Near-death experience is music to his ears

Lightning strike leads to musical journey

Tony Cicoria
Tony Cicoria

ONEONTA, N.Y. (WIVB) - Tony Cicoria was living a normal life. Things were solid both personally and professionally.

But in the summer of 1994 the unexpected happened.

In the blink of an eye everything changed when he was struck by lightning near a pay phone. He had just taken his face away from the phone to hang up.

“There was this big flash that came out of the phone and hit me in the face,” Cicoria explains.

The jolt sent Cicoria flying backwards.

“As I was going backwards…then suddenly something happened and I was moving forwards. And I remember thinking this is really strange.”

Cicoria says he saw the blast of lightning and knew he was hit in the face.  But he couldn’t comprehend why he was moving forwards.

“I’m standing there and now I’m absolutely confused because I don’t understand what’s happened.”

He hears his mother-in-law screaming and sees her running down the stairs at that moment, and then sees himself on the ground about ten feet away.

“I was absolutely shocked, and I remember thinking. Oh [expletive].  I’m dead.”

Cicoria sees a nurse performing CPR. But the whole time he remembers thinking normally while watching his lifeless body on the ground.

“I suddenly realized that whoever we are, we always are.  And what was on the ground was nothing more than a shell.”

Cicoria, who’s from Oneonta, New York,  says he was shocked that there were “no bells or whistles” during the experience. To him it seemed as though someone had moved a “veil” and suddenly he was “someplace else.”

He stood there trying to call out to everyone. He could hear and see them, but they couldn’t do the same. That’s when he decided to walk up the stairs.

“I noticed that my legs were starting to dissolve, “ Cicoria explained. “And as I got to the top of the stairs I had lost all form. And I was just a big ball of energy.”

Things get stranger.

Cicoria says he went through the wall, moving diagonally,  and entered a room where his family was located.  He saw his wife sitting with a bunch of kids around her. He says she later confirmed what he saw.

“She was like. Oh my God, that’s exactly where everyone was.”

After passing through the room, Cicoria says he moved to the outside of the building into a “lake of pure positive energy.”

“It was like you were swimming underwater through a crystal clear stream, and the light was passing through, and it was sparkly.”

Cicoria says he was overwhelmed with a feeling of “absolute love and peace.” He remembers looking at the light and noticing “strings running through this energy.”

“It was a part of everything,” he says.  “ I realized that everything is made up of this energy, and we are, and everything that we see is.”

He says he moved along with the flow of energy and could tell it had “speed and direction.”

“I was going someplace.  I had no idea where, but I didn’t care either.”

Cicoria speculates that he had crossed into a different dimension that coexists with the natural world. He believes all that separates the two sides is a veil.

“I felt like that force that I felt of absolute love and absolute peace that pervaded everything was my thought of what God was.”

Cicoria recalls seeing the high points of his life flashing by like a collage of pictures and realizing that “this is the greatest thing that could ever happen to anyone.”

Didn't want to go back

NEAR-DEATH TEASE VO #1But just as that thought crossed his mind he started to feel pain.

“I was back in the body. It was like somebody snapped their fingers and I was back,” he explained. “And I was not happy. I remember being pissed. In my head calling out to anybody who will listen. Please don’t make me go back.”

But he was back, and feeling a lot of pain.

Cicoria say he had a burn on his face and foot, and noticed the woman who was performing CPR had stopped. He says he was unconscious, but aware and thinking, wishing he could be somewhere else.

He says it took several minutes before waking up and being able to open his eyes.

Cicoria was mortified by what happened next.

“I’m lying there and I wanted to thank this person who had been doing CPR and saved me, and the only thing that came out was something stupid,” he says.  “I looked at her and I said it’s okay, I’m a doctor. And she laughed and said you weren’t a minute ago.”

That’s right.

It’s Dr. Tony Cicoria, a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon.

In the weeks that followed he struggled to make sense of the experience.

He had a ton of questions.

Why did this happen? What did it mean? Why has there been no consequence to it?

Cicoria went back to work, but still didn’t have an understanding of what happened.  He told his family and some friends, but otherwise kept quiet.

Then he began to notice a remarkable ability in which he could detect an electrical charge around his patients.

