Historical Background: Classical Arabic Music


Habib H. Touma (1996) writes that “Arabian music emerged on the Arabian Peninsula during pre-Islamic times” (p.xix). He also writes that “the music of the Arabs is an essential part of the music of the Near East and North Africa” (p.xix). My composition folio explores elements of classical Arabic music of the modern period, roughly from the late 19th century to the present time. This includes music that was created in cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad; by composers and performers like Egyptian composer-singer Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1907-1991), Iraqi composer Munir Bashir (1930-1997) and Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1900-1975). Classical Arabic music makes use of Maqamat that provide the basis for both composition and improvisation. Classical Arabic music can also be seen in the broader context of Turkish, Persian and Indian music. Throughout this critical commentary there will be occasional references to this broader aspect of Arabic music, but the main focus is on classical Arabic music. 




Maqamat, the modal system of classical Arabic music. My compositions draw on aspects derived from Maqamat, these include microtonality, musical ornamentation and improvisation. “Sephardic congregations preserve musical practices derived from the Maqamat tradition of Arabic modal music” (Miller & Shahriari 2012, p.278), and Maqamat can be found in prayers and Piyyutim of the Middle Eastern Jewish communities (Kligman 2009, pp. 53-61).


The following observations on Maqamat are based on David Parfitt (2011). Parfitt describes the classical Arabic Maqam as a compositional device based on a mode with a particular intervallic pattern, as well as a set of performance rules indicating which notes should be emphasized. A Maqam also includes characteristic melodic patterns. The ideal showcase for the structure of a Maqam is an instrumental Taqsim. Taqsim is an improvised form in which the performer may modulate to several related Maqamat before returning to the original Maqam (see pages 23-25 for more details about Taqsim). Modulation is a highly developed art and relies on an intimate knowledge of the structure of the different Maqamat, as well as relationships between them. Expertise in modulation can only be achieved after many years of study and performance. 


The Maqam scale can be thought of as being constructed from blocks (Ajnas). Jins (plural: Ajnas), is the Arabic pitch set of a tri-chord, tetra-chord or penta-chord. Each building block or jins has a characteristic pattern of intervals and is usually based on a particular tone. The Maqam builds from two sets of jins, lower jins (trunk) and upper jins (branch), that joined at a common note (when the ending note of the trunk is the beginning note of the branch), at two adjacent notes (when a tone separates the trunk and the branch) or at overlapping notes (when more than one note at the end of the trunk belongs to the branch as well). The Maqam is often named after the trunk, and ajnas may be reduced or extended to form the corresponding tri-chord or penta-chord. The qarar describes the note that begins the Maqam (the root note and usually the ending note of a piece), and the ghamaz describes the beginning note of the branch tetra-chord. The Maqam may also include secondary ajnas that can be employed when modulating. There are many ways of combining different ajnas, but only a small proportion of these combinations are employed in actual Maqamat. Around a hundred Maqamat are in use, although some are much more common than others and many are restricted to a particular country or region (i.e., Iraq, Egypt and Syria). The common Maqamat may be classified into eight different groups, which are named after the principal Maqam of the group: Rast, Bayati, Sikah, Nahawand, Hijaz, Nawa'athar, Ajam and Kurd. 


Maqamat can be found in prayers and Piyyutim of the Sephardi-Mizrahi tradition (Arabic-influenced Jewish music). One example is Eretz Verum (Figure 1.1.), a well-known traditional Syrian Piyyut from Baqashot of Shabbath collections. Mark L. Kligman writes (2009) that “the importance of describing the Syrian Jewish community praxis of the Maqamat lies in the fact that not only is their definition of specific Maqamat consistent with the practice of modern Arab music but the manner in which they talk about the Maqamat is shaped by it as well” (p. 62). Eretz Verum is in Maqam Bayati (Figure 1.2.). It uses the following ajnas: (1) Bayati tetra-chord (D, E semi-flat, F and G) in bars 1-5, where the phrase is descending from G (the ghamaz) to D (the qarar), (2) Sikah tri-chord (E semi-flat, F and G) in bars 6-7 and in bars 10-11, (3) Nahawand tetra-chord in G (G, A, B flat and C) in bars 22-24 (descending from D to G) and (4) Rast tetra-chord (C, D, E semi-flat and F) in bars 42-44. The F in bars 2 and 4 illustrates the use of Arabic ornaments. In this particular Piyyut the ornaments comprise a slow tempo trill of quarter-tones.  


Arabic Music and Maqamat 

      by Dr Yitzhak Yedid