Dr. Tony Saroyan

Saroyan, Hagopian Discuss Music and Mental Health In Instagram Live Session


FRESNO — We often hear that music is good for one’s mental health. However we rarely hear this discussed by musicians within the Armenian community. For this reason, the conversation on Instagram Live that took place on the evening of Thursday, February 25, between Dr. Tony Saroyan, a licensed psychologist, and Andrew Hagopian, a young oud virtuoso, was a welcome and novel addition to the stream of online discussions that have only proliferated since the start of Covid.

Saroyan, who grew up in Los Angeles but whose roots on his father’s side come from the Fresno Saroyans, and who has recently relocated to the Central California city, enlisted the young lifelong Fresno resident Hagopian in an interesting discussion on music and mental health.

Saroyan started out the discussion with the observation that Armenian Church music, while often sad, possesses a quality that seems calming and spiritual. Without a music background, he commented that the music is often comprised of long notes and asked Hagopian if he could elaborate. Hagopian discussed that church music contains drones and what we in the West would call minor notes, and that it is indeed calming for many and was probably intended to be that way.

In fact, Hagopian, who is almost as well versed in Armenian history as he is in music, discussed some of the Armenian antecedents of what today is called music therapy. For example, medieval Armenian physician Mkhitar Heratsi in his book The Relief of Fevers (1184) had suggested that listening to the music of the gusans (minstrels who usually played a stringed instrument and sang) was therapeutic. Instruments like the oud and kanon while not native to Armenia have been a part of Armenian music for more than a thousand years.

Saroyan brought up the phenomenon that has been observed in Alzheimer’s patients, that when presented with music from their youth, they begin to liven up and even remember exact details from when they first heard the song. Hagopian testified that he has literally seen the same thing happen when performing at Armenian events. A particular song that was familiar to a woman with Alzheimer’s caused the elderly lady to move around and even dance, apparently remembering the classic piece from the Armenian events of her youth.

Turkish Music Controversial

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Saroyan pointed out that, for some, Turkish music can be triggering due to its association with the Armenian Genocide. Hagopian stated that he plays this music on request for the many people who are not triggered by it but associate the music with happy memories of their childhood, because the early Armenian immigrants who were the parents of today’s elder generation came over with few worldly possessions and only memories of their home villages. Often songs which described the lifestyle of their hometown might be sung in Armenian or they might be sung in Turkish, but regardless of language these songs brought that early generation good memories of their lives before the horrors of 1915.

Hagopian went on to say that this music was not associated with the Turkish Government as some might think today, but with the Armenian inhabitants of Anatolia who often spoke Turkish as one of their daily languages. The music represents positive attributes of life in Anatolia and not the negative ones. In addition, many of the Turkish songs that emanated from the countryside were written by Armenians, Hagopian pointed out. The bottom line is, many people still love these songs which are associated with their childhood or family background, and it is for those people that Hagopian performs such material.

Andrew Hagopian

Music Brings Back Memories

Saroyan pressed Hagopian to play some pieces with ties to his (Saroyan’s) own family’s regional background, including the village of Kessab. Hagopian complied with a “Kessab Bar” or dance along with various other Armenian folk songs. Saroyan attempted to observe his own reactions to these songs and stated that hearing such music brought him back to happy times at Fresno Armenian picnics and other events.

Saroyan also asked Hagopian to discuss Gomidas, a figure who looms large in Armenian history both for his musical contributions and his mental health issues. Hagopian discussed that Gomidas had a mental breakdown during the Genocide and had to live the rest of his life in an asylum. (In addition, he had been an orphan who had been raised at the monastery of Echmiadzin, and therefore must have had other mental health issues as a result.) Saroyan commented that in the post-WWI era, such asylums did not provide for the best of mental health care, as conditions like post-traumatic shock disorder (PTSD) were not widely understood. The topic of PTSD was a recurring one due to the many hardships Armenians have gone through, in addition to generational trauma, which has recently been studied with children of Holocaust survivors.

Hagopian also discussed the many songs which are associated with the Armenian Genocide. Oftentimes these are village folk songs which were intended to speak of deep love and loss of that love for one reason or another, perhaps due to the loss of the loved one. In the post-Genocide era, such songs, due to their sad nature and themes of loss, were repurposed as songs to be sung at Genocide commemoration events. One of the best-known of such songs is Dele Yaman. At Saroyan’s request, Hagopian performed this well-known piece. Visibly moved, Saroyan commented afterward that hearing the song made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Saroyan likened the style of Dele Yaman to Armenian Church music and that such melodies are extremely emotional.

Dr. Tony Saroyan is a psychologist in the state of California with a degree from the University of San Francisco. He is continuing his Instagram Live discussions with one next week focusing on cultural taboos against mental health in Armenian and other Middle Eastern communities.

Andrew Hagopian is a college student pursuing a career as a marketing consultant, but whose true passion is Armenian music, culture and history. With a lack of live music events during Covid times, he can be found holding court at his newly popular sessions on the app “Clubhouse” (available on Apple products) where he gives free concerts and answers audience questions about Armenian music and its historical background. He can be found using the online handle “MrOudJr.”


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