Culture & Society

  • Issue 106 / July - August 2015

    Hear to Heal: A New Approach to the Healing Power of Sufi Music

    Volkan Efe

    It is widely accepted that music influences and affects people in different ways, starting from the first days of life. Humans are born with a strong sense of hearing as well as the ability to respond to sound. For instance, according to Prof. Keith Moore, the first sense to develop in a human embryo is hearing, with the fetus hearing sounds as early as in the 24th week [1]. Most, if not all, parents experience how a newborn baby calms down as soon as hearing a melody sung by their mother or father. Babies, after developing in a fairly controlled environment in the womb, open their eyes to an imperfect world that imposes many impurities and adversities on them. Surrounded by such conditions, a state of unease or illness emerges which modern medicine attempts to treat with an effort to bring back a healthy and "tuneful" state.

    As babies grow up exposed to a variety of physical and mental challenges, as well as adverse social interactions, abnormalities start to present themselves in the form of physical and psychological imbalances. Music has become an effective alternative to modern medicine in the treatment of such abnormalities. Just as playing soft music calms a fussy baby, music can be at least as effective at treating the more sophisticated health problems of adults.

    In this article, I will first give a brief chronology of music as a healing method. I will then focus on the specific musical techniques used by Islamic philosophers and explain the fundamentals of spiritual healing in the Mevlevi Sufi order which employs music as an integral part of their rituals. Following that, I will mention an analogy between music and the recent invention of usable wireless energy transfer. The article will conclude with a mini experiment that may potentially open up further possibilities for interdisciplinary investigation and research in the use of makams in treating physically and spiritually challenged individuals.

    A brief history of music therapy

    The healing aspect of music has been understood and applied by different cultures throughout human history as is evident in historical writings from civilizations as diverse as Egypt, China, India, Greece and Rome. For example, historically, shamans used music in magic-religious rituals to purge evil spirits from a sick person's body. The patient reached a state of trance and ecstasy through music and dance, allowing for catharsis/purification and healing [2]. In Egypt, surgical patients listened to music before an operation in order to feel stronger. In Greek mythology, Apollo played the lyre to make people feel joyful. Pythagoras, Hippocrates, and Socrates also made major investigations and contributions to this field [3].

    Music therapy in Islamic history started systematically about eight hundred years ago and was regularly performed in hospitals established by Seljuk and Ottoman Turks [3]. Patients were treated with musical sounds, in addition to the use of medicine. Zekeriya Er-Razi (AD 854 - 932), Farabi (AD 870 - 950) and Ibn Sina (AD 980 - 1037), all known as doctors and musicians, were important figures in Islamic history who investigated the healing effects of music. Farabi further explored the effects of makams on the human soul and on people during their most effective daily time periods [4].

    Adherents to Sufism were particularly interested in music and used its ability to help stay away from spiritual infirmity and to promote spiritual balance. The zenith of music in spiritual healing was reached by the Mevlevi order through "Sema" - the well-known practice of whirling as a form of remembrance of God. By performing sema, Mevlevis intended to relieve the dervishes from a state of disharmony and re-establish a sense of unity and existence. Here I will briefly discuss how Sufis conceive the terminology of "existence" and then continue with the example of the Mevlevi ceremony of the whirling dervishes.

    A Sufi's journey to existence through music

    The idea of existence in Sufism is based on the most fundamental concept of Islam, tawhid: the oneness of God, specifying that all creatures come from and return back to the same oneness. From this perspective, the whole of existence is united and in harmony with oneness. All phenomenon are just reflections of God so that God witnesses and sees himself through these manifestations. Each and every phenomenon is the immanence of God resulting in his omnipresence through his divine attributes. According to this interpretation, a human takes the central role in connecting all these divine names within him or herself, being the most superior and the most illustrative reflection of God. Humans are the only creatures with the ability to consciously interact with any object or creature in the universe, and to strive to excel so that they can live in harmony and total integrity and to perceive happenings at various levels. In Sufism, this ability is, in fact, a crucial attribute and even a prerequisite for being a human [5].

    According to Sufis, an abnormality is anything that breaks this harmonious state of connection and togetherness between humans and surrounding objects, as well as between humans and the 'real' self. Sufis structure their rituals (ayins) with the intensive use of music in a systematic way in order to reestablish this broken connection and bring the dervishes to the desired level of self-awareness, God consciousness, and sense of existence.

