Arab Music

• Folk and Traditional Styles

Arab Music

Background and History

The Arabs are a group of people related largely by heritage and language who live in an area that stretches from Morocco to Iraq, a region that covers more land area than the United States. Though the climate is generally dry, the geography varies greatly, with mountains, fertile valleys, deserts, and miles and miles of coastline. Just as the land varies, the Arabs themselves possess great cultural and linguistic differences: It is not unusual, for example, for a person from Morocco to have trouble understanding an Iraqi when each speaks in their regional dialect. Through a standard Arabic dialect, as well as the dominant religion Islam, the Arab people are held tightly together despite these differences. Music, particularly since the advent of radio and television, has helped bind Arabs together as well.

The Arabs trace their history to the Arabian Peninsula where the descendants of the original Bedouin nomads lived. Following the establishment and spread of Islam in the seventh century, Arabs took their language, religion, and culture throughout the Middle East and beyond. Arabs now form the vast majority of people living in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Sudan. In addition to Muslims, there are minorities of Christians, Jews, and Druze found mainly in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Turkish people, though connected to the Arabs both culturally and musically, are a separate people with a distinct heritage and language and will not be covered in this article.

Beginning in the eighth century, a fantastic era of Arab learning arose, centered in the great Arab cities of the time, including Baghdad, Cairo, and Aleppo, Syria. While Europe was mired in the Middle Ages, Arabs made great advances in art, literature, science, math, and music. Music treatises by scholars such as of al-Farabi and al-Kindi drew on and developed Greek music theory. These treatises are astonishing in their detail and give today's researcher vast insight into the music of the time.

Despite the objections of some fundamentalist Muslims who believe the Islamic holy book, the Qu'ran, limits or prohibits music performance, music is found universally throughout the Arab world. Though not considered music by many Arabs, the adhan, the beautiful call to prayer of the muezzin, resounds five times daily from the minarets at the top of mosques throughout the Arab world. Radio broadcasts, television programs, cassettes and CDs, and live performances abound. Increasingly there are pop music stars much like in the West, while older, established artists such as singer Umm Kulthum and composer Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab still hold great power over audiences around the Arab world. During the height of her popularity in the 1970s, Umm Kulthum's weekly radio broadcasts would shut down much of the Arab world as the majority of people stopped everything to listen to her magnetic voice.


While there are differences between folk and classical Arab music, many Arab music styles are grounded in the same system of modes and rhythms. Unlike Western music, which generally uses 12 half steps, these modes are built with quarter tones and smaller intervals. The melodic component is based upon a modal system called maqam (plural maqamat). "Maqam" is often translated as "scale," but there are important differences between the Arab and Western concepts. Each maqam consists of a scale, generally, but not always, defined by the octave. It has rules for melodic movement-such as beginning and ending pitches, microtonal inflections of scale degrees-and specific motifs and cadences associated with it. Each maqam conveys a specific mood or emotion, much as major and minor modes do in Western music. There is also an intricate network of other maqamat, which allows one maqam to modulate to another maqam. Thus maqamat form the pitch organization of improvisation and composition in Arab music, much as ragas do in Indian music.

Rhythm patterns, particularly in classical music, are also arranged into specific patterns, called iqa'at (singular iqa'). Unlike Western meters, these patterns are specific beat groupings with lengths of anywhere from 4 to 128 beats. Each iqa' is an arrangement of rests and two sounds made on a drum: dum (low), taq (high). These patterns repeat throughout a piece and serve as the foundation for percussive embellishments.

Folk Music

With the cultural diversity of the Arabs, it is unsurprising that there is great variety in the folk music styles found in the region. From the work songs of the fisherman of Bahai to the polyrhythmic dance music of Sudan, each area has a unique style that often displays the influence of music cultures with whom they have come in contact. Arab folk music includes religious chants, poetic song forms, and dance music for weddings and other social events. These styles can be performed by both amateurs and professionals, depending on the style and the locale. Arab folk music is dominated by vocal repertoire, in part due to the ambulatory lifestyle of many of the Arabs nomadic ancestors. In general, while men both sing and play instruments, singing is the main musical activity for women.

There are a variety of strophic and non-strophic forms found in Arab vocal music. The qasida is one of the most ancient forms, and it spans across the Arab world. This song form can be over 100 lines long and is arranged in couplets. Each couplet is self-contained and is often improvised, so that a singer is lauded for creative verses. There are also many shorter forms, such as the ataba (found in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq), which follow specific rhyme schemes, rhythms, and line lengths.

