Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

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Davush
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Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Davush »

Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

I thought it might be useful to share some observations on Arabic music and theory. I know a few here showed some interest a while back, so hopefully this will be of some benefit to those interested. This thread does assume some basic knowledge of music theory, but I’ll try to avoid becoming too bogged down in terminology.

Middle Eastern Music as a Whole

Although a lot of music from the “Middle East” shares certain similarities, each tradition is very much its “own thing” within the larger context of music from the regionn.

Some of the main traditions include: the Arab, Persian, Turkish, and Armenian traditions.

Each of these is distinct from the others – it is usually easy enough to identify a piece as being from the Arabic vs. Turkish tradition, and so on. Of course, there is a lot of overlap, but they differ in aspects such as the preferred instrumentation, use of intonation, compositional styles, etc. I am only really familiar with the Arab tradition (specifically the oud), so this is what I will be talking about here.

I’ve also sometimes seen people conflate Middle Eastern and Indian musical traditions. While there are certain general elements that are shared (use of microtones, modal based, less use of harmony) that might give them a vaguely similar feel, Mid East and Indian music are different things. This is not to say there hasn’t been some mutual influence, but the two largely exist within their own spheres. (I imagine Indian music also has its own subdivisions.)

Comparisons are also often drawn between Arabic music and Flamenco – there are definitely some commonalities (and likely mutual influence), but the two are separate systems for the most part. Flamenco music makes extensive use of harmony, uses Equal Temperament instruments, is not based on the maqām system, and has its own norms (all of which are distinct from Arabic music, as discussed below).

So, this might seem obvious, but for those not familiar with Arabic music: it isn’t just a variation of Western music with a few twists, nor is it very meaningful to speak of a single, generalized “Eastern” music beyond vary vague commonalities. Arabic music has a rich history of its own, with its own pecularities, systems, and norms. This makes it somewhat difficult to discuss using the vocabulary of Western music theory, but it is possible (if not a bit clunky).

General Characteristics

Some main elements that characterise Arabic music and distinguish it from the Western tradition are:



–- Lack of harmony: Harmony plays a very minor role in Arabic music, and is more often than not completely absent. If you listen to ensembles or orchestras playing Arabic music, you will notice most (or all) of the instruments play in unison.

–– Maqām: The maqām is a fundamental element of Arabic music. Religious recitations (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and others), folk music, pop music, and the classical repertoire are all based on the maqām. In some ways, a maqām resembles a scale in Western music – many maqāmāt contain 8 notes, with the eighth being the octave. In other ways, the maqām differs from a “scale” – some maqāmāt do not repeat at the octave, and the way they are employed within the music differs significantly from a “scale”.

–- Rhythm: Arabic music often uses rhythms and rhythmic cycles (iqā’āt) that are quite unusual to those unfamiliar with them, although the familiar 2/2 and 4/4 rhythms are also common. The music is very driven by the interplay of melody and rhythm, which is especially noticeable given the lack of harmony. Even within the common 4/4-type rhythms, certain phrasings and emphasis are common, which give a distinct sound. Certain rhythms are often strongly associated with a particular region or genre, and in some musical genres, it is common for the rhythm to switch in certain sections.

–- Taqsīm / Improvisation: Improvisation is highly valued and common within Arabic music. Often, a set piece will be preceded by a taqsīm to introduce the maqām. Taqāsīm are also enjoyed in their own right as a musical form. A skilled player should be able to “set the mood” for a piece in this way, or, if performing solo, they should be able to guide the listener through the maqām. Even in fully rehearsed “classical” pieces, it is common to have sections of improvisation (both vocal and instrumental).

–- Quarter Tones: I think this is one aspect that is quite misunderstood. Quarter tones in Arabic music are not just embellishments or added for ornamentation/affect. Generally, they are called “half-flat” notes (less often “half-sharp”), i.e., taking the interval D–E as an example, in Arabic music, it can be divided into: D – E-flat – E-half-flat – E.

Quarter tones exist as “full” notes in their own right within the maqām system – they occupy a defined position, and generally cannot be substituted by non-quarter-tones: If a certain maqām contains E-half-flat on its third degree, then it can’t be substituted by E-natural or E-flat. In such a maqām, it will (nearly) always be played as E-half-flat, in the same way that the C-Major scale would always have E-natural.

–- Instruments: Given the use of quarter tones and lack of harmony, Equal Tempered instruments such as the piano and guitar are generally not used. More recent music (especially pop music) does sometimes include these, but this limits what maqāmāt can be played (sometimes synthesizers that make use of quarter tones are used instead). Even then, the exact intonation of the maqāmāt, even those without quarter tones, cannot be reproduced accurately on Equal Temperament instruments.

–- Tuning: Relatedly, instruments used in Arabic music prefer Pythagorean or Just Intonation (JI)-based tuning. Most common is to tune in pairs of perfect fourths – using a digital tuner based on Equal Temperament here produces bad results, as the discrepancies add up.

–- Intonation: The exact intonation of the notes within a maqām is important, and this is also why the tradition is strongly aural based and difficult to notate accurately. For example, in maqām ḥijāz, the first three notes are commonly denoted D – Eb – F#. However, in practice, the interval between Eb and F# is often reduced somewhat – not by enough to produce quarter tones, but different enough from the “piano” version of the interval, and even from the Just Intonation version. Regional differences in the exact intonations also exist, and this is also where Arabic, Turkish, Persian, etc. music have differences (Turkish music makes use of even finer gradations, if my understanding is correct). These all form part of a coherent system and aren’t just “random” intonation choices applied whenever one feels like it.

I will probably delve deeper into the various maqāmāt and include examples in the next post if anyone is interested.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Jackk »

Very interesting—I look forward to more! :D
Thanks for the glossary, I'm sure it'll be a useful reference.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

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If all instruments play in unison, how is improvisation handled? Do all instrument but one stay silent for a taqsim?
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

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Jackk wrote: 28 Apr 2022 13:52 Very interesting—I look forward to more! :D
Thanks for the glossary, I'm sure it'll be a useful reference.
Thank you!
gestaltist wrote: 28 Apr 2022 14:59 If all instruments play in unison, how is improvisation handled? Do all instrument but one stay silent for a taqsim?
Yes indeed - usually the taqsīm is performed solo and other instruments/singers are silent. A drone note under the taqsīm is also usually absent, unlike Indian music where I think drones are more common.

Audio Examples
Here are some examples illustrating the above concepts if anyone wants to listen:

This is a classical piece in Maqām Bayāti that illustrates the above concepts nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvFh7PmMmXk

The piece begins with a taqsīm on the oud, introducing the listeners that we are in Maqām Bayāti. This gives the listeners a chance to fully appreciate the tonal character of the maqām, the oud player's skill, and the main piece that follows. The actual piece doesn’t begin until around 1:30.

Then, the piece uses the rhythm Samā’i Thaqīl, switching to a section in Samā’i Dārij, which are 10/8 and 6/8, before returning to to Samā’i Thaqīl.

Maqām Bayāti itself illustrates quarter tones nicely – its second degree is a half-flat (e.g., Bayāti's first three notes are approximately: D - E-half-flat - F), which should be quite obvious when listening.


Here is a "solo" taqsīm from one of the old oud masters, Riyad al-Sunbati: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nmnOXrTJDY

It is in Maqām Ḥijāz, with several lovely "modulations". As is usual with taqāsīm, there is no single rhythmic structure underpinning it all, but it is still played vaguely rhythmically. Around 4:20, he switches to Maqām Bayāti. Being able to move seamlessly between different maqāmāt, while returning to the "home" maqām is the sign of a skilful player who fully understands the context of this music (I may write more on this, as it's a big topic).

And for some variety, here is a piece without any taqāsīm in Maqām Ṣabā: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLjNor1Ccto

It is a very unique-sounding maqām that uses several quarter tones. Notice that the players are playing in unison.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Salmoneus »

Thank you so much for this! As a layman, it's difficult to find reasonable, layman-level explanations of this topic (everything seems to be either very simplistic (saying very little) or very technical (of which I can understand very little), with not a lot in between...).

I'm still writing/planning to write a quick guide to how music works in general (at a more abstract level), and seeing how that fits in with your more detailed discussion of one tradition will be interesting to me.


I hope you don't mind, but I kind of wanted to interject a few things in terms of comparison to Western traditions. Please don't see this as trying to marginalise Arabic music in its own thread, just as half-thought comparisons - particularly because older Western music is probably as alien, or even more alien, to modern Western listeners than Arabic music is...
Each of these is distinct from the others – it is usually easy enough to identify a piece as being from the Arabic vs. Turkish tradition, and so on. Of course, there is a lot of overlap, but they differ in aspects such as the preferred instrumentation, use of intonation, compositional styles, etc. I am only really familiar with the Arab tradition (specifically the oud), so this is what I will be talking about here.
I'd love to hear in more detail about the differences - even if only in a very broad-brush way - but I appreciate that that might not be easy to pin down. Some knowledge is more like instinct than like education.

