Microtonality in Arabic Music

Microtonality is an integral part of the language of improvisation and expression in Arabic music (Farraj 2007). Quarter-tones or three-quarter-tones occur in Arabic Maqamat in tunes/songs and in improvisational passages. The term quarter-tone is used by musicians to describe notes in the Maqam that are approximately a quarter of a tone high or lower. Nowadays, these notes are not thought of as being changed by a quarter-tone, but as being three quarters of a tone from a neighbouring equal note, and are therefore called three-quarter-tone notes as well (Bilitzky 2012). The Arabic method of dividing the octave into 24 quarter-tones was probably developed in the 18th century (Marcus 1993), and was accepted with some reservations at the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arabic Music. The 1932 Cairo Congress of Arabic Music was the first large-scale forum to present, discuss, document and record the many musical traditions of the Arabic world, and it was there that recommendations for its revitalization and preservation were made. 


The microtonal pitch in Arabic music is not absolute, and therefore varies from player to player. That means a quarter-tone or three-quarter-tones of a particular performer will be slightly different in terms of intonation from that of another player (Cohen and Katz 2006, pp. 43-45). This practice is recognisable, and the variable pitches would nevertheless be associated to Maqamat. 


Ajnas (singular: jins), are Arabic tri-chord, tetra-chord or penta-chord sets. The Nahawand jins (1, ½, 1 tones) corresponds with the Western Aeolian mode, and the Ajam jins (1, 1 tones) corresponds with the Western Ionian mode. The Kurd jins (½, 1, 1 tones) corresponds with the Western Phrygian mode. The Rast jins (1, ¾, ¾ tones) can be achieved by lowering the third degree of the Western Ionian mode by a quarter-tone or raising by a quarter-tone the third degree of the Western Aeolian mode, and the Bayati jins (¾, ¾, 1 tones) can be achieved by lowering the second degree of the Western Dorian mode by a quarter-tone. The Saba jins (¾, ¾, ½ tones) has partial first three notes to the Bayati jins, and the Sikah jins (¾, 1 tones) is an offshoot of the Rast jins (it starts from the third degree of Rast jins). The Hijaz jins (½, 1½, ½ tones) and Nirkiz jins (1, ½, 1½, ½ tones) are the only ajnas with intervals of 1½ tones.


Incorporating neighbouring Maqamat in improvisation is an important part of the art in Arabic music. For example, in Taqsim listeners often follow the performer’s way of moving away from the basic opening Maqam and the way of returning to it at the end. In Taqsim and in other Arabic improvisational forms, microtonality also comes into play by modulation between corresponding Maqamat, such as Ajam against Rast, as well as Sabah and Nahawand against Bayati (Farraj 2007).


Microtonality in the Literature of 20th Century Western Classical Music

In Western classical music of the 20th century numerous composers have examined the use and possibilities offered by microtonality. Such composers include Czech composer Alois Hába (1893-1973), American composer Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954), French composer Pierre Boulez (born 1925) and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Alois Hába explored finer tonal differentiation by dividing the octave into twenty-four equal parts. He considered the quarter-tone system as an extension to the old semitone language (Yeomans 2006, p. 174). Charles Edward Ives explores microtonality in a number of his compositions, for example by tuning two pianos a quarter-tone apart (Holmes 2002, p.35). Karlheinz Stockhausen employed microtonal sound in electronic music (Cott 1976, pp. 29-30).


Composers who worked in Israel in the 1940s to 1960s, incorporated microtonality in their writing as part of their efforts to formulate an original Eretz Israel style (Kerm 1980, pp. 11-28). Those composers employed accidentals to indicate the lowering or raising by three-quarters of a tone. Of course, the interval of three-quarter-tones can also be notated enharmonically with accidentals indicating a single quarter-tone. Figure 2.2. illustrates the use of three-quarter-tones flat G which could also be notated as F quarter-tone sharp. Some composers use exclusively accidentals that indicated the lowering of a note by quarter-tones. 


It appears that there was no single agreed way among Eretz Israel composers to notate quarter-tones and three-quarter-tones, and they developed their own preferences. This was also the case for composers who worked in Europe in the 20th century. Not only did composers differ, but in some cases composers would use different accidentals for the same quarter-tones. Figures 2.1. and 2.2. demonstrate Abel Ehrlich’s use of two different accidentals for a quarter-tone flat. Figure 2.5. shows some of the more common microtonal accidentals. 


