Arab Music

Arab Music, music of the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa. The tradition of Arab music has been cultivated throughout Arab regions for thousands of years. Although Arab music has undergone many changes over the centuries, it has retained certain distinctive traits.

II. History and Influences

The Arab music tradition developed in the courts of dynasties in the Islamic empire from the 7th century to the 13th century. It flourished during the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th century and 8th century in Syria. Great performers were drawn to Baghdad, now the capital of Iraq, under such rulers as Harun ar-Rashid, who was a patron of the musical arts during the late 700s. The cities of the Islamic empire, from Spain across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, boasted many fine musicians. These early musicians were often composers and poets as well as performers.

Although the major writings on Arab music appeared after the spread of Islam in the beginning of the 7th century, the music tradition had already begun. Before the spread of Islam, Arab music incorporated music traditions of the Sassanid dynasty (224-641) in Persia and the early Byzantine empire (4th century to 6th century) and of sung poetry from the Arabian Peninsula. Arabic-speaking scholars also studied the treatises of ancient Greek philosophers on music. Music theorists of the 10th century and 11th century, such as al-Farabi and Avicenna, produced their own theories of music based on what they had learned from the Greeks and on the music of their own times. Greek works translated by the Arab scholars were later studied by European scientists and philosophers.

III. Melody and Rhythm

Arab music is created using unharmonized melodic and rhythmic systems. Arabic melodies draw from a vast array of models, or melodic modes, known as maqamat. Arabic books on music include as many as 52 melodic modes, of which at least 12 are commonly used. These modes feature more tones than are present in the Western musical system, including notably smaller intervals that are sometimes called microtones, or half-flats and half-sharps. Arab melodies frequently use the augmented second interval, an interval larger than those of most Western melodies. The sound of Arab music is richly melodic and offers opportunity for subtle nuance and creative variation. In the Melody in Arab Music illustration, the first line of music represents the beginning of a lesson or simple performance. The second line shows the notes the musician used in the form of a scale. A notated scale similar to this one would be used by Arab teachers to help students learn how to compose and perform music.

The rhythmic structure of Arab music is similarly complex. Rhythmic patterns have up to 48 beats and typically include several downbeats (called dums) as well as upbeats (called taks) and silences, or rests. To grasp a rhythmic mode, the listener must hear a relatively long pattern. Moreover, the performers do not simply play the pattern; they elaborate upon and ornament it. Often the pattern is recognizable by the arrangement of downbeats. The Rhythm in Arab Music illustration demonstrates a simple performance of the rhythmic mode called samaci thaqil, followed by the basic pattern.

Command of these systems of melody and rhythm is fundamental to the composition and performance of Arab music. Students also learn pieces of music, both songs and instrumental works, but rarely perform them exactly as they were originally composed or presented. In Arab tradition, good musicians offer something new in each performance by varying and improvising on known pieces or models in a fashion similar to that of jazz musicians. The inventions of musicians can be lengthy, extending ten-minute compositions into hour-long performances that bear only a skeletal resemblance to the models.

The inventions of the musician traditionally depend upon the response of the audience. Listeners are expected to react during the performance, either verbally or with applause. Quiet is interpreted as disinterest or dislike. The audience members, in this tradition, are active participants in determining the length of the performance and in shaping the piece of music by encouraging musicians to either repeat a section of the piece or to move to the next section.

IV. Sung Poetry and Recitation

Historically, words and music were closely linked in Arab music, and singing remains a central feature. Although distinct from music, the Qur'an (Koran), the holy book of Muslims, is typically recited aloud, and this public recitation often draws upon the melodic modes of Arab music. The modes may help deliver the meaning or sense of the holy words without obscuring the words themselves. Religious supplications and songs draw more on the musical system but emphasize the text in a manner similar to Qur'anic recitation.

Oratory is a valued art in Arab societies. Traditionally, recitations of poetry form part of ceremonies, celebrations, and other performances. Sophisticated poetry and colloquial verse are frequently sung, with the expectation that the singer's rendition will enhance the mood and meaning of the poetry but not obscure its puns or other wordplay. The singing of a qasida, a long narrative poem describing nature, political events, or religious devotion, exemplifies pre-Islamic classical tradition. In this tradition, singers selected a dozen or more poignant lines from much longer poems and created melodies for them. Their performances featured lengthy variations or improvisations on lines at the behest of listeners who felt themselves drawn into the mood of the poetry and music. This tradition continues in a multitude of genres of song, including highly colloquial folk songs performed in small villages, that operate similarly—that is, they combine clever ideas and wordplay with creative musical rendition.