I'm familiar with the parallel situation in Western Common Practice - I've been in situations where I've said "I don't think I've heard this before, but I think it must be Russian music from the late 19th century", after only a few seconds, and not been able to explain exactly why except in the broadest sense - and yet I'm not boasting there, it really is super-obvious in many cases. Or English classical music of the early 20th century, it only takes a few notes to recognise that!
Spoiler:
One characteristic of late-Romantic Russian music is its obsessive orientalism. Russia's national identity was as the gateway between west and east, and they had a pathological attitude toward Westernism, both desperate to be accepted by it and terrified of losing their Russianness in the process, so they overcompensated by amping up the 'easternism' of their music, through references both to the 'internal' east of the Caucasus and the Steppe (whose musical traditions are closer to the Middle-Eastern sphere) and to the external east of Turkey and Persia (and in more exoticised ways India and China). A remarkable quantity of famous Russian music is imitating Middle-Eastern music (or using the claim of imitation as an excuse for modernist experimentation - eg octatonicism) - think of The Nutcracker cycling through various ethnic dances, Gayenne with its Caucasian dances, the mythical orient (i.e. the middle-east) of Scheherazade or The Firebird.
However, the biggest thing for the casual listener is actually the orchestration. They often employed what I can only describe as a super-lush orchestration, compared to which Germanic orchestration sounds hard and cold (one big difference between (Williams/Zimmer/etc-style) film music and classical music is that the latter is mostly Germanic and the former descends a bit more from Russia, but with added brass), and the combination of this orchestration with the slightly 'spicy' harmonies and melodies is really distinctive.
Similarly, 20th century English music is lusher than most styles, but lacks the spice, instead having a kind of atavistic quality due to the influence of British folk music (pentatonic melodies, etc). More flutes than normal. Etc.]
I’ve also sometimes seen people conflate Middle Eastern and Indian musical traditions. While there are certain general elements that are shared (use of microtones, modal based, less use of harmony) that might give them a vaguely similar feel, Mid East and Indian music are different things. This is not to say there hasn’t been some mutual influence, but the two largely exist within their own spheres. (I imagine Indian music also has its own subdivisions.)
Again, I'd really love to hear more on this! [and yes, Indian music is primarily divided into 'Carnatic' (southern) and 'Hindustani' (northern) styles, with the latter iirc showing more Persian influence, but I don't really know what the differences are in practice].

One thing I'd like to say here because I think it may affect how people think about different musical traditions is that in a very real sense we shouldn't think of "middle-eastern" music as a strange, unique thing, but should instead regard Common Practice music as a bizarre outlier. Historically, European, Byzantine, Persian and Indian musics formed a huge belt of, as it were, sister traditions, with only the music of the Sinosphere and SEA really standing out. Europe began to veer off from the other traditions in the Renaissance, and then totally broke away in 1600 - even the Sinosphere's music traditions are apparently, arguably, now more similar to the 'Greco-Indian', as it were (my term!) traditions than modern European music is. [SEA music, on the other hand, is clearly a scientific experiment performed upon humanity by aliens...]

(I think that it's thought that Arabic music is historically, so to speak, 'post-Byzantine' - that the big influence was from Byzantium onto the tribes living outside, and then invading, its borders - although Persia was also no doubt an influence. And the Turkish migrations from central asia have played a role too. Theoretically, Indian - and particularly Carnatic - music 'ought' to be the most distantly-related part of this family, but I don't know enough about any of these traditions to really know how true that is in practice today).
So, this might seem obvious, but for those not familiar with Arabic music: it isn’t just a variation of Western music with a few twists, nor is it very meaningful to speak of a single, generalized “Eastern” music beyond vary vague commonalities.
As I kind of hinted, in some ways it might actually make more sense to think of Western music as a variation of Middle-Eastern music with an awful lotof twists...
I do think it's meaningful to speak of "Eastern" (ie my 'Greco-indian') music, though, in terms of how it contrasts with Western (and Sinitic) music...


–- Lack of harmony: Harmony plays a very minor role in Arabic music, and is more often than not completely absent. If you listen to ensembles or orchestras playing Arabic music, you will notice most (or all) of the instruments play in unison.
I think one thing most people don't realise, but should know (if they have any interest in this subject) is that 'harmony' in the modern, Western sense (as in harmonic progressions and the like, 'tonality', rather than more simple concepts of concord and discord) is an extremely weird thing that's basically unique to Common Practice music (that is, European music since 1600), having developed over the course of the 17th century.

When you say 'in unison', are you including playing at the octave, or is it all strictly at the unison?
–– Maqām: The maqām is a fundamental element of Arabic music. Religious recitations (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and others), folk music, pop music, and the classical repertoire are all based on the maqām. In some ways, a maqām resembles a scale in Western music – many maqāmāt contain 8 notes, with the eighth being the octave. In other ways, the maqām differs from a “scale” – some maqāmāt do not repeat at the octave, and the way they are employed within the music differs significantly from a “scale”.
These are often translated as 'modes'. If tonal harmonic progression is the defining feature of Common Pratice music, modes are arguably the defining characteristic of what I've above called 'Greco-Indian' traditions. This includes European music of the middle ages! (although European modal systems were more primitive, aiui, than in sister traditions). [terms include 'dastgah' in Persia, 'raga' in India, and 'echos' in Byzantium]
–- Rhythm: Arabic music often uses rhythms and rhythmic cycles (iqā’āt) that are quite unusual to those unfamiliar with them, although the familiar 2/2 and 4/4 rhythms are also common. The music is very driven by the interplay of melody and rhythm, which is especially noticeable given the lack of harmony. Even within the common 4/4-type rhythms, certain phrasings and emphasis are common, which give a distinct sound. Certain rhythms are often strongly associated with a particular region or genre, and in some musical genres, it is common for the rhythm to switch in certain sections.
Again, people may be interested to learn that the use of rhythmic cycles to produce an interplay of melody and rhythm is also a major feature of European music of the late middle ages. Indeed, although modern notation tells us rhythm by describing the duration of individuals notes, medieval notation was the opposite: blocks of music followed different, simple rhythmic patterns, which were notated, and then the duration of an individual note was deduced from the position of the note within the rhythmic group. A common technique was to overlay the same melodic contour over different rhythmic patterns (in the same voice, that is), culminating in technique known as isochrony, in which the material for a voice was produced from a simple repeating rhythmic cycle and a simple repeating melodic cycle, where the two cycles were of different lengths, leading to a continually shifting (yet continually repeating) rhythm for the melody.
–- Taqsīm / Improvisation: Improvisation is highly valued and common within Arabic music. Often, a set piece will be preceded by a taqsīm to introduce the maqām. Taqāsīm are also enjoyed in their own right as a musical form. A skilled player should be able to “set the mood” for a piece in this way, or, if performing solo, they should be able to guide the listener through the maqām. Even in fully rehearsed “classical” pieces, it is common to have sections of improvisation (both vocal and instrumental).
This lasted longer in Europe than some other things we're discussing. These movements - relatively short, improvised (or pseudo-improvised) pieces that introduce the mode or key of the main piece - can be called toccatas, preludes (praeludia), praeambula, intonazioni, entradas, introductions, or (for guitar) tientos. The tradition lasted into the 18th century, although by then they were usually written out by the composer, and some could be of considerable length. They are sometimes played attaca (with no clear gap before the following movement) - for instance, many people have heard of Bach's 'Toccata in D' (the frightening organ piece), without realising that it's actually a 'Toccata and fugue' in D - the toccata itself is only the pseudo-improvisatory opening section, most of the piece is the fugue. The form has echoes throughout the common practice period, particularly in showpieces for virtuosi (eg Saens-Sans' "Introduction et Rondo capriccioso" for violin, or Rodrigo's "Invocación y Danza" for guitar).

As well as the musical function of introducing the following music, toccatas and the like also serve the practical purposes of allowing the performer to warm up, and in particular allowing the instrument to warm up and the performer to check the tuning of the instrument...

More generally, improvisation used to be a bigger part of Western music in previous centuries, with performers in many genres expected to embellish the written notes considerably. There is also a tradition of more intense improvisatory passages in vocal and soloistic music at particular places in the structure - these 'cadenzas' began as mere embellishments of a few notes but have in some cases developed into sections lasting many minutes. These days, cadenzas are almost never improvised, though occasionally they're written out in advance by the performer or a friend (with older music cadenzas supplied by other slightly-less-old composers are the norm, while with later music the composer of the piece themselves generally supplied their own cadenzas).
–- Quarter Tones: I think this is one aspect that is quite misunderstood. Quarter tones in Arabic music are not just embellishments or added for ornamentation/affect. Generally, they are called “half-flat” notes (less often “half-sharp”), i.e., taking the interval D–E as an example, in Arabic music, it can be divided into: D – E-flat – E-half-flat – E.
This is indeed a big difference from Western music. During the renaissance and the early baroque, Western Europe finally caught up to, and overtook, the theoretical explorations of Islamic music theorist in the realm of tuning, imagining complex temperaments and extended tunings, and even at times constructing instruments designed for microtonality (such as the 36-keys-per-octave archicembalo). In Europe, however, these experiments led to nothing other than the development of equal temperament: the advantages of symmetry and simplicity outweighed those of colour in the European mood of the day.
–- Instruments: Given the use of quarter tones and lack of harmony, Equal Tempered instruments such as the piano and guitar are generally not used. More recent music (especially pop music) does sometimes include these, but this limits what maqāmāt can be played (sometimes synthesizers that make use of quarter tones are used instead). Even then, the exact intonation of the maqāmāt, even those without quarter tones, cannot be reproduced accurately on Equal Temperament instruments.

–- Tuning: Relatedly, instruments used in Arabic music prefer Pythagorean or Just Intonation (JI)-based tuning. Most common is to tune in pairs of perfect fourths – using a digital tuner based on Equal Temperament here produces bad results, as the discrepancies add up.

