Arabic Music

As part of this project, we are asked to choose and research a world music style, making notes on its defining characteristics and instruments.  I have chosen Arabic music as it is one of the styles I am least familiar with and I was curious to find out more about it.

Arabic music, along with Persian and Turkish, is based on a modal system known as maqam.  Key characteristics of this system are:

  • Unlike the Western chromatic scale, maqam scales (known as maqamat) are not equally tempered, and use microtonal intervals
  • An octave is divided into 7 notes
  • The Western perfect fifth is included in most maqamat, and this is tuned to the pure 3/2 frequency ratio
  • The scales are traditionally taught orally
  • Each scale is made up of a set of smaller building blocks, known as jins
  • Different maqamat are said to evoke different emotions

The music is mostly monophonic since the microtonal basis of the maqamat would cause dissonances when many of the notes are played together.  Instruments commonly used include:

  1. Oud – an 11 or 13 stringed instrument, similar to a lute
  2. Qanun – a kind of large zither
  3. Rebab – also a stringed instrument, but with fewer strings than the Oud (between 1 and 3), and bowed
  4. Ney – an end blown flute, with finger holes positioned at semitone intervals and microtones achieved through blowing techniques

I had come across the Chinese zither (‘Guzheng’) whilst visiting China a few years back, and so was quite interested to hear the Qanun.  There is a beautiful demonstration of this instrument on YouTube.  It is possible to get a characteristic tremolo effect by using the plectrum to rapidly pluck the strings in both directions, as well as pitch bend by sliding the finger on the ends of the strings.

I have written some notes on my Listening Log about some specific pieces I have listened to as part of this research.  I enjoyed listening to them, and found this style of music very expressive and emotional.  I think this expressiveness in particular is something a contemporary composer could be influenced by, together with the style’s ability to set a hypnotic, atmospheric mood.  The absence of rhythm is key to this as it helps to create a sense of timelessness.


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