Arab Music

A. J. Racy, Ph.D.
Professor of Ethnomusicology, UCLA

Reprinted with permission from the Arab American Almanac
4th ed. NewsCircle Publishing House

Originally published in The Genius of Arab Civilization

  List of Maqamat           Maqam Transpositions


Bandir: hand-held round frame with snares lining the underside of the drum skin.

Buzuq: long-necked fretted lute with metal strings. It is generally associated with itinerant Gypsies, has a carved sound box, and resembles the Turkish saz from which it appears to have been derived.

Darbukka: goblet-shaped drum (aka durbekki, dumbek, or tarambukka).


Fergah: instrumental section of a nuba; literally "empty"

Gimbri: banjo-like instrument which disappeared from maluf in the 20th century.

Iqa' (plural iqaat): rhythmic patterns; meter.

Kaman (also kamanjah): Western violin adapted to the Arab music through tuning and playing technique.

Maqam (plural maqamat): a melodic mode based on a theoretical scale, notes of emphasis, and a typical pattern of movement. The octave is divided into smaller microtones to the interval resolution of one-ninth of a step, called comma.

Mihbaj: a wood coffee-grinder consisting of approximately a foot-tall base and a two-foot pestle. The mihbaj serves the double purpose of being a household item and, when an expert artist uses it, a percussion instrument as well.

Mizwid: a single-reed instrument with a bag played in the bagpipe style. In this form it is known by the name mizwid; literally "bag," or "food pouch"

Mutrib: singer, one who provides tarab.

Muwwashah (plural Muwashahat) is a sung poem in the style of Arab Andalusia. May also be called a nuba or ma’louf.

Naqqarat: small kettledrums attached in pairs, used less in modern times.

Nay: an open-ended, obliquely blown flute made from reed; exhibits a breathy tone.

Nuba (plural nubat): a two-part "musical suite" in a single mode or maqam. Thirteen nubat make up the core of the Tunisian maluf.

Qanun: trapezoidal zither with 26 rows of triple strings whose pitch may be modulated by flipping up or down one of dozen tiny bridges, called orab, which effectively lengthen or shorten the vibrating portion of the string.

Qasida (plural qasa'ed): a long metered poem often in the classical Arabic vocabulary.

Rabab: two-stringed upright fiddle, all but vanished from Tunisian music, thought by some to have been the precursor to the European violin.

Rababah: is played with a horsehair bow, this instrument has a quadrilateral sound box covered with skin and a single string made from horsehair.

Riqq: a small tambourine.

Sajat: small brass finger cymbals.

Shgul: traditional singing "elaborate," as the name implies.

Tabl: a large double-sided drum.

Tablah: also called darbukkah, is a vase-shaped hand-drum.

Takht: traditional Arab ensemble typically made of one player of each of the primary instruments (qanun, ‘ud, nay, kaman, and riqq).

Taqsim: non-metric improvisational fergah; each nuba contains one taqsim played, by tradition, in a maqam which differs from the maqam of the rest of the nuba.

Tar: tambourine.

Tarab: the intense connection between audience and performer in an ideal musical performance.

'Ud: a pear-shaped, short-necked, fretless instrument. It has five double courses of nylon or gut and metal-wound silk strings.

Zajal: a newer poetic genre using special dialectical forms.
















Arab music is a broad concept that encompasses music history,  treatises, genres, and instruments, as well as musically-related philosophies, attitudes, and social contexts within the Arab World.  Arab music covers a vast geographical area ranging from the Atlas Mountains and parts of the Sahara in Africa to the Arabian Gulf region and the banks of the Euphrates. It displays strong aspects of unity and diversity, and attracts the interests of both the scholar and the performing artist.

Unity stems from the sharing of old musical legacies and from the presence of common elements in the various Arab musical traditions.  Whether from Morocco, Egypt, or Iraq, Arabs are able to identify today with a multi-faceted musical heritage that originated in antiquity, but that gained sophistication and momentum during the height of the Islamic Empire between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries.

Since the spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula towards the middle of the seventh century until the present century, Arab music has been shaped by five principal processes, some purely intellectual and cultural, others political.