–- Intonation: The exact intonation of the notes within a maqām is important, and this is also why the tradition is strongly aural based and difficult to notate accurately. For example, in maqām ḥijāz, the first three notes are commonly denoted D – Eb – F#. However, in practice, the interval between Eb and F# is often reduced somewhat – not by enough to produce quarter tones, but different enough from the “piano” version of the interval, and even from the Just Intonation version. Regional differences in the exact intonations also exist, and this is also where Arabic, Turkish, Persian, etc. music have differences (Turkish music makes use of even finer gradations, if my understanding is correct). These all form part of a coherent system and aren’t just “random” intonation choices applied whenever one feels like it.
It would be great to know what system was actually used! Historically, Arab theorists are said to have favoured an unequal 17-tone temperament, wih 17tet and a 25-tone system also being used, but I don't know how those match up to what performers themselves use.

It should be said of course that a lot of Western music is not really in 12tet either, because the same micro-intonational adjustments occur there too. This was particularly the case in renaissance and baroque music, where it was accepted that fretted instruments would be tuned in some form of meantone, while vocalists and wind players in particular would play in some form of contextually-appropriate just intonation, with pitches varying with their place in the song and the need to interact with the meantone accompaniments. The shift to easier instruments and larger ensembles later on, and the development of ET, has lead to the dominance of ET, but singers and sometimes wind players still don't fully adhere to it - a capella choral music in particular (and barbershop even more so) is often much closer to a fluid JI system. One prominent echo of ancient contextual practices also survives in the form of the harmonic and melodic minors.

Another aside: Europe came closest to the 'Greco-Indian' idea of distinctive modes (each with their own character) in the 18th century, with the experiments in well-temperament. Well-temperament attempts to square the temperament circle by intentionally introducing asymmetry, tempering some intervals more than others, and as a result producing 12-note octaves and instruments in which different keys have distinctly (though subtly) different harmonic/melodic properties. That is, on a modern piano a piece played in F major sounds exactly the same as one played in C major, but a fourth higher; on J.S. Bach's harpsichord, however, this transposition would have made the piece sound subtly but perceptibly different as the pattern of melodic and harmonic intervals changed. Sadly, well-temperament was killed off by equal temperament.

When you say "Pythagorean or JI", is that the 'or' of synonymy - including Pythagorean tuning as a form of JI - or the 'or' of contrast, saying it can be either Pythagorean OR truly JI (eg the Ptolemaic tuning) (depending on performer, or on region?)? [Pythagorean tuning is 'just' in a mathematician's sense, but its thirds are far from just in a musical sense, so people often contrast it with juster 'just intonation' systems] I gather that historically it was Pythagorean, although iirc 24tet is a better approximation of Ptolemaic tuning.

It's interesting that they tune in fourths - this is equivalent to, but slightly more difficult than, tuning in fifths as most cultures do. I wonder whether there is an echo in this of the tetrachordal system? It should also be noted that tuning in fourths (or fifths) won't obviously yield a 24-tone octave - instead you naturally get 5-, 12-, 17-, 29-, 41- or 53-tone octaves. It is of course possible to 'stop part way', as it were, effectively refusing to play certain notes, and in this way generate an octave with fewer notes in it, but this would be rather arbitrary. So I'm curious: how do they produce a 12-note octave (or whatever tuning they actually employ in practice) from tuning in fourths? [do they perhaps tune certain notes in fourths, but then tune those notes to other pairs via other intervals?]

[or is it just that they tune certain notes, and leave others untuned and variable? That's my impression of what they do in Turkish music, but that's a second-hand understanding that might well be wrong.]

Oh, and you're correct about Turkish theory, yes. Ottoman music theory used 53-tone equal temperament, and modern kanuns are constucted in 72-tone equal temperament. That said, I don't know how much this is a difference of theory rather than of practice.
I will probably delve deeper into the various maqāmāt and include examples in the next post if anyone is interested.
Yes, please do!
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

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Salmoneus wrote: 01 May 2022 22:57 Thank you so much for this! As a layman, it's difficult to find reasonable, layman-level explanations of this topic (everything seems to be either very simplistic (saying very little) or very technical (of which I can understand very little), with not a lot in between...).
Thank you for the insights and comparisons with (earlier) Western music. It is very interesting to compare the development, especially how those earlier traditions share much with Arabic music, but are now almost alien.
Salmoneus wrote: 01 May 2022 22:57 I'd love to hear in more detail about the differences - even if only in a very broad-brush way - but I appreciate that that might not be easy to pin down. Some knowledge is more like instinct than like education.
For the differences between the various Middle Eastern traditions, it’s mostly as you say – once you’re familiar enough, you can “feel” it. More specifically, though, Arabic music tends to favour: the oud, the qānūn, the nāy, violins, and various drums. Persian music (and music of neighbouring regions) uses the oud (and variations of) much less prominently, but have their own set of stringed instruments that are mostly absent in Arabic music. I think violins are also less prominent in Persian music. Certain maqāmāt also tend to feature more (or less) prominently, and they may be employed differently between traditions (where I can, I’ll try to note where Arabic music differs from Persian/Turkish/other, bearing in mind I’m only really familiar with the Arabic tradition). Another observation is also that Turkish music seems to be more ornamented, and is generally in a higher pitch (the Turkish oud is usually tuned a fourth higher than the Arabic one, and the Turkish qānūn is also higher I think, for example). I think the “classical” Turkish repertoire was also a bit more open to using “unusual” maqāmāt and modulations, whereas Arabic music sticks more closely to a few core maqāmāt and modulation patterns. Improvisation also seems to have a bigger place in the Arabic tradition. (Of course, there are all just general tendencies…)
Salmoneus wrote: 01 May 2022 22:57 Again, I'd really love to hear more on this! [and yes, Indian music is primarily divided into 'Carnatic' (southern) and 'Hindustani' (northern) styles, with the latter iirc showing more Persian influence, but I don't really know what the differences are in practice].

One thing I'd like to say here because I think it may affect how people think about different musical traditions is that in a very real sense we shouldn't think of "middle-eastern" music as a strange, unique thing, but should instead regard Common Practice music as a bizarre outlier.

I think you are right about the idea of a “Greco-Indian” music sphere, with the Western developments being the “odd ones out” – Indian music probably shares much more in common overall with Arabic music than it does with Western (Common Practice ?) music. I’m not familiar enough with Indian music though, so I can’t really make any meaningful comparisons. By saying Arabic and Indian music are “different things”, I was mostly trying to highlight that the two have developed in their own unique ways and are now goverened by their own systems (which likely overlap in parts, but are also distinct).
Salmoneus wrote: 01 May 2022 22:57
It would be great to know what system was actually used! Historically, Arab theorists are said to have favoured an unequal 17-tone temperament, wih 17tet and a 25-tone system also being used, but I don't know how those match up to what performers themselves use.
...
When you say "Pythagorean or JI", is that the 'or' of synonymy - including Pythagorean tuning as a form of JI - or the 'or' of contrast, saying it can be either Pythagorean OR truly JI (eg the Ptolemaic tuning) (depending on performer, or on region?)?
Regarding tuning/intonation: My knowledge is mostly from listening and playing, and mostly oud-focused, rather than any deep theoretical basis, so apologies if a lot of this is more “descriptive” than anything. I was using “or” in “JI or Pythagorean” only in reference to the tuning of open strings, which tend to be tuned in 4ths (and 5ths), so same thing.

Essentially: Arabic music doesn’t fit neatly into any single tuning/intonation system. Generally, the “stable” intervals (4ths 5ths) are closer to those in Pythagorean and JI than in ET. With thirds and quarter tones especially, there is variation depending on maqām/era/region/player. Different maqāmāt are idiosyncratic in their intervals, and dividing the octave into equal-spaced intervals doesn’t really correspond well with actual practice.

To give some examples: The Eb in maqām ḥijāz can be (and is) played as a Pythagorean minor third, a JI minor third, or something in between. The F in maqām bayāti (D- E-half-flat – F) is generally played as a Pythagorean minor third, but the F in maqām rāst (C - D - E-half-flat– F) is a “true” perfect fourth in reference to the C.

So how does this relate to tuning of instruments…

Well, the oud is generally tuned in fourths: C - F - A - D - G - C, where F is the only “problem” note, as it forms a third with A (it is tuned to a fourth to the C below). In practice, this isn’t too problematic, as very few maqāms use open F as a tonic/dominant note, so the “clashing third” with A is mostly only a theoretical problem. The violin is unproblematically G-D-G-D. Any other notes can, of course, be intonated however the player wants.

It is mostly the qānūn that presents a challenge to tuning, as it is not as flexible as the oud and violin. I’m not really familiar enough with the specifics of qānūn tuning, but I think players would have previously had to retune it for different sets of maqāmāt. I think now it is common tune to the “conventional” pitches of maqām 'ajam (similar to a major scale, but usually closer to either JI or Pythagorean intervals), and then use the levers to achieve the quarter tones/accidentals depending on which maqām is being played. This does mean the qānūn can’t achieve as precise intonation as the oud/violin, and also makes modulation a bit more difficult. If the player wants to switch to pieces in a maqām whose intervals don't correspond well with those of maqām 'ajam, it would probably mean retuning, at least if the player wants to be faithful to the "traditional" intonation. For more recent instruments like the keyboard that can't achieve precise intonation on the fly, I think 24tet is mostly used, and it's just accepted they'll be a bit off.

