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"The fundamental points of divergence between Eastern and Western music are the employment of quarter tones, the displacement of E and B (which are respectively a quarter tone above and below the Western notes), the entire neglect of harmony and counterpoint, and the use of most complicated rhythms."— Edwin Hole Keep up with a FREE subscription to the BABA YAGA newsletter.


Arabic music, with its complex rhythmic and melodic modes, engages the emotions and creative energies of the Middle East with the same intensity and devotion that the great symphonies engage Western musicians and audiences. The study of Arabic language, music and dance opens up an intersection with great cultures that have run parallel to ours, on the same planet, for centuries. Arabic music is often defined as the music traditions in the Arabic-speaking world. . . Its present form today was shaped by factors such as:

  • Contact with assimilated cultures (Syria, Mesopotamia, Byzantium, and Persia) resulted in reciprocal influence and the cultivation of new forms of Arabic music.
  • Contact with the Classical past. The introduction of ancient Greek treatises to Islamic scholars resulted in many Arabic music treatises being written between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries [which drew on and developed Greek music theory].
  • Contact with the Medieval West. The Islamic occupation of Spain from 713-1492 brought contributions from Moorish Spain to Arabic musical forms.
  • The influence of Turkish music during the Ottoman Empire's period of dominance over Arabic countries, particularly during 1517-1917.
  • Contact with the modern West, resulting in the use of Western instruments, notation and theory.

Edwin Hole, in Habibi Magazine in 1980:

"The extreme sensibility of the Arab to music - and indeed to poetry or eloquent prose - is illustrated by a story told of a proverb. Hamman ibn Ghalib ibn Sa'sa'Farazdaq belonged to a good Basra family and was no better than he should be. His skill at lampoons was so redoubtable that when he married his ward Nawar against her will, no one dared to interfere for fear of achieving an opprobrious immortality in his verse. It is related of Farazdaq that, appearing one day at the Claiph's court, he outraged convention by taking the seat of honour...stating that he sat there because the Caliph aleady occupied the only position that really suited his dignity. He was invited to substantiate his claim, and the executioner was stationed suggestively behind him to stimulate his mental processes. Faradaq took a lute and sang four songs. The first reduced the Court to helpless laughter; the second bedewed their cheeks with tears; the third was a battle-song and the audience sprang at one another's throats. Finally he sang a lullaby, and while all slept he took a fleet camel and made off."



Edwin Hole, Music By Edwin Hole: Syrian Harvest, Habibi Magazine, 1980.

Viola Online includes education about a wide range of string music in its mission.

Habibi Magazine is now defunct. Ten years of the past issues can be found online at

Scott Marcus, Interview, History of Cairo Classical Music,, Web. Mr Marcus discusses the history of the Cairo Opera House, the growth of the Egyptian classical ensemble, and new developments in classical music in Cairo.

Discussions on Traditions and Venues in Egypt, 2011 at

On Shaabi Music at

Cairo, Hollywood of the Middle East: short video clips of famous musicians at

Interview with A.J.Racy on the music and dance of Lebanon at

Arabic Melodic Modes

Of the five key elements in Arabic music, four are melodic and one is rhythmic.
  1. Distinctive melodic modes (maqam, plural maqamat) which often utilize microtonality;
  2. Monophonic melody;
  3. Maqamat-based improvisation, in whole or part;
  4. Improvised melodic embellishment;
  5. The rhythmic modes (iqa) incorporate patterns utilizing 2 to 24 (or more) beats per pattern.

1. Distinctive melodic modes

"The maqamat are thus the language of traditional eastern Arab melody. Whether a piece of music is from the realm of art music, folk music, popular music, or religious music, the melody will, with the exception of Western-based music, be built using the maqamat." —Scott Marcus

Western orchestral music and Arabic music both recognize octaves as a basic organizing principle, but Arabic music breaks the intervals within an octave down much smaller and then reorganizes them with both equal and unequal intervals as Maqams, or Maqamat (plural). Edward Hines describes the breakdown succinctly:

  1. Western: a series of equally tempered whole-tones and half-tones.
  2. Arabic: a series of whole-tones and half-tones with characteristic pitches augmented or diminished by one quarter-tone.
  3. Turkish: a series of whole-tones and half-tones with characteristic pitches augmented or diminished by one-eighth of a whole-tone or by one quarter-tone.

