The Music of the Middle East

Musical Characteristics

Scales - The Maqam


Musical Instruments

Great Composers

Popular Arabic Music


Middle Eastern Musical Characteristics

Arab music origins

The historical origins of Oriental music are versatile. The first Arab musicians drew their inspiration from the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Sumerians. Many of the instruments played today are the descendants of instruments shown on wall paintings and documents of those ancient civilizations. The uniqueness of Arab music is, to a great extent, an outcome of the instruments on which it is performed. In spite of the ancient origins of Middle Eastern instruments, their contemporary structure has been developed since the 8th century a.c., the period in Islamic culture called "The Golden Age".

Both Classical Arabic musicClassical Arabic music and Folk musicFolk Arabic music are demonstrated here.

Fundamentals of Arab Music

Scales - Arab music is played in scales called "Maqamat" [sing. - Maqam] - meaning "places"; this term comes from the singer's place on the stage, when he sang for the ruler. The maqam is more than a scale. It has prefixed main notes, register, and the different motifs are emphasized. Sometimes even a particular tempo and metre are required, as a result of the choice of maqam.

Intervals - Sound intervals in Arab music are quarter-tones, in contrast to Western music, where a semitone is the smallest interval. This differentiation is one of the reasons why the unaccustomed listener may sometimes think the Arab players are "off key".

The Rhythm - Arab music has a considerably developed rhythm, and drummers play their instruments energetically and swiftly. Sometimes, they combine different rhythms at the same time, creating variety and fascinating sophistication.

Texture - Whereas European music, whose origins are similar to those of Arab music, favored the development of harmony (and earlier, polyphony), Arab music has focused on heterophony - playing of the same tune by all the instruments, while ornamenting the original melody from time to time, independently.


Middle Eastern Scales - The Maqam


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Middle Eastern Rhythms

Here are some of the most popular rhythms of the Middle Eastern music:


Study how to play Oriental rhythms A lesson


Middle Eastern Musical Instruments


The ancient and modern lute of the Near East, known from the 7th century. It traveled to Europe in such a roundabout way that in 1555 Bermudo could call the lute a "vihuela de Flandres". The modern oud has a shorter neck than the European lute. Its pegbox is thrown back at a less acute angle, and it usually has 3 soundholes and no frets. Today the oud is very popular over the whole distance from Morocco to Istanbul.

Dumbek - Darabukka

A goblet-shaped drum which is made from earthenware or terra-cotta pottery, wood or metal. The single drum head, made from stretched parchment, bayard-fish, goat-skin or other leather, is attached directly to the frame by nails and glue, or laced onto the head and body. The bottom of the drum is left open. It is held under a player's arm.


A plucked instrument whose 30 strings may be varied in pitch by the use of small bridges. Its sound box is half-covered in wood, half in a heavy skin like a drum. It has twenty-three strings, all of gut. It is held flat on the knees for playing. It's origins are in Armenia.


Long end-blown cane flute of the Near East, used from Egypt to Persia. The sound is produced by blowing across the sharp edge with pursed lips.


The bouzouki, although a distinctly Greek instrument, is a relatively modern offshoot of the Turkish saz (baglama). The early bouzoukis at the turn of the century looked like sazes, with one piece bodies, no soundhole on the face, wooden tuning pegs, but with metal chromatic frets. By the early 1920's, the influence of Italian mandolin making had altered the bouzouki into the basic form it is today, with a staved bowl back, machine gear tuners, and oval or round soundhole. The name is a derivative of the Turkish word "bozuk" which referred to a particular size of baglama saz and to a standard tuning pattern still used in saz playing. The first great use of the bouzouki was in Rebetiko music between WWI and WWII. The rebetiko scene, with its underworld glamour and waterfront nightclubs, favored the sound of bouzoukis and the smaller baglama, a "miniature" bouzouki, with guitar accompaniment.


The tambourine is a hand-held instrument with a round wooden frame and parchment or skin heads. Though an ancient instrument, its structure has remained virtually unchanged. When you strike the drum-head, jingles made from shell, metal or other small objects create a beautiful, shimmering sound.


Middle Eastern Great Composers

The Great Arab Artists

Unlike the folk image many Westerners have, there are, in Arab music, works that are pure art music. There are many composers and artists who have made impressive artistic achievements. Composers such as Abdel Wahab, Farid El Atrache, Sunbati and others, wrote pieces that are classics of Arab music: art music in every way, performed by big orchestras.

The instruments serving in those ensembles are authentic oriental instruments, and Western instruments added in order to expand possibilities of expression. Some of the Arab music's reputation has to do with its emphasis on singing (in contrast to the centrality of instrumental composition in the last 400 or 500 years of Western music), which gives it an image of light music for the masses. However, the songs of the great musicians are built as real artworks, with their own structure, dramatic development, sophisticated orchestration and length no less than that of a Western musical piece. This is also why many of us find it hard to understand how the great Egyptian singer Um Kalsum used to sing one song for almost an hour. A song like this should be perceived as an artwork parallel to a song cycle, not a single short song.

The biggest accomplishment made by the great Arab musicians of the 20th century is succeeding to merge art with the audience's love. Their songs are best sellers years after their demise, and people love their work with all their heart.

Mohamed Abdel Wahab

Mohamed Abdel Wahab (Copyright 2001 Nadav Dafni)
A great Arabic composer

Fairuz (Copyright 2001 Nadav Dafni)
Um Kalsum
Um Kalsum (Copyright 2001 Nadav Dafni)
Abdel Halim Hafez
Abdel Halim Hafez (Copyright 2001 Nadav Dafni)
Farid El Atrache
Farid El Atrache (Copyright 2001 Nadav Dafni)


Popular Arabic Music

The popular Arab music derives from traditional music, using the same scales and rhythms of art music. Art music is popular, too, in Arab countries, and singers such as Farid El Atrache and Um Kalsum are still popular singers, years after their death. Songs like Abdel Wahab's "You are my life" ("Inta Omri") and "Siret El - Hobb"'Siret El-Hobb' by Um Kalsum are still widely loved.
Nowadays, most ensembles and orchestras use electronic Western musical instruments. Synthesizers and organs which can be tuned for performing in quarter-tones and oriental rhythms, are making this music more and more Western, in the aspect of production means.

There are many popular Arab singers, and among them we can mention Fairuz, Layla Murad, Abdel Halim Hafez and Muhammad Fuad. In the main festival of the Arab world, which takes place every year in August, in the ancient city of Jaresh in Jordan, one may hear the greatest Arab performers on stage, with the accompaniment of the best orchestras.

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MusixCool© By Nadav Dafni