In Peter Adamson’s book “Philosophy in the Islamic World” He addresses and studies about a particularly interesting area of study back in late ancient times, Music. Peter has done an extensive amount of work on the research of musical philosophy. A review has been done on this book in another article

>>Click here to read full review on “Philosophy in the Islamic World”<<

Music has been thought to be the most powerful tool in late antiquity (Ancient times) that has the capability to influence humans and animals to an emotional level or even deeper. Here in this article we will be discussing the power and influence of music that dates back to ancient times.

The Ancient-ly scholars have had their own theories of why music is so influential in practically all societies, such as Aristotle, Plato, and even later scholars that will be discussed here. Other prominent figures include Al-Kindi, which personally, has the most outstanding theory of influence on music. Hopefully this should make you think why you feel like jamming out the next time your jam comes on.

Let’s begin

Music in Ancient Times

How “Music” came to be acknowledged as having an influential effect on the human body actually comes from the observation of how it affects animals. Peter shares one peculiar moment in history where a man with a beautiful voice falls of his camel and hits his hand on a rock. He moans in pain which had an apparent effect on his camels.

Its hard to pin point where the word “music” actually comes from but majority of sources state it comes from the greek word mousike which is then borrowed by the Arabs as “Al-Musiqi” Peter shares. Coming back to the camel story this added a valuable area of philosophy that scholars began to study.

In ancient times, people who specalised in philosophy had to takr mathematics as one prerequisite to taking more advance subjects such as physics, and metaphysics. Therefore, this was crucial for one to study the effects of music.

Power of Music

Al-Kindi, one of many influential philosophers at the time has had one big share of the area of study. The book shares about the exploration of Al-Kindi on the physiological effects of music. Al-Kindi being experienced in the bodily sciences rationalised that there exists a sort of mathematical effect on balancing the 4 humours of the body, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.

This is an interesting study because in late antiquity the 4 humours were the only significant liquids inside the body that doctors at the time studied (which is minor compared to modern discoveries today). Why was this so important? maybe they thought that they could revolutionise human mind-control?

Peter also shares why Al-Kindi might have concluded what he did. Its not quite sure why they reference to only 4 strings but probably during that time most instruments had 4 string and each string had a name. The highest was called zir, second, mathna, third, mathlath, and lowest string, bamm. Each of these strings corresponds to one of the 4 humours. (Okay starting to make sense)

A brief history of these 4 humours is that they influence our emotions so you should see why the effect of music is so great on us. These 4 humours probably had some mathematical significance that matches to how the strings are played. Peter emphasises one of Al-Kindi’s favorite philosophies, that the universe has some sort of mathematical structure and its no surprise that studies like these would “struck a chord” in people (Yes, Peter doesn’t hesitate to throw in that pun)

“This sounds like magic, but a reasonably sophisticated and even plausible thory underlies it…By creating a harmonious or discordant proportion in the oud, one can induce corresponding proportions to arise sympathetically – to resonate or more or less literally- in the body” says peter

Rhythm and Language

The next area Peter focuses on is the similarities between the logic of language and rhythm. This is basically talking about singing with music and having a larger influence. Peter basically points out that knowing the balance between keeping a sooth rhythm and adding voice to it which counts as language and communication.

Now isnt this relevant? think about what modern music is doing today and how whatever they say (or if theyre trying to say anything at all) would have such an impact on society. During those times poetry was a cultural pride especially in pre-islamic Arab history which was paired with music.

Ever since this collab happened, it has been incorporated into almost all civilisations where people could make a living mastering the art of combining poetry and music further strengthening their influence on the audience.

Something that peter is also addressing here is how music becomes a driving force of societal development. Studies by later philosophers of music that became prominent poets, used this knowledge to their advantage by somewhat manipulating people’s emotions and imaginative power. In essence a certain music equals a certain emotional experience.

Medicine for the soul

This shouldnt much of a surprise that people back then would consider msuic to be medicine for the soul. What else would we do with it today. Music seems to understand more of how the body works than we do. It gets into the tiniest of gaps to cause such influence in a person, and this should be of no significance that it can potentially help cure emotional despair.

Peter states how music now has become a full fledged science to study now that it can be used for medical uses. Knowing the effectiveness of music it can be used to manipulate one’s imagination where thoughts can heal a person suffering from emotional or spiritual pain.

One man, Al-Farabi, notes down that prophecy is attained by having a powerful imaginative power that expresses wisdom and this is what music can help a person reach, pure state of wisdom. Very interesting point.

Today, in modern medical healthcare, we do find the treatment of patients by use of music to calm them before, say, a surgery, chemotherapy, etc.

What is tells about us humans

There seems to be some wisdom about why music affects us so much. Music exposes something about the human being and it’s ability to recognise rationality. Indirectly, this should be one jab to the theory of evolution of whether there actually is rationality that exists in the universe a not of irrational circumstance.

We humans are not numb to recognising irrationality, or dissonance in music when we hear it as it makes us uncomfortable. Are we really products of irrationality or is there some underlying wisdom that exists within the structure of the universe and within ourselves to realise something far greater, something divine.

This is quite an interesting topic to discuss addressed in peter’s book. If you would like to read the review of that you make click here, or if you’d like to purchase it yourself, here 

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Signing Off,




  1. Music is very effective. In Bible times, God had the musicians and singers in front of the armies whenever they went to war. Music effects the soul definitely.

  2. music has always had a place in history and in the modern world today. It connects people across many ethnic backgrounds even when they cannot understand each other, music brings them together. Music is definitely food for the soul!

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