Autumn 2003 (11.3)
Doctors Knew Centuries Ago
by Farid Alakbarov
skeptics may doubt the curative powers of music, scientists have
known for centuries that music does contribute to the healing
process. In plants, music has been proven: modern scholars have
established that the regular playing of classical music greatly
enhances the growth and development of plants. Tests have been
carried out using Western classical music such as Mozart, Beethoven
and Chopin. If music can affect the well being of plants, should
it come as a surprise that human health can be affected as well.
Here's what medieval scientists and physicians from Azerbaijan
and the region had to say about the curative powers of music.
Many centuries ago, physicians
were well aware of the potency of music. Seven hundred years
go, Azerbaijani scientist Safiyaddin Urmiyyayi (13th century)
wrote treatises, explaining his ideas about the antidotal powers
of music in "Message to Sharafaddin" and "The
Book On Musical Tones".
His works name some of the modal scales of that early epoch,
such as Metabil, Erani, Tanjiga and Segah. To alleviate tiredness
and provide relief from neurosis, to lift one's spirits or to
induce sleep, our ancestors used to listen to music performed
on the ancient Eastern musical instruments such as the rubab,
ud, dutar, tambur, ney, mizmar, surnaya, chang, shahrud and kanun.
In Iran and some of the Arabian countries, Safiyaddin Urmiyyayi
is considered to be the "Father of Mugham" (the genre
of traditional modal music). He was the first person to develop
a scientific theory for this genre, create musical terminology
and identify and teach modal scales. He wrote about the positive
influence of music on human health. During the century that followed,
another Azerbaijani musician Abdul-Kadir Maraghayi (1353-1433)
continued his work.
Below: Medieval physicians recognized the
power of music and nature to relax and cure their patients. Miniature
from Baku Institute of Manuscripts.
Between the 9th and
14th centuries, the medical properties of music were elaborated
by well-known scientists such as Abu Nasr al-Farabi, al-Khorezmi,
Abu Reyhan Biruni, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Safiyaddin Urmiyyayi
What did they define as the curative nature of melodies? The
Great Turkic scholar Abu Nasr al-Farabi (873-950) in his "Great
Book About Music" observed: "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."
"Do you have a headache? Relax beside a flower bed or a
trickling fountain, or invite a musician to come and perform
so you can fall asleep to the gentle sounds of dutar (Eastern
stringed instrument)!" advised the great physician Ibn Sina
(980-1037). Seven centuries later Mahammad Yusif Shirvani (18th
century) prescribed melodies of stringed instruments for those
who were suffering from melancholy and insomnia.
The well-known doctor Sultan Giyasaddin in his work "Kitab
as-Sinaat" (18th century) challenged his colleagues to study
music, noting 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."
Some Indian melodies are still performed in Azerbaijan, such
as the mughams known as Humayun and Maur-Hindi. Indian melodies
were brought to Azerbaijani by numerous Indian traders and colonists
who came in Azerbaijan and stayed here permanently. For example,
many villages in the Mughan lowlands of Azerbaijan were settled
by Turkic tribes who came here from northern India and Pakistan
in the 17th-18th centuries. Some of the men had fought in the
armies of the Safavid shahs who, in turn, granted them land in
Azerbaijan for their loyal services.
Following the advice of Sultan Giyasaddin, the physicians of
the Middle Ages tried to understand what was known about the
curative powers of music (elm al-musigi), but it was not so easy.
Music was such a subtle and exacting science that the Central
Asian scientist al-Khorezmi (783-850) included it in a section
of mathematics, specifically in the discussion of his famous
work on algebra!
"The Musical Treatise" by Abdul-Kadir Maraghayi and
"Large Book On Medicine" by Abu Reyhan Biruni (973-1048)
are both filled with mathematic, geometrical figures, sketches
and drawings of musical instruments. But it seems that physicians
did not mind spending time to study the powerful effects of music,
as they considered it invaluable for the health of their patients.
What kind of music did doctors use to treat their patients in
medieval Azerbaijan? At that time, 12 basic kinds of mugham and
12 musical modes were known. Maraghayi wrote: "Turks prefer
to compose in the "usshag", "nova" and "busalik"
mugham styles, though other mughams also are included in their
Sharaf-khan Bidlisi (16th century) described a feast of the Azerbaijani
ruler Shah Ismayil Safavi: "Sweet-voiced singers and sweet-sounding
musicians started singing a usshag melody with both high and
low pitched voices, and then the tears of the harps and lyres
kidnapped reason and logic from the listeners, both great and
Music promoted the development of a number of mystical sciences.