The intervals in a maqam reflect just intonation, not equal termperament, and this, combined with the microtonal possibilities, is often displeasing to a Western ear which has not had an opportunity to assign emotional responses to the intervals in a maqamat. Edward Lane, writing in the mid-19th century:

"I have heard Egyptian musicians urge against the European systems of music that they are deficient in the number of sounds. These small and delicate gradations of sound give a peculiar softness to the performances of the Arab musicians, which are generally of a plaintive character: but they are difficult to discriminate with exactness, and are therefore seldom observed in the vocal and instrumental music of those persons who have not made a regular study of the art...I generally take great delight in the more refined kind of music which I occasionally hear in Egypt; and the more I become habituated to the style, the more I am pleased with it; though, at the same time, I must state that I have not met with many Europeans who enjoy it in the same degree as myself. The natives of Egypt are generally enraptured with the performances of their vocal and instrumental musicians: they applaud with frequent exclamations of Allah! and God approve thee! and God preserve the voice! and similar expressions."
Sami Shumays defines the maqam:
A maqam (pl. maqamat) is a melodic mode in Arabic music. Melodies, rather than scales, are the best way to approach maqam; in those terms, a maqam can best be understood as a pathway (or set of pathways) among melodies or melodic areas, each of which we call a jins (plural ajnas).

The ajnas Sami Shumay refers to are scale seqments used as maqam building blocks. A typical maqam spans an octave and will be composed of two ajnas (and sometimes a joining note). The names of the ajnas will often be reflected in the name of the maqam. A jins will itself be constructed as a trichord (three notes), a tetrachord (four notes), or a pentachord (five notes), using the intervals appropriate for that jins.

The number of ajinas has not been agreed upon. In previous decades, they numbered in the dozens. In addition, new ones are created as old ones fall out of favor. Currently, ajam, hijaz, nahawand, bayati, rast, kurd, saba, and sikah are the most frequently used ajinas. The ajinas that are used at the beginning of the maqam freqently give the maqam its name: Maqam Ajam, Maqam Hijaz, etc. If the second ajinas in the maqam is different from the first, and it often is, then the name of the second ajinas may (or may not be) reflected in the name: Maqam Nahawand Hijaz, Maqam Nahawand Kurd.

Like the melodic minor scale in Western music, some maqamat use different ajnas when descending and ascending.

In short, the 12-tone octave so familiar to piano students is not very useful when learning Arabic and Ottoman music. Ajnas, and their resulting maqamat, are.

2. Monophonic and heterophnic melody

"Music performance in the eastern Arab world generally features the presentation of only a single melody line at a time... whether there is a single performer or multiple performers. There are traditionally no chords or harmony in this music... Melodies are created using a great variety of textures. Solo voice or solo instrument is common...This texture is called monophony ('one voice'). Alternatively, solos may be accompanied by a melodic drone or by a repeated melodic and/or rhythmic ostinato pattern. A solo instrument or voice may also alternate with a responding group of instruments... Each performer may execute the given melody in an manner unique to his or her specific instrumental idiom... Further, each instrumentalist might contribute unique improvisatory embellishments to the melody... The result of all these practices is a rich, multifaceted rendition of a single melody. This melodic texture is called heterophony ('different voices')." — Scott Marcus

Wikipedia defines Monophony as "melody without accompanying harmony." Arabic music is not the only monophonic music system; many Western musicians are familar with Gregorian chanting and traditional Irish music. Monophonic music among several types of instruments results in a subtle texture which is sometimes an acquired taste; but when acquired, resonates delightfully.

3. Maqamat-based improvisation

Accomplished musicians and singers will both improvise within the current maqam and modulate between maqamat.