So basically, I think the Arabic system can be described of as kind of a mix of Pythagorean, Just Intonation, and a lot of idiosyncrasies - this makes it difficult to describe according to any neat system. The discrepancy between theory and practice in Arabic music has been commented on quite a lot, so I try mostly just to stick to what I hear/see. In some ways, it's almost as if each maqām (or more precisely, tetrachord) has its own "tuning"...which leads to...
Salmoneus wrote: 01 May 2022 22:57
It's interesting that they tune in fourths - this is equivalent to, but slightly more difficult than, tuning in fifths as most cultures do. I wonder whether there is an echo in this of the tetrachordal system?
I was going to write more about in the next post, but briefly: the tetrachord (sometimes also 3- and 5-note sequences – “jins” in Arabic) is, in many ways, more fundamental than the maqām “as a whole” – the relationship between the notes in a jins matters more than between notes across a whole 7-note maqām (8 if you include the octave), so octave equivalence is often not all that important in practice – and indeed some maqāmāt do not repeat at the octave (or even have the octave above the tonic). This probably partially explains why perfect fourths are so important, as you mention. So, for example, the notes in a lower jins of a maqām stand in a tight relationship to each other, but less so to those in an upper jins. This becomes more obvious when you start delving into modulations.

Sorry if that was a bit long winded, but hopefully clarifies some things!
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Pāṇini »

What a fantastic introduction! I can’t wait for your maqamat analysis :)

As a brief aside, some older Sinospheric classical music does play into this heptatonic/modal Greco-Indian tradition (I like your term, Salmoneus!). I find this most striking in the Tang court music underlying Japanese gagaku, the underlying structure of which is nearly Gregorian in its melodic content. One of the more famous gagaku pieces is Etenraku, which likely means “Khotanese music”, placing the tradition very nicely at the eastern terminus of the Greco-Indian belt.

I suspect that the pentatonic traditions that we tend to associate with East Asia (and for that matter the Celtic regions of Western Europe) are survivals following the superimposition at some point in the past of a Greco-Indian system.

The other curious thing about the G-I belt is that there’s a lot of halfway-tonal musics with harmonic content on the European periphery, such as klezmer, Romani music, flamenco, and to some degree the traditions of Russian Orthodox chant.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Salmoneus »

Davush wrote: 02 May 2022 13:07 For the differences between the various Middle Eastern traditions, it’s mostly as you say – once you’re familiar enough, you can “feel” it. More specifically, though, Arabic music tends to favour: the oud, the qānūn, the nāy, violins, and various drums. Persian music (and music of neighbouring regions) uses the oud (and variations of) much less prominently, but have their own set of stringed instruments that are mostly absent in Arabic music. I think violins are also less prominent in Persian music. Certain maqāmāt also tend to feature more (or less) prominently, and they may be employed differently between traditions (where I can, I’ll try to note where Arabic music differs from Persian/Turkish/other, bearing in mind I’m only really familiar with the Arabic tradition). Another observation is also that Turkish music seems to be more ornamented, and is generally in a higher pitch (the Turkish oud is usually tuned a fourth higher than the Arabic one, and the Turkish qānūn is also higher I think, for example). I think the “classical” Turkish repertoire was also a bit more open to using “unusual” maqāmāt and modulations, whereas Arabic music sticks more closely to a few core maqāmāt and modulation patterns. Improvisation also seems to have a bigger place in the Arabic tradition. (Of course, there are all just general tendencies…)
Thanks for the details!
Apparently, the increased use of modulation in Turkish is a recent development, in direct response to Western music: Ottoman music in the 19th century attempted to become more similar to contemporary European music, and the increased use of modulation was a part of that. [Ottoman and European music were in competition, and the latter gradually replaced the former, at least in elite society; this apparently became more ideological with the rise of Turkish nationalism, which at first saw the abandonment of 'primitive' Turkish music and the embrace of European music as essential to Turkey's reconstruction as a modern nation (paralleling the campaigns for secularism)]

[this is also probably reflected in things like the development of the modern qanun (which had been spread throughout the Ottoman world in the early 19th century) in the late 19th century. Previously the qanun had far fewer strings, was held vertically to play, and had no levers, with the left hand manually adjusting string tension, meaning that only the right hand could actually play. The development of larger strings and soundboxes and greater ease of playing particularly in modulated passages is something that a lot of non-European and folk-European instruments went through in this era following exposure to Western classical music, and the levers in particular make me think of the use of pedals on the European harp (added in the late 18th and early 19th centuries), although I don't know if that was the direct inspiration for qanun-makers. The theory of 24-tone equal temperament was also developed, or at least popularised, in the 19th century].

Maybe I'm wrong, but I also kind of get the impression that, at least in a 19th-20th century context, formal Ottoman music was, from a social point of view, more overtly 'sophisticated' and 'classical', with Arabic music being more in touch with the vernacular? I know the oud, for instance, was apparently seen as a rustic and primitive instrument in Turkey in the Ottoman era. I get the impression that Ottoman music made more use of larger ensembles (essentially chamber music) than modern Arabic music does (though I know very little about this and am eager to be corrected). This might help explain the greater use of modulation, exotic maqamat, and ornamentation (all potentially signifiers of the 'sophistication' of the performer), and the greater reluctance to improvise (which gets a lot more musically dangerous as you increase the number of performers who hve to work together!)?

This may even partially explain the higher pitches in Turkish music! Western music has suffered from repeated periods of 'pitch inflation', in which tuning standard pitches have risen, until in the 19th century national governments were forced to intervene. Finally, an international conference had to be called to establish a pan-European agreement on pitch, in a document known as the Treaty of Versailles (though today this is better remembered for some of the other topics it dealt with along the way, like the aftermath of that whole 'WWI' thing...). Even so, pitch had edged up about 5 hertz by the middle of the 20th century, when it finally became mostly fixed at A=440; however, many orchestras either refused to go down or have continued to go up. Baroque music specialists, meanwhile, have privately agreed to mostly adhere to the older standard of A=415, about a semitone lower. Bagpipes, on the other hand, have ignored attempts at restraint and have risen to a semitone or even a tone higher than the standard.

The point is, though, that this only happens with instrumentalists, and specifically with instrumentalists who are competing to sound more striking and brilliant. Singers, however, hate pitch inflation, because constantly singing higher and higher damages the voice. In Renaissance Europe, when pitch inflation had been running rampant (some pitches were apparently a minor third higher than today), and it got to a point where vocalists across the continent went on strike and demanded deflation, a temporary compromise was actually found by lowering vocal pitches while not lowering instrumental pitches - leading to singers being treated as, in effect, transposing instruments, reading from music notated in an entirely different key from everybody else! The other people who didn't like inflation of course were less professional musicians who could only afford cheaper instruments less capable of up-tuning - particular lutenists and the like, as low-quality gut strings would be prone to snapping if tuned too high. [this is probably one reason why up-tuning 'sounds better', since it proves your instrument is a reasonable quality...]

So maybe I'm over-thinking this, but it's kind of believable to me that Ottoman court musicians - playing instruments, with access to high-quality strings, competing to show off their virtuosity to wealthy patrongs - may steadily have raised their pitches, while Arab popular singers accompanied on second-hand strings may have kept their pitches intentionally lower, and hence more safely accessible? But yeah, I'm probably reaching here, without enough knowledge of either tradition to warrant it...
Regarding tuning/intonation: My knowledge is mostly from listening and playing, and mostly oud-focused, rather than any deep theoretical basis, so apologies if a lot of this is more “descriptive” than anything.
That's probably for the best, for your sanity at the very least. Every time I look into tuning, I feel my brain fraying at the edges, and that's without even get deep into the mathematics. [Glancing at online microtonality and xenharmony communities, it often seems that complete unravelment of sanity is the inevitably end-point of interest in that topic...]
Essentially: Arabic music doesn’t fit neatly into any single tuning/intonation system. Generally, the “stable” intervals (4ths 5ths) are closer to those in Pythagorean and JI than in ET. With thirds and quarter tones especially, there is variation depending on maqām/era/region/player. Different maqāmāt are idiosyncratic in their intervals, and dividing the octave into equal-spaced intervals doesn’t really correspond well with actual practice.
Indeed, as is to be expected - equal divisions are dissonant, making them both unpleasant and counterintuitive to tune!
To give some examples: The Eb in maqām ḥijāz can be (and is) played as a Pythagorean minor third, a JI minor third, or something in between. The F in maqām bayāti (D- E-half-flat – F) is generally played as a Pythagorean minor third, but the F in maqām rāst (C - D - E-half-flat– F) is a “true” perfect fourth in reference to the C.
I take your point as a general observation, but fwiw those specific intervals do actually add up - if C-F is a perfect fourth and D-F is a Pythagorean minor third, that would make C-D an ordinary 9:8 whole tone, which is exactly what it's meant to be in both Pythagorean and Ptolemaic tuning!

One question I do have: are the less 'stable' notes unstable only between performances (players, regions, instruments, whatever), or are they unstable within performances as well? I've heard that in Turkish music the unstable notes change depending on their context - unstable notes are higher when the melody is rising, and are lower when the melody is falling (as with the modern European melodic minor scale, but I think more subtly?). Does that happen in Arabic music as well, or is each pitch value relatively fixed throughout a given piece?
Well, the oud is generally tuned in fourths: C - F - A - D - G - C, where F is the only “problem” note, as it forms a third with A (it is tuned to a fourth to the C below). In practice, this isn’t too problematic, as very few maqāms use open F as a tonic/dominant note, so the “clashing third” with A is mostly only a theoretical problem.
In what way is that a problem theoretically? Assuming the fourths are all pure, that just leaves F-A as a Pythagorean major third, which again is what you'd expect in Pythagorean tuning. Is the problem the fact that the Pythagorean major third in general just doesn't sound great? Or is the problem that it doesn't line up neatly with the theoretical 24tet system? Presumably either way there will be other problematic intervals, even if not between open strings - or is the implication that players adjust the closed string positions to avoid obviously dissonant thirds when they arise (adjusting them to JI values), but that they can't easily do so when the third is hardwired into the open strings?
The violin is unproblematically G-D-G-D. Any other notes can, of course, be intonated however the player wants.
I'm curious - other than the tuning, are these ordinary European instruments, or some local equivalent?