“If somebody had something wrong with their shoulder or some other part of their body I could feel an electrostatic charge build up around it,” he explained.  “If I wasn’t quite sure about what was going on I could scan parts of their body with my hand and it would focus me into certain areas.”

From lightning to classical piano

LIGHTNING #1Then, a couple of weeks later, he noticed a strong desire to hear classical piano music which was a big departure for someone who grew up in the 60s listening to rock and roll.

He says his mother forced him to take piano lessons when he was seven. But he quickly lost interest and never pursued it.

That’s why he found it so strange that suddenly as an adult, weeks after the lightning strike,  he would develop a strong desire to hear classical piano.

He ended up driving to Albany and buying a music CD.

“Within a couple weeks of that I suddenly realized that it’s not going to be enough to listen. I want to learn how to play this music.”

Would Cicoria have to go searching for a piano? Not really.

Cicoria was approached by his children’s babysitter who was moving away and needed a place to store her piano for a year.

“And I thought okay. This is getting stranger by the minute. Suddenly I have access to a piano.”

Cicoria was determined to play piano. He bought books on how to play and started learning. He bought all of the sheet music from the classical piano CD he purchased even though he couldn’t read or play.

But he pushed ahead trying to teach himself.

Weeks later things really start to take a strange turn.

Cicoria has a dream which he describes as like an out-of-body experience.

“I find myself on a stage, and I’m walking up behind myself, and I’m actually in a concert hall, and I’m playing.”

Cicoria then realizes that the music that he’s listening to isn’t someone else’s,  it’s his own.

“I listen to the music and the ending had a loud crashing end. It woke me up and I bolted out of bed,” he added.

Cicoria went out to his piano and started plunking some of the notes that he heard in the dream. But he quickly realized it would be fruitless since he can’t read, write or play the music.

But from that day forward he says whenever he sat down at the piano to teach himself the music would start playing in his head the same way it was in the dream.

“That continued whether I wanted it to or not. If I tried to ignore it, it would play in my head when I was at work or when I was trying to do something else.”

Cicoria says he taught himself for a couple of years, but eventually started working with a music teacher.

He worked on the piece for years, but didn’t get real serious until he received a nudge from best-selling author and physician Oliver Sacks in 2006.

“He’s shaking my hand and he looks me right square in the eyes and he says the music from the dream went through an awful lot of trouble to get here. The least you can do is write it.”

Sacks, a famed neurologist who died this year,  included Cicoria’s story in his book, “Musicophilia,” which was released in 2007.

Cicoria says he was so taken by what Sacks told him that he went home and gathered all the pieces and started writing out all the music that he heard.

“I always knew what it sounded like. And I had to match up the written word with what I had been given,” Cicoria says.

It took him about seven months of working on it every night. In 2007, he played it at a piano camp for adults in Bennington, Vermont.

Cicoria says he became “possessed” by the music which he affectionately calls “The Lightning Sonata.“

“If you could compare it to a religious zealot. I was that for the music,” Cicoria added. “I really believed at the time that the only reason I was here was because of the music. There was something really important about the music that I was supposed to bring out.”

Struggled to find answers

IMG_1415He says for a long time he struggled with finding a balance between the music and his robust medical career, but eventually figured things out.

“Piano was something that was on my mind all the time and it took me a while to learn how to find balance and to not have intrude into my work life.”

Cicoria says his ability to write piano music didn’t end when he finished “The Lightning Sonata.” In fact, he says numerous other musical pieces have come to him in similar ways when he sits at the piano working on something else.

“Suddenly,  I’m inundated. It’s like information is downloaded into my head. It seems to come in absolute torrents,” Cicoria says.

As a man of science and medicine, coming to terms with all that’s happened has been a struggle for Cicoria, who also has Ph.D. in physiology and cellular biophysics. Admittedly, he’s been on the hardline of research for many years.

“All of a sudden something happens that turns what I knew upside down. And from my standpoint there’s no real explanation on a neurobiological basis to explain some of these things,” he says. “There are a lot of things that can happen in the brain that will mimic  things that people in near-death experiences will have. But they’re different.” provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review. Note: Comments containing links are not allowed.

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