Arabic Music Overview

A dteailed description of Arabic Music


Arabic Music Overview

Music Structure Old Music Notables Contemporary Notables

Arabic music or Arab music (Arabic: موسيقى عربية; Mūsīqā ʿArabīyya) includes several genres and styles of music ranging from Arabic classical to Arabic pop music and from secular to sacred music.

Arabic music whilst independent and very alive, has a long history of interaction with many other regional musical styles and genres. It is an amalgam of the music of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and the music of all the peoples that make up the Arab world today. It also influenced and has been influenced by ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Persian, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkish, Indian, North African music (i.e. Berber), African music (i.e. Swahili), and European music (i.e. Flamenco). As was the case in other artistic and scientific fields, Arabs translated and developed Greek texts and works of music and mastered the musical theory of the Greeks (i.e. Systema ametabolon, enharmonium, chromatikon, diatonon).[1] Such inter-influences can often be traced in language; for example, the word Shî'ir (poetry in Arabic) bears much similarity to its equivalents in other Semitic languages (such as Shûr in Aramaic and Shîr in Hebrew), and Shîro in Babylonian.[2] Afar music is similar to the music of Ethiopia with elements of Arab music. The Somali oral traditions include an array of poetry and proverbs, much of it devoted to the lives of Sufi saints. Afar oral literature is more musical, and comes in many varieties, including songs for weddings, war, praise and boasting.


 Pre-Islamic period

The development of Arabic music has deep roots in Arabic poetry dating back to the pre-Islamic period known as Jahiliyyah. Though there is a lack of scientific study to definitively confirm the existence of Arabic music at those times, most historians agree that there existed distinct forms of music in the Arabian peninsula in the pre-Islamic period between the 5th and the 7th century AD. Arab poets of that time - called شعراء الجاهلية or "Jahili poets" which translates to "The poets of the period of ignorance" - used to recite poems with a high musical rhythm and tone.[3]

LMusic at that time played an important role in cultivating the mystique of exorcists and magicians. It was believed that Jinns revealed poems to poets and music to musicians.[4] The Choir at the time served as a pedagologial tool where the educated poets would recite their poems. Singing was not thought to be the work of these intellectuals and was instead entrusted to women with beautiful voices (i.e. Al-Khansa) who would learn how to play some instruments used at that time (i.e. lute, drum, Oud, rebab, etc...) and then perform the songs while respecting the poetic metre.[5] It should be noted that the compositions were simple and every singer would sing in a single maqam. Among the notable songs of the period were the "huda" from which the ghina' derived, the nasb, sanad, and rukbani.

 Early Islamic period

Al-Kindi (801–873 AD) was the first great theoretician of Arabic music. He proposed adding a fifth string to the oud and discussed the cosmological connotations of music. He surpassed the achievement of the Greek musicians in using the alphabetical annotation for one eighth. He published fifteen treatises on music theory, but only five have survived. In one of his treaties the word musiqia was used for the first time in Arabic, which today means music in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, English and several other languages in the Islamic world.[6]

Al-Farabi (872-950) wrote a notable book on music titled Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir (The Great Book of Music). His pure Arabian tone system is still used in Arabic music.[7]

Arabic maqam is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or rank. The Arabic maqam is a melody type. Each maqam is built on a scale, and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, important notes, melodic development and modulation. Both compositions and improvisations in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqams can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.


Bayad plays the oud to The Lady. from the Riyad & Bayad , Arabic tale

Bayad plays the oud to The Lady. from the Riyad & Bayad , Arabic tale

By the 11th century, Moorish Spain had become a center for the manufacture of instruments. These goods spread gradually throughout France, influencing French troubadours, and eventually reaching the rest of Europe. The English words lute, rebec, guitar, organ and naker are derived from Arabic oud, rabab, qitara, urghun and nagqara'.

The Arabs invented the Ghazal (love song), often used since in Arabic music. Al-Ghazali (1059 - 1111) wrote a treatise on music in Persia which declared, "Ecstasy means the state that comes from listening to music". The oud was popular between the tenth and sixteenth centuries then fell into disuse, enjoying renewed popularity in the nineteenth century.