    The specifics of the ayin

    I will now briefly discuss the musical techniques that Sufis use during ayins to achieve spiritual healing. Mevlevi lodges performed ayins typically once a week, or as many times as the master of dervishes found necessary. The ceremony in its entirety symbolizes the spiritual journey of man looking for the essence of his creation within himself. The ceremony starts with a single, deep beat from the drum symbolizing the moment that the universe was created with God's single command: "Be". Then, the ney (an end-blown reed flute) takes the stage to make a long taksim (improvisation) in the makam; this improvisation corresponds to the ayin. The master of the dervishes determines which ayin to be played. Each makam stimulates different feelings; therefore the selection of the makam is very crucial. The taksim awakens the dervishes and symbolizes their revival from the dead. As the taksim concludes, the dervishes stand up and walk around the hall while an instrumental piece ramps up the energy in the room. This instrumental section is always composed using a special usul called Devr-i Kebir (a 28 beat major usul). Following that, the ayin transitions into the vocal section, and the whirling begins. The vocal section consists of 4 parts, each of which is called a Selam. Each selam is structured and carefully formulated with transitions between makams and usuls. In the first selam, the usuls of Devr-i Revan (a 14 beat minor usul) or Agir Duyek, Duyek (an 8 beat usul) are usually used. The first and third selams are longer than the second and fourth selams. The second and fourth selams are performed in the usul of Evfer (a 9 beat minor usul). Most makam and usul transitions take place during the third selam, where the rhythm of the ayin also speeds up. Similar to the second selam, the fourth selam is always in Evfer and must be performed at a slower pace. The ayin concludes with two instrumental pieces in the usuls of Duyek and Yuruk Semai (combination of two 3/8 usul) [6].

    Healing with makams and musical instruments

    ayins can be composed in any makam. Often transitions between different makams occur within the same ayin. By definition, makam is a system of melody types used in Turkish classical music that provides a complex set of rules for composition and performance. Each makam specifies a unique intervallic structure and melodic development. Makams have been a topic of investigation within the field of Islamic musical therapy. Farabi classified the effects of the makams in detail: for example, the Rast makam brings a person happiness and comfort; the Buselik makam brings strength; and the Saba makam brings bravery and power.

    Farabi also outlined the effects of makams according to the times they were most effective – e.g., the Ussak makam is effective at noon, the Neva makam in the late evening, and the Huseyni makam at dawn, etc [7].

    Along with utilizing different makams, Mevlevis benefited from a variety of musical instruments, each with a unique sound and having a different effect on people. The Sema ceremony is, in a sense, a way of harvesting energy from these instruments playing in a certain makam and usul. Performing in harmony, the instruments bring dervishes to the desired state of consciousness in a slow and staged manner, starting with a single drum beat, moving on to a solo ney improvisation, and then with all instruments playing in unison to create excitement and energy across the hall. Some of these traditional instruments are listed below [6]:

    Kudum: A percussion instrument consisting of two drums; used to beat the usul.

    Ney: An end-blown reed flute.

    Rebab: A long-necked stringed instrument played with a bow, the body of which was originally constructed of a coconut.

    Tanbur: A stringed instrument, played either with a plectrum or a bow, Tanburs are made of wood with a long neck. A very important point to note is that the frets along the tanbur neck are considered to cover the entire tonal system of makam.

    Santur: A hammered dulcimer, once frequently used in Turkish music, but nearly forgotten today.

    Kemence: A three-stringed bowed "pear-shaped lyre" used in Turkish Classical Music, played upright, resting on the knee.

    Ud: A fretless lute which has six double courses of strings and is played with a plectrum. It has a large body and a short, thick neck. Its modern shape was given by Farabi.

    Kanun: A harp-like instrument played with two plectrums, it became widespread in the mid-19th century and is played in most countries of the Near East.

    Detection and use of characteristic audio frequencies

    Although many studies have been conducted to understand the effect of makams on people when played at different times of day, there is also hope that much more can be done with today's technology and advancements in medicine. As mentioned briefly at the beginning, an individual is born with intuitive characteristics, perception of sound being an important one. Such inborn characteristics remain unique and specific to each individual for their entire lifetime. It is possible and can be proven with controlled experiments that every human is also finely tuned to a set or range of audio frequencies. These frequencies can be used, if detected correctly, to treat certain neurological or psychological conditions and spiritual challenges. These frequencies can easily constitute a medium where one can effectively collect energy.

