Music in Global America



Arab music is the music of Arabic-speaking states sharing common music practices, theories, and instruments. There are 22 members in the Arab League, as shown in the figure above. There is much diversity in musical cultures throughout the Arab World. The two main cultural regions are the Mashriq and the Maghreb.



From the tenth century, Arabic music maintained close contacts with Persian [present-day Iran] music theory, song, and instruments. During the Ottoman Empire beginning in the thirteenth century, Turkish culture dominated Arabic musical life. A distinctly Arabic consciousness was reborn in the nineteenth century, launched by anti-imperialist Islamic reformers, scholars, and musicians. Fundamental change occurred during the colonial rule of the Arab World by European powers following World War I when Arabs began to adopt Western musical styles and instruments. From the mid-twentieth century to today Arabic music has been influenced by American popular music as well, especially jazz and hip hop.

                    [Habib Touma, The Music of the Arabs]


Anne Rasmussen, in The Music of Multicultural America, counts as the distinguishing features of Arab music:

Melodic Style

Traditional Arab music is almost wholly melodic. Harmony (system of chords) is absent. Singing is held as the ideal of musical expressiveness. Singers are most often accompanied by an instrumental ensemble playing in unison, or near-unison, with the singer. Melodies are often melismatic and highly ornamented. The beginning section of "Seyouff el Ezz" performed by the Palestinian vocalist Mohammed Assaf is an example of florid singing style. The  difference between syllabus and melismatic style can also be heard in this video by the Jordanian group Harget Kart, contrasting a cover of Adele's song "Hello" sung in simple syllabic style with "Kezbak Halou," a song made popular by Syrian singer/actress Mayada Bseliss who sings in an elaborate melismatic style.

Melody in the Maqam System

The maqam system is the basis of both composed and improvised Arab music, whether vocal or instrumental. The theory behind the maqam system of Arabic music stretches back to the ninth century and was codified in 14th-century treatises. There are eight named maqam familiese ajam, hijaz, bayati, nahawand, kurd, nawa athar, rast, saba, and sikah.  Each maqam contains a distinct collection of seven notes, somewhat analogous to the seven-note European scales. Some maqamat have one or two tones (notes) that are tuned differently than in conventional European music. Such tones are closer together than the smallest distance between two tones in the European tuning system and so are referred to as microtones. The European instruments of the violin family — particularly the violin — have become integrated into Arab music ensembles, since players are able to produce microtones. More recently, many electric keyboards can be adjusted to accommodate the tuning system of maqamat that contain microtones.

Melodies are improvised and composed from a musical vocabulary of melodic fragments (ajnas), each containing only a few notes, and different for each maqam. The unique characteristics of a maqam give it a unique "flavor" and makes it recognizable. Each maqam theoretically produces a particular mood or emotional state in the listener — joyful, sad, amorous, etc.  Musicians must learn and memorize the ajnas by extensive listening to traditional playing and singing. This video offers a simplified explanation of how maqamat are formed and how microtones are produced.

Comparison of Maqam Ajam and Maqam Hijaz

The tuning of maqam ajam is identical to the European major scale and induces happiness. The notes of maqam ajam are played on the oud, followed by a compositions for instrumental ensemble in maqam ajam, and a solo on oud in maqam ajam.

Maqam Hijaz has two tones that are outside of the European tuning system and that give Hijaz a sound shared by Semitic people throughout the Arab World. This maqam conveys a sense of yearning and is often used for love songs. The notes of maqam hijaz are introduced on the oud, followed by compositions for instrumental ensemble in maqam hijaz, and a short solo on oud in maqam hijaz.

