Posted in For Project 7 Examples

Example 3 Research, Part 1: Introduction to the Middle Eastern Modes

I have written a little bit about the Middle Eastern music in terms of rhythm in the previous part of the course, which you can read in the second half of this post. Here, I will explore its melodic and modal system.

middle eastttern.jpg

Fig. 1. Hippolyte Lazerges, The Musician, 1894

There are three major traditions in the Middle Eastern music: Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and there are also the related traditions in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. (Randel, 2003: 551) The mode system is called maqam in the Arab world, makam in Turkish, and dastgah in Persian (Iranian), while in the Caucasus the term for the Azerbaijani version is mugam, and in Central Asian Uzbekistan, there is the system called shashmaqam. With the different traditions, there are many variations, where similar or identical modes may have different names, and the same term may have different meanings.

The modal system is understood here not only as the set of notes in the ascending or descending order, but includes the conventions that define relationships between the notes, habitual patterns, characteristic musical phrases, ornaments, melodic development, and even the extra-musical associations. (Justice, 2012: 6) This way, the Middle Eastern maqamat (plural of maqam) bears important relationship to the Indian raga system (Randel, 2003: 551), which I wrote about here.

The Middle Eastern systems don’t use equal-temperament, meaning the difference in pitch between each note is not identical. One of the reasons for this type of tuning could be historically based on the kind of instruments used in the musical traditions of Middle East. (Gu, 103) There are also not only whole and semitones, but microtones or fractional tones present in the modes. These are approximated with quarter or sometimes eighth tones, although they are rarely precise, and as you will see, their use often varies from mode to mode. Each region has different ways of calculating the size and even then, each individual player has a unique way of expressing microtones. (Peretz, 2004: 10) Quite often, these notes sound out of tune to unaccustomed ears, which is what I found at first, but soon, I got used to this new musical flavor. The following signs are used for microtones in the Western notation:

Fig. 2. Quarter-tone and eighth-tone notation

Although, in practice, only a few of the microtones are explored, the most common being the quarter-flat of E and B, and sometimes A half-flat and F half-sharp. (Powers, 2005: 4)

The Middle Eastern modes in use are heptatonic (seven-note). In the modern Persian tradition, there are 12 dastgahs, seven principal and five subsidiary. Grouped into this system of gastgahs are basic melodic formulas called gushehs. (Randel, 1999: 177) They are large in number, as collected in the corpus of radif, the traditional repertoire, which consists of more than 250 gushehs. (Unesco,  4. COM 13. 45) In Arabic music, there is no complete list or number of the maqam, but there are certainly above 30 of those which are widely used. (Randel, 1999: 551) The building blocks of maqam are sets of trichords, tetrachords or pentachords (3, 4 or 5 notes) called jins or ajnas in plural. (Gu, 2014: 105) Much like the Arabic tradition, in Turkish music, there is a large number of makams. The building blocks are called cins, and there are 6 basic tetrachords and pentachords, with trichords being rare. (Karakaya, 2014: 115) Shashmaqam in Central Asia uses 6 maqam out of the twelve Persian modes (Negmatov, 1998: 93) and also represents a style and form of music, while the Azerbaidjan mugam has 7 main and 3 secondary maqam, referring as well to the genre of music. (Sultanova and Broughton, 2000: 25)

Since it is quite hard to continue speaking in general conditions, where the scope frames the music from all these regions, I will focus on the Arab maqam and its musical forms in the following posts. I will cover other traditions probably later in the course.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Hippolyte Lazerges (1894) The Musician. Private collection.

Fig. 2. Quarter-tone and eighth-tone notation


Randel, Don Michael (2003) (ed.) The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Harvard: Harvard University Press

Justice, Deborah (2012) Middle Eastern Music for Hammered Dulcimer.  St. Louis or Fenton: Mel Bay Publications, Inc.

Gu, Sharon (2013) A Cultural History of the Arabic Language. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Peretz, Jeff (2004) Middle East: Your Passport to a New World of Music. Los Angeles: Alfred Music Publishing

Powers, Cameron (2005) Arabic Musical Scales: Basic Maqam Notation. Boulder: Cameron Powers

Randel, Don Michael (1999) (ed.) The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Harvard: Harvard University Press

Gu, Sharon (2014) A Cultural History of the Arabic Language. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Karakaya, Uygar (2014) Baska Sürgün. Karayel Yayinlari

N. Negmatov (1998) ‘The Phenomenon of the Material Culture of Central Asia in the Samanid’s Epoch’, In The Contribution of the Samanid Epoch to the Cultural Heritage of Central Asia, UNESCO Colloquium, Dushanbe
(Dushanbe: Adib, 1999), pp.
N..N. Negmatov (1998) The Samanid State: History of civilizations of Central Asia. France: UNESCO Library Catalog Number: 112853 pp. 77-94

Broughton, Simon and Sultanova, Razia (2000) ‘Bards of the Golden Road’. In: Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific pp. 24-31. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books



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