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Music Therapy
Oct 1, 2002

In 1944 Edgar Cayce, who healed thousands of people while in a trance state, said "Music is the medicine of the future."(1)

Currently, some religious scholars in the Islamic world denounce music. This paper analyzes the Islamic perspective on music and singing, and concludes that using music as a therapeutic agent in medicine is not forbidden.

Documented evidence 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, and even mental illness. During childbirth, music can relieve expectant mothers' anxiety and help release endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, and thereby dramatically decrease the need for anesthesia.

Exposure to sound, music, and other acoustical vibrations can have a lifelong effect on health, learning, and behavior, for such exposure stimulates learning and memory and strengthens one's listening abilities. Music has been used as a treatment or cure from migraines to substance abuse.

One thousand years ago, Muslim physicians were in the forefront of medicine and used innovations and therapeutic techniques that are now considered modern. They treated mental illnesses by confining patients in asylums with twenty-first-century techniques of music therapy. In Fez, Morocco, an asylum for the mentally ill was built early in the eighth century, and asylums for the insane were built in Baghdad (705), Cairo (800), and Damascus and Aleppo (1270). In addition to baths and drugs, the mentally ill received kind and benevolent treatment, and were exposed to highly developed music-based therapy and occupational therapy. Special choirs and live bands were brought daily to present singing, musical, and comical performances to patients.

Malik al-Mansur Sayf al-Din Qalawun built the al-Mansuri hospital in Cairo (1284). Its most outstanding characteristic was that, just like today's advanced hospitals, provisions were made to entertain patients with light music. Professional storytellers were appointed to narrate stories and jokes (radio, TV, and computers perform these functions today). People who called the faithful to prayer would sing religious songs in their melodious voices before the morning call to prayer; so that afflicted patients might forget their suffering. This hospital still renders such services today.

Medical benefits

Music therapy has been lost for more than 1,000 years in the Muslim world and in the West. In the last three decades or so, the West has shown tremendous interest in using 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.

Dr. Clive Robbins, a co-founder 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."(2) He has treated a child afflicted with cerebral palsy with music therapy in order to teach the child how to balance his body, coordinate his limbs' movement, and communicate. It has made him motivated and intent.

The right song seems to work in more than one way-distracting us from pain, boosting one's mood, reviving old memories, and 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 pains, 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 units 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 is soothing and comfortable. For example, music is credited with lowering cortisol, a stress hormone, as much as 25 percent; boosting endorphins, the body's natural opiates or feel-good drugs; reducing pain after surgery and reducing the need for sedatives and pain relievers; making patients recover from surgery faster and with less pain; possibly preventing colds; raising blood levels of Immunoglobin A (immune system fighter) to a whopping 14.1 percent; and easing labor without drugs. It also seems to help premature infants in intensive care; stimulate the brain's neural connections and promote children's spatial ability and memory; lower blood pressure as much as 5 points, reduce heart rate, improve cardiac output, and relax muscle tension; and manage non-pharmacological pain and discomfort.

But these are not all of its benefits, for research shows that music also improves the mood and mobility of people with Parkinson's, decreases nausea during chemotherapy, helps patients participate in medical treatment, 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 expressing feelings, improves memory recall and thereby 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, and 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. According to Suzanne Hanser, D. Ed., a lecturer at Harvard Medical School's Department of Social Medicine: "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."(3)


Research conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine provides some interesting results. For one group of 20 people aged between 61 and 86, moods rose and depression fell when they listened to familiar music they selected, on their own or with the help of a music therapist, while practicing various stress-reduction techniques. 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. Movements should be light and flowing. Breathe to the music, and gently come to rest when the music ends.


A study from the University of Louisville School of Nursing Research indicates that 24 out of 25 people with sleeping problems nod off more quickly, sleep longer, or get back to sleep more easily after listening to classical and New Age music. The music must be quiet and melodic, have 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 p.m. Softer and quieter music should be played as bedtime approaches. Listen to the music in bed with a tape recorder or a CD player equipped with a silent on/off switch. One should lie quietly and take even, deep breaths.