Influence of Arabic music

A number of musical instruments used in Western music are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments: the lute was derived from the al'ud, the rebec (ancestor of violin) from the rebab, the guitar from qitara, naker from naqareh, adufe from al-duff, alboka from al-buq, anafil from al-nafir, exabeba from al-shabbaba (flute), atabal (bass drum) from al-tabl, atambal from al-tinbal,[8] the balaban, the castanet from kasatan, sonajas de azófar from sunuj al-sufr, the conical bore wind instruments,[9] the xelami from the sulami or fistula (flute or musical pipe),[10] the shawm and dulzaina from the reed instruments zamr and al-zurna,[11] the gaita from the ghaita, rackett from iraqya or iraqiyya,[12] the harp and zither from the qanun,[13] canon from qanun, geige (violin) from ghichak,[14] and the theorbo from the tarab.[15]

The lute was adopted from the Arab world. 1568 print.

The lute was adopted from the Arab world. 1568 print.

According to a common theory on the origins of the troubadour, a composer of medieval lyric poetry, it may have had Arabic origins. Ezra Pound, in his Canto VIII, famously declared that William of Aquitaine "had brought the song up out of Spain / with the singers and veils..." referring to the troubadour song. In his study, Lévi-Provençal is said to have found four Arabo-Hispanic verses nearly or completely recopied in William's manuscript. According to historic sources, William VIII, the father of William, brought to Poitiers hundreds of Muslim prisoners.[16] Trend admitted that the troubadours derived their sense of form and even the subject matter of their poetry from the Andalusian Muslims.[17] The hypothesis that the troubadour tradition was created, more or less, by William after his experience of Moorish arts while fighting with the Reconquista in Spain was also championed by Ramón Menéndez Pidal in the early twentieth-century, but its origins go back to the Cinquecento and Giammaria Barbieri (died 1575) and Juan Andrés (died 1822). Meg Bogin, English translator of the trobairitz, held this hypothesis. Certainly "a body of song of comparable intensity, profanity and eroticism [existed] in Arabic from the second half of the 9th century onwards."[18]

Another theory on the origins of the Western Solfège musical notation suggests that it may have also had Arabic origins. It has been argued that the Solfège syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) may have been derived from the syllables of the Arabic solmization system Durr-i-Mufassal ("Separated Pearls") (dal, ra, mim, fa, sad, lam). This origin theory was first proposed by Meninski in his Thesaurus Linguarum Orientalum (1680) and then by Laborde in his Essai sur la Musique Ancienne et Moderne (1780).[19][20]

Sixteenth century

Bartol Gyurgieuvits (1506 - 1566) spent 13 years as a slave in the Ottoman empire. After escaping, he published De Turvarum ritu et caermoniis in Amsterdam in 1544. It is one of the first European books to describe music in Islamic society. In India, the Islamic Mughal emperors ruled both Muslims and Hindus. The greatest of these, Akbar (1542 - 1605) had a team of at least fifty musicians, thirty-six of whom are known to us by name. The origins of the "belly dance" are very obscure, as depictions and descriptions are rare. It may have originated in Persia or Turkey, possibly developing within the harems. Essential elements of belly dancing are the zills (finger cymbals). Examples have been found from 200 BC, suggesting a possible pre-Islamic origin.

Female Harem

Slavery was widespread around the world. Just as in the Roman empire, slaves were often brought into the Arab world from Africa. Black slaves from Zanzibar were noted in the eleventh century for the quality of their song and dance. The "Epistle on Singing Girls", written in Baghdad in 9 CE satirizes the excessive money that could be made by singers. The author mentioned an Abyssinian girl who fetched 120,000 dinars at an auction - far more than an ordinary slave. A festival in 8 CE is mentioned as having fifty singing slave-girls with lutes who acted as back-up musicians for a singer called Jamilia. In 1893, "Little Egypt", a belly-dancer from Syria, appeared at the Chicago world's fair and caused a sensation.

