Arabian music

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Arabian music

Arabian music, classical musical tradition of the Islamic peoples of Arabia, the Fertile Crescent, and North Africa.

Characteristics, Forms, and Instruments

The chief characteristics of Arabian music are modal homophony, florid ornamentation, and modal rhythm. The melodic modal system of Ibn Misjah (d. c.715) contained, in its final form, eight modes. This system lasted until the 11th cent., when the modes were increased to 12; by the 13th cent. these had come to be called maqamat. Until this time the Arabian gamut had consisted of 12 tones roughly equal to the chromatic scale of Western music.

In the 13th cent. five more tones were added, each a quarter tone below the diatonic whole tone, i.e., below d, e, g, a, b. A new tuning of the gamut was adopted in the 16th cent., and not only the tones but also the nature of the maqamat were changed. Instead of scales within which melodies were composed, they became melodic formulas to be used in composition, a system much like the ragas of Hindu music.

Ornamentation in Arabian music consisted of shakes and trills, grace notes, appoggiaturas, and the tarkib, which was the simultaneous striking of certain notes with their fourth, fifth, or octave. Until the development of instrumental music in the 10th cent., the rhythmic modes were primarily the vocal meters of poetry. In vocal music often a short melody is repeated for each stanza or verse, each repetition being elaborately ornamented.

The principal form of Arabian music is the nauba, a “suite” of vocal pieces with instrumental preludes, that probably originated at the Abbasid court. The principal Arabian instruments, other than those borrowed from older Semitic cultures, were the short-necked lute called the ud, from which the European lute derived its form and name, and the long-necked lute called tanbur. The introduction of the lute into Europe by the Moors in Spain is a certainty; the extent to which Arabian music has exerted greater influence on the West is still a matter of controversy.


Little is known of Arabian music before the Hegira (A.D. 622), but afterward under the Umayyad caliphs (661–750) a consolidation of Persian and Syrian elements with the native musical style took place in Arabia. Ibn Misjah devised a system of modal theory that lasted throughout the golden age under the first Abbasid caliphs (750–847). In the 9th cent. at Baghdad many treatises on music theory and history were written by such men as the philosopher Al-Kindi (9th cent.) and the illustrious Al-Farabi (c.870–c.950), who wrote the most important treatise on music up to his time.

In the 11th cent. under the last Abbasid caliphs a strong Turkistan influence was brought into Arabian music by the Seljuk Turks, and a gradual decay began in the traditional art. With the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 came the end of specifically Arabian musical culture, and only a few late examples of this music are extant. The style was preserved in Egypt and Syria because the Arabic language was spoken there, but it had lost its vitality; even this vestige died when the Ottoman Turks overran Egypt in 1517.


See H. G. Farmer, A History of Arabian Music to the 13th Century (1929) and Historical Facts for the Arabian Musical Influence (1930).

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