Rhythm in Arab Music

"Definite rhythm" (or "metric rhythm") refers to music when rhythmic motion is governed by equal times units called beats. Definite rhythm is Arab music is structured by establishing a cycle with a certain number of beats, which are grouped into smaller units. For example, a cycle of 10 beats, may be grouped by clapping on beats 1, 6, and 7.  The percussionist(s) articulates the rhythmic groupings using combinations of a low-pitch sound, a high-pitch sound, and rests (measured silences) to articulate the rhythmic groupings. This video gives a clear demonstration of a simple 4-beat cycle, and a more complex 17-beat cycle played by two drummers, then by ensemble. These patterns can be varied by decoration in performance, similar to how melodic ornamentation is improvised in Arab music. "Free rhythm" refers to music in which the rhythm is free flowing and independent of rhythmic regularity.
This video excerpt of sacred songs of Sufi in a concert in Fès, Morocco begins with an improvised taqsim on qanun in free rhythm. It is followed by a vocal soloist, who also improvises his melody and sings in free rhythm, each phrase echoed by the orchestra. The orchestra leader then begins a structured song in definite rhythm performed by the full orchestra. You will notice that the tempo gradually increases.


The representative instruments of traditional Arab music includes the oud, ney, qanun, riq, and darbuka. The European violin has largely displaced its Arab ancestor, the earthy gruff-sounding rebab.


The oud is the most important instrument in traditional music of the Arab World and throughout Central and Western Asia. The progenitor of the oud dates back over 5000 years to Central Asia. Other instruments that were derived from this common ancestor include the Chinese pipa and the European lute.

Omar Bashir and ensemble perform a set of jazzy improvisations on Syrian folk song "Al Bint al chalabiya" ("The Beautiful Girl"), mixing Arabic, European, and Latin instruments during Bashir's "Oud around the World" tour:


The nay is an end-blown flute commonly made of cane or bamboo. The  du-kah (larger, lower-pitched) nay and the nawa (smaller, higher-pitched) nay are the most frequently played of the various lengths of the instrument. By slight movements of the lips and head a player is able to produce all of the tones and microtones in a large number of maqamat. The nay is a common wind instrument throughout Western Asia. Below is a modern depiction of a woman playing nay in pre-Islamic Persia. The nay can be heard in the video of the takht ensemble, below.


The qanun is a trapezoidal box zither with origins in ancient Assyria. Ordinarily the quanun is strung with seventy-two gut or nylon strings in sets of three. The qanun is plucked with tortoise-shell or metal plectra affixed to rings that are worn on the right and left index fingers. The qanun is played throughout the East Arab World, Turkey, Greece, Armenia, and Central Asia. The qanun is featured in the beginning of the video of Sufi songs, above.


The player on the left holds a riq. The two men in the middle each play a darbuka, a type of goblet drum recognizable in Sumerian images from over 3000 years ago and played today throughout the Arab world.  Modern darbukas are made of copper or aluminum (rather than clay or wood), and fitted with membranes of synthetic material (rather than fish or calf skin). Darbukas creates rhythmic patterns with two contrasting tones: doum, produced by striking the head, and tek, produced by striking the rim. In this video the player on the right begins by playing a frame drum, then switches to finger cymbals (zills).

Takht Ensemble

A takht is an ensemble associated with the Mashriq that includes at least one singer and several instrumentalists. The typical combination is shown in the photo of an early 20th-century Egyptian takht. The singer is seated in the the center, surrounded by musicians with instruments (from left): riq, qanun, violin, nay, oud, and cello. A takht may perform a stand-alone composition, or the ensemble may play a suite (nuba) — a series of linked vocal and instrumental sections, with free-form vocal or instrumental improvisations alternating with ensemble playing in strict rhythm.

This video is a performance of Awil Marra, composed by Mounir Murad with lyrics by Ismail El Barouk, and made popular by the great Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez in a movie of 1957. It is sung here by the popular Lebanese-American musician Usama Baalbaki. The instrumental includes nay, violin, qanun, oud, and riq. A second percussionist plays a darbuka. The bass line is supplied here by a string bass rather than cello.
[Wikipedia: "Maqam"]

This page has paths:

This page references: