Music in Global America



Arabic music is the music of Arabic-speaking states of Western Asia and North Africa sharing common music practices, theories, and instruments. From the tenth century, Arabic music maintained close contacts with Persian 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. 

[Touma, The Music of the Arabs]


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

Melodic Style

Traditional Arabic music is almost wholly melodic, and melodies are often melismatic and highly ornamented as in "Seyouff el Ezz" performed by Mohammed Assaf. Singing is held as the ideal of musical expressiveness. In traditional style, singers are almost always accompanied by an instrumental ensemble playing in unison with the singer.  

Maqam System

The theory behind the maqam system of Arabic music stretches back to the ninth century. Arabic music is based on eight commonly used melodic modes, or maqams. The maqam system is the basis of composed and improvised Arabic music, whether vocal and instrumental. The maqam system is mostly taught orally, and by extensive listening to traditional playing. Each maqam is also meant to produce a certain mood or emotional state in the listener.

The particular tones of each maqam are organized in seven-tone scales, and each maqam has characteristic musical phrases made up of four (less often, three or five) continuous tones that give the maqam its flavor and recognizability. The Arabic tuning system contains tones that sound "out of tune" in the European equal-tempered tuning system. Such tones are often referred to as "microtones," because their distance apart is less than that of the semitone, the smallest interval in European music. For Arabic music to sound as intended it should be played on traditional Arab instruments that can produce the microtones that Western instruments with fixed pitches (such as piano) cannot. Violin, and the other members of the fretless violin family, adapt readily to the tunings of the maqam system.

Comparison of maqam Ajam and maqam Hijaz:

The tuning of maqam Ajam is identical to the European major scale and is meant to produce a happy feeling in the listener. The examples are from an instrumental solo (taqsim) played on oud, and an instrumental ensemble (takht).

Maqam Hijaz (or Hezas) has two tones that are outside of the European tuning system and that give Hijaz a sound shared by Semitic people throughout the Middle East. The examples played are again taqsim and takht. 

Rhythm in Arabic Music

Rhythm is Arabic music is often in free rhythm. Metric rhythm is organized by rhythmic patterns of various durations —3, 4, 7, 8, or 10 beat long, up to more than 100. The pattern is made from two different timbres — one low-pitched and one sounding higher and drier — and rests. These patterns can be varied by decoration in performance, similar to improvised melodic ornamentation. 

[Touma, Radmussen, "Maqam," Wikipedia]


Instrumental music may be played by a soloist as a self-contained improvisation (taqsim), or by an ensemble.  The representative instrumental ensemble of the classical Arabic music of the Middle East is the takht. In Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, the takht includes the oud, kamanjah (violin),  ney, qanun, and two main percussion instruments, riq and darbuka

Oud (Ud)

The oud is considered by many to be the most important instrument in traditional music of the Middle East. 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:

Nay (Ney)

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 necessary to play in a large number of maqams on one instrument. The nay is a common wind instrument throughout the Middle East. Below is a modern depiction of a woman playing nay in pre-Islamic Persia.


The qanun (kanun) is a trapezoidal box zither. Ordinarily the quanun is strung with seventy-two gut or nylon strings in sets of three, producing twenty-four tones in total. T"he qanun is plucked with tortoise-shell plectra affixed to rings that are worn on the right and left index fingers." [Touma]


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).
A takht may play 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. The link below has several videos. The sixth video from the top — "Arab Instrument demonstration - the Full Takht" — is a composition for the five basic instruments of the takht. The videos that follow present demonstrate playing Arabic music on solo qanun, oud, and nay, respectively. 

Qatar Music Academy: Performance by Takht (fifth video on page)


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