Hope the questions and digressions aren't putting you off what you'd intended to write next!
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Davush »

Pāṇini wrote: 02 May 2022 22:55 What a fantastic introduction! I can’t wait for your maqamat analysis :)
[...]
I suspect that the pentatonic traditions that we tend to associate with East Asia (and for that matter the Celtic regions of Western Europe) are survivals following the superimposition at some point in the past of a Greco-Indian system.
Thanks! Also thanks for the insights into East Asian music – I've always wanted to know a bit more about it, so please feel free to post more. The idea that the pentatonic-based music is pre-Greco-Indian is very interesting and not something I had considered.


Salmoneus wrote: 06 May 2022 16:45
In what way is that a problem theoretically? Assuming the fourths are all pure, that just leaves F-A as a Pythagorean major third, which again is what you'd expect in Pythagorean tuning.
Thanks also for your insights, and feel free to continue interjecting! The more the better in my opinion.

As for your questions:

Sorry, I didn’t explain clearly what I meant by the “clashing third” of the F and A. This is really an oud-specific problem, so I’m not sure how relevant this is to other instruments.

It’s easier to explain with an example (I will use "d" to indicate a half-flat): 
 


Let’s say you wanted to play Jins 'Ajam from the open F. Jins Ajam is essentially the first 5 notes of a major scale, usually played with a JI third. In this case, the open A will be out of tune. So, what’s the solution? – either intonate the JI A from the F string, or retune the A. Neither of these are ideal: intonating a JI A on the F string creates unpleasant overtones from the open (Pythagorean) A, and is also practically quite awkward to play this way. Retuning the A would then mean retuning the other strings to retain the perfect fourths – also not ideal.

Another example: Jiharkah is commonly played [F-G-A-Bb-C], however, it is considered distinct from 'Ajam. The third and the fourth are both quite a bit lower than in JI (not by enough to make quarter tones, but enough that it sounds distinct). Playing Jiharkah from the open F and using open A would similarly make it very awkward to intonate the correct A, as you'd have to play it from the F string with awkward finger position, and then lose out on the use of the open A string.

Some maqamat/ajnas do use Pythagorean thirds (Pythagorean minor thirds being more common overall I think). Let’s take Jins Saba for example: its first three notes are: [D – Ed – F]. The F in Saba is often a note of emphasis – melodic “emphasised notes” are commonly reinforced by playing the octave under. Playing the F in Saba here with a JI minor third would mean you don’t have access to (an in tune) lower-octave F for emphasis. (I think I’ve got this right – the maths/ratios behind it all baffle me to be honest.)

So basically: The intonation of the third in most maqamat depends on the particular jins/maqam. Some use JI thirds, others use Pythagorean thirds, and others use something in between (or neither). Having the third be located on an open string means you can’t really accomodate these differences easily.

So, in practice, the vast majority of the melody is played from tonics found on the A string upwards, keeping the relation of the fourths intact (A - D - G - C). If you really want to play from F, the usual solution is to just play the upper octave (intonated from the D string), as with Jiharkah. Apparently the two lower courses were added quite late, and it’s still relatively common to see 5-course ouds. It is also quite common to tune the F to a G for certain maqamat.

For the “unstable” notes – their intonation can be subtly different depending on the context, but my impression is that the differences aren't fixed as rigidly as they are in Turkish music. There is where the theory vs. practice gets a bit blurry: Theoretically, one can differentiate between subtle differences in intonation (but remaining in the same jins) and differences that actually put you in a different jins. For example, playing the "Ed" in Jins Rast [C-D-Ed-F-G] very slightly higher or lower when ascending/descending, but never venturing into "full" flat or natural territory, would be a "subtle intonation" difference – the jins itself hasn't changed. (In comparison, in Turkish Rast, the ascending Ed is often much higher, almost natural.) Then, there is the another type of difference: the usual way of describing it would be that a different jins is used. This mirrors what you mention about ascending and descending minor scales in the Western tradition. For example, Maqam Nahawand often uses Jins Hijaz as its upper Jins when ascending, i.e., [C-D-Eb-F-G] [G-Ab-B-C], but uses Jins Kurd when descending [C-Bb-Ab-G]. Both types of variations are very, very common, and often only last for a single phrase.

Hopefully that helps! It'll probably also become clearer when I get round to talking about individual maqamat/ajnas.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Salmoneus »

Pāṇini wrote: 02 May 2022 22:55 What a fantastic introduction! I can’t wait for your maqamat analysis :)

As a brief aside, some older Sinospheric classical music does play into this heptatonic/modal Greco-Indian tradition (I like your term, Salmoneus!). I find this most striking in the Tang court music underlying Japanese gagaku, the underlying structure of which is nearly Gregorian in its melodic content. One of the more famous gagaku pieces is Etenraku, which likely means “Khotanese music”, placing the tradition very nicely at the eastern terminus of the Greco-Indian belt.

I suspect that the pentatonic traditions that we tend to associate with East Asia (and for that matter the Celtic regions of Western Europe) are survivals following the superimposition at some point in the past of a Greco-Indian system.

The other curious thing about the G-I belt is that there’s a lot of halfway-tonal musics with harmonic content on the European periphery, such as klezmer, Romani music, flamenco, and to some degree the traditions of Russian Orthodox chant.
To echo Davush - a much-appreciated addition to the thread, and I hope we can expect an equivalent series on Sinospheric music in the future!
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Salmoneus »

Davush wrote: 14 May 2022 11:42 Thanks! Also thanks for the insights into East Asian music – I've always wanted to know a bit more about it, so please feel free to post more. The idea that the pentatonic-based music is pre-Greco-Indian is very interesting and not something I had considered.
I know very little about the history of East Asian music, so I can't comment on the specifics there, but in general it does seem to be the case that more 'primitive' societies use music with fewer tones. Below-pentatonic music tends to be found in children's music, ritual music, and the music of hunter-gatherer tribes. Pentatonic is virtually universal, and heptatonic seems to be a later development originating in civilisation.

This probably has both social and practical reasons. Practically, the more tones you use the harder it is to tune them all, particularly if your instruments are crude and your society lacks a dedicated musical class (or mathematics!). Socially, the more notes you have the less quickly you 'run out' of melodies and harmonies and the more different effects you can create, so it makes sense to have more notes in societies with more developed traditions of professional musicianship and amateur music appreciation.

[having said that, it's weird to me that enneatony is apparently Not A Thing anywhere...]
Salmoneus wrote: 06 May 2022 16:45
In what way is that a problem theoretically? Assuming the fourths are all pure, that just leaves F-A as a Pythagorean major third, which again is what you'd expect in Pythagorean tuning.
Thanks also for your insights, and feel free to continue interjecting! The more the better in my opinion.

As for your questions:

Sorry, I didn’t explain clearly what I meant by the “clashing third” of the F and A. This is really an oud-specific problem, so I’m not sure how relevant this is to other instruments.
The details may be oud-specific, but the same fundamental problems will arise on any instrument: when you define a note by a perfect relationship to a second note, it will be impossible to simultaneously define the first note by another perfect relationship to a third note. This is particularly a problem on anything with pre-tuned notes - such as open strings.

This is easily demonstrated with a 'comma pump' sequence. For instance, if you play alternating perfect fifths and fourths and then an octave - C-G-D-A-E-B-F-C'-C - the note you end up on will be 81/80ths the pitch of the note you started on...

Stepping back a moment, though:
Well, the oud is generally tuned in fourths: C - F - A - D - G - C [...] Apparently the two lower courses were added quite late, and it’s still relatively common to see 5-course ouds. It is also quite common to tune the F to a G for certain maqamat
Interesting, in two ways.

Firstly, perhaps I can add some histoical context here. Grove (my digital copy - I think 2001, but who knows when the specific article was written) talks about an original 4-course oud (a 2-course is theorised but unproven), tuned in pure fourths (modern Moroccan 4-coursers have a different tuning, though). The 5-course was invented in Andalusia in the 8th or 9th centuries (the 5th course originally being in the middle but later becoming the top string), but Grover says that tuning was very variable until order began to be imposed in the 20th century, with the fall of the Ottomans (which created a distinct conceptual 'Arabic' tradition separate from the Turkish, rather than just being a variety of local folk styles underneath the Ottoman tradition) and the rise of modern music tuition. Grove gives six different modern tunings:

G-A-d-g-c' (the single tuning that people 'endeavoured to impose' in the 20th century; i.e. 2-4-4-4 in intervals)
E-A-d-g-c' ("Aleppo tuning", found in Turkey and Iraq; 4-4-4-4)
g'-d'-a-e-d ("old school" Turkish; 2-4-4-4, but in reverse and a lot higher)
d-e-a-d'-g' (found in Iraq, but "considered incorrect in the Syro-Egyptian area" as an Ottoman relic; same as above but flipped around)
A-B-e-a-d'-g' (new Turkish, "three octaves with the addition of a lower course", something Arabic ouds can only replicated by adding a sixth course. And no, I've no idea what distinction they're trying to make there. Unless that the Arabic 6-coursers add a higher course rather tha a lower? Anyway, this is 2-4-4-4-4, which looks a lot like adding an additional course on top)

Gove then says that the 6-course oud has become popular. The original is now only found in Libya, but a similar instrument is now found in Syria, tuned C-E-A-d-g-c', with double courses (3-4-4-4-4 - so lowering the Turkish one by a fourth and then dropping the lowest course a tone). But it says that a new form is becoming "increasingly usual from Istanbul to Baghdad", with five double courses and "an extra low [string]", placed 'after' the highest string, with undefined tuning ("its pitch is at the choice of the player, no rule is laid down") (I think it implies that the other strings are in accordance with the standard 'imposed tuning'?).

