Arab Music

The music of the Arab world is diverse; and includes several types of genres ranging from the classical tradition to the pop culture and from the sacred to the secular. While Arab music is an independent style of music with a distinct sound, it has a long history of interaction with different styles and genres of music from different cultures in the surrounding region. Among those interactions would be the translation of Greek texts and works of music which have had an influence on Arab music; as well as regional influences from the Byzantine Empire and North Africa. The history of Arab music can be traced back to the 5th century pre-Islamic era, or otherwise known as Jahiliyah; where music was traditionally performed by the Qiyan, a class of women who were considered both servants and trained musicians.

According to Hasan Habib Touma’s book, The Music of the Arabs, there are five components in Arab music which he explains in this way:

  1. A tone system with specific interval structures
  2. Rhythmic-temporal structures that produce a rich variety of rhythmic patterns, used to accompany the metered vocal and instrumental genres and give them form.
  3. Musical instruments that are found throughout the Arabian world and that represent a standardized tone system, are played with standardized performance techniques, and exhibit similar details in construction and design.
  4. Specific social contexts for the making of music, whereby musical genres can be classified as urban (music of the city inhabitants), or Bedouin (music of the desert inhabitants). By way of example, consider the Bedouin, by virtue of mass media, can listen to any kind of music in his desert tent but who would never make music himself outside of a specific context.
  5. A musical mentality that is responsible for the aesthetic homogeneity of the tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures in Arabian music, whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or scared.

When speaking of a “tone system,” Touma is referring to the maqām system (Arab scale or mode). Just as Western music has the major and minor scale’s, the Arabs have a set of scales or modes called maqāmat (singular maqam). An easier explanation of the maqām system would be a definition found on

[A] maqam(plural maqamat) is a set of notes with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development. Maqamat are best defined and understood in the context of the rich Arabic music repertoire. The nearest equivalent in Western classical music would be a mode (e.g. Major, Minor, etc.) The Arabic scales which maqamat are built from are not even-tempered, unlike the chromatic scale used in Western classical music. Instead, 5th notes are tuned based on the 3rd harmonic. The tuning of the remaining notes entirely depends on the maqam. The reasons for this tuning are probably historically based on string instruments like the oud. A side effect of not having even-tempered tuning is that the same note (by name) may have a slightly different pitch depending on which maqam it is played in.

Unlike Western music where major and minor are the predominant names of its scales, every maqām in Arab music has its own name, style of performance, and tuning. The same is true with respect to name for each note in Arab music. With Western music we know that the octave is divided into twelve chromatic notes where each note is named using the letters A thru G. In Arab music, specifically under the al-Farabi system, the octave is divided up into twenty-four equivalent intervals some of which are micro tones. Each interval possesses its own name, and that name is not repeated in the upper or lower octaves.

The second component of Arab music Touma speaks of in his book is the aspect of rhythm. Rhythm in Arab music functions similar to how the maqām system does. Each rhythmic pattern has its own name and style of performance. However not all genres of Arab music are accompanied by a fixed rhythmic pattern. There are many free flowing forms in Arab music where percussive rhythmic accompaniment is not always present, such as in the art of taqasim (improvisation) or in a Mawal, which is a poem, single syllable, or word that is sung freely in an improvisational style. The rhythmic patterns in Arab music are generally fixed pattern cycles that are called wazn, (awzan pl.), which literally means “measure.” While there are variations that can be done with each pattern cycle, the basic beat structure stays the same. When it comes to analyzing a pattern cycle or wazn one can break the pattern cycle down into two basic components dum, which is a strong beat, and tak, which is a weaker beat. For example the longa (a wazn in Arab music) is a meter written in a 2/4 time signature that has two dum’s and two tak’s in an eighth-note pattern that is constructed: dum-tak, dum-tak. The name for this wazn is also the name for the form of music it accompanies, just as the sama’i form also has the same name for its wazn.

Musical instruments in Arab music can be divided into four different groups: plucked, bowed, wind instruments, and percussion. The plucked and bowed instruments are all stringed instruments that are native to the Arab land with the exception of the violin. In the Arabic language, the violin is called kamanjah and it replaced the rabab which is considered the precursor to the modern violin in Arab music.The main instruments in Arab music are: ‘oud (Arab lute), qanun (Arab zither), kamanjah, nay (Arab reed flute), and the riqq (Arab tambourine). These are the main instruments in what is known as a takht ensemble. This was the most common ensemble in the Arab world until World War I The takht traditionally had three musicians and over time the ensemble was expanded to five and sometimes even six musicians. Over time, as Arab music progressed, one can see the takht grow from a smaller ensemble into an orchestra adding instruments such as: multiple violins, string bass, cello, multiple percussion, various folk instruments and even synthesizers and electric guitars. This evolution in Arab music from a smaller ensemble to larger one is an evolutionary process that happened over time.

When Touma speaks of genres, or specific social contexts in Arab music as being either urban or Bedouin, he does not speak of different forms of composition in Arab music, called ashkal in Arabic. Touma’s intent was to show how diverse the Arab culture is when it comes to music and to demonstrate that each genre of Arab music has certain ways of performance much like different genres in Western music. Touma says:

[C]onsider the Bedouin, by virtue of mass media, can listen to any kind of music in his desert tent but who would never make music himself outside of a specific context.

