Tarantism is a peculiar chapter in the story of music and health

Woman dancing the "tarantella'

Coloured lithograph showing a young woman dancing the tarantella.


Wellcome Library, London

In regions of Italy and Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries, some women periodically fell into a stupor from which they could be roused only by music. The condition, which was not an exclusively female phenomenon, was commonly blamed on the bite of a spider (though not the tarantula of popular imagination).

Musicians travelled the countryside trying different instruments and songs to rouse the ‘tarantati’. Rapid repetitive tunes with increasing tempo would bring patients to a dancing frenzy, often lasting several days. Thereafter, they would spontaneously dance whenever they heard a ‘tarantella’ (pictured).

Why these individuals danced in this way is unkown. Many physicians attempted to explain the condition, drawing upon voguish theories. Today it would be considered a mass delusion. Many composers have drawn upon the tarantella in their works, and it also appeared in ‘The Godfather’ and inspired a jinx (‘Tarantallegra’) in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. The dance is now a folk dance in Calabria, with many illustrations showing men and women dancing to the tune.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Psychology, Health, infection and disease, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development