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Music Therapy

Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D. 
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, USA


"Music is the medicine of the future," said Edgar Cayce in 1947 and who healed thousands of people while in a Trance State. 

Currently there is an aversion to music by some of the Ulema (religious scholars) in the Islamic world. This paper analyzes the Islamic perspective on music and singing. It concludes that utilization of music as a therapeutic agent in Medicine is not haram or forbidden. There is documentary evidence that shows the power of music can be tapped to heal the body, strengthen the mind and unlock the creative spirit. Published papers and Journal articles offer dramatic accounts of how doctors, musicians, and healthcare professionals use music to deal with everything from anxiety to cancer, high blood pressure, chronic pain, dyslexia, even mental illness. During childbirth, music can relieve expectant mothers' anxiety and help release endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, dramatically decreasing the need for anesthesia. Exposure to sound, music and other acoustical vibrations can have a lifelong effect on health, learning, and behavior. They stimulate learning and memory, strengthen listening abilities. Music has been used as a treatment or cure from migraines to substance abuse.  

One thousand years ago, the Muslim Physicians were in the forefront in the world of medicine with innovations and therapeutic techniques that are considered modern in the 21st century. They treated mental illnesses by confining the patients in asylums with 21st century techniques of music therapy. It is not surprising to know that at Fez, Morocco, an asylum for the mentally ill had been built early in the 8th century, and for the insane asylums were built by the Arabs also in Baghdad in 705 A.D., in Cairo in 800 A.D., and in Damascus and Aleppo in 1270 A.D. In addition to baths, drugs, kind and benevolent treatment given to the mentally ill, musico-therapy and occupational therapy were also employed. These therapies were highly developed. Special choirs and live music bands were brought daily to entertain the patients by providing singing and musical performances and comic performers as well.  

Malik al-Mansur Sayf al-Din Qalawun built the Al-Mansuri Hospital in Cairo in 683 AH (1284 AD). The most outstanding characteristic of this hospital was that, like the advanced hospitals in the 21st century, provision were made to entertain patients with light music. Professional storytellers were appointed to narrate stories and jokes to patients (Radio, TV, and PC have replaced these today). Mu'adhdhinun sang religious songs in their melodious voices before the morning 'adhaan (call for prayer) so that afflicted patients might forget their suffering. It is interesting to note that this hospital is rendering its services even to the present time. 


Music therapy has been lost for more than 1,000 years both in the Muslim countries as well as in the most advanced countries or developed countries in the West. In the last three-decades or so, tremendous interest has been shown in the Western countries in the application of music therapy to treat several diseases and ailments. No one knows exactly how music heals, but it looks like our brains are wired to respond to it. Scientists are finding that the human brain is pre-wired for music("Music on the Mind" by Sharon Begley, Newsweek, July 24, 2000, pp 50-52). Dr. Clive Robbins who is a cofounder of the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy at New York University in New York City says, "There is something intrinsically musical about the brain's neurological structure and the muscular function of the human organism. At a nonverbal level, music activates our minds, integrates our attention, and seems to help regulate some body functions." Dr Robbins has treated a cerebral palsy child with music therapy making the child to learn to balance his body and coordinate the movement of his limbs. The child is also learning to communicate and made him grow motivated and intent.

The right song seems to work in more than one way--distracting us from pain, boosting mood, reviving old memories, even prompting the body to match its rhythms. Music has long been appreciated for its calming effects, but new research shows it also may have the power to restore and keep us healthy. Soothing sounds, from Tibetan chants to Beethoven symphonies, are being given scientific credit for preventing colds, easing labor pain and even boosting anti-aging hormones. One study found that surgery patients who listened to comforting music recovered more quickly and felt less pain than those who did not. The International Journal of Arts Medicine reports that infants in intensive care go home three days earlier eat better and gain more weight if the staff talks and sings to them. 

Clinical studies and anecdotal evidence from music therapists suggest that the sound of music that is soothing and comfortable…. 

  • Lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, as much as 25 %
  • Boosts endorphins, the body's natural opiates or feel-good drugs.
  • Reduces pain after surgery and reduces the need for sedatives and pain relievers
  • Make patients recover from surgery faster and with less pain
  • May prevent colds
  • Raises blood levels of Immunoglobin A(immune system fighter) to a whopping 14.1 %
  • Eases labor without drugs
  • Helps preemies in intensive care
  • May stimulate neural connections in the brain and promote spatial ability and memory in children
  • Lowers blood pressure as much as 5 points, reduces heart rate, improves cardiac output, relaxes muscle tension
  • Manages nonpharmacologically pain and discomfort
  • Improves mood and mobility of people with Parkinson's disease
  • Decreases nausea during chemotherapy
  • Helps patients participate in medical treatment and decreases length of hospital stay
  • Relieves anxiety and reduces stress
  • Eases depression
  • Enhances concentration and creativity
  • Brings positive changes in mood and emotional states
  • Increases awareness of self and environment
  • Gives a sense of control over life through successful experiences
  • Provides an outlet for expressions of feelings
  • Improves memory recall which contributes to reminiscence and satisfaction with life

