Caravan-Serai Traveler’s Handbook

Music in the Arab World

Arab Music is a unique form of music heard in Arab countries from the Gulf to the Meghreb. Traditional or Classic Arab music is performed by acoustic instruments. In recent years electric instruments which can produce quarter tones have been introduced.

Arab music scales are not chromatic like the major and minor scales used in occidental music. It is the quarter tone which makes this music so unique and expandable. Because of this quality, Arab music has a variety of scales unfamiliar to the Western ear. These scales represent a mode, a human emotion, or a feeling. Some are suitable for morning listening, some for late night. These scales are called Maqaams (positions). Some of the common Maqaams are Hijaz, Bayaat, Saba, Siga and Kurd, and most Arabic songs utilize several Maqaam to express the various emotions introduced in the poetry of each song.

The historic origin of this music is extremely heterogeneous. Early Arab musicians borrowed from the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Sumerians. Many of the instruments now used are direct descendents of those that appeared in wall paintings and carvings of those civilizations. Greek music theory was translated into Arabic in the 8th/ 9th century as the science of music became one of the courses of the quadrivium, and was studied by most students of the period.

Seven treatises of music theory appeared under the name of Al-Kindi (d. 874) and three have survived in print. After Al-Kindi there was a gap of about a century in documentation. Following Al-Kindi, the great theorist Al-Farabi published his book Al-Kitaab Al-Kabeer which included immense and detail information on music and music instruments of that era. Being a good mathematician and physicist, Al-Farabi was able to handle the physical bases of sounds by making valuable contributions to physiological acoustics, i.e. the sensation of tone, which part of Greek music theory.

The following are some of the most popular instruments of Arab music:

OUD, al-‘Oud (meaning “wood”) is a highly ornate instrument made of wood with six double strings, pear-shaped body and non-fretted neck. It is plucked with an eagle feather or a pick. The ‘Oud originated in Ancient Egypt and was later adopted by the Persians, who brought it to the Arabian Peninsula. The great Iraqi musician, Zeriab, introduced the ‘Oud to Spain and later to Europe when he sought refuge in Andalusia.

QANOUN: al-Qanoun (meaning “rule”, “law”) is a descendant of the old Egyptian Harp. The form of the Qanoun is a trapezoid-shaped flat board over which 81 strings are stretched in groups of three, with 24 treble chords consisting of three chords to each notes with movable frets called ‘Urab. The Qanoun is placed flat on the knees of the musician: the strings are plucked with the finger or with two plectra, one plectrum attached to the forefinger of each hand plucking separate octaves.

NAY: A Persian word used to describe a single reed pipe. It is one of the oldest instruments in the Middle East. The Nay has 6 holes in the front for the fingers to play, and 1 hole underneath for the thumb. Fine, mellow tones are produced by blowing gently through the orifice of the tube while manipulating the fingers and thumbs: octaves are generated by the force of blowing, scales (Maqaams) by utilizing Nays of various lengths.

MIJWIZ: (means dual) is a type of double reed clarinet played by breathing gently through a circular aperture and by manipulating the fingers over the holes down the front of the tube. The sound it produces may reflect a musical dialogue between two moods DAF: also known as the Rikk, which corresponds to the English tambourine. It consists of a round frame covered on one side by goat or fish skin, with pairs of metal discs set into the frame that jingle when it is struck by the hand. The sounds of this percussion instrument set the rhythm of Arab music.

TABLAH /Darbouka: is also a percussion instrument; made of clay or metal with goat or fish skin stretched over its larger opening. It is placed on the leg; beaten with both hands yielding different sounds: when beaten near the edge it produces sounds like (tic), or near the middle the sound is more like (dom), establishing several rhythmic scales to accompany the meter of sounds produced by accompanied instruments.