Contact with Assimilated Cultures

The first process took place during the early centuries of Islam, with the growth of cosmopolitan cultural centers in Syria under the Umayyads (661-750) and in Iraq under the Abbasids (750-909). The ethnic blending that occurred during these centuries brought the music of Arabia into close contact with the musical traditions of Syria, Mesopotamia, Byzantium, and Persia. This contact resulted in the cultivation of new Arab music. While retaining strong local elements, such as the singing of poetical lyrics in Arabic ­ the language of the Qur'an and the linguafranca of the Islamic Empire ­ this music featured new performance techniques, new aspects of intonation, and new musical instruments. Proponents of the new trend included Persians and others from non-Arabian backgrounds.

Court affluence and acquaintance with the worldly splendor of conquered empires stimulated humanistic interests and artistic and intellectual tolerance on the part of the Arab rulers. In a short time court patronage of poets and musicians became common practice, in contrast to the antipathy of some early Muslims towards music and musicians. The Abbasid caliphs al-Mahdi (reigned 775-85) and al-Amin (reigned 809-13) are particularly known for their fondness for music. In contrast to the quynat, or female slave singers, who were prevalent during the early decades, the emerging court artists were often well-educated and from distinguished backgrounds. Among such artists were the singers and scholars Prince Ibrahim al-Mahdi (779-839) and Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850), and the 'ud (lute) virtuoso, Zalzal (died 791), who was Ishaq's uncle.

Contact with the Classical Past

The second process was marked by the introduction of scholars of the Islamic world to ancient Greek treatises, many of which had probably been influenced previously by the legacies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. This contact was initiated during the ninth century under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun (reigned 813-33.) This ruler established Bayt al-Hikmah, literally "the House of Wisdom," a scholarly institution responsible for translating into Arabic a vast number of Greek classics, including musical treatises by major Pythagorean scholars and works by Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.

The outcome of this exposure to the classical past was profound and enduring. The Arabic language was enriched and expanded by a wealth of treatises and commentaries on music written by prominent philosophers, scientists, and physicians. Music, or al-musiqa, a term that came from the Greek, emerged as a speculative discipline and as one of al-ulum al-riyadiyyah, or "the mathematical sciences," which paralleled the Quatrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) in the Latin West. In addition, Greek treatises provided an extensive musical nomenclature, most of which was translated into Arabic and retained in theoretical usages until the present day.

Theoretical treatises written in Arabic between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries established an enduring trend in Near Eastern musical scholarship and inspired subsequent generations of scholars. An early contributor was Ibn al ­ Munajjim (died 912) who left us a description of an established system of eight melodic modes. Each mode had its own diatonic scale, namely an octave span of Pythagorean half and whole steps. Used during the eighth and ninth centuries, these modes were frequently alluded to in conjunction with the song texts included in the monumental Kitab al-Aghani, or Book of Songs, by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (died 967). Among the major theorists was al-Kindi (died about 873), who proposed adding a fifth string to the 'ud which was commonly used by theorists to illustrate intonation and pitch ratios. Besides proposing a detailed fretting for the 'ud, he also discussed the cosmological connotations of music.  Also one of the most notable contributors to the science of music was Abu Nasr al-Farabi (died 950), known for his famous Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir, or Grand Treatise on Music, in which he presented various systems of pitch, including one diatonic tuning to which certain microtones, or "neutral" intervals, were added.  Other theorists included Ibn Sina, or Avicenna (died 1037) who was also a philosopher and physician, and Safi ad-Din al-Urmawi (died 1291) who based the intervals of the melodic modes used at his time upon a detailed systematic scale that incorporated small subdivisions within the Pythagorian scale.

Contact with the Medieval West

The third major process affecting Arab music was the contact between the Islamic Near East and Europe at the time of the Crusades in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries and during the Islamic occupation of Spain (713-1492.) This contact had a widespread impact on both Islamic and European traditions. The westward movement of scientific scholarship into the Muslim universities of Spain is known to have influenced the Christian West and to have promoted the translation of Arabic works, including commentaries on Greek sources, into Latin. Although it is difficult to assess precisely the nature and extent of the Near Eastern musical impact upon medieval Europe, such scholars as Julian Ribera, Alois R. Nykl, and Henry George Farmer have argued that substantial influence existed in areas ranging from rhythm and song forms to music theory, nomenclature, and musical instruments.  Influence in the case of instruments is indicated by name derivations: for example, the lute from al-'ud; the nakers, or kettledrums, from naqqarat; the rebec from rabab; and the anafil, or natural trumpet, from al-nafir.