Male instrumentalists

Musicians in Aleppo, 18th century.

Musicians in Aleppo, 18th century.

Male instrumentalists were condemned in a treatise in 9 CE. They were associated with perceived vices such as chess, love poetry, wine drinking and homosexuality. Many Persian treatises on music were burned by zealots. Following the invasion of Egypt, Napoleon commissioned reports on the state of Ottoman culture. Villoteau's account reveals that there were guilds of male instrumentalists, who played to male audiences, and "learned females," who sang and played for women. The instruments included the oud, the kanun (zither) and the ney (flute). By 1800, several instruments that were first encountered in Turkish military bands had been adopted into European classical orchestras: the piccolo, the cymbal and the kettle drum. The santur or hammered dulcimer was cultivated within Persian classical schools of music that can be traced back to the middle of 19 CE. There was no written notation for the santur until the 1970s. Everything was learned face-to-face .

Twentieth century

Early Secular Formation

Musicians in Aleppo, 1915.

Musicians in Aleppo, 1915.

In the 20th century, Egypt was the first in a series of Arab countries to experience a sudden emergence of nationalism, as it became independent after 2000 years of foreign rule. Turkish music, popular during the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the region, was replaced by national music. Cairo became a center for musical innovation.

One of the first female musicians to take a secular approach was Umm Kulthum quickly followed by Fairuz. Both have been extremely popular through the decades that followed and both are considered "Arabic Music Legends".


Arabic Pop

During the 1950s and the 1960s Arabic music began to take on a more Western tone with such artists as Dalida paving the way. By the 1970s several other singers had followed suit and a strand of Arabic pop was born. Arabic pop usually consists of Western styled songs with Arabic instruments and lyrics. Melodies are often a mix between Eastern and Western.

In the 1990s and the 00s several artists have taken up such a style including Sabah, Warda Al-Jazairia, Magida El Roumi, Nawal El Kuwaiti, Latifa, Samira Said, Angham, Asalah Nasri, Thekra, Kadhem Al Saher, Amr Diab, Diana Haddad, Najwa Karam, Nawal Al Zoghbi, Ehab Tawfik, Hisham Abbas, Wael Kfoury, Amal Hijazi, Elissa, Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe, Maria Tekdep, Aldo (musician) and Natacha Atlas.

Arabic Pop has been able to be extremely popular in the Arab world as well as parts of Europe especially places with huge expat communities such as France.


A popular form of West meets East style of music, similar in many respects to modern Arabic Pop. This blend of western and eastern music was popularized as Franco-Arabic music by artists such as Dalida(Egypt), Sammy Clarke (Lebanon) and Aldo (musician) from Australia. Although Franco-Arabic is a term used to describe many forms of cross-cultural blending between the West and the Middle East, musically the genre crosses over many lines as is seen in songs that incorporate Arabic and Italian, Arabic and French and, of course, Arabic and English styles and or lyrics.

Arabic R&B, Reggae, and Hip Hop

Main article: Arabic hip hop

There has also been a rise of R&B, reggae and hip hop influence of Arabic music in the past 5 years. This usually involves a rapper featured in a song (such as Ishtar in her song 'Habibi Sawah')

However certain artists have taken to usuing full R&B and reggae beats and styling such as Darine. This has been met with mixed critical and commercial reaction. As of now it is not a widespread genre.

Arabic jazz

Another popular form of West meets East, Arabic Jazz is also popular, with many songs using jazz instruments. Early jazz influences began with the use of the saxophone by musicians like Samir Suroor, in the "oriental" style. The use of the saxophone in that manner can be found in Abdel Halim Hafez's songs, as well as Kadim Al Sahir and Rida Al Abdallah today. The first mainstream jazz elements were incorporated into Arabic music by the Rahbani brothers. Fairuz's later work was almost exclusively made up of jazz songs, composed by her son Ziad Rahbani. Ziad Rahbani also pioneered today's oriental jazz movement, which singers like Rima Khcheich, Salma El Mosfi, and Latifa at one point, adhere too.