Examination of works by Abel Ehrlich (1915-2003), Alexander Uria Boscovich (1907-1964) and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1919-1994), indicates that although they were influenced by the Middle Eastern music (Kerm 1980) they made little use of quarter-tones and three-quarter-tones in octaves or unisons. One of the reasons for the avoidance is that not all Western instruments can produce microtones. Another reason is that the intonation of microtones in a unison or octave unison can cause a significant challenge to Western performers. 


Microtonal pitches and intervals appear in my works both in the context of Maqamat and in the context of Western art music practice. As previously mentioned, the intonation of microtonal pitches and intervals in Arabic music is not absolute and differs from one performer to another. Cohen and Katz (2006) compared the frequency of microtones in different Maqamat of different performers. Their findings indicate that pitches in Arabic music are not absolute, and that:


The pitch of an isolated note is almost meaningless in itself, it is the schemata derived from pitch that lend themselves to organization and determine directionality (p.41).


My works incorporate this non-Western practice of intonation. I compose musical lines of Maqamat and of various transpositions of the Maqamat. Transposing is limited in classical Arabic music to a few tonics, for example Maqam Bayati, that usually starts on D, can be transposed to G and A. Uncommon transpositions of the Maqam have been incorporated in my works, and so my compositions are similar to Arabic music in terms of the microtonal intervals used but differ in terms of their various tonics. An example of this approach can also be seen in Abel Ehrlich’s works. In his work Bashrav (Figure 2.2.), the opening bars contains transpositions of Nahawand Maqam, Bayati Maqam and Rast Maqam. Microtonal pitches and intervals in the context of Western art music practice are fixed and independent pitches that extend and enrich the chromatic pitch structure. An example of this later approach can be seen in works by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. In his work Blessings (Figure 2.4.), microtones are employed in the context of atonal music. Overall, in the context of Western art music microtones can be employed as surface ornamentation or as an integral part of the pitch structure.


Integrating Microtonality in Contemporary Western Classical Music  Composition 

     Microtonal Intervals as a Means of Enhancing Musical Tension

The intervals between notes along a musical line can be used to build musical tension. There is a difference between the aural effects of intervals on different listeners. However, the impact of a dissonant interval that requires a resolution will be greater than a consonant interval. In my own music, the tension and resolution for intervals of quarter-tones and three-quarter-tones have been examined. An example of this can be found in Visions, Fantasies and Dances (string quartet) at the beginning of the viola solo in bars 1-8 of Part 1 (Figure 2.6.). There, I opted for small intervals of up to a tone and a quarter (i.e., a quarter-tone, three-quarter-tones and a tone-and a quarter). In bar 1, the pitches are presented in the following order: A flat, G played with quarter-tone vibrato, E, F again with quarter-tone vibrato, and through an interval of three-quarter-tones to semi-flat G. The tension is generated from the different microtonal intervals, in this instance, from the listener’s awareness of a pitch situated between G flat to G natural. The quarter-tone vibrato on the G and on the F also adds to the tension in the line.


One of my strategies for creating microtonal tension is to resolve microtones to a chromatic pitch at the beginning of a work and later to leave microtones unresolved. This is the case in Visions, Fantasies and Dances, in bars 1-8 of Part 1 (the above Figure 2.6.) where the microtonal semi-flat G in bar 1 is immediately resolved via a glissando to F. Another example of a resolved microtone is the semi-flat C in bar 3, which resolves via a glissando to B. Later, in bars 4, 5 and 7, there are microtonal intervals that create similar tension to that in the first bars, but in order to enhance the tension of the whole line, they remain without resolution.


   Microtonal Pitches Employed as Ornamentation

In Arabic music microtonal pitches also function as ornamentation and can be employed as part of improvisational gestures. In my own works, vibrati, trills and glissandi are tailored in a manner more akin to Arabic music than to Western classical music. Bars 1, 10 and 33 of Part 1 in Visions, Fantasies and Dances make use of quarter-tone vibrato just as they occur in Arabic music. In some of my works very slow microtonal trills are also used, for example (1) in bar 21 in In Memory and (2) in bars 17, 40, 41 and 45 of Part 1 in Visions, Fantasies and Dances. Furthermore it should be noted that the microtonal trill is often much longer in duration than the target note. Such very slow microtonal trills are also a specific characteristic of Arabic music.