From is a key component of Arabic classical music. Arabic music employs various forms of improvisation such as forms that are entirely improvised, partially improvised forms and rhythms inserted in a composed piece, and improvised ornaments used within a composed piece. Some of the ornaments used in instrumental music include turns, trills, grace notes (above and below), glissando and vibrato. Although great freedom is used in these improvisations, established modal patterns are used to structure, develop and resolve these improvised forms. One of the most highly regarded forms of instrumental improvisation is called taqsim (plural, taqasim). on modulation: "Modulation is a technique used during the melodic development of a Maqam. In simple terms, modulation means shifting the emphasis from one jins to another. The new jins may start on the same note (common-tone modulation), or on a different note. What makes a modulation successful (pleasing to the ear) is adhering to compatible combinations of ajnas long established in the Arabic music tradition. These are best acquired by listening."

Navid on modulation: "[M]aqam can be described and played as the combination of different ajna put together. When you know this, then you can understand how modulation works. Modulation is the shifting from one melodic focal point to another melodic focal point. In my understanding of Middle Eastern Music, I would argue that you can have two types of modulation. The first modulation is where you focus on certain notes within a given set of notes thereby changing the mode of the melody...The second and most well-known type of modulation.. is just replacing one jins with another, using the note common to the original ajnas to [pivot] to another maqam. Likewise, the first note of each individual jins is a note which can be used to modulate as well...The art of modulation and improvisation is learning how to do it so that it is pleasing to the ear and musical, the same way you compose a song, deciding where the bridge will go and how many verses, etc, etc."

Sami Abu Shumays of New York is overhauling his online Maqam lessons to emphasize the interconnections between the various maqams. Every single snippet of music notation has a short recording associated with it. He defines a Maqam as a pathway among Ajnas (plural for jins).

"So what is a jins? A jins can be understood in three ways:

  1. as a set of 3, 4, or 5 notes with specific intervals among them,
  2. as a collection/repertory of melodies using those notes,
  3. as a particular mood, color, or flavor of melody (this is the more metaphorical, affective way of understanding jins).
"The second component of this definition--jins as a collection of melodies--is the most important, contains the most information, and is the primary entrance for learning jins and maqam."

4. Improvised melodic embellishment

Ma* Shuqa, ignoring the rich heritage of Western music systems which are not normally performed by an orchestra, defined a difference between musical ornaments in Western and Arabic music. "Unlike western music, in which an embellishment is used to highlight a note or series of notes, embellishment in Arabic music is woven into the music." (Editor note: Review the list of embellishments that Ma* Shuqa defines (below) and then listen to the violin music of Martin Hayes and the Sean Nos singer Saileog Ni Cheannabhain.)
  1. A player never repeats any melodic phrase the same way twice, using embellishment as an improvisatory element in the music.
  2. The most common types of embellishment are trills, turns, and slides.
  3. Mordents and grace notes are keys to improvisational playing in Arabic music.
  4. Mordents are an ornament made by a single rapid alternation of a principal tone with a subsidiary tone a half step or whole step below.
  5. Grace notes are beautiful embellishments that decorate or improve by adding detail.
  6. Trills are fast, starting on, below, or above the note, involving light finger movement and clear articulation.
  7. The musical slide is what separates Arabic string playing from all other types. The slide is short and fast, imitating a vocal sigh.

Arabic Melodic Modes

Saileog Ni Cheannabhain, Sean Nos song, John Murray Show, Web.

R.K Deverich, Longa Nahawand - Arabic Music,, Web.

Maura Enright, Makams and Cents: Eastern music tone production, Web.

Martin Hayes, Celtic Turntable, Video, Web.

Martin Hayes, From Clare to Here, Video, Web.

Edward Hines, An American in Istanbul, The Ancient Middle Eastern Modes of the Yeni Makam Series,, Web.

Edward Lane was Britain's most reknowned Middle-East scholar in the 19th century.

Maqam World, The Arabic Maqam,, Web. Definitions, samples and diagrams of maqams and their component jins and the inter-relationship between them. Sami Shumays is a partner in this work; As of May 2019 the website is being redesigned with many of Mr Shumays's devices being incorporated, but with longer audio samples, which is a plus.


Saed Muhssin, Some Notes on Harmony, Web. Mr. Muhssin provides a list of interesting exceptions to the traditional monophony in Arabic music.