In the 13th century, the Turnini Dervishes (Mavlavi), considered
that knowledge of God was possible only when they fell into a
trance brought on by listening to special music and which slowly
turned into a mystical dance. The Azerbaijani philosopher Sukhravardi
(died in 1191) who was close to the Sufi mystics wrote: "Know
that those engaged in the exercise of the spirit sometimes use
a gentle melody and pleasant incense. Therefore, they are able
to obtain a spiritual light that is habitual and sustained for
a long time".
At the end of the 10th century, a group of the Shiite philosophers
(Brothers of Purity) had developed a science about the relationship
between music and various elements of a nature: animals, herbs,
minerals and color. According to this theory, each musical sound
corresponds to a specific color and is associated with a certain
mineral, herb and animal. Some sounds were equated with bright
colors, bright metals, beautiful flowers and active animals.
Our ancestors believed that musical instruments were similar
to medicinal plants and aromatic spices. The tar (stringed instrument)
was compared with health-promoting and fragrant saffron. The
naghara (small drum) was identified with the curative powers
of cloves or ginseng. The ud (stringed instrument) was associated
with the soothing effect of valerian or lemon balm. The zurna
(a nasal-sounding wind instrument) was associated with strong
The medical properties of these and other instruments are provided
below. Information about the healing properties of instruments
is documented in such books as "Gabusname" by Keykavus
Ziyari, and from books by Abdul-Kadir Maraghayi, Farabi and Safiyaddin
Urmiyyayi. Primarily, however, this information comes from Azerbaijani
verbal folklore of the 19th-20th ashugs (minstrels), a large
heritage of which has been collected and kept at the Baku's Institute
The melodies performed on tar were considered useful for headache,
insomnia and melancholy, as well as for eliminating nervous and
muscle spasms. Listening to this instrument was believed to induce
a quiet and philosophical mood, compelling the listener to reflect
upon life. Its solemn melodies were thought to cause a person
to relax and fall asleep.
The author of "Gabusname" (11th century) recommends
that when selecting musical tones (perde) to take into account
the temperament of the listener. He suggested that lower pitched
tones (bem) were effective for sanguine and phlegmatic persons,
while higher pitched tones (zil) were helpful for those who were
identified with a choleric temperament or melancholic temperament.
The gentle sound of the ney (wind instrument that produces a
sound resembling the flute) calms the nervous system, reduces
high blood pressure and tiredness, and promotes good sleep. The
ney is believed to awaken a reflective mood, causing a person
to appreciate and enjoy nature. It is linked to deep philosophical
Our ancestors considered that listening to the sound of ud (pronounced
as "ood") was an excellent remedy against headache
and melancholy, reducing muscle spasms and creating a strong
calming action. The ud was one of the most widespread and favorite
instruments in medieval Azerbaijan. It is related to the ancient
Greek harp. Instruments, similar to the ud are depicted in ancient
Music performed on the saz (national stringed instrument) calms
the nervous system and enhances and lifts one's mood. It is useful
in treating melancholy and for eliminating feelings of pessimism.
This wind instrument is said to stimulate the spirit of battle
and sometimes even to instigate aggression and war-like characteristics.
The sound of zurna helps to reduce apathy, indifference, and
increase the blood pressure.
This instrument helped the doctors to deal with bad mood, melancholy,
intellectual and physical exhaustion, as well as low blood pressure.
It was considered that the Naghara could substitute for some
medicinal plants and tones like spicy cloves. The rhythmic beating
of the naghara is believed to lead to the strengthening of the
heart. The naghara is described in the Early Middle Age Azerbaijani
literary epic, "Kitabi Dada Gorgud" (The Book of my
Grandfather). Instruments resembling the Naghara were also well
known in ancient Egypt.
Thus, according to the rich scientific and musical heritage of
our ancestors, it seems that not only did they listen to music
for enjoyment and entertainment, but they perceived music a potent
force in the prevention and treatment of various diseases.
Dr. Farid Alakbarov heads both
the Department of Translation and the Department of International
Relations at the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku. His articles
about medieval manuscripts can be found by searching at AZER.com.
Some of Dr. Alakbarov's articles published in Azerbaijan International
have been translated into Azeri (Latin script). SEARCH at AZERI.org.
From Azerbaijan International (11.3) Autumn 2003.
© Azerbaijan International 2003. All rights reserved.