I extended the idea of blurring the target notes and the extensive use of microtonal articulations, and looked at the use of sound without a precise pitch. As an example of sound gesture without fixed pitch, glissandi in combination with vibrato are employed. This can be seen in (1) Visions, Fantasies and Dances (bars 89-99 of Part 4), (2) Sensations (bars 54-69) and (3) Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio (bars 73-89 of the First Movement). The microtones are affected by the speed of both the glissandi and the vibrati. At slower speed microtones appear more pronounced. By having longer durations for the glissando and slower vibrato, a greater degree of emphasis is placed on microtones. 


In several of my works I imitate the human voice. This has been looked at for a number of reasons (1) to expose the wide range of expressions associated with the human voice, (2) to extend the lexicon of my musical expressions and (3) as an additional way of introducing microtonality associated with Arabic music. An example of this occurs in the section The image of an old weary man in the First Movement, bars 2-3, 7-8 of Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio. Here the double bass player is asked to play overtones in a high register, where it is almost impossible to produce accurate diatonic or chromatic pitches. Playing overtones in this octave produces a microtonal countertenor-like sound without a fixed pitch. In order to give clear instructions to the player I added the following verbal explanation: “Slide your finger around G, G sharp and F. Imitate the sound of an old woman weeping. Improvise between the written notes. Use glissando, dynamic changes, sul ponticello and tremolo to create the sound.” Other examples of this sound can be found in (1) Sensations (cello, bars 16-19 and bars 25-26) and in (2) Visions, Fantasies and Dances (bars 43-44 and bar 62 of Part 3).


Prayers and Piyyutim of Arabic-influenced Jewish music such as Baqashot are performed in synagogues by groups of people who sing monophonic melodies in heterophony. Each performer varies the melody in such a way that the people praying do not necessarily start and finish phrases of the lyric together. For them, the most important part in gathering is performing the content of the prayer (the lyric), and the religious purpose is predominant. For me the interest lies in the particular sound colour and texture associated with this type of chanting. In addition, vibrati and glissandi add a range of microtonal sound resulting in a very rich and detailed performance of what is essentially a monophonic melody. I have attempted to imitate this special sound in some of my own music. More specifically, I composed Piyyutim-like melodies with simple phrases and long pauses in the minor mode and Hijaz and Nahawand Maqamat. In order to allow the performers to improvise microtonal ornamentation, slow tempi and long note values have been applied. The performers receive instructions in the score to perform these melodies in quasi unison, just as is the case with Piyyutim. 


Consistent with my folio division in Groups A and B, the performers in Group A are not necessarily familiar with the original prayers. An example from a Group A composition can be seen in Visions, Fantasies and Dances, in bars 102-127 of Part 3 under the title Nighttime prayer at the Western Wall. In the works for Group B, in which the players have experience in improvisation and are familiar with the original prayer, there is an example of quasi unison in Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio, in bars 4-26 of the First Movement. In the two works the performers receive these instructions: “A Prayer, performed in quasi unison to imitate a group of people praying together. You can sometimes change the pitch and include the use of microtones or sul ponticello, and introduce tremolo at the end of phrases”.


    Microtonal Playing in Unison

Most Arabic music is monophonic. For ensembles, large or small, instruments usually play in unison or octaves (Muhassin 2010). Like the group of Eretz Israel composers, in the enclosed works I have avoided writing microtonal unisons and octaves for the full ensemble. The reason for this is that some instruments are more suitable than others for microtonal production, and playing microtones in unison can present unnecessary challenges. However in some instances I have composed unisons of microtones for pairs of instruments. For example, in Visions, Fantasies and Dances in bars 26-39 and in bars 47-60 of Part 3. The tempo in this section is slow (crotchet equals 60), designed to leave enough time to produce the precise pitches. 


    Microtonality in Improvisation

Improvisation involving microtones occurs in works written for Group B, and to a lesser extent in works written for Group A. Given that improvisation constitutes an integral part of Arabic music, the works for Group B naturally include many sections with improvisations. Microtones are an integral part of traditional classic Arabic music, particularly in the context of Maqamat and in ornamentations. Since microtonality is an element of the improvisational language among players of traditional Arabic instruments, I did not see the need to make a special request for these players to incorporate microtonality in the improvised sections of the works. In the sections of the works where I wanted to use microtonality, I simply instructed the player of the traditional Arabic instrument to improvise. Examples of this can be found in Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio (bars 50-51, 55-56, 61-62 and bars 67-68 of the First Movement), where I wrote “violin, improvise on Arabic Maqamat.”.