So I'm curious that the tuning you mention (4-3-4-4-4) ... isn't any of these! It drops the feature of the bottom second that most of these systems seem to have. Instead, it seems to be like the aberrant twelve-string Syrian version, but with the second course raised a tone to invert the bottom two intervals. Are you ouds twelve-string like the Syrian ones, or eleven-string like the "Istanbul to Baghdad" ones?

Anyway, this seems to emphasise the extent to which oud tuning is still very variable over time and space, at least for the newfangled six-course ones.

[apparently a seven-course oud was briefly used around two hundred years ago. Its strings were in the reverse (old-school Turkish) order, and a distinctive feature was that only four of the courses were allowed to be played.


[other titbits: prior to the introduction of the fifth course, the oud was only used for melodies within a single tetrachord or pentachord (jins, I guess); the fifth course allowed melodies to stretch over the whole octave. The six-course instrument makes it relatively easy to play across three octaves; Grove does't make the link, but I wonder whether its adoption is related to the apparent shift of the oud from a strictly accompaniment instrument (with a singer) to one that's often used as a solo instrument. On which note, Grove also dates the centrality of the taqsim to 1971 (after a concert in Geneva), after which the short prologue became a lengthy piece combining improvised and unimprovised sections, and entire concerts came to be created out of sequences of taqsim. Grove says that in doing this the man responsible (Munir Bashir) "unconsciously, and without ever intending a reference to Iranian music, [...] provided Arab music with the foundations of a new system parallel to and comparable with the Persian dastgāh". Before this, there was little solo repertoire for the instrument at all. Grove links the adoption of the taqsim to the writing of new instrumental works for the instrument (though some pieces were already written by the Ottomans), arrangements from other instruments, experimentation with non-Arabic instruments and styles, and the creation of soloist concerts as Western influences: "None of these developments could have arisen without a certain amount of backing in the West, where this type of performance originated." They also note another change: it's allegedly become common to listen to the oud silently (in the European style), whereas previously the audience would participate with "loud cries" and other "physio-psychological reactions". Interestingly, it says that this happened most often at the end of what it calls the 'qafla', but is clearly in Western terms a cadenza: an improvised passage before the final return of the original or secondary mode...]


Oh, and speaking of Western influence, there's my second 'interesting' thing: how the tuning you describe (4-3-4-4-4) relates to European tunings. The oldest known tunings for the 5-course lute are 4-3-4-4, with additional courses keeping the 4-3-4-4 top end (with the top one or two stings lowered an octave for the theorbo) and adding additional courses below (although variants were common; because in part of the same intonation problems we've discussed, pieces would sometimes specifically instruct performers to retune a particular string). This seems tantalisingly similar to your modern oud tuning. Similarly (and unsurprisingly) viol tuning usually used 4-3-4-4. Guitars started out 4-3-4, but added their additional strings to the lower end, in fourths: 4-4-3-4 and 4-4-4-3-4.

[by comparison, the mediaeval fiddle had tunings like (-5)-8-12-0 (eg d-G-g-d'-d'). Rebecs were usually in fifths, violins are in fifths, rababs are usually in fifths (except apparently in fourths in Afghanistan). Citterns sometimes had thirds crop up in their tunings, but only as a result of re-entrant orderings. English guittars are tuned 3-m3-4-3-m3, but that of course is rather later and is the result of the development of harmony.]

So I guess what I'm pointing out is: tuning in thirds is really weird, and hardly any instuments do it, except for European instruments descended from the oud, which generally have this 4-3-4 pattern extended in fourths on either side... just like your oud. The obvious conclusion is that the European pattern descends unproblematically from an oud tuning with one third in it. Except that Grove seems pretty clear that there were no thirds anywhere in historical oud tuning, and doesn't even know about your modern tuning with a third! So is this a coincidence? It seems unlikely, given the absence of thirds (and particularly this 4-3-4 pattern) anywhere else, and given the problems that you point out (tuning a third automatically requires choices that limit you elsewhere, which doesn't happen with fourths and fifths and octaves). So is your oud based on European tunings? Perhaps... but the most obvious thing it would be based on is the guitar, which has a 4-4-4-3-4 tuning, whereas your oud has a 4-3-4-4-4 tuning, which doesn't look as though someone's just copied a borrowed guitar. [plus, you say that the local violins have been retuned, so it's not as though European tuning is being seen as authoritative even on European instruments, let alone Arabic ones. So maybe it really is a coincidence. But... why!? Why does anybody tune anything with a third, let alone coincidentally? Why does 'Syrian' tuning begin with a third (rather than a tone or a fourth as everywhere else), and why would your modern tuning move that third a course higher, where it's presumably more of a problem? [making that F and E would mean you'd have a bigger stretch available without an annoying third in the middle of it]

So what's going on? I've no idea. [I've never understood why lutes and guitars had thirds in them anyway]


For the “unstable” notes – their intonation can be subtly different depending on the context, but my impression is that the differences aren't fixed as rigidly as they are in Turkish music. There is where the theory vs. practice gets a bit blurry: Theoretically, one can differentiate between subtle differences in intonation (but remaining in the same jins) and differences that actually put you in a different jins. For example, playing the "Ed" in Jins Rast [C-D-Ed-F-G] very slightly higher or lower when ascending/descending, but never venturing into "full" flat or natural territory, would be a "subtle intonation" difference – the jins itself hasn't changed. (In comparison, in Turkish Rast, the ascending Ed is often much higher, almost natural.)
Ahh, interesting! Thank you!
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Davush »

Salmoneus wrote: 14 May 2022 23:30

Firstly, perhaps I can add some histoical context here. Grove (my digital copy - I think 2001, but who knows when the specific article was written) talks about an original 4-course oud (a 2-course is theorised but unproven), tuned in pure fourths (modern Moroccan 4-coursers have a different tuning, though). The 5-course was invented in Andalusia in the 8th or 9th centuries (the 5th course originally being in the middle but later becoming the top string), but Grover says that tuning was very variable until order began to be imposed in the 20th century, with the fall of the Ottomans (which created a distinct conceptual 'Arabic' tradition separate from the Turkish, rather than just being a variety of local folk styles underneath the Ottoman tradition) and the rise of modern music tuition. Grove gives six different modern tunings:

G-A-d-g-c' (the single tuning that people 'endeavoured to impose' in the 20th century; i.e. 2-4-4-4 in intervals)
E-A-d-g-c' ("Aleppo tuning", found in Turkey and Iraq; 4-4-4-4)
g'-d'-a-e-d ("old school" Turkish; 2-4-4-4, but in reverse and a lot higher)
d-e-a-d'-g' (found in Iraq, but "considered incorrect in the Syro-Egyptian area" as an Ottoman relic; same as above but flipped around)
A-B-e-a-d'-g' (new Turkish, "three octaves with the addition of a lower course", something Arabic ouds can only replicated by adding a sixth course. And no, I've no idea what distinction they're trying to make there. Unless that the Arabic 6-coursers add a higher course rather tha a lower? Anyway, this is 2-4-4-4-4, which looks a lot like adding an additional course on top)

Gove then says that the 6-course oud has become popular. The original is now only found in Libya, but a similar instrument is now found in Syria, tuned C-E-A-d-g-c', with double courses (3-4-4-4-4 - so lowering the Turkish one by a fourth and then dropping the lowest course a tone). But it says that a new form is becoming "increasingly usual from Istanbul to Baghdad", with five double courses and "an extra low [string]", placed 'after' the highest string, with undefined tuning ("its pitch is at the choice of the player, no rule is laid down") (I think it implies that the other strings are in accordance with the standard 'imposed tuning'?).
Interesting that Grove does not mention C-F-A-d-g-c or even C-G-A-d-g-c tuning! I can't speak to the historical tunings (or Turkish tunings), but these two tunings (and their equivalent but a fourth higher) probably account for the majority of oud music from the 50s onwards, maybe even a bit earlier, (including the "oud masters" like Bashir, Qasabji, Sunbati, and Atrash). My own ouds are 6-course with 11 strings (single string for the low C) – this set up seems quite standard now for "Arabic" ouds built within the last 30-40 years or so. I think Turkish ouds now more commonly have 12 strings as default. My general observations on the current state of affairs are:

(Also, just to clarify first, the sixth course usually refers to the low (lowest pitched) C, and the first course to the high C, with sixth-course low C being the later addition.)

– The fifth-course low F is indeed the most variable regarding tuning, but F (and G) seems to have been settled on as a happy medium. The C-F-A-d-g-c tuning seems in many ways to be the most versatile. I imagine low G (as in the "imposed standard) was probably more common at some point, as an octave note from the high G (which makes sense), but tuning one step lower to F allows a bit more versatility: You can still descend an octave from the open high g, but also have the open low F available for emphasis in maqamat like Saba, Ajam, and Nahawand where the F is often important. Low D for octave emphasis on maqamat whose tonic is D is also available from the low C in this set up, which is quite extensively used (some even tune low C to D if playing extensively in a D-based maqam). So, the now-common tuning is basically just modified "imposed standard" G-a-d-g-c (with the addition of low C), allowing for a bit more versatility for maqamat with a prominent F.

