Music surrounds us. We may not always be attuned to hear it, but it is there, whether it is recorded music, the music of nature, or sounds inaudible to human ears. The ancients believed that even the stars in the heavens sang. They called it the “music of the spheres.” Pythagoras (sixth century BC) said, “there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” The Bible speaks of the heavens praising God: “Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all you stars of light!” (Psalm 148:3–4). And the Quran says, “All that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth glorifies God, the Absolute Sovereign, the All-Holy and All-Pure, the All-Glorious with irresistible might, the All-Wise” (Al-Jumuah 62:1).
Music has the power to heal or destroy. The nature of music is such that it can lift us into the heavens, or drag us down to the pit of hell, depending on what kind of music we listen to. Music can make us weep or dance with joy; it can bring us sanity or drive us mad. Music can bestow peace upon our souls and minds, or stir us up for battle. In short, music has power. Few other things touch us so deeply. We hear it with our physical ears, yet it is in our soul that it resonates.
All life resonates with and responds to sounds and rhythmic motions. Musical sounds, when combined in a certain way, can have a powerful effect upon the mind, body and emotions. The human body itself is like an instrument, humming with rhythm, vibrations and tonal frequencies. The very center of the human body, the heart, is a rhythmic instrument.
Music is a universal language. It speaks to everyone and everything. By feeling the vibrations through their hands, even the deaf can “hear” the music and feel the rhythm. It is a language that crosses the barriers of human vocal languages.
Plants and animals also respond to music. In various experiments, plants grew better when certain kinds of Western classical music and traditional Indian music were played. Dairy cows were found to prefer slow music, and produced more milk when it was played.
Because music has such power to affect us on such a deep level, it has been used for centuries to heal man’s body and soul. Many ancient civilizations, such as Greece, India, Israel, and Mesopotamia knew about and used music in their healing practices.
Ancient Greeks used music to help bring beauty and harmony, which they believed would then help the body to heal. Democritus believed that many diseases could be cured by the sound of a flute. Hippocrates used music to cure diseases. Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras all recognized the healing power of music, and Homer recommended music to counter negative emotions.
The priest-physicians of Egypt called music “the physic of the soul,” and used it to heal physical illnesses, nervous disorders and to lessen childbirth pain. The Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC) is the oldest preserved medical document in existence. Recorded in it are incantations that were chanted to heal the sick.
In ancient India, musicologists and mystics believed that health “is the balanced flow of energy through all the energy circuits of the mind and body.” When that flow was interrupted or hindered, the body got sick. They used sound therapy to restore harmony and rhythm to the body and mind.
The core study of Indian music/sound therapy was learning how to arrange different tones for different times of day and night, and for different seasons. In order to bring balance back to the body, therapists also had to know how all the tones affected body chemistry. In other words, they chose which melody, or raga, they played based on which particular disease they wanted to heal.
In the Middle East, during the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1257), the healing arts blossomed. Hospitals and medical schools based on Greek-Arab medicine were built throughout the Muslim world. A holistic approach was used in medicine, and included various types of therapy such as music therapy, aromatherapy, water therapy, and reading the Quran. The recitation of the Quran has been used for healing since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and it has been referred to as a “book of healing.” Doctors found that music therapy worked especially well with patients who were depressed, or had other mental illnesses.
During this period, three brilliant men emerged who contributed much to the field of learning, including music as medicine. Abu Bakr Razi (834–932) worked with melancholy patients, most likely suffering from depression. Included in his list of beneficial activities to ease depression was listening “to songs which are sung by beautiful voices.”
Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870–950) was a man gifted with many talents. He invented and skillfully played a number of musical instruments. He also developed an Arabian tone system that is still used today. Farabi wrote in his book, Kitab al-Musiqa, “Music promotes good mood, moral education, emotional steadiness and spiritual development. It is useful for physical health. When the soul is not healthy, the body is also ill. Good music, which cures the soul, restores the body to good health.”
Ibn Sina (980–1037), who was known in the West as Avicenna, was greatly influenced by Farabi’s works. He said, “One of the best and most effective of treatments is to strengthen the mental and spiritual strengths of the patient, to give him more courage to fight illness, create a loving, pleasant environment for the patient, play the best music for him and surround him with people that he loves.”
During the Ottoman period (1299–1923), Dr. Musa bin Hamun, who was a palace doctor during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1491–1566), used music therapy in treating dental problems and childhood mental disorders. Sultan Giyasaddin wrote in his book, Kitab as-Sinaat, that, “scholars of India recommend that physicians study melodies and the theory of music. This science is necessary for the doctor, just like his search to understand the subtleties of diagnosing the pulse. In addition, some illnesses may be cured when the patient listens to certain melodies.”