V. Instruments and Instrumental Music

Instruments typically used in an Arab musical performance include the 'ud, a prototype of the European lute, and the nay, an end-blown reed flute. Frame drums, with or without jingles, and hourglass-shaped drums are common percussion instruments. These instruments vary in name and shape depending upon the region of their origin. Double-reed instruments of varying sizes, such as the Lebanese mijwiz and the Egyptian mizmar, are played at outdoor celebrations. The Arab rababah, a spike fiddle, may have been the prototype for the European violin, which is now found in many Arab regions.

Solo performance consisting of the interactive invention of good music with an appreciative audience represents a peak of musical accomplishment for the instrumentalist similar to that which the singing of poetry represents for the vocalist. In a taqsim, a form of instrumental improvisation, the instrumentalist chooses a melodic mode, offers interpretation of the mode, ascends in pitch, and modulates to other modes. Eventually the instrumentalist descends to close in the original mode. Musical accomplishment lies in the musician's technical virtuosity, creativity, and subtlety in suggesting other modes, other compositions, or even the music of other artists.

Performances considered traditional—whether they are neoclassical events in concert halls, entertainment in hotels, or television programs—usually include both song and instrumental performances, often alternately, that last about an hour and are arranged to reach a climax in a vocal performance. Such collections of pieces—metrical and nonmetrical, vocal and instrumental, simple and complex, and often unified by mode—are central to Arab music. Examples include the North African nawbah, thought to have originated in Andalucía, and the eastern Mediterranean waslah musical forms, which were previously the standard of entertainment for small gatherings of elite Arab men. Modern performances by Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum and Syrian Sabah Fakhri represent this tradition in the 20th century.

VI. Changes in Arab Music

While the general principles have been retained, the tradition of Arab music has changed throughout the centuries. Distinctive local practices have evolved and become important to the cultural identity of their respective societies. For example, the North African cities of Fès, Tetuan, Tlemcen, and Tunis have distinct versions of the Andalusian nawbah that help define local culture and are closely associated with the histories of their regions. Melodic modes of the same name are tuned slightly differently in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and the countries of North Africa. Music of these regions is distinguishable by intonation. Rhythmic modes also have varying articulations in different locales, and styles of the melodies and the renditions differ. Sung poetry, particularly colloquial verse, changes with local dialects. The Iraqi maqam is not simply a melodic mode, but a suite of pieces in a particular mode. The word maqam in Iraq carries a meaning closer to that of waslah or nawbah than does the word maqam in other places.

Because of the absence of recording or notation until the 20th century, it is impossible to be certain of the age of the melodies. Particular melodies, specifically those of Andalusian or Syrian muwashshahat, may be centuries old, but it is unlikely that they have remained exactly the same throughout the years. Widely known musical pieces of early times were probably subject to reinterpretation at different places throughout history.

VII. Folk Music

Hundreds of local folk traditions are found throughout the Arab region. Some of these traditions carry traces of musical practices of peoples with whom Arab populations have had contact. The rich drumming traditions of the Arab Gulf states, for example, are believed to result from extensive contact with African traders. The Gnawa tradition of Morocco takes its name from Guinean slaves brought to Morocco from West Africa. Nubian music in Egypt draws upon a distinctive melodic system that utilizes five tones and incorporates distinctive rhythms. In many cases, local listeners would certainly include these traditions as components of Arabic music and would assert their cultural value as part of the Arab heritage.

VIII. Popular Music

Popular Arab music draws from both folk and classical Arab styles, depending on the interests and experiences of the musicians and their audiences. Electronic keyboards tuned to the maqamat commonly accompany singers of colloquial verse in popular songs. The drums and rhythms of folk music are a fundamental part of the large concerts at which young musicians perform. In some cases, singers adapt their vocal styles or language to appeal to non-Arabic-speaking audiences while trying to retain something of the Arab music tradition.

IX. Arab Music and Other Music Traditions

The tradition of Arab music does not stand alone, but exists alongside related traditions in Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia. There are common elements among the predominantly melodic systems of Persian dastgah, Azerbaijani mugam, Turkish makam, Uzbek-Tajik shashmaqam, and Uygur maqam from China. Traditions of Qur'anic recitation and religious song that originated in Arab regions are shared by Muslim communities worldwide. For example, Indonesia and Pakistan foster rich traditions of recitation. Similarly, the religious chants of the Middle Eastern churches, such as the Syrian Maronite and the Egyptian Coptic churches, are shared by members of their churches around the world.



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