    A recent development in physics shows a strong analogy to this phenomenon. Physicists from MIT proved that two coils of wire tuned to the exact same frequency can efficiently exchange electrical energy enabling a transfer of power between two devices through air, wirelessly, i.e. without any cords [8]. This interaction can occur only if these two coils are within a certain distance and they are finely tuned to the exact same frequency in a way that the energy is not lost but converted into usable power. I have been working for the company, WiTricity, spun out of this idea and I designed custom coils operating at different frequencies to transfer wireless power between transmitter/receiver pairs.

    Similarly, the use of audio frequencies can be a viable tuning mechanism for energy delivery and healing for humans. As an example, let me describe a mini experiment which I was able to conduct at home with my 6 month old son. I played the note E constantly from a musical instrument tuning application on my smartphone and positioned it at a distance where he could hear comfortably. He stopped crying almost immediately and fell asleep in a few minutes. Interestingly, he did not give the same response to notes C or D during my next trials. This observation made me think about the possibility that my son has an association with the note E which has an audio frequency of 660 Hz. This experiment encouraged me to make a correlation with the use of makams.

    Turkish makams are usually defined with two notes: a karar note on which the course/progression of a makam resolves and a guclu (strong) note where the flavors of the trichords, tetrachords, and pentachords overlap so that it is emphasized repeatedly throughout the piece [9]. If the two most significant frequencies of a newborn are identified, it may be relatively simple to figure out the matching makam by aligning these two frequencies with the karar and guclu notes. Listening to a composition in that particular makam can make him or her feel better even at young ages, as well as when they get older. One can try to play the constant note E and soothe a baby, but it may be irritating for an adult to listen to that continual sound. However, if one introduces these frequencies in a form of instrumental or vocal composition in the associated makam, it may be more pleasant to listen to, and much needed energy at the appropriate frequency may be delivered to that person.


    I would like to conclude by revisiting the Mevlevi lodges where the Sufi masters were successful at using makams and usuls to transmit energy to their dervishes in order to elevate them to a desired state of consciousness. Those masters must have discovered some of these frequencies, which they then utilized in their compositions. With today's advancements in technology and medicine, one can better understand the fundamentals of the healing power of Sufi music, discover the energy hidden inside audio frequencies and hopefully help people treat their physical, psychological, and spiritual challenges.


    1. Makam: A system of melody types used in Turkish Classical Music providing a complex set of rules for compositionng and performance. Each makam specifies a unique intervallic structure and melodic development.

    2. Usul: Term in Turkish Classical Music, indicating "meter" or rhythmic patterns in various arrangements.


    1. Keith Moore, T. Persaud. 1998. "The Developing Human," Edition 6 –

    2. Debbie Carroll. 2011. "Historical Roots of Music Therapy: A brief overview," Revista do Nucleo de Estudos e Pesquisas Interdisciplinares em Musicoterapia (NEPIM), Vol.2, 171-178.

    3. Enver Sengul. 2008. "Kultur Tarihi icinde muzikle tedavi ve Edirne Sultan II. Bayezid Darussifasi," Trakya University, Turkey, July.

    4. Suleyman Sirri Guner. 2007. "Muzigin Tedavideki Yeri ve Sekli," Karadeniz Arastirmalari, Issue 12.

    5. William Chittick. 1989. "Sufi Path of Knowledge", June.

    6. Mehmet Gonul. 2004. "Mevlevi matbah-i seriflerinde musiki ve sema egitimi," Selcuk University.

    7. TUMATA: Traditional Turkish Music Research and Promotion Society.

    8. A.B. Kurs, A. Karalis, R. Moffatt, J.D. Joannopoulos, P.H. Fisher, and M. Soljacic. 2007. "Wireless Power Transfer via Strongly Coupled Magnetic Resonances", Science, 317, pp. 83-86.

    9. Ozkan, Ismail Hakki. 2000. Turk Musikisi Nazariyati ve Usulleri. Kudum Velveleleri.


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