Middle Eastern music

Middle Eastern music

The music of Western Asia and North Africa spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Afghanistan, and its influences can be felt even further afield. Middle Eastern music influenced (and has been influenced by) the music of India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, Southern Italy, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as in chalga. The various nations of the region include the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the Iraqi traditions of Mesopotamia, Iranian traditions of Persia, the varied traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkey, traditional Assyrian music, various Jewish traditions, Kurdish music, Berbers of North Africa, and Coptic Christians in Egypt all maintain their own traditions.

Throughout the region, religion has been a common factor in uniting peoples of different languages, cultures and nations. The predominance of Islam allowed a great deal of Arabic influence to spread through the region rapidly from the 7th century onward. The Arabic scale is strongly melodic, based around various maqamat (sing. maqam) or modes (also known as makam in Turkish music). This is similar to the dastgah of Persian music. While this originates with classical music, the modal system has filtered down into folk, liturgical and even popular music, with influence from the West. Unlike much western music, Arabic music includes quarter tones halfway between notes, often through the use of stringed instruments (like the oud) or the human voice. Further distinguishing characteristics of Middle Eastern and North African music include very complex rhythmic structures, generally tense vocal tone, and a homophonic texture.

Often, more traditional Middle Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length, building up to anxiously awaited, and much applauded climaxes, or tarab, derived from the Arabic term طرب tarraba.[1]


Musical style

In Arabic music a scale consists of 17, 19 or 24 notes in a single octave. Rhythm in Middle Eastern music is very complicated but must be memorized by the musicians. There are at least 32 documented different "beat styles" for the drum or tambourine used in this music. Arabic music is generally monophonic, with only one line that instruments and voice follow in unison. Singers often start in a solo and have the instruments or background singers repeat in a dialog method. Because many of the classical musicians learn "by ear" from a teacher, there is much room for improvisation. Most of the groups include only four people, to allow a greater dynamic and bond for the musicians. The most frequent theme for songs from the Middle East include love and longing for the homeland. This can also tie into the very diverse cultural settings from which many of the musicians come from. Countries such as Turkey, Persia and Egypt are some of the most influential to the overall musical style recognizable with the Middle East.[2]

Instruments used


Many instruments originate in the Middle East region. Most popular of the stringed instruments is the oud, a pear-shaped lute that traditionally had four strings, although current instruments have up to six courses consisting of one or two strings each. Legend has it that the oud was invented by Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. This is stated by Farabi, and it is part of the Iraqi folklore relating to the instrument. Legend goes on to suggest that the first oud was inspired by the shape of his son's bleached skeleton.[3].

Historically, the oldest pictorial record of the oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon [2], Editor of Iraq at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq[4].

Used mostly in court music for royals and the rich, the harp also comes from Sumer c. 3500 BC.[5]

The widespread use of the oud led to many variations on the instrument, including the saz, a Turkish long-necked lute that remains very popular in Turkey. Last of the popular string instruments is the qanoun, developed by Farabi during the Abbasids era. Legend has it that Farabi played qanoun in court,and he made people laugh, cry, and fall asleep.

The qanoun developed out of string instruments described in inscriptions that date to the Assyrian period.[6]. It has about 26 triple-string courses, plucked with a piece of horn. The musician has the freedom to alter the pitch of individual courses from a quarter to a whole step by adjusting metal levers.[7].


Percussion instruments play a very important role in Middle Eastern music. The complex rhythms of this music are often played on many simple percussion instruments. The riq الرق (a type of tambourine) and finger cymbals add a higher rhythmic line to rhythm laid down with sticks, clappers, and other drums. An instrument native to Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon, the tabla, colloquially known as doumbek (or tombak), is a drum made of ceramic clay, with a goatskin head glued to the body.[citation needed]


The last section of instruments is the woodwinds. The Moroccan oboe, also called the rhaita, has a double-reed mouthpiece that echoes sound down its long and narrow body. Similar instruments are called zurnas (the Persian oboe) were used more for festivals and loud celebrations. A Turkish influence comes from the mey, which has a large double reed. Bamboo reed pipes are the most common background to belly dancing and music from Egypt. Flutes are also a common woodwind instrument in ensembles. A kaval is a three-part flute that is blown in one end, whereas the ney is a long cane flute, played by blowing across the sharp edge while pursing the lips.[8]

Dance and music

As with many cultures, dance and music go hand in hand in Middle Eastern music. Before the influence of Islam, Arabic music was associated with prostitution and drunken entertainment. Under the wide rule of Islam, vulgar lyrics and suggestive dancing by women became illegal. Much post-Islamic music is used in ceremonial dance and recreation. Meditation, trance and self-flagellation are often used while listening to music to bring one to a higher sense of God.[9]

Influence of religion

The influence of religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam has had a great impact on the musical culture of the Middle East. Religion forms a major background to many traditional styles of music and dance, ranging from classical to more modern. All over the Middle East, you hear songs of praise and prayer. What is conducted by a muezzin, or prayer caller, for example, are the five daily calls to prayer. Only since the nineteenth century have individual reciters started singing the Qur'an while still strictly abiding by the laws and rules.[10]. This, however is grossly inaccurate. This from of Quran recital is called Tajwid, تجويد, which is the Arabic word for elocution.

Common genres

See also


  1. ^ Pappé, I. The Modern Middle East, (London, 2005), p. 166-171.
  2. ^ Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. <http://www.sfusd.edu/schwww/sch618/Music/[dead link]
  3. ^ Erica Goode (May 1, 2008). "A Fabled Instrument, Suppressed in Iraq, Thrives in Exile". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/world/middleeast/01oud.html?_r=1&hp=&oref=slogin&pagewanted=all.  (citing Grove Music Online)
  4. ^ British Institute for the Study of Iraq, http://www.britac.ac.uk/INSTITUTES/IRAQ/officers.htm
  5. ^ The Oxford Journals: Music and Letters 1929 X(2):108-123; doi:10.1093/ml/X.2.108. Oxford University Press ©1929 [1]
  6. ^ Dr. Rashid, Subhi Anwar: The musical Instrument of Iraqi Maqam
  7. ^ Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. <http://www.sfusd.edu/schwww/sch618/Music/[dead link]
  8. ^ Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. <http://www.sfusd.edu/schwww/sch618/Music/[dead link]
  9. ^ Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. <http://www.sfusd.edu/schwww/sch618/Music/[dead link]
  10. ^ Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. <http://www.sfusd.edu/schwww/sch618/Music/[dead link]

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