable people from all walks of life to create new music. The ideas for HyperScore and Guitar Hero came out of this lab.

Dan Ellsey, a man with cerebral palsy, joins this talk to perform his instrumental piece “My Eagle Song” thanks to a piece of technology designed specifically for him.

The Idea 

Making music is not just fun – it can also be healing of many mental states, conditions and diseases. With the right tools and technology, everyone is capable of expressing themselves through music and experience a new life.

Lessons Learned

Making music is literally for everyone! Given the right support, absolutely anyone can be a creator and that can be greatly beneficial to the individual. 

Music is great to listen to, but it’s even more powerful when you make it yourself.

The right technologies can help absolutely anyone express themselves in music. Perhaps, one way forward in our ever-growing, high-tech culture is to find ways of developing ‘personal instruments’ – helping people create music with technologies that are adapted to their specific physical and/or mental needs.

Notable Quotes

“Music is fun but it’s also transformative. Music can change your life more than almost anything. It can change the way you communicate with others, it can change your body, it can change your mind.”

“Everybody can experience music in a profound way. We just have to make different tools.”

“Music, paradoxically even more than words, is one of the very best ways we have of showing who we really are.”


6. How Sampling Transformed Music

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3TF-hI7zKc

Mark Ronson is a DJ, songwriter and record producer who has topped the charts working with big names such as Bruno Mars, Adele and Amy Winehouse.

The Idea

Sampling opened up a whole new world of possibilities – not because DJs and producers are lazy, but because they could take something familiar, make it their own, and share it back to the world in a new form.

Lessons Learned

The 1984 song “La di da di” by Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh is one of the most sampled songs of all time. Various parts of it have been sampled over 500 times in all sorts of different songs, yet none of them are mere copies of the original.

Just like composers of the past learned and built on each other’s creations, so do modern songwriters and producers borrow ideas and make them their own. Music has always developed in this way.

Sampling can be, and often is, done tastefully. Treating all of sampling as lazy and unoriginal is unfair and close-minded. Every song should be judged based on its own merits.

Notable Quotes

“They were sampling those records because they heard something that spoke to them and they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music. They heard it, they wanted to be a part of it and all of a sudden they found themselves in possession of the technology to do so.”

“In music we take something that we love and we build on it.”

“I can’t help it. I take things that I love and I mess around with them.”


7. The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRepnhXq33s

Julian Treasure trains people to listen and communicate more effectively by becoming aware of the sound around them. In this short talk, he presents to us the 4 ways that sound has a profound impact on us.

The Idea 

Sound affects us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively and behaviourally. It’s a major force in our life whether we know it or not.

Lessons Learned

Our minds and our bodies are deeply connected to the sounds of our environment. Sounds can affect our hormones (such as cortisol alerting us to dangers), our breathing patterns (calm or rushed), our emotional states (positive or negative), our health and many other countless ways.

If we take control of the sound around us, we can improve our health and our general well-being.

Notable Quotes

“Music is not the only sound that can affect your emotions. Natural sound can do that too. Birdsong, for example, is a sound that most people find reassuring. There’s a reason for that: over hundreds of thousands of years we’ve learned that when the birds are singing, things are safe.”

“Music is the most powerful sound there is. It’s powerful for two reasons: you recognize it fast and you associate it very powerfully.”


8. The Voice of the Natural World

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTbA-mxo858

Bernie Krause is a musician and a ‘soundscape ecologist’. In this talk, he brings us some wonderful recordings of the sounds of the nature, which he has been collecting for over 4 decades. Without even mentioning music, his insights into the sounds of the natural world are really inspiring for musicians and music makers.

The Idea 

Listening to the sounds of the natural world helps us understand it far more than anything else.

Lessons learned

A soundscape (the overall sound of any given place) consists of 3 layers of sound:

  1. Geophony: the sounds of inanimate, non-living objects in nature like wind and ocean waves; 
  2. Biophony: the sounds of living things most notably animals.
  3. Anthrophony: the sounds that human beings make: some of it is controlled (like music) while some is chaotic and incoherent (noise).  

By listening carefully to the sounds of a habitat, we can see how healthy it is. Much like music, the spectrum of sound should encompass a variety of frequencies.

Notable quotes

“Environmental sciences have typically tried to understand the world from what we see but a much fuller understanding can begotten from what we hear.”

“While a picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.”


9. How I Found Myself Through Music

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tS2aI-c3Q8A

Anika Paulson takes us through a personal reflection of her experiences in music. Like many of us musicians, songwriters and composers, she feels a special connection to anything that is related to music. This connection, she says, is a major part of her identity.  

The Idea

Music is everywhere and it is in everything. For Anika, it is a significant part of who she is and how she lives.

Lessons learned

Music is a reflection of our lives: where music has rhythm, we have routines. Where music has harmony, we have friends and family. Where music has melody, we have ourselves riding on top.

As we create music, music helps create us. It becomes who we are and how we engage with the world.

Notable quote

“We had basic two- to four-measure lines and yet each of them almost told a story, like they had so much potential.”

“Music is my way of coping with the changes in my life. There’s a beautiful connection between music and life. It can bind us to reality and at the same time, it allows us to escape it.”


10. The Mad Scientist of Music

link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46w99bZ3W_M

With his unique curiosity and inventiveness Mark Applebaum writes wonderfully-weird music. In this TED talk, he shares with us his music for an instrument that he created himself, music for conductors without performers, a Concerto for florist and orchestra, and other new and strange musical ideas.

Applebaum is not just a composer or just an inventor – he plays both roles  (and many others) at the same time! He’s a ‘composer-inventor’ and he brings us a glimpse of his creative world in this fascinating presentation.

The Idea

Mark Applebaum shows us how being bored with ‘normal’ music drove him to be creative in fantastic new ways. Boredom, he says, pushed him to take on roles that go beyond the traditional, narrow definitions of a composer.

Lessons Learned

We should question not just what music is, but perhaps also, what music can be.

Questioning old conventions can take you in new, wonderful (and sometimes weird) directions you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

Try new things in your art and see what happens!

Notable quotes

“Is it music? I decided ultimately that this is the wrong question and that this is not the important question. The important question is: ‘Is it interesting?’ and I follow this question not worrying ‘is it music?’ and not worrying about the definition of the thing that I’m making.”

“I allow my creativity to push me in directions that are simply interesting to me and I don’t worry about the likeness of the result to some notion – some paradigm, of what music composition is supposed to be.”


What do you think? 

What are your favorite TED talks and what can we learn from them? Let me know in the comments below (or join our Facebook community over here).