Standing by the bed of a Cypriot patient who has just undergone vascular surgery, physician Bingur Sonmez consults a screen monitoring pulse and blood pressure.
Then a colleague pulls out a flute and starts playing a popular Turkish tune.
If that appears an unusual approach to modern medicine, then it is. However, doctors at the reassuringly modern Memorial Hospital in Istanbul say it is producing results. At the hospital, Sonmez, head of the department for heart and vascular surgery, and his colleague Erol Can are reviving traditional Islamic music therapy, a form of medical treatment that is almost 1,000 years old. They are convinced that, if used as a complementary therapy, ancient Arabesque scales and modes can produce significant psychological and physiological outcomes.
Can, chief anesthetist in the intensive care unit of the department, said that he discovered music therapy when he worked in a Sofia hospital in his native Bulgaria.
“Back then, I used a tape recorder and head phones,” he said.
When he emigrated to Turkey in 1996, he gradually started to replace recorded music by live instruments.
“I learned to play the ney flute in order to play the kind of music that was used in traditional music therapy hundreds of years ago, making use of the psychological and physiological effects of the makam,” Can said.
The makam — from the Arab word maqam — is a musical mode unique to classic Arabic and Turkish music. It defines the pitches, patterns and development of a musical piece. The term refers to a very wide variety of different tone scales that must be largely learned by ear.
“There is a different makam for every illness, every health problem,” Sonmez said. “There are makamlar that agitate, and there are makamlar that relax.”
Playing a few notes on his ney, Can said: “The so-called rast makami has a positive effect if a patient suffers from anorexia, whereas the hicaz makami should be played if a patient needs to be kept on a diet.”
“A restaurant that plays music in the hicaz mode would probably go out of business after a while, because it keeps customers from eating,” Can said.
“We are not doing anything new, and we are not reinventing the wheel,” Sonmez said with a shrug. “The positive effects of music therapy have been known for well over 900 years.”
The use of makam was integrated into medieval Islamic medicine as early as the 9th century, when academic and philosopher al-Farabi discussed and cataloged the effect of different musical modes on body and psyche.
As Can played Akdeniz Geceleri, a popular Turkish song, to the Cypriot patient, she tried gently to sing along, visibly relaxing.
Sonmez said that music was no substitute for conventional medical treatment.
“We don’t use music as an alternative to modern medical methods,” Sonmez said. “It’s complementary treatment. Without having to prescribe additional drugs, five to 10 minutes of a certain musical piece lowers the heart rate and blood pressure.”
“Medieval hospitals were built around a courtyard with a fountain. The sound of the water, the colors of glass windows, the intensity of the light, the types of flowers and plants — all of it was part of the complementary treatment of patients,” Sonmez said.
“We are thinking of changing the light in the intensive care unit to pink,” he said with a smile. “Pink light has a soothing effect.”