Arabic rock

Rock music is popular all around the world, and the Arab world is no exception. There are many Arabic rock bands that fuse the sound of hard rock with traditional Arabic instruments. Arabic Rock is gaining a lot of attention in the middle east, with bands such as Meen and Dabke in Lebanon , and in Jordan with bands such as Jadal,

Musical regions

North Africa

  • Raï
  • Gnawa
  • El gil
  • Sha'abi
  • Chaabi (Algeria)
  • Chaabi (Morocco)
  • Haqibah
  • Mezwed


  • Adani
  • Dabkah
  • Khaliji
  • Sawt
  • Liwa
  • Fijiri
  • Fann at Tanbura
  • Samiri
  • Ardha
  • Mizmar
  • M'alayah


  • Dabke


Secular art music

Secular genres include maqam al-iraqi, andalusi nubah, muwashshah, Fjiri songs, qasidah, layali, mawwal, taqsim, bashraf, sama'i, tahmilah, dulab, sawt, and liwa (Touma 1996, pp. 55-108).

Sacred music

Arabic religious music includes Jewish, Christian, and Islamic music. However, Islamic music, including the Tajwid or recitation of Qur'an readings, is structurally equivalent to Arabic secular music, while Christian Arab music has been influenced by Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Coptic, and Maronite church music. (ibid, p.152)


Much Arabic music, is characterized by an emphasis on melody and rhythm, as opposed to harmony. There are some genres of Arabic music that are polyphonic, but typically, Arabic music is homophonic[21].

Habib Hassan Touma (1996, p.xix-xx) submits that there are "five components" that characterize Arabic music:

  1. The Arab tone system; that is, a musical tuning system that relies on specific interval structures and was invented by al-Farabi in the 10th century (p. 170)
  2. Rhythmic-temporal structures that produce a rich variety of rhythmic patterns, known as awzan or "weight", that are used to accompany metered vocal and instrumental genres, to accent or give them form.
  3. A number of Musical instruments that are found throughout the Arab world that represent a standardized tone system, are played with generally standardized performance techniques, and display similar details in construction and design.
  4. Specific social contexts that produce sub-categories of Arabic music, or musical genres that can be broadly classified as urban (music of the city inhabitants), rural (music of the country inhabitants), or Bedouin (music of the desert inhabitants)..."
  5. An Arab musical mentality, "responsible for the aesthetic homogeneity of the tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures throughout the Arab world whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or sacred." Touma describes this musical mentality as being composed of:

·         The phenomenon of the maqām

·         The predominance of vocal music

·         The tendency toward small instrumental ensembles

·         The arrangement in different combinatory sequences of the small and smallest melodic elements - the maqams and ajnas - "and their repetition, combination, and permutation within the framework of the tonal-spatial model."

·         The general absence of polyphony, polyrhythm, and motivic development, though Arabic music is familiar with the use of ostinato, and an even more instinctive heterophonic way of producing and performing music.

·         The alternation between a free rhythmic-temporal and fixed tonal-spatial organization on the one hand, and a fixed rhythmic-temporal and free tonal-spatial structure on the other.

Maqam system

A Maqam tone level example

A Maqam tone level example

Though it would be incorrect to call it a modal, for the Arabic system is more complex than that of the Greek modes, the basis of Arabic music is the maqam (pl. maqamat), which looks like the mode, but is not quite the same. The tonic note, dominant note, and ending note (unless modulation occurs) are generally determined by the maqam used. Arabic maqam theory as ascribed in literature over the ages names between 90 and 110 maqams, that are grouped into larger categories known as fasilah. Fasilah are groupings of maqams whose first four primary pitches are shared in common.[22]