– Tuning an open string to E seems more or less defunct in all common Arabic contemporary tunings. I think this makes sense for practical reasons, as E-based notes most often end up often being thirds. This is also related to most maqamat having well-defined "conventional" tonics (most often C, D, F, G) – basically none have E as a conventional tonic (at least in contemporary practice), and very few maqamat (from their conventional tonics) even have any E natural at all. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say that E natural is probably one of the least common notes in the entire repertoire, making the open E quite useless.

– Generally, the sixth-course low C is only used for octave emphasis – you could do away with it and still play most of the repertoire without any fundamental loss. (Similarly, low F is mostly only used for octave emphasis, hence why tuning to G is also common). By "octave emphasis" I just mean playing the single lower octave note quickly after/before its higher equivalent (this type of pattern is common in playing: F f f f f), letting the lower octave F ring out – this technique is quite ubiquitous, especially in taqsim, and creates a very pleasing effect, which is also possibly why the fifth-course F tuning gained ground – you get a wider range for the emphasised/drone-like lower octave.

– Iraqi (or Iraqi-style) ouds in particular are often tuned a fourth higher than the rest (and have a floating bridge). This might be attributed to Munir Bashir himself, who often used F-C-D-g-c-f and F-A-D-g-c-f, or perhaps a stronger Ottoman influence in some Iraqi regions where the higher pitch had become preferred?

– For the "extra low string" placed after the highest string – I have seen this, but it now seems more common to just have the single-string lowest course below the low F/G.

Sorry for the ramble – I could have put that all more concisely: The majority of the repertoire can be played from low G to high c, so really only having "G-c" available is necessary, any other notes below low G are mostly ornamental "extras" that basically don't impact the melody. Having low G (rather than E or something) makes more sense according to the current practice of most maqamat mostly being played from certain defined tonics. Essentially, C,D,F,G,A are in many ways the most important notes, both as tonics and points of modulation, so I think the contemporary tuning systems reflect this. Notes below the low G are hardly used as essential part of the melody, but the use of drone-like emphasis is now common and favoured, so lowering the low G to F gives you a wider range if you wish to use a drone-like F, since F is often a prominent melodic note in many maqamat. It seems the (non-Iraqi) Arabic style has preferred to emphasise the lower register overall, while the Iraqi/Bashir-style has preferred to add an upper course (the high f). The low C and F are variable: C-F, C-G, D-G are all quite common (and may often be retuned to suit the maqamat). I should probably also emphasise the importance of the conventional tonics: e.g., Hijaz is nearly always played from D when it's the home Maqam. As a modulation, it nearly always begins from G or C. You will very rarely find Hijaz played from C# or E or something, so in this way, you are kind "locked in" to certain tonics, and the tunings reflect this.

I should also mention that Bashir was quite an innovator – other oud players from around the same time (Sunbati, Atrash) were much more "within the tradition", and seem to have preferred the lower tuning.

The tunings you mention with E are quite surprising to me, and perhaps hint that certain ways of playing have now basically fallen out of use? Perhaps E was used as a "conventional tonic" for certain maqamat in Aleppo, or maybe this was more of an Ottoman thing that ended up being replaced by the more widespread/favoured Arabic tuning with G (later F)...interesting anyway!
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Salmoneus »

Davush wrote: 15 May 2022 02:02

Interesting that Grove does not mention C-F-A-d-g-c or even C-G-A-d-g-c tuning! I can't speak to the historical tunings (or Turkish tunings), but these two tunings (and their equivalent but a fourth higher) probably account for the majority of oud music from the 50s onwards, maybe even a bit earlier, (including the "oud masters" like Bashir, Qasabji, Sunbati, and Atrash). My own ouds are 6-course with 11 strings (single string for the low C) – this set up seems quite standard now for "Arabic" ouds built within the last 30-40 years or so. I think Turkish ouds now more commonly have 12 strings as default.
A good reminder that a bird's-eye external observer like Grove won't always be accurate! And also that traditions can change surprisingly rapidly at times...

– The fifth-course low F is indeed the most variable regarding tuning, but F (and G) seems to have been settled on as a happy medium. The C-F-A-d-g-c tuning seems in many ways to be the most versatile. I imagine low G (as in the "imposed standard) was probably more common at some point, as an octave note from the high G (which makes sense), but tuning one step lower to F allows a bit more versatility: You can still descend an octave from the open high g, but also have the open low F available for emphasis in maqamat like Saba, Ajam, and Nahawand where the F is often important. Low D for octave emphasis on maqamat whose tonic is D is also available from the low C in this set up, which is quite extensively used (some even tune low C to D if playing extensively in a D-based maqam). So, the now-common tuning is basically just modified "imposed standard" G-a-d-g-c (with the addition of low C), allowing for a bit more versatility for maqamat with a prominent F.
That makes sense!

– For the "extra low string" placed after the highest string – I have seen this, but it now seems more common to just have the single-string lowest course below the low F/G.
I wonder whether the counterintuitive string placement was to facilitate the sort of octave reinforcement you've talked about? Particular if Gove is wrong and the extra string was C all along, not variable (in that then you'd have C and c' right next too each other, which would be handy). In that case I wonder whethe the extra string was originally just a retuned c' string (octave courses are a common thing, why not double-octave?) with the highest course (having been reduced to a single course once the other string was retuned two octaves lower) later reinforced by an extra string? But to be honest this feels like a stretch...
Sorry for the ramble – I could have put that all more concisely: The majority of the repertoire can be played from low G to high c, so really only having "G-c" available is necessary, any other notes below low G are mostly ornamental "extras" that basically don't impact the melody. Having low G (rather than E or something) makes more sense according to the current practice of most maqamat mostly being played from certain defined tonics. Essentially, C,D,F,G,A are in many ways the most important notes, both as tonics and points of modulation, so I think the contemporary tuning systems reflect this. Notes below the low G are hardly used as essential part of the melody, but the use of drone-like emphasis is now common and favoured, so lowering the low G to F gives you a wider range if you wish to use a drone-like F, since F is often a prominent melodic note in many maqamat. It seems the (non-Iraqi) Arabic style has preferred to emphasise the lower register overall, while the Iraqi/Bashir-style has preferred to add an upper course (the high f). The low C and F are variable: C-F, C-G, D-G are all quite common (and may often be retuned to suit the maqamat). I should probably also emphasise the importance of the conventional tonics: e.g., Hijaz is nearly always played from D when it's the home Maqam. As a modulation, it nearly always begins from G or C. You will very rarely find Hijaz played from C# or E or something, so in this way, you are kind "locked in" to certain tonics, and the tunings reflect this.
You've kind of pointed out a Eurocentric fallacy in my assumptions there! Coming from an Equal Temperament tradition, it's hard to remember that other traditions (even historical European music) are much more "asymmetrical" in their tonalities. What I mean by that is that our major and minor keys can be played with any note as a tonic, and they are all more or less interchangeable, other than as regards the tessituras (an occasionally fingering) of individual instruments and the awkwardness of reading unfamiliar signatures... but that's not necessarily the rule crossculturally!
The tunings you mention with E are quite surprising to me, and perhaps hint that certain ways of playing have now basically fallen out of use? Perhaps E was used as a "conventional tonic" for certain maqamat in Aleppo, or maybe this was more of an Ottoman thing that ended up being replaced by the more widespread/favoured Arabic tuning with G (later F)...interesting anyway!
As you can tell, I'm no expert, but my impression of what I've read is that before the rise of both mass media and pan-Arabist ideology, there was probably a lot more diversity in traditions between different Arabic areas.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Torco »

Man, I'm loving this thread. and yes please do share examples of this or that maqam. there are some things on the web, but it's hard to know which is good and which is fake.
As I kind of hinted, in some ways it might actually make more sense to think of Western music as a variation of Middle-Eastern music with an awful lotof twists...
I agree! some of the features we often associate with eastern music were actually present in roman and greek music as well, and that is probably due to the fact that, at least in the times prior to the rise and fall of the roman empire, it makes a lot more sense to speak about the mediterranean than about west and east. the romans, after all, were the ones that came up with the distinction. for example, the sekilos song (one of the early tunes we have written evidence of) was probably played with a lot of melisma and adornments of the sort our western ears might think "oh, that sounds pretty eastern". there's a cool conversation on youtube about this.
–- Taqsīm / Improvisation: Improvisation is highly valued and common within Arabic music. Often, a set piece will be preceded by a taqsīm to introduce the maqām. Taqāsīm are also enjoyed in their own right as a musical form.
as has been pointed out, yeah, this lasted until relatively late in Europe: as I've been learning the famous prelude to the first cello suite by bach I get this strong feeling that this thing was written to be riffed over in a way in which later pieces, say the nocturnes of goltermann, aren't. and, of course, there's basso continuo and partimento. there's this dude, again on yt, that shows this off pretty well.