The contributions of Moorish Spain to Arab music were profound and far-reaching. The Easterners' adaptation to a new physical environment and the introduction of Eastern science and literature into settings of wealth and splendor, as represented in the courts of Seville, Granada, and Cordoba, were inspirational to the new artistic life of al-Andalus. Zaryab (died about 850) was a freed slave who moved from Baghdad to Cordoba, where he became a highly respected singer, 'ud player, and music teacher. Zaryab is credited with compiling a repertoire of twenty-four nawbat, (singular nawbah or nubah), each of which was a composite of vocal and instrumental pieces in a certain melodic mode. The nawbat were reportedly associated with the different hours of the day. The nawbah tradition was largely transported to North Africa by the Muslims who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the late fifteenth century.

Moorish Spain also witnessed the development of a literary-musical form that utilized romantic subject matter and featured strophic texts with refrains, in contrast to the classical Arabic qasidah, which followed a continuous flow of lines or of couplets using a single poetical meter and a single rhyme ending. The muwashshah form, which was utilized by major poets, also emerged as a musical form and survived as such in North African cities and in the Levant, an area covering what is known historically as greater Syria and Palestine. In this area, the muwashshah genre became particularly popular in Aleppo, Syria.

Ottoman Turks

The fourth major process influencing Arab music was the hegemony of the Ottoman Turks over Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the coasts of Arabia, and much of North Africa (1517-1917).   During this four-centuries span, the center of power in the Sunni Muslim world shifted to the Ottoman court in Turkey, while Iran was gradually emerging as a separate political, cultural, and religious entity, eventually instituting Shi'ism as the state religion.  Musically, the Ottoman period was characterized by gradual assimilation and exchange. Arab music interacted with Turkish music, which had already absorbed musical elements from Central Asia, Anotolia, Persia, and medieval Islamic Syria and Iraq. This interaction was most obvious in larger cities, particularly Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo.

The sama'i (or Turkish saz semai) and the bashraf (or pesrev), both instrumental genres used in Turkish court and religious Sufi music, were introduced into the Arab world before the late nineteenth century. Instrumental and possibly vocal and dance forms were transmitted partly through the Mevlevis, a mystical order established in Konya, Turkey, in the thirteenth century. Known for cultivating music and including famous composers and theorists, this order spread into parts of Syria, Iraq, and North Africa. Military bands, similar to the type connected with the Janissary army, existed in various political centers of the Ottoman world.  With respect to theory and nomenclature, Arab and Turkish musical systems overlapped considerably. Melodic and metric modes in Turkey and in the Arab world, particularly Syria, have exhibited and still exhibit strong similarities.

Contact with the Modern West

The fifth and most recent process is the contact between Arab music and the modern West following the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt (1798-1801) and the subsequent cultural and political interaction during the nineteenth centuries. One of the earliest manifestations of Westernization in the Arab world was Muhammad 'Ali's importation of the European military-band concept into Egypt in the early nineteenth century and the establishment of military schools in which Western instruments and musical notation were employed.

Later in the century, on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, Khedive Isma'il (reigned 1863-1876) built the Cairo Opera House, which became an historical landmark and a symbol of Westernization in the Near Eastern Muslim world. The Opera House was inaugurated with the performance of Rigoletto by Verdi, in November 1869, followed by Aida in December, 1871. Isma'il, who sought to Europeanize Egypt, patronized and promoted the fame and social status of Egyptian artists, such as the female singer Almaz (1860-1896) and the male singer 'Abduh al-Hamuli (1843-1901).