In addition, music therapy may allow for: 

  • Emotional intimacy with families and caregivers
  • Relaxation for the entire family
  • Meaningful time spent together in a positive, creative way

Exciting new research suggests that our brains respond to music almost as if it were medicine. Music may regulate some body functions, synchronize motor skills, stimulate mind and `even make us smarter. 

To take advantage of music's healing power, one need not go to the music store at all with the prescription. The home remedies one needs are probably already in one's music collection. According to Suzanne Hanser, D Ed, a lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, "There is no set prescription or a particular piece of music that will make everyone feel better or more relax. What counts is musical taste, kinds of memories, feelings and associations a piece of music brings to mind. Some people relax to classical music, others like the Moody Blues. The key is to individualize your musical selections." 


Research indicates that for 20 women and men whose ages ranged between 61 and 86, moods rose and depression fell when they listened to familiar music they selected while practicing various stress-reduction techniques- on their own or with the help of a music therapist-- according to a study from Stanford University School of Medicine. On the other hand a control group who missed out on the music and the exercises saw no improvement during the 8-week study period. It helps to perform gentle exercises depending on one's fitness level, while the music plays. The movements should be light and flowing. Breathe to the music. Gently come to rest at the end of the music. 


Research indicates that 24 out of 25 people with sleeping problems nod off more quickly, snooze for longer periods of time or get back to sleep more easily after a middle-of-the-night awakening after listening to classical and New Age music, according to a study from the University of Louisville School of Nursing, in Louisville, Kentucky. The music must be quiet, melodic with a slow beat and few, if any, rhythmic accents. To be effective one should skip the after-dinner coffee or tea, and avoid telephone calls and TV after 9 PM. Softer and quieter music should be played as bedtime approaches. The listening of music should continue in bed with a tape recorder or CD player equipped with a silent on/off switch. One should lie quietly, taking even, deep breaths. 


Many studies have found that soothing melodies can ease anxious feelings and quiet both blood pressure and heart rate…even under very stressful conditions. Everyday stress responds to music too. The music selected to listen should be such that it must grab your attention and at the same time relax your body, so that all of your worries of the day, such as your concern about what has happened earlier and your plans for what should happen in the future should slip away. Slow music, like a love song sung by a great voice or a calm instrumental piece may be perfect. If a slow tune gives your mind time to fret or obsess, switch to something livelier. The best way to listen is to sit or lie down in a comfortable position, in a place where there is no disturbance. After a few minutes one can perform a relaxation exercise. 


One study from Yale University School of medicine found that people who listened to their favorite music while awake during surgical procedure needed smaller amounts of sedative and pain medications than those who did not hear music. Physical discomforts from postoperative pain to chronic aches can be eased with flowing melodies and distracting rhythms, music therapists and researchers say. 

Dr. Alicia A. Clair, Ph.D. who is a board-certified music therapist and professor and director of music therapy at the University of Kansas in Lawrence says that music can bring transitory relief from short-term as well as long-term pain and discomforts such as arthritis and osteoporosis. Gentle and soothing stress-reducing music is helpful which can relax and distracts the mind. Martha Burke, a board-certified music therapist in Durham, North Carolina says, "Gently flowing music or music with a slow, steady pulse can help promote relaxation, which can then alter patient's perception of pain. Soothing music can lower the heart rate and breathing rate, leading to further relaxation and reduces tension that comes with the pain. We know music is so incredibly complex-- it has tempo, rhythm, melody, and harmony. And so it stimulates the brain in many ways at once." 


Samuel Wong, a Harvard-trained physician based in New York City, plays musical instruments to help patients with brain damage (from stroke) and Alzheimer's disease reconnect to the world. He is also music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Honolulu Symphony. "When brain damage (from stroke, Alzheimer's disease, etc) leaves a devastated mental landscape, music "builds a bridge" that allows patients to reconnect with the outside world. The study of medicine has informed my performance of music, and my learning of music has deepened my role in healing," he says. 

In 1996, researchers at Colorado State University in Fort Collins tried giving 10 stroke victims 30 minutes of rhythmic stimulation each day for three weeks. Compared with untreated patients, they showed significant improvements in their ability to walk steadily. People with Parkinson's disease enjoyed similar benefits.  