Sami Shumays, Playground, where you can pick a maqam and see what its associated, ajnas, or vice versa.

Ma* Shuqa, The Influence of Tarab on Raqs Sharqi, Gilded Serpent, Web.


CD and DVD guides to understanding Arabic Maqams are beginning to appear in the American market: sells Cameron Powers' 2-disc series of Basic Maqam teachings and Aboudi Badaw's Basic Maqams Made Simple.

Arabic Rhythmic Modes

The rhythmic modes (iqa) incorporate patterns utilizing 2 to 24 (or more) beats per pattern.

Complex rhythmic modes are one of the key elements of Arabic music. The monophonic (no accompanying harmonies) nature of much Arabic music lends itself to vibrant rhythmic accompaniment. It is not unusual for the rhythm to change every phrase or two or even mid-phrase.

"Another broad unifying feature of eastern Arab music is its organization of rhythm within a system of rhythmic modes called iqa`t (singular iqa`). Dozens of different iqa`t are recognized, each having a unique structure and a unique mood or character. Some occur widely in numerous genres throughout the region; others are found only in one or two specific genres or cultures. Some, for example, occur only in one region's folk music; another accompanies wedding processions; others occur only in certain art-music genres."— Scott Marcus

From Rhythm patterns, particularly in classical music, are also arranged into specific patterns, called iqa`at (singular iqa'). Unlike Western meters, these patterns are specific beat groupings with lengths of anywhere from 4 to 128 beats... These patterns repeat throughout a piece and serve as the foundation for percussive embellishments.

American dancers and musicians began to diagram Arabic rhythms in the 1970s using what came to be known as American Creole Rhythm Notation in order to faciliate learning. These rhythm diagrams are now a common tool for learning in the Western world.

Arabic Rhythmic Modes

Maura Enright, American Creole Rhythm Notation, Web.

Maura Enright, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Music Rhythms: Diagrams and Performance Aids, Web.

Arabic Music Forms

Bashraf: like the Sama'i, a composed genre with four khana each followed by a taslim. Usually played as an opening composition in a suite. One rhythmic mode is followed throughout the composition: 28/4, 24/4, 20/4, 16/4, or 93/4. — Simon Shaheen

Dawr: Vocal genre in simple rhythmic modes sung in colloquial Arabic which was developed in 19th century Egypt. It alternates between a refrain and a verse. Usually begins with a Dulab. — Simon Shaheen

Dulab: an introductory short instrumental composition which sets the mood of a maqam. 8 - 16 meaures long, and usually a prelude to other musical genres.
-- Simon Shaheen

Longa: Lively dance form in simple 2/4 rhythm. Originally a Turkish /Eastern European style. Alternates between khanat and taslim, each 6-16 measures long in 2/4, except for the last which is occasionally in 3/4 Samai Darji meter. — Simon Shaheen

Maqtu'ah Mousiqiyyah: Instrumental composition performed by an ensemble, usually incorporating melodies and rhythms found in rural folk and dance music.

Muwashah: performed by a chorus alternating with a soloist. The lyrics are written in Classical Arabic and often deal with the subject of unrequited love or with wine, used as a metaphor for religious intoxication. — Simon Shaheen

"[A] poetic form that includes music and vocalisation. It is a sophisticated musical genre that originated in Muslim Spain during the tenth century. It is described as a strophic poem with repeated rondo-like returns to a musical refrain. . . The strophic lyrics of the muwashshah directly expressed the poet's own thoughts and sentiments. The lyrics spoke of love, joy and sorrow. The use of imagery enriched this poetic form. . . In 1492 nearly half a million Arabs were expelled from the Iberian Peninsular. They migrated to North Africa taking their cultural tradition with them. Musicians and singers carried with them their musical heritage of treaties, instruments, and different musical genres that included thousands of muwashshahat. Today, the classical form of the muwashshah remains popular in Morocco, Tunis and Algeirs in North Africa, as well as in Syria and Lebanon. It remained prevalent in Egypt up to the early years of the 20th century."— Farida Fahmy

Qasida: A song whose text is a classical Arabic poem, performed by a solo vocalist with instrumental accompaniment. Usually performed in wahdah rhythmic mode. The subject is most often love, but could be about patriotism, death or other themes.— Simon Shaheen

The Samai is a composed genre comprised of four sections (khana, plural khanat), each followed by the refrain (taslim, teslim).

