Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings Atlanta

How Music Heals

Oct 01, 2021 06:00AM ● By Paul Chen

“Art can be a powerful force for healing.” So opens our lead article this month. And I agree wholeheartedly. To not create, I believe, is to forfeit part of our humanity, and it leaves us less well.

Serendipitously, I recently read a Facebook post that speaks brilliantly to what is perhaps our most accessible art: music. In the post, Scott Ainslie quotes the welcome address Karl Paulnack gave in September 2004 to parents of incoming first-year students arriving at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Paulnack was the director of the music division of the performing arts conservatory at the time. He is also a pianist.

Ainslie introduces his post this way: “My parents never wept over a piece of music in their lives. They had no idea what I do, nor why.” To me, it seems impossible that a human being can go an entire life without being moved to tears by music. I remember the first time it happened to me; it was during an encore performance by Itzhak Perlman. I was in my early 20s.

Paulnack explains why people can be moved to tears by music. In ancient Greek culture, he says, “Music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”

He then mentions three events demonstrating this phenomenon: Olivier Messiaen’s composing Quartet for the End of Time whilst imprisoned in a concentration camp, the outpouring of song following 9/11, and the most important concert of his entire life.

As for the first situation, Paulnack asks: “Why?” Why, with so much danger and deprivation around, would the arts thrive in concentration camps? “The obvious conclusion,” he says, “is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. ... Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, ‘I am alive, and my life has meaning.’”

As for the outpouring of song after 9/11, Paulnack says that singing was the first organized activity he saw in New York on September 12. “The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert, Brahms Requiem. It was the beginning of a sense that life might go on.”

And—the most important concert of his life? It was at a nursing home in Fargo, North Dakota. He and a violinist opened “with Aaron Copland’s ‘Sonata,’ which was written during World War II and was dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war.”

Midway through the piece, an elderly man began to weep. Before starting their second piece, the performers spoke about the first piece, and the man became so distraught that he left. Afterwards, the man explained that he had been a WWII pilot, and that he had lost a friend during a dogfight.

Said the veteran: “I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. ... How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

Paulnack closes his speech by telling his audience what he plans to say to their children. I quote him here, slightly edited for length:

“The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this: If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2 a.m. someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life.

“Well, my friends, someday, at 8 p.m., someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. ...

“You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul... someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. Frankly ... I expect you not only to master music, I expect you to save the planet.”

The arts heal. Engage accordingly. ❧

Get the full text of Paulnack’s speech at

Paul Chen has been owner/publisher of Natural Awakenings Atlanta franchise since January 2017. He is a practicing Buddhist and a founding member of East Lake Commons, a cohousing community.

Mailing List

Subscribe To Our Newsletter!

* indicates required