Regarding intonation, it's my understanding that when playing maqamat, since they're played on fretless instruments like the oud, probably don't have a formal way to divide up the octave according to just intonation, or pythagorean, or whatever. rather, what one does is just learn the intervals by ear and by feel and just produce them, and, again, maybe your teacher liked that half-flat D on that one maqam to be played ever so slightly flatter than this other guy, or maybe played it like, I dunno, flatter on the more tense moments of the piece or whatever, so it's not like it's "okay, this note is 0.0002 cents flatter thar this other note" or whatever. is this correct?
Well, the oud is generally tuned in fourths: C - F - A - D - G - C, where F is the only “problem” note, as it forms a third with A (it is tuned to a fourth to the C below). In practice, this isn’t too problematic, as very few maqāms use open F as a tonic/dominant note, so the “clashing third” with A is mostly only a theoretical problem. The violin is unproblematically G-D-G-D. Any other notes can, of course, be intonated however the player wants.
so maqamat aren't like... transposable, right? as in, for any given maqam, its tonic is always, say, B? I mean, I guess this could be guessed from the fact that we're not in 12TET, but still you could just, I don't know, tune each string of your oud half a step <or whatever other interval> down or up and get the same general effect, no? do arabic music players transpose like this?
This probably partially explains why perfect fourths are so important, as you mention. So, for example, the notes in a lower jins of a maqām stand in a tight relationship to each other, but less so to those in an upper jins. This becomes more obvious when you start delving into modulations.
another thing is probably the ease of fingering, no? like, I play some guitar and also have a toy viola to play with... I don't play it like a violin but rather like an oud, i.e. plucking, and a remarkable difference between the viola-guitarly-played and the guitar is that just noodling around on the guitar it's quite easy to "jump" from string to string, even though the string's effective length is much longer than the viola's, simply because the viola is tuned in the much longer interval of a fifth (okay, I guess you could tune it in fourths, but I've broken too many strings on that thing to be comfortable with moving the pegs too much yet). strings tuned in fourths, by contrast, have the very nice feature that you just have three notes on a string before it makes sense to just jump to the next string: I think this is the reason why no culture -that i know of- has made very much use of tuning strings in sixths or octaves: position changes <i.e. moving the hand that's pressing down on the strings> is both difficult and dangerous <i.e. you're more likely to, well, sound bad> and this is especially true for any fretless instrument! this is why the double bass is tuned in fourths: and I'm sure bass players would like them to be tuned in thirds, as far as ease of playing is concerned: of course, the smaller the distance between strings the fewer overall notes you get before you have to start climbing up the neck, so it's a balacing game.

but yeah, playing the plucked viola *feels* very... oudish? like, within the first couple hours of noodling I felt I understood why oudists like to do those spicy grace notes that sound so cool on the instrument, you know, the ones where you go up and down sort of in the middle of a vibrato motion? fun!
So what's going on? I've no idea. [I've never understood why lutes and guitars had thirds in them anyway]
the genetic explanation is probably the correct one here, but from experience noodling around on the guitar there's two things: one is that chords are really difficult to play on a guitar tuned all in fourths: I tried, and sure, you can pluck three notes at the time and with some relatively simple hand patterns, which you can just plane around, you get simple triads, but for strumming I just couldn't get the damned thing to give me a straightforward chord: by contrast, tune it normally <with the third> and you can get extremely sonorous and resonant chords out of just fretting two or three strings. oh, and there's open tunings, which are neato. second thing is that it really *feels* different to noddle around that third-tuned string that it feels to noodle around the rest of them: you wouldn't want all of the string to be tuned in thirds, but just one makes the guitar sort of... sing? more? I don't know, it's a feel thing, I can't explain it too well. The chords thing is probably why the pratice stood but not why the practice started, seeing as the original oud wouldn't <would it?> have been used to strum chords.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by eldin raigmore »

the romans, after all, were the ones that came up with the distinction
I thought it was the Greeks during the Persian Wars.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

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I think ours is a descendent from the imperial split, cause the center of ours is more in the balkans than around iran, but it could be wrong.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

Post by Davush »

Torco wrote: 21 May 2022 05:04 Man, I'm loving this thread. and yes please do share examples of this or that maqam. there are some things on the web, but it's hard to know which is good and which is fake.
Thanks! I'm glad people are enjoying it.

Regarding intonation, it's my understanding that when playing maqamat, since they're played on fretless instruments like the oud, probably don't have a formal way to divide up the octave according to just intonation, or pythagorean, or whatever. rather, what one does is just learn the intervals by ear and by feel and just produce them
Yes definitely – the primary way of learning the maqamat is by the ear and the voice, even for instrumentalists. You essentially repeat short phrases (singing them) until you can reproduce the correct intonation, and then try to reproduce that on the instrument. I suppose you could say Arabic music is very “vocal” overall, in that the instruments attempt to mimic the voice.

I think you’re also correct that it’s not 100% rigid regarding very small intonation differences – different players do have slightly different intonations in some cases, sometimes these seem to be regional/era differences, and sometimes just the player’s preferences. However, I would also say it’s not exactly “just up to the player” either – you could say that each maqam has a kind of “prototypical intonation(s)”, which is mostly adhered to, and then small variations can be employed tastefully. For example, the Arabic tradition errs on the side of a lower E-half-flat in Rast, while in Turkish music it often seems to be a bit higher. Playing a significantly higher E-half-flat in a clearly Arabic piece would probably sound inconguous in most contexts. BUT the player can still make small variations to the Ed, as long as it falls within the range that has come to be deemed “acceptable” for Rast, and makes sense in the context.

A related side note: religious liturgy/recitation in the Middle East is mostly within the maqam system, so, e.g., a lot of people learn the basics of Qur’an recitation at a young age, and this is probably one of the main ways the intonation of the maqamat become imprinted.
so maqamat aren't like... transposable, right? as in, for any given maqam, its tonic is always, say, B? I mean, I guess this could be guessed from the fact that we're not in 12TET, but still you could just, I don't know, tune each string of your oud half a step <or whatever other interval> down or up and get the same general effect, no? do arabic music players transpose like this?
The post below will hopefully answer questions about transposition!

another thing is probably the ease of fingering, no? like, I play some guitar and also have a toy viola to play with... I don't play it like a violin but rather like an oud, i.e. plucking, and a remarkable difference between the viola-guitarly-played and the guitar is that just noodling around on the guitar it's quite easy to "jump" from string to string
I’m not sure if the primacy of the jins/tetrachord (over the octave or maqam) is strictly related to ease of playing, although this is a nice side effect. I think it has more to do with each jins having its own tonal center, so once you move outside a certain jins, you have a new (often temporary) tonal center – 4-note jins are common, but so are 3- and 5-note jins. This might be more in line with what Sal mentioned about the Byzantine system of tetrachords?

Inspired by Panini's thread, I'll post about the traditional note names next.
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Re: Introduction to Arabic Music & Theory

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Transposition

Just to clarify about transposition in Arabic music:


Does it happen? The short answer is yes, and it’s fairly common. The long answer is, yes, but with some caveats.

By transposition, I just mean playing/singing the same maqam/jins, but from a different tonic:
For example, transposing jins hijaz from its usual tonic in D [D-Eb-F#-G] to E, giving [E–F–G#-A]. For (unaccompanied) singing, this is not an issue – a singer can chose whatever tonic they want without worrying about tuning, but for the oud in particular it is bit more complicated.

Conventional tonics: Most maqamat/jins have a fairly well defined set of “conventional” or “usual” tonics. These seem to have been arrived at based on a compromise of singer’s range, ease of playing (probably on the oud), and the relation of the tonic to the other notes when factoring in modulation to other maqamat. Arabic music seems to greatly prefer the middle-to-lower range. Nowadays, the most common tonics seem to be C, D, G, A and F, where, unsurprisingly, D, G, and A correspond to open-strings on the oud. The exact pitch of these might not match those of concert-pitch equal temperament, but in current practice, they do seem to be around these values (bearing in mind the Pythagorean/JI-based tuning of Arabic music).

So, let’s say a singer wants to be accompanied by an oud, but wishes to sing a little lower than a standard-tuned oud. What are the options? The first is to simply retune the entire oud, let’s say by a semi-tone, so the D string is now Db. This is unproblematic as all the relationships of the notes and the open strings remain unchanged.

The second option is to keep the standard tuning and just play whatever maqam the singer wants from a lower tonic. This is possible of course, but in practice is quite awkward with something like Db – you lose the use of some open strings and their sympathetic resonance, and it makes for awkward hand positions.

The third option is to play from an alternative “conventional” tonic, let’s say C or A, which are both quite common for, e.g., maqam hijaz. This might be fine if the singer wishes to sing this low, and also does not mean retuning the entire oud.

Essentially, on the oud at least, “within-instrument” transposition is not that common outside of the conventional tonics. When the transposition would lead to loss of open strings (at least in an extended piece), it’s probably easier to just retune.

The conventional tonics are also part of a system of tight relations: most maqamat have a “dominant note” above the tonic, and this is usually where modulation (to another maqam/jins) occurs from (this note is called the “ghammāz”). In the contemporary tuning system, this note is overwhelmingly G, where it is a fifth above maqamat from C and a fourth above those from D.

In more practical terms: Let’s say I play in maqam hijaz from a non-conventional tonic of E (and assuming the oud remains in its standard tuning). Its ghammāz (dominant note) will now be the A above it, so I’ve already lost out on the open-string of the tonic and ghammāz. Now, let’s say at some point the piece modulates to rast and bayati. The notes of these must also be shifted accordingly in relation to the E and ghammāz of A. For improvisation on the oud in particular, I think this type of transposition would be very impractical – you would have to memorize every maqam from every possible tonic, bearing in mind modulations to other maqamat, and be able to execute them on the fly, as well as losing a lot of the oud’s natural resonance which comes from the open strings. Of course, this is not to say that the conventional tonics are 100% rigid, but mostly staying within a limited set of tonics greatly simplifies things and just generally seems to make sense within the system.

(By the way, if anyone is interested, “Inside Arabic Music” by Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays, and “The Maqam Book” by David Muallem are both excellent, and do a better job of describing the things I am writing about here, and in much more detail).
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