Middle Eastern Music

Upon first hearing Middle Eastern music, many people are struck by the exotic sound of the music, which to Western ears may sound out of key. In this we are not alone, as orientalist Villoteau, an early visitor to the Middle East, describes it thus: “Accustomed since early youth to the best works of our composers, I had to tolerate music that rent my ears with its eccentric modulations and ornaments executed by harsh nasal voices, accompanied by instruments either penetrating and discordant, or feeble and muffled. Such were the first impressions”. In speaking of Coptic music, Villoteau says: “If the Egyptian songs disturbed us, those of the Copts rasped us even more”.

This “discordant” aspect is not accidental, actually it is one of the special features of Middle Eastern Music, and gives it a unique expressiveness and feeling. In this section we explore this and other characteristics of Middle Eastern music.
Distinguishing Characteristics of Middle Eastern Music

What makes Middle Eastern music different? Some factors include the use of micro-tones, absence of chords or harmony, the distinctive rhythms used, and use of improvisation.

Middle Eastern Music – A Historical Perspective

The theory of Arabic music stretches back a long time. It grew from Persian music theory, which the Arabs adopted and developed to suit their tastes after invading Persia in the 7 century. Music historians consider Arabic art music to have reached a high point in Baghdad and Damascus in the 8th century, after which a period of decay set in. Fortunately the music did not die, as it traveled to the Spanish peninsula, which was at that time ruled by the Moors, and the music thrived there, from the 9th to 15th centuries. Still later, during the Ottoman Empire, the music went through another golden period. Many compositions from this time exist to the current day.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Arab society went through a period of modernization and westernization that influenced their music as well. Music experts of the time attempted to standardize and simplify the music theory, which until that time had been an oral tradition, taught from master to student without the assistance of a written notation.

Maqam Theory

The music theory used in the Middle East is known as maqam theory. A maqam (plural maqamat) is like a scale or mode in Western theory, but has some extra rules or conventions added on. Each maqam has it’s own feeling. Some common maqamat are: hijaz; nahawand; rast; bayate and sabah. Often compositions were simply named by the maqam and type of piece, eg nahawand taksim (improvisation in nahawand), hijaz chiftetelli (slow dance in hijaz maqam), etc.