Folk music instruments come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but there are some instruments common to most Arabs. For example, the nay is a reed flute with a breathy, airy sound found in most Arab regions. Unlike the Western flute, there is no mouthpiece. Instead, a player holds the nay at a 45-degree angle and blows across the top of the long, hollow tube. Nay players manipulate the pitch through subtle adjustments of their fingers over the holes. Another interesting group of wind instruments are bright, double-pipe instruments like the arghul and the mijwiz. The arghul has one long pipe which serves as the drone while the melody is played on the shorter pipe. The mijwiz is comprised of two short pipes, which a player will often bring in close pitch to create sonic "beats." These and many other wind instruments are played with circular breathing to create a continuous melody.

The most common string instrument is the rabab, a one-stringed fiddle. It usually has a rectangular frame covered on the front and back with skin and a bow made of horsehair. A rabab player rests the instrument vertically on his or her knee and bows across the string in a similar fashion to a cello player.

Percussion instruments are important due to their portability and ability to accompany songs. Frame drums, called duff, bandir, and tar, are held horizontally and hit with the hand in the center or near the rim to produce different tones. A goblet-shaped drum named darbukkah is very common and is played by both women and men. Made from wood or clay, it is usually held between the legs or under the left arm and hit with two hands. Large cylindrical drums like Western bass drums are often played to accompany double-reed instruments at all types of festivities. One of the most interesting percussion instruments doubles as a coffee bean grinder. The mortar and pestle creates a rhythm in combination with the scraping of the beans against the bottom.

Classical Music

Today's classical (or "art") music in the Arab world is a derivative of styles that have been codified in treatises and played in courts for hundreds of years. Specific forms akin to the sonata form in Western classical music are prevalent in Arab classical music. Many forms include a section of taqsim, which features solo improvisation, an important part of the classical music aesthetic.

Whether a small takht ensemble or a larger firqa orchestra, classical music features many of the same instruments. The violin is found across the Arab world and has largely replaced the rabab as the string instrument of classical music. Arabs adopted the violin around the beginning of the twentieth century because it could reproduce the quarter tones and other subtle pitch variances. Following the adoption of the violin, the cello and the bass made their way into the developing firqa as well. The 'ud (also oud) is a fretless lute generally comprised of nine strings arranged in five courses (four same-pitched pairs and one single string). The trapezoidal-shaped qanun is a plucked dulcimer with a 1½ octave range. Using finger picks, a qanun player is able to play rapid flourishes.

The two most important percussion instruments are the riqq and the darbukkah (described above). The riqq is a small frame drum resembling a tambourine. The cymbals around the edges are larger than those of a tambourine and the skin is often made from fish skin. Tapping the cymbals and hitting the center and rim of the riqq, a player is able to produce many different sounds. The main wind instrument of classical music is the nay. In addition, the clarinet and the accordion have become prevalent in many parts of the Arab world.

Popular Music

Around the globe, the phenomenon of "popular music" has taken hold with the advent of recording and mass media, and the Arab world is no exception. Beginning with radio broadcasts and records, and continuing now with television and the Internet, the Arab world has become linked through this music. As a result, the popular music reaches into the lives of nearly all Arabs, in particular the young. Well-produced music and videos from Cairo feature huge stars, including both men and women. This music is grounded in Arab music traditions but borrows heavily from Western styles and instrumentation. Its appeal has developed a common thread that passes through every Arab country.

Another style found mainly in urban areas throughout the Arab world is raqs sharqi, known in the West as "belly dance" music. Though often incorrectly stigmatized, this music and dance style is a highly developed form of popular entertainment enjoyed by men, women, and children. The interplay between the dancers and the musicians is often far from simple, and the percussionists and dancers are mostly professional musicians who train and study to learn the art form.

Regional popular forms can also be found, of course. One example is rai music from Algeria. In Arabic, "rai" means "opinion" or "communication," so it is not surprising that rai often serves as a vehicle of political protest. Lyrics often criticize the government or bemoan the conditions of the poor. Rai musicians have often been harassed by the Algerian government, and as a result many now live and record in France. Typical of contemporary pop styles, rai borrows Western styles such as rock, reggae, and even hip-hop.