Music Theory/Arabic

Arabic music is traditional music played in what is now called the Arab world. It has many similarities with Turkish and Persian music and generally exists, in some form, in places and cultures that are historically Muslim.

Tuning and Notation edit

Arabic music doesn't necessarily stick to the twelve notes (in an octave) that Western music uses. Although it isn't a very accurate representation, most musicians use a system of 24 notes in an octave, also known as the system of quarter tones, to describe the notes that they play.

A quarter tone is precisely one half of a semitone or half step; imagine a piano but an extra key in between every adjacent pair of keys.

To notate quarter tones, musicians use extra accidentals:

  • A half-flat or semi-flat lowers a note by a quarter tone, and is notated as a reversed flat ( ), or more often a flat with stroke ( ) in Arabic circles. (We will use a reversed flat in this page.)
  • A half-sharp or semi-sharp raises a note by a quarter tone, and is notated as the left half of sharp sign ( ).
  • A three-halves-flat or sesqui-flat lowers a note by three quarter tones, and is notated as a reversed flat next to a regular flat ( ), or more often a double flat with stroke (Unable to parse music symbol doubleflatstroke) in Arabic circles. (We will use a reversed flat next to a regular flat.)
  • A three-halves-sharp or sesqui-sharp raises a note by three quarter tones, and is notates as a sharp with three vertical lines ( ).

So, a quarter tone chromatic scale would look like this:


Note that these are considered notational conventions, and aren't quite representative of the pitches musicians play. Most Arabic music students have to learn the fine microtonal details by ear.

Maqam edit

The maqam (plural maqamat) is the rough equivalent of a scale in Western music, although there are several differences:

  • Maqamat often stick to one "key", and are only ever transposed to a handful of different keys. This is due in part to the technical limitations of Arabic instruments.
  • Maqamat describe not just tonal content, but melodic phrases and improvisatory possibilites that shape the aesthetic of Arabic music along with the tonal content.

Ajnas edit

Maqamat are composed of ajnas (singular jins), which are usually sets of four notes spanning a perfect fourth, although several ajnas have three or five notes. It is through these building blocks that maqamat get their mood.

All ajnas have a tonic and a ghammaz, which is an intermediate resting place for melodies and is often a point for modulation, a lot like the dominant in Western harmony.

There are the nine main ajnas (the tonic and ghammaz are marked with open noteheads):

  • Jins 'Ajam
  • Jins Bayati
  • Jins Hijaz
  • Jins Kurd
  • Jins Nahawand
  • Jins Nikriz
  • Jins Saba
    (two ghammaz possibilites)
  • Jins Sikah
  • Jins Rast

These are not the only ajnas, of course.