Arab Music And Instruments (Part 1)

Gary Greer 6/15/2020
Arab culture

Every culture around the world has its own form of music that all ages of that culture enjoy it. The Arab culture is no different. As in other cultures, Arabic music unifies the people living the Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East.

Arabic music is really like no other music from any other culture. It’s not like music from neighboring Turkish or Persian cultures, nor is it like Western music. Although today’s popular Arabic music you hear on the radio often does come with Western influences. Generally speaking, Arabic music has two different styles. Each are very distinguishable from the other: classical music and popular music. Accordingly, this two-part article will focus on traditional Arabic music and the instruments used to play that music.

A little bit of historical facts

The word “music” originates from the Greek word mousikē which means “from the Muses”. The Muses are the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. Thus, ‘ilm al-musiqa (or “the science of music”) was the name Arabs gave to the Greek theory of music. This was to differentiate it from the Arabian practical theory “ilm al-ghinaa” (“the science of singing”). By the ninth century A. D., Arabic music came a long way. It had an extensive music catalog, a written Arabic music history. Even professional singers and musicians were entertaining the royal courts.

Unique facts about Arab music

Much like the musical scales of the West, tones, semitones and quartertones make up Arabic music. However, in Arabic music it’s possible to make far smaller tonal steps which cannot be done in European music where the smallest interval is the semitone. This is what distinguishes the typical sound of Arabic music. Without the musician losing sight of the keynote, they can continually play around the notes with slight variations because of its tonal system.

Twenty-four non-equal intervals make up the octaves in the Arab tonal system. Each tone has its own distinct name – a name that does not repeat in the next octave. So, rather than having absolute pitch, pitch can, in fact, deviate by as much as a fourth from the nominated pitch. This independence of absolute pitch is achievable because in Arabic music, you’ll not find multiple pitches being played at the same time – or “harmony” – being used.

The tones in Arab music

Going back to the subject of tones, they are arranged in over seventy maqamat. Literally meaning “position”, maqam is a melody type in traditional Arabic music. It’s a technique of improvisation that defines the pitches, patterns, and development of a piece of music. Each maqam is comprised of seven tones from the octave in a combination of amplified, major, medium, and minor second intervals. However, the use of the medium second (or three-quarter) tone is what gives Arabic music it’s one of a kind sound. Interestingly, each maqam shows an emotion. For example, maqam rast shows pride and maqam sikah shows joy.

As maqamat alone have no definition in time, rhythms in Arabic music are defined by awazan. Each wazn has the ability to be divided into either equal or unequal segments. For example, if you have a wazn consisting of six beats, they could be divided into 3 then 3 or 4 then 2. Theoretically, you can create dozens of different cycles of up to 176 units of time. However, luck for us that Arab music usually only use a small subset so we can dance to it. By the way, not all music of the Arab world uses a wazn. In fact, there is some music that is even wazn-free.

The history behind the maqamat and awazan

So, where did these ideas of maqamat and awazan come from? Well, the source of the Arabian theory is actually an older Semitic one adopted by the Arabs and Persians long before they became influenced by the Greek musical theory around the beginning of the 9th century A.D. It wasn’t until the middle of that century that the influence of such treatises as Aristotle’s Problems and De Anima, two books on music of Euclid, the Harmonics of Ptolemy, and many other works showed up after being translated into Arabic.

The first Arab to study the works of the Ancients was the Arab philosopher Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq AlKindi. He wrote seven treatises on music theory, four of which have survived to this day. Three are in Staatsbibliothek in Berlin and the fourth is at the British Museum in London. 

After the death of Al-Kindi in 874 A.D. no new Arabic musical theories appeared for nearly a hundred years. Until the great philosopher and theorist Abu Nasr AlFarabi wrote his book Alkitab Alkabeer (or “The Great Book”). It included an enormous amount of detailed information on music and musical instruments. That will be the subject of the second part of this two-part article.

In conclusion…

If you liked the first part of this article, please join us for the second part on the musical instruments Arabs use to create their one-of-a-kind sound. If you would like to learn more about Arab music or Arab culture in general, or if you would like to know how you can learn to speak Arabic, why not try our Arabic learning app? Researchers agree that Arabic learning apps are the best way to learn Arabic and Arabic dialects, and there’s no better app available to help you learn than the Kaleela Arabic learning app. Visit our website and find out how you can download the Kaleela Arabic learning app to your IOS or Android mobile device and start to learn Arabic language skills today.

Kaleela – Learn Arabic the Right Way!