History of Arabic Music

History of Arabic


Arabic music is my favorite musical styling.

Although I have come to enjoy classical and contemporary styling as well,

Arabic music has almost an innate quality of enjoyment for me. Its
songs speak of the life and culture of Arabic countries and its melody
is not commonly heard on American radio stations. Its songs tell
the story of the Arabic people, people who are similar to Americans but
also different in many ways. The songs are a romantic and wonderful
inspiration to me while living and studying in America.

The tradition of Arabic music has been
cultivated throughout Arab regions for thousands of years. Although it
has undergone many changes over the centuries, it has retained certain
distinctive traits.

The Arabic music tradition developed in
the courts of dynasties in the Islamic empire from the 7th century to the

13th century. It flourished during the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th
century and 8th century in Syria. Great performers were drawn to Baghdad,
now the capital of Iraq, under such rulers as Harun ar-Rashid, who was
a patron of the musical arts during the late 700s.3

The cities of the Islamic empire, from

Spain across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, boasted many
fine musicians. These early musicians were often composers and poets as
well as performers. Although the major writings on Arab music appeared
after the spread of Islam in the beginning of the 7th century, the music
tradition had already begun. Before the spread of Islam, Arab music incorporated
music traditions of the Sassanid dynasty (224-641) in Persia and the early

Byzantine empire (4th century to 6th century) and of sung poetry from the

Arabian Peninsula.3 Arabic-speaking scholars also studied the treatises
of ancient Greek philosophers on music. Music theorists of the 10th century
and 11th century, such as al-Farabi and Avicenna, produced their own theories
of music based on what they had learned from the Greeks and on the music
of their own times. Greek works translated by the Arab scholars were later
studied by European scientists and philosophers.

Melody and Rhythm

Arabic music is created using unharmonized
melodic and rhythmic systems. Arabic melodies draw from a vast array of
models, or melodic modes, known as maqamat. Arabic books on music include
as many as 52 melodic modes, of which at least 12 are commonly used.3 These
modes feature more tones than are present in the Western musical system,
including notably smaller intervals that are sometimes called microtones,
or half-flats and half-sharps. Arabic melodies frequently use the augmented
second interval, an interval larger than those of most Western melodies.3

The sound of Arabic music is richly melodic and offers opportunity for
subtle nuance and creative variation.

The rhythmic structure of Arabic music
is similarly complex. Rhythmic patterns have up to 48 beats and typically
include several downbeats (called dums) as well as upbeats (called taks)
and silences, or rests.3 To grasp a rhythmic mode, the listener must hear
a relatively long pattern. Moreover, the performers do not simply play
the pattern; they elaborate upon and ornament it. Often the pattern is
recognizable by the arrangement of downbeats.

In Arab tradition, good musicians offer
something new in each performance by varying and improvising on known pieces
or models in a fashion similar to that of jazz musicians. The inventions
of musicians can be lengthy, extending ten-minute compositions into hour-long
performances that bear only a skeletal resemblance to the models. The inventions
of the musician traditionally depend upon the response of the audience.

Listeners are expected to react during the performance, either verbally
or with applause. Quiet is interpreted as disinterest or dislike. The audience
members, in this tradition, are active participants in determining the
length of the performance and in shaping the piece of music by encouraging
musicians to either repeat a section of the piece or to move to the next

Modern Era

Born of the cultures of the Arab World
stretching from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, Arabic music is
becoming popular world-wide. It is made up of an astonishing variety
of folk, classical, and popular musical traditions. Many of these have
survived for centuries, reflecting the musical sensibilities of the ancient
world as well as the Middle Ages.

While each region within the Arab World
has its distinctive styles, commonalities of instrumentation, modal structure,
rhythmic patterns, performance techniques, and lyric content extend across
the area, forming a fascinating weaving of artistic tradition that changes
and evolves while remaining true to its ancient heritage. In the
last decades a growing global audience has come to appreciate the richness
of this music.

The global audience is hungry for information
about these traditions, their history, the playing