x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tapping music's healing powers

Middle Eastern composers and philosophers played a crucial role in the development of music as a modern therapeutic tool.

Members of the Musicians of the Nile, from Egypt, at the Emirates Palace Hotel
Members of the Musicians of the Nile, from Egypt, at the Emirates Palace Hotel

It has been said that when man uttered his first word, or perhaps, sang it, he was inspired by the captivating backdrop of nature's songs. Certainly the propensity to make music, described by the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks as "musicophilia", is deeply woven not just into human culture but also into human nature, as scientists have discovered.

As human society evolved, it seems that music developed alongside language as a tool that could transcend divisions of clan and tribe. According to Dr Sacks, research shows that music can occupy more of the brain than language. And because of music's significant psychological role, researchers are increasingly looking into its therapeutic capabilities. The Middle East has played a crucial role in this. Just as it was a cradle of civilisation, so it has also led the way in understanding the civilising and healing role of music.

Nigel Osborne, a professor of music at the University of Edinburgh, has studied the healing properties of Arabian music for four decades. He argues that "the Muslim world understood the power of music and the therapeutic impact of Arabian music". In the western tradition, references to music's healing properties date back to the writings of Aristotle and Plato. But it wasn't until the First and Second World Wars that the academic study of music's therapeutic virtues began, when musicians were asked to play for veterans scarred emotionally as well as physically. As a result, the first academic course in music therapy opened at Michigan State University in 1944.

Just because there was no similar degree programme in this region does not mean that the healing properties of music were not known or studied, and the mental ward of Sultan Bayezid II Hospital in Edirne, Turkey, in operation from the 15th to the 19th centuries, is widely thought to have been the first to use music to treat mental illness. "It was the Middle Eastern theologians and philosophers who led the way to modern music therapy," Prof Osborne said.

As a composer, academic, musician and human rights activist, he has been studying the way music can help to treat children who have suffered from trauma. His latest project has been focused on aiding the children in Gaza after they endured the Israeli onslaught that ended early this year. African songs, "which they really get into and like the beat", stir the children into motion, Prof Osborne said, while Arabic tunes seemed to tug at their hearts.

Prof Osborne sang one of these songs in fluent Arabic, repeating a refrain that can be translated, "you are like a rose that blooms in the garden". "There is such a tremendous depth to Arabic music, that it can trigger all sorts of emotions in its listeners. It is truly therapeutic if you know how to use it." He often uses the "Hijaz Maqam" with Arab children, which refers to the specific oriental musical scale. Its greater range of what he described as "microtones" than the western scale helped to give the music a greater evocative power.

Prof Osborne, who has studied music therapy for 40 years in conflict zones such as the Balkans, Palestine, Chechnya and Georgia, earned the title "the Pied Piper of Mostar" from journalists and colleagues for his lengthy work in Mostar, a Bosnian town ravaged by conflict in the 1990s. "Music can help everyone, but it is most effective in children, as adults have a more complicated reaction to pain and conflict," he said.

Post-traumatic stress triggered the extremes of "hyper-aroused" and subdued behaviour, Prof Osborne explained. He said he believed music could help put a child's state of mind back into balance. "You start with where the child is. If he is hyperactive then we start with an active song, if subdued, then we begin with a quiet song." Pointing to research into the physical effects of music on those who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Prof Osborne argued that music could modulate certain functions of the body, such as heartbeat and breathing, known to be disturbed by shock or fear.

The brain's chemistry can also change during prolonged stress. Studies have linked music to the increased production of oxytocin, a hormone known to promote a state of calm. Music with a strong beat can stimulate brainwaves so that their activity resonates with the rhythm. A faster beat causes a sharper concentration of brainwaves while a slower tempo can promote a calm, meditative state. Even though Prof Osborne has witnessed the beneficial changes music can bring about, he is also aware of its limits.

"Music can help in small ways, not big ways," he said. But he also believed that traditional songs can help restore a sense of comfort and familiarity in a child, particularly important in those who have experienced the dislocation of war. "Music is part of Arab tradition," he emphasised, contrary to what he called "a great misconception" in the West about music in Islam and the Arab world. Prof Osborne cited the works of the Middle Eastern polymaths and their often forgotten contributions as evidence of the strong presence of music in the Muslim world. Al Kindi was the first great theoretician of music in the Arab-Islamic world, and is said to have coined the term "musiqi", while another, Al Farabi, wrote five books on music, one of which, Kitabu al Musiqa al Kabir ("the Great Book of Music"), explains: "The man and the animal, under the impulsion of their instincts, emit sounds that express their emotions."

Nearly a millennium later, Dr Sacks described much of the same thing in the groundbreaking work, Musicophilia, in which he discusses the power of music to help suppress and control the tics of Tourette's syndrome, and to calm minds ravaged by Alzheimer's. "Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed," said Dr Sacks. Music may have changed in the past millennium, but not man's understanding of its therapeutic role. As Al Farabi wrote: "Sounds, in the diversity of their tones, cause in the person that listens to them such shades of feelings or passions, raising to him, controlling to him or tranquillising to him".