Many studies have found that soothing melodies can ease anxiety and quiet both blood pressure and heart rate even under very stressful conditions. Everyday stress also responds to music. Select music that grabs your attention and, at the same time, relax your body so that all of your worries slip away. Slow music, like a love song sung by an accomplished singer or a calm instrumental piece may be perfect. If a slow tune gives your mind time to fret or obsess, switch to something livelier. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position and where you will not be disturbed. After a few minutes, perform a relaxation exercise.


One Yale University School of Medicine study found that people who listened to their favorite music while awake during a surgical procedure needed smaller amounts of sedatives and pain medication than those who did not. Music therapists and researchers say that physical discomfort from post-operative pain to chronic aches can be eased with flowing melodies and distracting rhythms. Dr. Alicia A. Clair, 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 and long-term pain and discomfort, such as arthritis and osteoporosis. Gentle and soothing stress-reducing music, which can relax and distract the mind, is helpful. 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 a 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."(4)

Brain damage

Samuel Wong, a Harvard-trained physician based in New York City, plays musical instruments to help patients with brain damage (from strokes) and Alzheimer's 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, 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,"(5) he says. In 1996, researchers at Colorado State University 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 enjoyed similar benefits. Stroke victims and patients with Parkinson's 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 also has proved useful in managing Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases.

Sounds of healing

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), says: "More doctors are seeing a connection between harmonious 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."(6) "We know that music is capable of enhancing the body's 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. Eighty percent of the stimuli that reach our brains come through our ears." (7) "Even before birth, music makes a difference. Hearing is the first sense to develop, when the fetus is only 18 weeks old (Qur'an 32:9). We know that the unborn child hears for literally half the pregnancy and is affected profoundly by what it hears. Studies show that 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."(8) "Our bodies are 70 percent water, and thus excellent conductors for sound and vibration. We do not hear just with our ears, but literally feel vibration's sound with every cell in our body. Disharmony and noise, whether 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 is why disharmony can eventually lead to disease."(9) "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."(10) The Qur'an says: 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! (32:9, 16:78, 67:23). Dr. Keith Moore, professor and chairman of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Toronto's School of Medicine, writes in his most popular textbook on human embryology that the human embryo first gets the ears (hearing), then the eyes (sight), and next the brain (feeling and understanding or mental faculties) in that order, as mentioned in the above Qur'anic 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, says: "Very loud music creates an altered state of consciousness akin to an alcoholic or drug-induced stupor that can become addictive."(11)

The Mozart effect

Don Campbell, a composer, music researcher and teacher, healer and the author of The Mozart Effect, learned that he had a potentially fatal blood clot in an artery just below his brain. He shrunk the blood clot from more than 1.5-inch length to one-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, he writes: "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."(12) 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 in the West and in the Muslim world.


  1. Cayce, Edgar, "Readings on Music: Healing." 1944. A free handout distributed by ARE (Association for Research and Enlightenment, 215, 67th St., Virginia Beach, VA 23451)
  2. Nordoff, Paul and Clive Robbins, Therapy in Music for Handicapped Children, London, Gollancz, 1992
  3. Cromie, William J., "Treating ills with music, from Anxiety to Alzheimer's from Pain to Parkinson's." Harvard University Gazette, 22 August 2002
  4. Burke, M. & Thomas, K., "Use of Physioacoustic Therapy to Reduce Pain During Physical Therapy for Total Knee Replacement Patients Over Age 55," in Music Vibration and Health, Wigram, T. & Dileo, Ch. (Ed.), Jeffrey Books, Cherry Hill, NJ, USA, 1997
  5. Noonan, Peggy. "Take two tunes and call me in the morning" USA Weekend Magazine-Health. Dec. 19, 1999
  6. Gaynor, M. L., Sounds of Healing: A Physician Reveals the Therapeutic Power of Sound, Voice, and Music. Broadway Books, 1999
  7. Gaynor, quoted by Peggy Noonan, Ibid 8 Gaynor, quoted by Peggy Noonan, Ibid
  8. Gaynor, Ibid
  9. Gaynor, Ibid
  10. Howard, P. J. The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research. Bard Press, 1999
  11. Campbell, D., 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


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