The twentieth century experienced an increase in the role of Western theory, notation, instruments, and overall musical attitudes.  It also marked the continuation and growth of a medium that had begun in the nineteenth century and flourished in Egypt: the musical theater. Dramas mainly by European authors were Arabized and presented as combinations of acting, singing, and sometimes dancing. Among the theatrical artists were the Syrian-born Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (1841-1902), who also performed at the Columbian World Fair in Chicago in 1893, and the Egyptian Shaykh Salamah Hijazi (1852-1917), a Sufi-trained singer and stage actor whose theatrical songs were heard on early recordings throughout the entire Arab world.

Between World War I and the late 1920s, Cairo witnessed the rise of a new theatrical form, a type of musical play that typically combined comedy and vaudeville and was comparable to the European operetta. Among the prime contributors to this form was the celebrated composer Shaykh Sayyid
Darwish (died 1923), who is now considered the father of modern Egyptian music. By the early 1930s, the impact of Westernization on Egyptian music was considerable, as testified to in the reports issued by the Congress of Arab Music held in Cairo in 1932.

With the emergence of independent Arab states following European domination, many Arab governments accepted Western music as a fine art and as a component in formal music education. In many Arab capitals today, traditional Arab music and Western music are taught in government institutions organized in the Western conservatory tradition.

Unifying Traits of Arab Music

Today, traits contributing to unity in Arab music are numerous. These traits may not be universally applicable, however, and their orientation and detailed features may differ from one community to another. Furthermore, because of common historical backgrounds and geographical and cultural proximity, many non-Arabs -- particularly Turks and Persians -- share many of these traits, a fact that enables scholars to study the Near East as one broad musical area.

One aspect of unity in Arab music is the intimate connection between the music and the Arabic language. This is demonstrated by the emphasis placed upon the vocal idiom and by the often central role played by the poet-singer. Examples are the sha'ir, literally "poet," in Upper Egypt and among the Syrian-Desert Bedouins, and the qawwal, literally "one who says," in the Lebanese tradition of zajal, or sung folk-poetry. This link is also exemplified in the common practice of setting to music various literary forms, including the qasidah and the muwashshah.

Another salient trait is the principal position of Arab melody in Arab music and the absence of complex polyphony, a phenomenon distinguishing music of this part of the world, and a good portion of Asia, from the music of Europe and certain areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, Arab music exhibits refinement and complexity in the melody marked by subtle and intricate ornaments and nuances. Melody in Arab music also incorporates microtonality, namely intervals that do not conform to the half-step and whole-step divisions of traditional Western art music.

The concept of melody is commonly connected with modality, a conceptual organizational framework widely known under the name maqam (plural maqamat). Each of the maqamat is based on a theoretical scale, specific notes of emphasis, and a typical pattern of melodic movement, in many instances beginning around the tonic note of the scale, gradually ascending, and finally descending to the tonic. Although it is the basis for various musical compositions, the maqam scheme may be best illustrated through such nonmetric improvisatory genres as the instrumental solo known in Egypt and the Levant as taqasim, vocal forms such as the layali and the mawwal, and religious genres such as Qur'anic chanting and the Sufi qasidah.

In Egypt and the Levant, theorists divide the octave scale into small microtones comparable to those discussed earlier by al-Farabi and Safi ad-Din. Several types of micro-intervals have been advocated, including the comma division (roughly one-ninth of a whole step), which is found in some Syrian theories. Yet, it is generally conceived that the maqamat are based on a referential octave scale consisting of twenty-four equal quarter-tones. Despite the essentially aural nature of Arab music, Western notation has become fully established, and extra symbols are widely used.

The modal conception and organization of melody is paralleled by a modal treatment of Arab rhythm. In Arab music, metric modes are employed in various metric compositions and are widely known by the name iqa'at (singular iqa'). Influencing the nature of phrasing and the patterns of accentuation of a musical composition, these modes are rendered on percussion instruments within the ensemble, including the tablah (a vase-shaped hand-drum) and the riqq (a small tambourine also called a daff). Each iqa' has a specific name and a pattern of beats ranging in number from two to twenty-four or more.

