Posted in For Project 7 Examples

Example 3 Research, Part 3: Modulations of the Arabic maqamat

In the last blog post I wrote about the basic Arabic modes and their basic units – jins. In this part of the research, I will focus on modulation.


Fig. 1. Arab party dancer by Guilio Rosati

Modulation is the practice of moving from one maqam to another within a musical piece. As I briefly mentioned in the last part, it plays a major role in the Arab music, especially in terms of the sayr -melodic development. As Marcus (172) points out, modulation was probably present from the medieval period.

For example, Wright (1974, cited in Marcus, 1992: 498) mentions in his discussion about the practice described in the thirteenth-century music treatises:

“Although a composition would generally be based on just one mode, extraneous units could also be judiciously introduced, especially in improvisatory passages displaying to the full the performer’s technical prowess.”

Shiloah (1981:37) also states that a group of subsidiary modes in the medieval and pre-modern practice were used, although not yet as “… complete or independent modes, but rather serve[d] towards the elaboration of the principal modes”

In fourteenth-century, modulation played an important role in the genres called kolliyat and kull al-nagham, latter of which was the progression that included all melodic modes. (Wellesz, 1957: 452) Although these were the genres of the Persian musical tradition (Simms and Koushkani, 2012: 208), the system certainly influenced and was close with the Arabic at the time.

The role of modulation is evident in the nineteenth century sources, such as Villoteau (1826): “Following what we have observed in the practice, each mode can receive… some of the notes characteristic of other modes,” and there were “rules for passing from one mode to another.” (cited in Marcus, 1992: 172) There is also Mashaqah, a Lebanese scholar who was familiar with Egyptian and Syrian music. He writes that sometimes a piece “begins in a mode, then moves from it to another mode… then returns at the final repose.” (1913, cited in Marcus, 1992: 172)

The twentieth century shows the prevalence of modulation, where number of writers state how changes in maqam are absolutely necessary. (Marcus, 1992: 173) Rouanet writes: “It is quite rare, except in [short pieces], that all of a melody remains in only one mode,” (1922: 22767) and al-Antuni (195:3) notes: “If we compose a piece in [one mode] without mixing it with others the listener would be bored.” Similarly, El-Kholy sats that “to avoid monotony, a change of mode becomes imperative” (1978, cited in Marcus, 1992: 173) and Gerson-Kiwi writes how modulation “…seems to be the vital point in the technique of maqam composition without which no artistic level could be reached.” (1970, cited in Marcus, 1992: 173)

Today, modulation continues to take central role in the Arabic music, where it also has its part in defining musical forms of different instrumental or vocal genres, as you will see in another post. (Marcus: 173-174) It is interesting to note that despite all this, the subject has been quite ignored in written Arabic music theory and there is actually no universally acknowledged Arabic term for modulation. (Marcus: 171)

The typology is largely oral, but Marcus writes about the four types. The first of these classifies modulation as tonic or non-tonic, by comparing the tonic of the original maqam with the one of the new mode.

Among the tonic modulations, where the original and new mode share the same tonic – qarar in Arabic, we have two types. In the first, original and new mode share the same lower jins (trichord, tetrachord or pentachord), thus belonging to the same fasilah or maqam family. The change here occurs only in the upper jins. (Fig. 1)

modulation 1.PNG

Fig. 2. Examples of the tonic modulation of the maqamat from the same fasilah

With the second type we have the same tonic, but we arrive to the mode of a different lower jins, meaning we modulate to a new fasilah. (Fig. 3)

modulation 2.PNG

Fig. 3. Examples of tonic modulation of the maqamat of different fasilah

In the category of non-tonic modulations, the most common type is when the tonic changes into the degree of the note called ghammaz or the dominant note. Dominant tone could be third, fourth or fifth, depending on the mode. Sami al-Shawwa, developed this into the theory of relative notes – aqarib, which indicates how one can modulated to maqamat based on the original mode’s fourth, fifth, third, and sometimes, the sixth degrees. (1946, cited in Marcus, 1992: 176) Of course, modulation to other notes is also possible, by expanding the ghammaz into the concept of ghammazat or multiple ghammazs (Fig. 4), but even then, most agree that 2nd and 7th degree are incompatible tones to avoid. However, while these modulations generally don’t occur, this can be solved by transposition.

modulation 3

Fig. 4. Examples of non-tonic modulation depending on the ghammazat

I will mention again what I wrote in the previous post, about maqams being usually associated with one tonic, and that transpositions occurs only to handful of other notes. Thus, it is no surprise that the transposition in modulation patterns reveals how maqam system in fact revolves primarily around two series of axes. The first is C E  flat (or E half-flat) G, and the second is D G Bb (or BBb). This is because the C and E half-flat modes act as one family by freely accepting modulations from each other and by both requiring that D modes be transposed to G and the BBb modes be transposed to Eb (Fig. 4a); D and Bbb modes also act as one family, requiring that the C modes be transposed to G and E half-flat modes be transposed to B half flat or BB half-flat. (Fig. 4b)

modulation 4a.PNG

Fig. 4a. Examples of the C E flat G axes

modulation 4b.PNG

Fig. 4b. Examples of D G Bb axes

G is the note where the two systems of axes meet. This is not surprising, since G is the usual ghammaz for most C, D and E half-flat modes. It may seem that F maqamat are excluded, but they also interact with the system of two axes. For example, they appear in modulation from BBb flat modes, which have second tetrachord starting on F. Second way is that F is treated as secondary ghammaz for C and D based maqamat. Finally, F modes are linked to the rest of the maqamat by C maqamat, when they function as if built from two conjunct instead of disjunct tetrachords – C – F and F Bb.