For centuries, in various cultures and religions, music and dance have been combined to worship God. According to the Old Testament, King David of Israel danced with all his might before the Lord as an act of worship (2 Samuel 6:14). Likewise, in the Islamic tradition Prophet David’s worship and glorification of God was so powerful that even mountains, plants and animals joined his praise and responded to his voice: “And We subdued the mountains, as well as birds, to glorify Us along with David” (Al-Anbiya 21:79.
The Sufis were well aware of the power of dance and music together, and have used both in their religious practices, as well as in healing mental and nervous disorders. Even the musical instruments they used were believed to have different healing properties. The ney, a cane or reed flute, was an important instrument. Neys have been found in excavations at Ur, and in tomb paintings in Egypt. It was believed to help relieve stress and promote healthy sleeping patterns. The oud, or ud, is similar to a lute, and was supposed to be good for relieving headaches and melancholy. The naghara is a drum that was used to ease melancholy, as well as physical and mental exhaustion.
The harp is an instrument that has long been associated with angels and heaven, as well as being a symbol of relief and comfort. The ethereal sound of the harp is indeed “heavenly.” It is one of the oldest instruments in the world. Many ancient civilizations used the harp in their healing practices. Pythagoras saw the harp strings as symbols of the nervous system. In ancient Israel, David, when he was only a shepherd boy, played his harp to ease the mental suffering of King Saul when he was afflicted with an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14–17, 21–23).
Europeans, before the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, also used music in healing. The great medieval abbey of Cluny, in southern France, used chant and hymns, as well as the harp, to bring healing to the sick and comfort to the dying. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, written in the seventeenth century, Robert Burton wrote, “. . . beside that excellent power music (sic) hath to expel many other diseases, it is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself.”
As science advanced and the belief in reason and rationality took hold in Europe, the idea of using music as medicine was cast aside. The new analytical approach to medicine meant that few physicians would use, or at least admit to using, music to treat a patient. The connection between the health of the soul and the body’s health was also largely dismissed. Music simply became a form of art or entertainment, unless it was used in the Church. The healing power of music was forgotten in the West, and would not re-emerge until after World War I.
Today, we are rediscovering what al-Farabi knew over a thousand years ago: when our body is sick, something is wrong in our soul. Music as therapy began to emerge in the United States after World Wars I and II. Local musicians, both amateur and professional, went to Veteran’s Hospitals around the country to play music for the recovering soldiers. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a world-renowned cardio-thoracic surgeon, began playing tapes of Sufi music before, during, and after surgery. He found that, as a result of listening to the music, patients were less depressed and less stressed. They healed faster, and left the hospital sooner. Dr. Oz wrote in Healing from the Heart, about the results of using Turkish makams with coma patients in his clinic. He found that 29% of the patients came out of their comas after listening to the makams.
One study found that students who played in the school orchestra had higher than average SAT scores. Learning to play an instrument has been shown to help develop the bridge (corpus callosum) between the left and right sides of the brain. Campbell says, “. . . the corpus callosum of musicians is thicker and more fully developed than in other people, reinforcing the idea that music enlarges existing neural pathways and stimulates learning and creativity.” Another study showed that “music majors and music education majors had the highest reading scores of any students on campus, including those in English, biology, chemistry, and mathematics.”
Just as an instrument out of tune in an orchestra causes disharmony, negative thoughts, events, or actions can result in a body and mind in disharmony. Ill-health – physical or mental – is the result. More research has to be done to explore music as a potential catalyst that can unlock and release buried emotions which may be making us ill.
The essence of music is an intangible thing. It can be measured by vibrations, sound waves, and resonances, yet those factors alone cannot explain music or why it affects us the way it does. Perhaps the best way is to say that music is a gift from God, meant to ease our suffering in this world, to remind us of His goodness, His mercy, and most of all, to help us connect with Him at a deeper level. It is a way for us to catch a glimpse of heaven.
Julie is a writer and musician who lives in Morgantown, WV, with her husband, Daniel, also a musician. She has grown twin sons who are also writers and musicians.
2. Roop Verma. “Nada Yoga: Sacred Music and Con-
3. Rahmi Oruc Guvenc, “Music Therapy in Turkey,”
Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, (March,
4. Farid Alakbarov, “Music Therapy: What Doctors Knew Centuries Ago,” Azerbaijan International, 11.3 (Autumn 2003) 58-59, http://www.azer.com.
5. Pinar Somakci, “Music Therapy in Islamic Cul-
6. Alakbarov (2003), 58-59.
7. Unal, Ali, The Qur ’an with Annotated Interpreta-
tion in Modern English, NJ: Tughra Books, 2008,
8. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Wikipe-
9. Don Campbell, The Mozart Effect: Tapping the
Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the
Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit (New York:
Avon Books, 1997), 192.
10. Ibid, 177.