From the Golden Age of Islam to contemporary times, music and sound have been incorporated into medical healing practices. Today, scientists and doctors are rediscovering the healing power of sound and creating new methods of restoring health.
Music and sound have been used for centuries to enhance wellbeing and treat ailments, and Turkey and the surrounding region has been central to the development of these treatments. In the Golden Age of Islam, which spanned from the 8th to 13th centuries, scholars such as Al Farabi and Abu Bakr-Razi studied the combined healing effects of music and medicine. They combined knowledge from astrology, chemistry, biology, and natural phenomena which influence people’s emotional and physical health to diagnose and treat patients. Ibn Sina’s infamous The Canon of Medicine, published in 1025, explored how listening to music can increase a patient’s capacity to cope with disease.
Centuries later, makams, or specific melodies of varying tones and patterns, were used in medical treatment. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, interactions between dervishes, mosque cantors, non-Muslims, and the Ottoman high class created a diversity of instruments, sounds, and makams. The classical Ottoman music from these times were sources of not only entertainment but also healing, featuring instruments such as the ney, or reed flute, and kildum, or kettledrum.
Music Therapy in Ottoman Turkey
Selçuk and Ottoman doctors applied music healing treatments in institutions known as şifahane, or health houses. Health houses were established in present-day Mardin, Kayseri, Manisa, Bursa, Istanbul, and Edirne, with the most prominent located in Edirne. The Sultan Beyazid II Health Complex was established in 1494 and became well-known through historian and writer Evliya Çelebi’s Book of Travels. Çelebi wrote detailed accounts of the types of musical instruments and makams doctors used to treat patients. For example, according to Çelebi’s writings, the rast makam was played for people with convulsions and paralysis and zirefkend was played for people suffering from back pains.
Although Çelebi’s writings include in-depth information about music therapy, one important aspect is missing: written music composition. This mystery leads scholars to believe that though specific instruments and makams crucial for the types of treatment administered, music composition was improvised. This improvisation approach is a large part of the music and sound therapy process in present-day Turkey.
Turkish music healing groups
Today, groups throughout Turkey are working to harness the ancient healing properties of music. TÜMATA is one such group, promoting the fields of Turkish music and movement therapy by holding interactive seminars, concerts, and courses for the community and those suffering illnesses. The late Dr. Rahmi Oruç Güvenç, the founder of TÜMATA, developed specific music and movement therapy treatments to help all types of patients, from those undergoing chemotherapy to those suffering from chronic pain, gain physical and psychological recovery.
One specific method is an alternative baksı dance movement in which a patient either lays down and listens to or participates in a partly structured, partly improvised dance. While past forms of the baksı dance required a shaman to interpret the needs of a patient, Oruç Güvenç’s version allows one to reach a state of healing by his or her own initiative, with or without the mediation of a therapist.
Located in Sultanahmet, TÜMATA houses a collection of over 300 instruments, each with distinct tonalities and healing properties. Many of these instruments were researched and collected over the years by Oruç Güvenç, while others were carefully handmade according to photos and descriptions from literature. Every Tuesday, this group practices their musical repertoire with the public, utilizing a variety of instruments such as the ney, rebab (a bow-stringed instrument), kopuz (oud), dombra (long-necked lute), and the sound of water. Emre Başaran, a TÜMATA member who lent assistance in providing details for this piece, helps organize these musical events. Through improvisation, they play songs from Central Asia, as well as Sufi and Turkish folk songs, to promote their knowledge and passion for Turkish music healing.
Modern incarnation of music therapy
Founded and run by meditation guide Rida Kıraşı, Soundala Therapy is a group that holds sound healing workshops at Soho House Istanbul and Kolektif House, as well as meditation retreats around Turkey. In a session, a variety of instruments including Himalayan singing bowls, gongs, and even a chanting voice, expose people to different sounds and their varying frequencies to allow the sound waves to synchronize with brain waves and give way to a deep relaxation.
“We can utilize sound as a compassionate mirror to reflect our resonance, resistance, and release,” Kıraşı told The Guide Istanbul. During a session, Kıraşı serves as a mediator between her clients and the sounds that provoke certain reactions. Sometimes, she plays the instruments alone; at other times, she plays with musician Can Dedeoğlu. The sound created is always experimental, never composed, and soon transforms the role of the listener into that of the participant.
As the Ottoman music therapists, TÜMATA, and Soundala Therapy would agree, one of the most important aspects of the music healing process is improvisation and intuition. While music and sound therapy in Turkey have scientific basis, the subject is still in many ways a spiritual mystery. Its ability to provide healing in simple, authentic, alternative ways is like music to our ears.
Editor's notes: This article was originally published in the November/December 2017 print issue. To learn more about TÜMATA, go to tumata.com or visit their center at Alemdar Caddesi No.12/3, Sultanahmet. To learn more about Soundala Therapy, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.