What Touma means to say is that every sub-culture in the Arab world has its particular style of music and while they could listen to other styles of Arab music, they would not be able to successfully imitate any style other than their own. This explanation by Touma can be compare to a physician in the medical field. While each physician has the same general knowledge that they have acquired either in school or through training, each physician has an area of expertise that they would specialize in. Another good example with respect to Western music is that one would not see a professional jazz saxophonist perform classical music the same way a classically trained saxophonist would.

In the last component of Arab music Touma speaks of some sort of “musical mentality” which he describes in this way:

5 . A musical mentality that is responsible for the aesthetic homogeneity of the tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures in Arabian music, whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or scared.

When Speaking of this, Touma is referring to knowledge one must have when listening to or performing Arab music. This means that in order for the listener to understand what he or she is listening to, they must have some knowledge of what to listen for in Arab music. Likewise, if a musician is to perform Arab music successfully, then he or she must have knowledge on how these elements in Arab music work together.Touma calls this an “Arab musical mentality” and defines it as such:

a. The maqām phenomenon, in which the performance of a single-voiced melody is a largely improvised conceptualization of a particular modal structure. The fundamental characteristic of the maqām phenomenon is that the tonal-spatial component has a binding and previously fixed organization, whereas the rhythmic-temporal component is essentially free. Central to the maqām phenomenon is the tonal-spatial model, which varies from one maqām to another and can always be reduced to a nucleus of unique intervals. This nucleus determines the melodic line and helps create the characteristic emotional mood for the particular maqām. The modal structure of a maqām is named for the tone row of the Arabian system on which it is based.

b. The predominance of vocal music, Singer, vocal technique, song style, and text are all of essential importance in Arabian music.

c. The predilection for small instrumental ensembles, in which improvisation is far more p racticable than it is in large orchestras.

d. The mosaic like stringing together of musical form elements, that is, the arrangement in a sequence of small and smallest melodic elements, and their repetition, combination, and permutation within the framework of a tonal-spatial model.

e. The absence of polyphony, polyrhythm, and motivic development. Arabian music is, however, very familiar with the ostinato as well as with a more instinctive heterophonic way of making music.

f.The alteration between a free rhythmic-temporal and fixed tonal-spatial organization on the one hand and a fixed rhythmic-temporal and free tonal-spatial structure on the other. This alteration, which occurs chiefly during the performance of longer maqāmāt such as the maqām al-’irāqī, the nūbah, and the waşlah, results in exciting musical contrasts.

The elements that Touma describes as the “Arab musical mentality” are all important to the aesthetics and sound of Arab music. It is the above described elements that affect the listener in such a way that it “forces one to become immensely involved both emotionally and physically.” The term to describe this feeling in Arab music is tarab.Dr. Ali Jihad Racy’s defines tarab in this way:

In Arab culture, the merger between music and emotional transformation is epitomized by the by the Arabic concept of tarab, which may not have an exact equivalent in Western Languages.

When speaking of tarab, one cannot give it an absolute definition. This is because the affects that music has on a listener are different for each person. Tarab can be experienced in many different ways with Arab music, especially in the art of taqasim (singular taqsim). Taqasim has been an important part of Arab music through most of Near Eastern history. Racy continues to explain that:

. . .In the modern Arab world, the ability to improvise modally is generally considered a trademark of good muscianship. Instrumental or vocal improvisations, which may be heard in combination with non-improvised compositions or alone, are known to require extraordinary skill, talent, and inspiration, and to generate deeply felt emotions within the listeners. [Racy is speaking of tarab.] . . . On the whole, improvisatory genres are highly cherished, especially by the sammī’ah (singular, sammī’, from sama’ or “listening”), namely the musical connoisseurs, or those who listen very well.

The above quote shows that improvisation (taqasim) in Arab music is an important element in creating tarab.The importance of improvisation in Arab music is equivalent to the importance of improvisation in jazz, which is considered to be its principal element. The above excerpt from Racy’s book on tarab, not only shows the importance of improvisation in Arab music, it also denotes that the audience plays an important role during the performance process. Without an active audience that listens and reacts to a performance, the process of improvisation can become difficult for some musicians in Arab music. When talking about the role of the listener in Arab music Racy states:

In context, the sammī’ah put their musical knowledge into practice. Forming the basis for meaningful performer-listener interactions, their knowledge leads to higher musical expectations and thus prompts the artist to excel.

In Arab music some audience members shout out words such as Allah! (oh God), or ya ‘aynee (oh my eye). The listener (sammī’) would use these words amongst many others in order to help stimulate the performer into creating tarab during his or her performance.

Music is an important part of Arab culture and society. One can hear music in the Arab world at almost every function both sacred and secular. The importance of music in the Arab world can be easily identified by the reactions of audiences in the old recordings of legendary artists such as: Sabah, Fakhri, Wadi’ al-Safi, Um Kalthoum, Leila Murad, and countless others. Fredric Nietzsche said it best, “Without music life would be a mistake.”