Another traditional way of improvising including microtones is featured in Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio, in bars 81-100 of the Second Movement. In these bars I wrote the basic melody for the violin and added the instruction “to improvise”. This is the same melody on Kurd Maqam that appeared at the beginning of the movement (in bars 3-11). However, as in traditional Arabic music, this time the player is instructed to repeat the melody in an improvisatory manner. In the submitted recording of this composition, it can be heard that the violinist employed microtones as ornamentational gesture and in modulation. 


In works for ensemble with piano, where except for the piano the other instruments can easily produce microtonally, the possibility to combine microtonality in improvisation was looked at. That is, all instruments perform a monophonic melodic line without written microtonality whereby, except for the piano, all other instruments improvise microtonal ornamentation. An example of this can be found in Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio, in bars 4-26 of the First Movement.  



In this chapter a number of observations have been made regarding the use of microtones in Arabic music and how this relates to my own compositions. In the string quartet Visions, Fantasies and Dances, the microtonal intervals function in the context of diatonic and chromatic intervals and the method of a tension-and-release for intervals of a quarter-tone and three-quarter-tones have been employed. I have used the tension associated with microtonal intervals strategically in that initially microtonal intervals were resolved to a consonance and then later left unresolved. 


In In Memory and in Visions, Fantasies and Dances, I looked at ways of using microtonal pitches that in Arabic music function as ornamentation and as part of improvisational gestures. In particular, vibrati, trills and glissandi were utilised in a manner more akin to Arabic music than to Western classical music. I found that very slow microtonal trills and quarter-tone vibrato allowed me to integrate Arabic ornamentation. In addition, I have extended the use of traditional ornamentation to compose microtonal sounds with microtonal qualities that unfold at different tempi without a definite pitch. This can be seen in many of my works. 


In several of my works microtonality has been employed to imitate the human voice. I created a countertenor-like sound with instruments of lower register playing microtones in a high register. For the audience this countertenor-like sound may well be associated with a female voice, and more specifically, an old women weeping. There are instances of this to be found in Sensations (cello part) and in Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio (double bass part). As mentioned previously, the overtones in a high register make it almost impossible for performers to produce accurate pitches. 


Prayers and Piyyutim of Arabic-influenced Jewish music have a particular sound colour and texture formed by the special way they are sung. Microtones are produced by every individual voice. In order to imitate this type of sound, the performers have been instructed to improvise microtones individually in quasi unison. For that purpose, I composed traditional-like melodies with simple phrases and long pauses in the minor mode and in Hijaz and Nahawand Maqamat. The slow tempo enables the performers to improvise microtonal ornamentations. 


Most Arabic music is monophonic and all instruments will usually play in quasi unison. In my works I have limited the use of unison playing to two instruments at a time, because I found that microtonal unisons for the whole ensemble as seen in Arabic music can present intonation challenges for Western performers. 


Improvisation involving microtonality occurs in many of my works. For players from Group B for whom microtonality is part of their language, I simply wrote, “to improvise”. Given their improvisation tradition there is an expectation that microtones will be included. In other cases, I composed traditional-like melodies with specific Maqamat, and again gave the instruction “to improvise”. In some cases, instruments that can produce microtones have combined with instruments that cannot. In particular, I created quasi unisons in which the piano plays a melody without microtones while the strings play the same melody including microtonal ornamentations. 


Overall, I introduce microtonality in a range of different ways. This has allowed for microtones to be coherently integrated. It should be pointed out that my use of Arabic Maqamat and microtonality differs in several respects from classical Arabic music. Firstly, my instrumentation differs from traditional Arabic ensembles. Secondly, players in Group A produce microtones without the background of the microtonal playing associated with traditional Arabic music. Moreover, it is not my intention to create a copy of microtonal playing in traditional Arabic music.


The differences between works from Groups A and B mainly stem from the fact that performers in Group B have prior knowledge of Maqamat and the way to produce microtonal pitches. As such, compositions for Group B make greater use of microtonality, and Group B performers more readily recognise the Arabic sources. Writing for Group A requires advising the performers in more detail about the use of microtones. In terms of intonation, I found that Group A performers played the pitch level of quarter-tones and three-quarter-tones precisely accurate (from a Western music practice point of view). Group B performers tended to play quarter-tones and three-quarter-tones slightly differently each time, depending on the Maqam and the place of the microtone in the whole line. 



















      by Dr Yitzhak Yedid