Saed Muhssin: The Samai form is prevalent in both Arabic and Turkish art music... By some accounts it is as old as 300 years. It is also generally accepted that the form is of Ottoman origin... Traditionally a Samai appears early in an instrumental or song set... The singer would typically begin singing soon after the Samai is played.

  • Form: Four short movements (khana), each followed by a refrain (Taslim). The first three khanat of the Samai consist of 4 to 6 measures. The last (4th) khana varies from 6 to 24 measures.
  • Samai Thaqil rhythm: 10/8 rhythmic mode (3-2-2-3) (Dum on 1,6 and 7, Tek on 4 and 8) is followed throughout the first three movements and all four refrains.
  • The 4th movment is typically composed in a 3/4 or 6/4 rhythm, called Samai Darij. Some contemporary composers use a 5/8, 7/8 or 9/8 rhythm in the 4th khana.

Tahmila: a dance form in a simple 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm which alternates between short improvisational solos and composed ensemble refrains in a call-and-response format. Each section is two measures long.— Simon Shaheen

Taqasim: an instrumental improvisation which can be metric or non-metric. Usually performed solo but sometimes accompanied by a percussionist or an instrumentalist playing a drone. The taqasim is based on a maqam but often includes modulations to related maqamat.— Simon Shaheen

Arabic Music Forms

Farida Fahmy, Muwashshahat Raqish, (Dancing Muwashshahat),, Web.

Maqam World, Arabic Musical Forms (Genres), Web.

Saed Muhssin, Some Thoughts on the Samai Form,, Web. Mr Muhssin included a list of Samais that he feels every performer of Arabic music should know:


Arabic Violin Technique

RK Deverich:

  • During the 19th century, the European violin began to replace the Arabic spike fiddle (or kamanja) in most Arab countries. After World War I, ensembles of Arabic folk instruments called takht (meaning "perform") were expanded into an orchestra that included other members of the violin family.
  • In Arabic instrumental music, vibrato is considered an ornament, and is often played by using light pressure to rapidly play the finger just above the intended note - the upper neighboring finger.

Saed Muhssin:

  1. Arabic Violin tuning: There is a fairly standard tuning for Arabic violin GDGD as opposed to GDAE for western style violin.
  2. While it is possible to play the notes in Western tuning, the resonance of the instrument is different. Furthermore... the fingering of some maqams is a lot more cumbersome in western tuning, and Arabic tuning lends itself to playing Arabic music.
  3. Most string players will have an instrument for each tuning (Western and Arabic)... Retuning not good for the instrument, and the string being retuned never settles in either tuning.

Arabic Violin Technique

Music and Musical Instrument Sources

You will find find sheet music and performance aids for some of the most popular dance music pieces on our page Mid-Eastern and Mediterranean Dance Music: the Cliff Notes.

If you have a teacher or a luthier that you trust, start there. However, you may not have a teacher and/or you may be living in the middle of Bluegrass country when the urge to learn the cumbus hits. At that point, Do Your Research is the best advice I can give. Evaluations of vendors and descriptions of the qualities of a good instrument of any kind are increasingly available on the internet. What you want is not just a good instrument but a good vendor, someone who is not a flake and who will remember to send you ALL the pieces you purchased, packaged securely, and who can provide follow-up advice and service.

Music and Musical Instrument Sources

Maura Enright, Mid-Eastern and Mediterranean Dance Music, the Cliff Notes. Web. is considered by many to be THE outstanding source for Arabic music.

Mary Ellen Donald sells a variety of music books and CDs, most of them created by herself and Mimi Spencer over the course of three decades in Middle Eastern music. sells all of Mary Ellen's items plus several additional books of sheet music and CDs.

Musical Instrument Sources here at Baba Yaga Music.

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Last updated: 2019.05.29
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