Introduction to Arabic Music

Arabic music isn't like Western music (it isn't like Turkish or Persian music either but that's another story). The Arabic music we use for dance often has Western influences. The following are notes on classical Arabic music.

The tonal system divides an octave into twenty-four (non-equal) intervals. Each tone has its own name (which is not repeated in the next octave) and is defined by its position relative to other tones rather than absolute pitch. In fact the pitch can deviate by as much as a fourth from the nominated pitch.

(The independence in pitch is possible because Arabic music does not use harmony no chords to sound 'off'.)

The tones are arranged in over seventy maqamat. These are made from seven tones from the octave in a combination of augmented, major, medium, and minor second intervals. (In comparison the Turkish system also uses natural fifths and fourths) It is the use of the medium second (about a three-quarter tone) which gives Arabic music its unique quality.

Each maqam has a nucleus of tones which are used to give form to the improvisation. Each maqam also has an associated emotion pride with the maqam rast, or joy with the maqam sikah.

For more detail check out www.aramusic.com/maqam/
or if you want to see some examples try leb.net/rma/modes.html in standard music notation.

The maqamat themselves have no definition in time. The rhythms are defined by awazan. (Not all Arabic music uses a wazn it can be wazn-free). The wazn may be divided into either equal or unequal segments. For instance a wazn of six beats could be 3 then 3 or 4 then 2. There are over a hundred different cycles some made up of 176 units of time! Fortunately we normally only use a small subset for dance.

(If you want to see some examples try Middle Eastern Rhythms FAQs
or www.wiggle.org.uk/rhythms.htm - no clips but clearly set out
or The Quick & Dirty Guide to Doubek Rhythms - if you have a 56k link let the sound clip fully load before listening to it

Music theory from Habib Hassan Touma "The Music of the Arabs", Amadeus Press, 1999 (1996)

For selections of Arabic music:
4 Arabs

For a History of Music and Musical Instruments, Wafaa' Salman's article is reprinted on this site.


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