Main article: Jins

The maqam consists of at least two jins, or scale segments. "Jins" in Arabic comes from the ancient Latin word "genus," meaning type. In practice, a jins (pl. ajnas) is either a trichord, a tetrachord, or a pentachord. The trichord is three notes, the tetrachord four, and the pentachord five. The maqam usually covers only one octave (usually two jins), but can cover more. Like the melodic minor scale, some maqamat use different ajnas, and thus note progressions, when descending and ascending. Due to continuous innovation and the emergence of new jins, and because most music scholars have not reached consensus on the subject, it is difficult to provide a solid figure for the total number of jins in use. Nonetheless, in practice most musicians would agree there are at least eight major ajnas: Rast, Bayat, Sikah, Hijaz, Saba, Kurd, Nahawand, and Ajam - and their commonly used variants such as the Nakriz, Athar Kurd, Sikah Beladi, Saba Zamzama. Mukhalif is a rare jins used almost exclusively in Iraq, and it is not used in combination with other ajnas.

More notes used than in Western scale

The main difference between the Western chromatic scale and the Arabic scales is the existence of many in-between notes, which are sometimes referred to as quarter tones, for the sake of simplicity. In some treatments of theory, the quarter tone scale or all twenty four tones should exist. According to Yūsuf Shawqī (1969), in practice, there are many fewer tones (Touma 1996, p. 170).

Additionally, in 1932, at the Cairo Congress of Arab Music held in Cairo, Egypt - and attended by such Western luminaries as Béla Bartók and Henry George Farmer - experiments were done which determined conclusively that the notes in actual use differ substantially from an even-tempered 24-tone scale. Furthermore, the intonation of many of those notes differ slightly from region to region (Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq).

Regional scales

As a result of these findings, the following recommendation was issued: "The tempered scale and the natural scale should be rejected. In Egypt, the Egyptian scale is to be kept with the values, which were measured with all possible precision. The Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi scales should remain what they are..." (translated in Maalouf 2002, p. 220).[citation needed] Both in modern practice, and evident in recorded music over the course of the last century, several differently-tuned "E"s in between the E-flat and E-natural of the Western Chromatic scale are used, that vary according to the types of maqams and ajnas used, and the region in which they are used.

Practical treatment

Musicians and teachers refer to these in-between notes as "quarter tones," using "half-flat" or "half-sharp" as a deisgnation for the in-between flats and sharps, for ease of nomenclature. Performance and teaching of the exact values of intonation in each jins or maqam is usually done by ear. It should also be added, in reference to Habib Hassan Touma's comment above, that these "quarter-tones" are not used everywhere in the maqamat: in practice, Arabic music does not modulate to 12 different tonic areas like the Well-Tempered Klavier. The most commonly used "quarter tones" are on E (between E-flat and E-natural), A, B, D, F (between F-natural and F-sharp) and C.

Vocal traditions

Arab classical music is known for its famed virtuoso singers, who sing long, elaborately ornamented, melismatic tunes, and are known for driving audiences into ecstasy. Its traditions come from pre-Islamic times, when female singing slaves entertained the wealthy, and inspired warriors on the battlefield with their rajaz poetry, also performing at weddings.

Instruments and ensembles

Front and rear views of an oud.

Front and rear views of an oud.

The prototypical Arabic music ensemble in Egypt and Syria is known as the takht, and includes, (or included at different time periods) instruments such as the 'oud, qānūn, rabab, ney, violin (introduced in the 1840s or 50s), riq and dumbek. In Iraq, the traditional ensemble, known as the chalghi, includes only two melodic instruments - the jowza (similar to the rabab but with four strings) and santur- accompanied by the riq and dumbek.

The Arab world has incorporated instruments from the West, including the electric guitar, cello, double bass and oboe, and incorporated influences from jazz and other foreign musical styles. The singers remained the stars, however, especially after the development of the recording and film industry in the 1920s in Cairo. These singing celebrities include Abd el-Halim Hafez, Farid Al Attrach, Asmahan, Sayed Darwish, Mohammed Abd el-Wahaab, Warda Al-Jazairia, and possibly the biggest star of modern Arab classical music, Umm Kulthum.

Information courtesy of Wikipedia Encyclopedia