Stroke victims and patients with Parkinson's disease walked more steadily and with better balance and speed if they practiced while hearing a balanced metrical beat or a piece of music with a powerful, even beat. A musical beat from any genre seemed to provide a rhythmic cue, which has a powerful, organizing effect on the brain's motor skills; it helps harmonize movement almost at once, according to researchers. 

Scottish researchers have found that a daily dose of music significantly brightens the moods of institutionalized stroke victims. When daily music therapy was administered for 12 weeks the patients were less depressed and anxious, and more stable and sociable than other patients in the same building. Music therapy has also proved useful in the management of Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases. 


Mitchell L. Gaynor, MD, Director of medical oncology and integrative medicine at New York's Strang Cancer Prevention Center (affiliated with the Cornell Medical Center) and author of the new Hardcover book "Sounds of Healing: A physician Reveals the Therapeutic Power of Sound, Voice, and Music" (Published by Broadway Books, June 1999, $25); says, " More doctors are seeing a connection between hormonious sound and health. If we are around very harmonious people and harmonious vibrations and harmonious sounds, we begin to feel better. I have never found anything more powerful than sound and voice and music to begin to heal and transform every aspect of people's lives. It can really change people's lives. We know that music is capable of enhancing immune function, lowering heart rate, lowering stress-related hormones like cortisol that raise our blood pressure and depress our immune systems. It also trims complications after heart attack, calms anxiety, slows breathing and increases production of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. Consider: 80% of stimuli that reach our brains come through our ears. Even before we were born, music makes a difference. Hearing is the first sense to develop, when the fetus is only 18 weeks old (Quran, 32:9). We know that the unborn child hears for literally half the pregnancy and is affected profoundly by what it hears. Studies show music by Mozart and Vivaldi actually can bring down fetal heart rate, calm brain waves and reduce the baby's kicking. Rock music, on the other hand, appeared to drive fetuses to distraction, greatly increasing kicking. Our bodies are 70 % water, and that makes them excellent conductors for sound and vibration. We are not just hearing with our ears. We are literally feeling vibration sound with every cell in our bodies. Disharmony and noise, whether it's from traffic, the boss yelling at us about a deadline or a jackhammer on the street, can make us stressed, depressed and pessimistic -- all of which depress our immune systems. That's why disharmony can eventually lead to disease. Our own voices are very underutilized healing tools. Singing is a great way to tap music's healing power. If you are self-conscious, try chanting. Anyone can do it, and "you can't do it wrong. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg as far as the incredible power of sound to affect every cell and every organ system in our bodies. 

The Qur'an Says: 

But He fashioned him in due proportion, and Breathed into him something of His spirit. And He gave you (the faculties of) Hearing and sight and feeling (and understanding): Little thanks do you give!

-----Surah Sajda, 32: 9 also 16: 78; 67: 23 

Dr. Keith Moore, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Toronto School of Medicine, writes in his most popular Textbook on human embryology, (The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, Keith L. Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, Paperback, Published by Saunders W B Co ., March 1998 Price: $49.00) that the human embryo gets first the ears (hearing), then the eyes (sight) and next the brain (feeling and understanding or metal faculties) in that order, as mentioned in the Qur'an in the above verses. 

On the other hand very loud music with sounds louder than 90 decibels cause stress and ear damage. Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D., director of the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte, NC, and author of "The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research, Paper back, published by Bard Press, November 1999, says," Very loud music creates an altered state of consciousness akin to an alcoholic or drug-induced stupor that can become addictive. "


Don Campbell, a composer, music researcher and teacher, healer and the author of book " The Mozart Effect-Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind and Unlock the Creative Spirit", (published by Avon Books, New York, NY, October 1997, 332 pp) learned that he had a potentially fatal blood clot in an artery just below his brain. He shrunk the blood clot from more than an inch and a half in length to an eighth of an inch by humming quietly for three to four minutes at a time, up to seven times a day. He did this for three weeks before he went back for a second brain scan. 

In "The Mozart Effect", Don Campbell, says " You know music can affect your mood: it can make you feel happy, enchanted, inspired, wistful, excited, empowered, comforted, and heroic. Particular sounds, tones and rhythms, can strengthen the mind, unlock the creative spirit, and miraculously, even heal the body. Exposure to sound, music, and other forms of vibration, beginning in utero, can have a life long effect on health, learning and behavior." 

In conclusion, one should listen to a piece of music that one finds inspirational and uplifting. Dr. Ahmed Al-Kadi of Florida's Akbar Clinic conducted research on the healing power of listening to Qur'anic recitations. There is an urgent need for conducting more research on Music Therapy by Muslim Physicians both in the West and in the Muslim countries  


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