Beside transposition, there is another way to link distant maqams, through intermediary modulations, passing through a third mode.

With the two-fold categorization of common and rare modulations, it becomes apparent that while there are many of the theoretical possibilities stated above, the number of those actually used in practice is much smaller. As Marcus writes:

“The most common modulations are to one or two of the most prominent modes which share the same tonic pitch (especially those which share the same lower tetrachord) and to one or two of the most prominent modes which appear (usually in transposition) based on the first note of the mode’s second tetrachord.”

It is also in the repertoire that we see a bigger conflict between theory and practice, especially in folk music. For example, the Egyptian madih al-nabi or madh, and mizmar/tabl baladi traditions performed at saints-day festivals and other occasions. In these performances, an uninterrupted suite of mawawil and other vocal genres commonly start with C maqamat, then move to the D maqamat, and then close with the E half-flat maqamat. This stepwise progression is not found in more classical traditions.

In practice, there is also the distinction between sudden or gradual modulations. Sudden ones tend to put important contrasting feature of two maqamat in immediate juxtaposition, and as such, the new mode is usually presented directly after a cadence of the original mode. On contrary, the gradual modulation often occurs in the middle of a phrase, often beginning in the upper tetrachord of the new mode, and only when the melodic line gradual descends to the lower tetrachord is the new mode confirmed.

With the adoption of the European concept of, there is also the classification of passing and full-fledged modulation. The criteria include the amount of time spent in the new mode and whether there were any major cadences present.

In performing, musicians also tend to use specific strategies when modulating. For example, it is common for musicians to pinpoint one or two specific notes from which they begin a given modulation, referred to informally as the door – al-bab. By indicating such pivot or preparatory notes, musicians “…are not limiting or restricting the ways a particular modulation can be achieved.”  Rather, they are pinpointing specific strategies which are acceptable to the ear.

What should be also mentioned is that, even in the case of ajnas, the repertory departures from the conventional theory. As the previous post explained, by tradition, ajnas are understood as three-, four- or five-note building blocks of maqamat. While this definition can lead to the analysis of many works, Abu Shumays (2013) showed cases where the theoretical sources have difficulty accounting for some of the notes present in certain passages. Most of these tones are aids in tonicization of a certain degree of maqam. By noticing their consistent appearance, he demonstrated that these notes actually form a part of ajnas themselves. In his words, the melodic use of these “extra” notes “is strong enough across the repertory to allow for a refinmenet of the jins definition that includes those neighboring tones, which I sometimes like to call “jins baggage.”

Abu Shumays (2013) still argues for the primacy of the trichord, tetrachord and pentachord of jins, but also shows the importance of its surrounding notes. Thus, the definition of jins is expended as a tonicization with a specific set of intervallic relationships both above and below its three, four or five conventionally-defined tones. But more significantly, with this role of jins in tonicizing different scale degrees, the shape of each maqam can be represented as a network of pathways among ajnas. He also found some other tonicizations within the repertory which are distinct from the traditional ajnas, around 15 previously unnamed ajnas.
I will conclude this part of the research with his words:

“Some seeking to understand the maqamat hope that a few, simple, deterministic principles or rules can be discovered that will unlock the secrets of the maqam system. The ancients (both Greek and Arab) believed in some kind of absolute “harmoniousness” that determined musical relations, and medieval Arab theorists such as Al-Farabi echoed Plato’s statements placing different values on certain musical modes … On contrary, I have found that every new piece or song I encounter reveals new information about the maqam system—whether that is the confirmation of a common pathway, or the revelation of a new pathway that manifests a less-common tendency among ajnas, or (very rarely) appears to be completely unique.”

Especially with the maqamat, we see that the “tone systems of music are arbitrary, changeable, and adaptable to different conventions.”  So more into the practical side of music, in the next part, I will look into the musical forms used in the Arabic tradition. You can also check out Abu Shumays’ website with the audio examples.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Arab party dancer by Guilio Rosati

Giulio Rosati, Italian, 1858 – 1917 The Dance oil on canvas

Fig. 2. Examples of the tonic modulation of the maqamat from the same fasilah

Fig. 3. Examples of tonic modulation of the maqamat of different fasilah

Fig. 4. Examples of non-tonic modulation depending on the ghammazat

Fig. 4b. Examples of D G Bb axes


Marcus, S. L. (1992) ‘Modulation in Arab Music: Documenting Oral Concepts, Performance Rules and Strategies.’ In: Ethnomusicology 36 (2) pp. 171-195 At: (Accessed on )

Frank Lloyd Wright–the Lost Years, 1910-1922: A Study of Influence

Shiloah, Amnon (1981) In: Scott Modulation Music

Wellesz, Egon (ed.) (1957) New Oxford History of Music Vol. 1: Ancient and Oriental Music. London: Oxford University Press

Simms and Koushkani (2012) The Art of Avaz and Mohammad Reza Shajarian: Foundations and Contexts. Plymouth: Lexington Books

Abu Shumays (2013) ‘Maqam Analysis: A Primer.’ [Online] In: Music Theory Spectrum 34 (2) At:



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