In Arab music, and in Near Eastern music in general, compound forms predominate. Such forms are based on the assembling together of instrumental and vocal pieces that share the same melodic mode. Within a compound form, the individual pieces may vary in style, improvised or precomposed, featuring a solo singer or chorus, metric or nonmetric. A compound form is usually known by its local generic name and by the name of the melodic mode it belongs to. Examples include an established Iraqi repertoire typical of the cities and known generically by the name maqam. Other examples are the Syrian fasil, the North African nawbah, and the pre-World Word I Egyptian waslah.

Another feature of musical unity in the contemporary Arab world lies in the area of musical instruments. Instruments such as the qanun (a trapazoidal plucked zither), 'ud (a fretless plucked lute), nay (a reed flute) and the Western violin are found in most urban Arab orchestras. Furthermore, certain types of instruments are frequently associated with specific social functions. Bowed instruments often accompany the solo voice. In this case, the singer and the accompanist are typically the same person. The Bedouin sha'ir uses the rababah (a single-string fiddle) to accompany the love song genre known as the 'ataba and the heroic poems known as shruqi or qasid. Similarly, the Egyptian sha'ir uses the rababah (a two-string spike fiddle) to accompany his recitation of the medieval Arab epic known after its hero, Abu Zayd al-Hilali. In folk life, wind instruments are generally played outdoors; for example, the mizmar (a double-reed wind instrument) of Egypt and the tabl baladi (a large double-sided drum) are used at weddings and similarly festive events, mostly for the accompaniment of dance. At Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian weddings, the mijwiz (a type of double clarinert) is an adjunct to the dabkah or line dance.

Aspects of unity are also found in the traditional musical content of Arab social and religious life. Since Islam is the prevalent religion of the Arab world, Qur'anic chanting is the quintessential religious expression, transcending ethnic and national boundaries. This form is nonmetric, solo-performed, and based upon the established rules of tajwid, the Islamic principles of recitation. Of comparable prevalence is the adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, which is heard from the minaret at the times of prayer throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Sufi performances of music and dance have been held in private and in public for centuries throughout North Africa and the Levant. Exhibiting considerable unity in song genres and in style of performance, Sufi music has been influenced by, and in turn influenced, the various secular vocal traditions.

Finally, a more recent contributor to musical unity has been the modern electronic media. The rise of wide-scale commercial recording around 1904, the appearance of the musical film in Egypt in 1932, and the establishment of public radio stations in later years promoted the creation of a large pan-Arab audience. Today the word ughniyyah generally refers to a prevalent song category featuring a solo singer and an elaborate orchestra equipped with both Western and traditional Arab instruments. Presented by such celebrities as Egypt's late Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab and the late female singer Um Kulthum, these songs are now enjoyed by a huge audience extending from Morocco to Iraq.

Despite such unity, the Arab world is also a land of musical contrasts. In a sense, Arab music is the summation of musical traditions, each of which has its own cultural and aesthetic substance and integrity. From a broader perspective, diversity exists among larger geographical areas. For example, the music of North Africa, primarily Morocco and Algeria, differs from the music of Egypt and the Levant in matters of intonation, modality, preference for certain musical instruments, and degree of exposure and retention of Andalusian musical influence.  Similarly, the music of Egypt differs in matters of rhythm and intonation from the overall musical traditions of the Arabian Peninsula.

From a closer perspective, individuality can be seen in various smaller areas and repertoires. The Ginnawa ethnic group of Morocco has a musical style that is closely associated with West Africa; similarities include the use of syncopated rhythm and emphasis on percussion. In Nubia and Sudan, the music employs pentatonicism, the use of five-tone scales. In Kuwait and Bahrain, pearl fishermen's songs utilize a high pitched male voice accompanied by distinct low pitched drones, complex polyrhythmic clapping, and percussion instruments including a clay pot comparable in construction and playing technique to the ghatam of South India. In the Baghdadi chalghi ensemble accompanying maqam singing, the instruments usually include the santur, a type of hammer dulcimer, and the jawzah, a spike-fiddle, both having close counterparts in the musical traditions of Persia and Central Asia. Similarly, individual musical features can be found in the liturgies of various non-Muslim religious groups of the Arab world, including the Maronites of the Lebanon and the Copts of Egypt.  Viewed in their great variety, Arab musical practices and musical instruments are a living testimony to Arab history and to a rich and multifaceted cultural background.

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