Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2003 (11.3)

Music Therapy
What Doctors Knew Centuries Ago
by Farid Alakbarov

Although 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 and others.

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.

Music Treatment
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 compositions".

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 the small."

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 coffee.

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 of Manuscripts.

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 ideas.

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 Egyptian frescos.

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 Some of Dr. Alakbarov's articles published in Azerbaijan International have been translated into Azeri (Latin script). SEARCH at

From Azerbaijan International (11.3) Autumn 2003.
© Azerbaijan International 2003. All rights reserved.