Leaders in Medical Innovation

Dr. Richard Kogan, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Artistic Director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program

Osmosis Team
Sep 1, 2016

Dr. Richard Kogan has led a distinguished career as both a professional pianist and as a physician. He is currently a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Artistic Director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program. At the age of seven, he attended the Julliard School of Music Pre-College as a piano student. As a college student, he became fascinated by the mind and brain and decided psychiatry would be another rewarding career to pursue. While studying medicine at Harvard, Dr. Kogan was encouraged to continue his music career along with his medical education. In later years, he began to merge these two fields and now explores the role of music in healing and discusses the impact of psychological and mental illnesses on the creative genius of well-known composers.

How did you become interested in a career in music and then medicine?
I was a musician from the time I was very young. I attended the Juilliard School of Music Pre-College as a piano student starting at age 7 and had an active concert career as a youngster.  As a teenager, I made the decision to go to a liberal arts college rather than a music conservatory because my interests extended beyond music.  In college, I became fascinated by the mind and brain and thought that psychiatry would be another rewarding career to pursue.

When did you start to merge whose two fields?  When did you see that there was a connection to be made between music and medicine?
When I was a medical student at Harvard, Dean of Students Dr. Daniel Federman encouraged me to continue my concert career by designing a special five-year schedule that allowed me months off to travel and concertize between my medical rotations and clerkships.

For many years after I finished medical school and residency, I lived parallel lives as a physician and as a concert pianist.  But I eventually began to recognize that medicine and music are not distinct domains, that there is a considerable overlap.

The ancient Greeks understood this connection, designating Apollo as the god of both medicine and music.  In many primitive cultures, the roles of physician and musician were played by the same person – the shaman, who would use both medical and musical instruments to heal.  I grew to appreciate that music has an extraordinary capacity to assist in what so many physicians strive to do – reduce pain, soothe anxiety, lift spirits.

How did you start your research and what are you working on now?
Some years ago I was asked to conduct a symposium at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting on creative genius and psychiatric illness.  I began doing research on the lives and minds of composers whose music I had played my entire life, and I discovered that many of them appeared to suffer from signs and symptoms of psychiatric illness.  I developed a lecture-concert format in which I explore the psychiatric history of a famous composer and illustrate the concepts through piano performance of the composer’s music.  I currently do about 50 of these performances annually at medical centers and other venues throughout the world.

When I am not travelling, I treat a range of psychiatric patients in my office and I am the Artistic Director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Inititiative, a program that was established to ensure that music can remain an important part of the lives and experiences of the medical students, staff and faculty in the Weill Cornell community.

Is there a connection to be made between mental illness and creative genius?  Is there a sort of bridge between those two?
There is a growing body of research that suggests that the incidence of psychiatric illness is greater in populations of artists, writers, poets, musicians than in the general population.  Creative people are prone to seek out intense and destabilizing experiences and creative ideas are frequently generated during chaotic mental states.  The emotional suffering of the suicidally depressed Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky seemed to inspire him to compose masterpieces like the Pathetique Symphony, and the bipolar Robert Schumann used the sharpened imagination, increased energy and racing thoughts of his manic states to compose at a prodigious pace.  I have found it valuable to do presentations on these composers in an effort to reduce the societal stigma associated with mental illness.

It is important not to overromanticize the connection between creative genius and mental illness.  Most depressed individuals are too paralyzed to be creatively productive, and most psychotic individuals are to disorganized to produce anything that is coherent.  Timely interventions from mental health professionals can play a valuable role in enhancing the creative output of artists suffering from mental illness.

What was your experience like working in medical centers around the world?
I am most struck by the universality of music, how similarly people from diverse cultures respond to the same piece of music, and how universal the healing powers of music appear to be.

What trend or evolution do you see in modern medicine?
What I notice is that as medicine becomes more technologically-driven, there is a yearning to reconnect medicine with humanistic values. More medical centers are beginning Humanities in Medicine programs to retain a focus on humanistic ideals such as compassion and empathy.

What advice do you have for students aiming to get into your field or music and medicine?
I think it is important for medical students who are interested in music to view music not as a distraction from their mission to become excellent physicians but rather as an enhancement, something that will improve their ability to become compassionate, empathetic and effective doctors.