Middle Eastern music is based on a system called the “maqam system”. A composition can begin in a certain maqam, then shift to others during the course of the song. There are at least 24 distinct maqamat, developed over thousands of years of musical history.
A maqam tells a musician what the correct intervals are between the notes of a scale, and which notes should be emphasised. Often, the notes of a scale lie only a quarter-tone apart, rather than half-steps apart which is what we have in the western world. That is why a note that is played a quarter higher or lower can sound weird or simply like dissonance to people used to the half-steps system.
Middle Eastern music often contains multiple rhythms played at the same time. Each instrument can be playing in a different rhythm. However, it does not become a total chaos of rhythms. This is because all of these rhythms are “woven together”. If there is a dancer involved in the performance, this dancer tries to show the different rhythms to the audience while also conveying emotion.
Improvisation is quite common in Middle Eastern music. They call is taqasim, “the art of improvisation”. It can be used in the same way we do, in the middle of a song a guitar player plays an improvised piece. There are also completely improvised pieces, “as an art in themselves, as in the Arabic classical tradition”. This music piece would start with a well-known maqam or melody, then transition into the improvisation.
In Middle Eastern music, ornamentation is frequently involved. This ornamentation includes but is not limited to: The use of grace notes, trills(rapidly playing between two adjacent notes), runs(a series of notes that ascend or descend), arpeggios (a type of broken chord) and bending a note (like a note being bent on a guitar).
Both the improvisation and the ornamentation allow the listener to hear more of the musician’s personality.
There is also something called “Call and Response” in Middle Eastern music. You can imagine a call and response going like this: The lead instrument plays a phrase (a phrase of music) and a different instrument or musician responds to it by ‘responding’ to it.
There are multiple instruments typical to Middle Eastern music. Here are most of them.
First, the ‘Tabla’. This is a drum, kind of shaped like a cup and is somewhat alike the ‘bongo’ most of us know. A tabla is also smaller than what probably comes to mind when thinking of a bongo.
Like a drum we know, this drum also keeps the tempo of a Middle Eastern music group. This drum is also called ‘Durbakke’ or ‘Doumbek’.
Then the ‘Oud’. This is an instrument with a short neck and its shaped like a pear. It is a string instrument that can be beautifully decorated. It looks somewhat like the lute we know.
Originally, an oud was made of wood of a fruit tree and its strings were plucked with the feather of an eagle. In more recent times, a plastic pick is used.
A violin we know here, in the Western world, as well is also a popular Middle Eastern instrument. The violin is often the lead instrument in a “call and response” which I previously explained.
The singer plays a vital role in traditional and classical Middle Eastern music. This is because of the importance of the lyrics. The singers role is to bring the lyrical poetry to life through vocal techniques that evoke emotion.
A sagat looks like finger sized cymbals. It is used like a flamingo dancer would use castanets. In a similar way, a Middle Eastern dancer would use a sagat.
A nai is a hollow flute made of reed. Because these flutes cannot be tuned to the different maqamat (maqam), a nai player carries flutes of many different sizes.
This is a stringed instrument like the oud and the violin. It is different on the amount of strings the instruments uses though. A kanun has 72 strings, which are plucked by rings which are attached to the musician’s fingers. The kanun plays notes faster than the oud.
The Middle Eastern form of a tambourine, the riq (also called the daff) is played by striking both the head and the cymbals that surround it.
Other Traditional Instruments include the tabal beledi, which is a large bass drum,
the mizmar, an oboe-like reed instrument,
the mijwiz, a double-reed instrument
and the rababa or rebec, a two-stringed fiddle held upright on the knee.
Modern instruments such as electric guitar, accordion, saxophone, clarinet, organ, piano, cello, bass, and even drum machine and synthesizers are common in today’s pop music. Like all great musical traditions, Middle Eastern music is a living art form that is always adapting and changing while staying true to its heritage.
How to listen to Middle Eastern music
Begin by concentrating on how one instrument is playing. Try listening to the drums first, then focus on another instrument. Then hear how the instruments interact with each other, listen to the instrumental whole. If there is a singer, listen to how he or she interacts with the musicians. When in doubt, listen for the deepest drum beat as this is the heart of the music.
A video portraying Middle Eastern music examples from different countries:
The history of Middle Eastern music
Middle Eastern music is a living tradition that has roots in the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. It is heard in the court and folk music of Sumeria, ancient Egypt, Arabia, the Islamic Empires, Andalusia, and Persia.
Middle Eastern music styles
Within the two broad categories of folk and classical music, there are hundreds of styles springing from various regions and sub-cultures. For instance, the pearl-divers of Bahrain have their own musical styles. So did the court musicians of the Ottoman Empire, the mystics of Persia, the folk musicians of Andalusian Spain, the villagers of Lebanon, and many others.
What Middle Eastern are songs about
Love is a major theme in Middle Eastern music, in all its aspects (love of family, country, nation, nature). Many songs also focus on religious and national ideals. Whatever style it is in and whatever the theme of the music is, it is always sung with emotion and passion.
What about the composition of Middle Eastern music?
Composed music and folk tunes are often written out in scores using Western notation, although many musicians (particularly folk musicians) still learn pieces by ear.
A typical Middle Eastern orchestra, called takht (seat) in Arabic, that accompanies the singer, can range from three to thirty instruments. It generally gives the singer a breather by playing a refrain after each long vocal. The instruments include the qanun, the nai, percussion instruments such as the daff (tambourine) and Western innovations as the piano, violin, and accordion, which were introduced to the orchestra in recent times along with the inevitable microphone and loudspeaker system to amplify the sound.
Middle Eastern music is music of the Arabic-, Turkish-, and Persian-speaking world. Despite three major languages and cultural differences, the music can be seen as a single great tradition because of they have one they all have one unifying factor; religion (Islam).
The fact that Islam has historically found music problematic, has resulted in relatively little religious ceremonial music. However, it has not held back music that is not related to religion. Only those following certain practices have used music (and dance) for worship within the mosque. Activities resembling music however, have generally been limited to the call to prayer (adhān) and the chanting of the Qur’an. The former and the latter are not considered music per se.
The Quran does not indicate that music itself is Haram, but clearly states that using songs to mislead and distract people from Islam is wrong. Therefore, if music (mainstream or instrumental) distracts people from Allah, they should not continue to listen. This includes:
Songs Promoting Alcohol, songs that encourage looking at women and songs with swear words.
Other common forbidden themes in modern day music include:
- Promotion of drugs – stated in: Quran 5:90
- Putting money first – stated in: Quran 18:46 & 3:14
- Encouraging Homosexuality – stated in: Quran 7:81
This would cover the majority of mainstream music that people listen to these days.
Let’s now look at music that is permitted, with a focus on music that actively promotes Islam.
There are a growing number of artists who produce Islamic music – encouraging people to obey Allah, read Quran and do lots of dhikr(prayers).
There is a key hadith (reportings of Muhammad) that suggests musical instruments are forbidden.
The issue of musical instruments is still a debated issue.
“The danger is that we end up dividing the religion, and there is a clear verse in the Quran against that:
“As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou hast no part in them in the least: their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did” (Quran 6:159)” -Faisal (2017)