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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Healing Music of Chopin

Chopin at 28 by Delacroix

What is clear is the power of Chopin’s music to impact on the lives of those in often extreme forms of distress

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was a romantic-era pianist and composer. Born in Poland, he moved to Paris aged 21 and became a French citizen in 1835. His music, which was mostly composed for solo piano, was often technically demanding and was renowned for use of improvisation, rubato and highly individual fingering techniques. His reputation as a musician and composer is not universally positive and his detractors have often dismissed his work as ‘salon music’. However his composition and playing was greatly admired by contemporaries such as Liszt and Schumann and his music has stood the test of time, representing some of the most widely performed and recorded compositions of the modern era. 


Throughout his life, Chopin suffered from poor health. He died in Paris in 1849, probably due to tuberculosis, though many believe he suffered from cystic fibrosis. His mental health has also been a subject of sometimes intense speculation, with diagnoses of bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia often suggested as the cause of periods of mental anguish. A 2011 BMJ paper identified temporal lobe epilepsy as the source of his intermittent visual hallucination. Others have written less than flattering accounts of his personality and behaviour.


The exact details of his medical and mental health problems may never be fully known. What is clear is the power of Chopin’s music to impact on the lives of those in extreme forms of distress. A recent Channel 4 documentary recounted the story of Scottish musician Paul Murray, who was diagnosed with MS, and who credited listening repeatedly to Chopin’s Ballade #1 for the return of his memory after his initial illness. The moving story of Alice Sommer-Herz, who credits Chopin’s music as a refuge from her own terrible trauma, echoes that of Władysław Szpilman, documented in Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film ‘The Pianist’. These stories strongly suggest that music of this calibre and depth has a key role in maintaining our mental health and in helping those in suffering. It is no surprise that Chopin’s music is frequently chosen for music therapy, both in clinical and research settings.




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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.