Middle Eastern music

Middle Eastern music

Middle eastern music spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Iran. Middle Eastern music influenced the music of Greece and India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as in Byzantine music and Chalga. The various nations of the region include the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the Iraqi traditions of Mesopotamia, Iranian traditions of Persia, the Hebrew music of Israel, Armenian music, the varied traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkey, traditional Assyrian music, Berbers of North Africa, and Coptic Christians in Egypt all maintain their own traditions.

Throughout the region, religion has been a common factor in uniting peoples of different languages, cultures and nations. The predominance of Islam allowed a great deal of Arabic and Byzantine influence to spread through the region rapidly from the 7th century onward. The Arabic scale is strongly melodic, based around various maqamat (sing. maqam) or modes (also known as makam in Turkish music). Arabs translated and developed Greek texts and works of music and mastered the musical theory of the music of ancient Greece (i.e. Systema ametabolon, enharmonium, chromatikon, diatonon).[1] This is similar to the dastgah of Persian music. While this originates with classical music, the modal system has filtered down into folk, liturgical and even popular music, with influence from the West. Unlike much western music, Arabic music includes quarter tones halfway between notes, often through the use of stringed instruments (like the oud) or the human voice. Further distinguishing characteristics of Middle Eastern and North African music include very complex rhythmic structures, generally tense vocal tone, and a monophonic texture.

Often, more traditional Middle Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length, building up to anxiously awaited, and much applauded climaxes, or tarab, derived from the Arabic term طرب tarraba.[2]


  • Instruments used 1
    • Strings 1.1
    • Percussion 1.2
    • Winds 1.3
  • Dance and music 2
  • Influence of religion 3
  • Common genres 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6

Instruments used


Many instruments originate in the Middle East region. Most popular of the stringed instruments is the oud, a pear-shaped lute that traditionally had four strings, although current instruments have up to six courses consisting of one or two strings each. Legend has it that the oud was invented by Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. This is stated by Farabi, and it is part of the Iraqi folklore relating to the instrument. Legend goes on to suggest that the first oud was inspired by the shape of his son's bleached skeleton.[3]

Historically, the oldest pictorial record of the oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon [1], Editor of Iraq at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.[4]

Used mostly in court music for royals and the rich, the harp also comes from Sumer c. 3500 BC.[5]

The widespread use of the oud led to many variations on the instrument, including the saz, a Turkish long-necked lute that remains very popular in Turkey. Last of the popular string instruments is the qanoun, developed by Farabi during the Abbasids era. Legend has it that Farabi played qanoun in court,and he made people laugh, cry, and fall asleep.

The qanoun developed out of string instruments described in inscriptions that date to the Assyrian period.[6] It has about 26 triple-string courses, plucked with a piece of horn. The musician has the freedom to alter the pitch of individual courses from a quarter to a whole step by adjusting metal levers.[7]


Percussion instruments play a very important role in Middle Eastern music. The complex rhythms of this music are often played on many simple percussion instruments. The riq الرق (a type of tambourine) and finger cymbals add a higher rhythmic line to rhythm laid down with sticks, clappers, and other drums. An instrument native to Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon, the doumbek (or tombak), is a drum made of ceramic clay, with a goatskin head glued to the body.


The last section of instruments is the woodwinds. The Moroccan oboe, also called the rhaita, has a double-reed mouthpiece that echoes sound down its long and narrow body. Similar instruments are called zurnas (the Persian oboe) were used more for festivals and loud celebrations. A Turkish influence comes from the mey, which has a large double reed. Bamboo reed pipes are the most common background to belly dancing and music from Egypt. Flutes are also a common woodwind instrument in ensembles. A kaval is a three-part flute that is blown in one end, whereas the ney is a long cane flute, played by blowing across the sharp edge while pursing the lips.[7]

Dance and music

As with many cultures, dance and music go hand in hand in Middle Eastern music. Before the influence of Islam, music in the Arabian Peninsula was associated with prostitution and drunken entertainment. Under the wide rule of Islam, vulgar lyrics and suggestive dancing by women became illegal. Much post-Islamic music is used in ceremonial dance and recreation. Meditation, trance, and self-flagellation are often used while listening to music to bring one to a higher sense of God.[7]

Influence of religion

The influence of religions such as Islam and Judaism has had a great impact on the musical culture of the Middle East. Religion forms a major background to many traditional styles of music and dance, ranging from classical to more modern. All over the Middle East, you hear songs of praise and prayer. What is conducted by a muezzin, or prayer caller, for example, are the five daily calls to prayer. Only since the nineteenth century have individual reciters started singing the Qur'an while still strictly abiding by the laws and rules.[7] This, however is grossly inaccurate. This form of Quran recital is called Tajwid, تجويد, which is the Arabic word for elocution.

Common genres


  1. ^ Habib Hassan Touma - Review of Das arabische Tonsystem im Mittelalter by Liberty Manik. doi:10.2307/
  2. ^ Pappé, I. The Modern Middle East, (London, 2005), p. 166-171.
  3. ^   (citing Grove Music Online)
  4. ^ British Institute for the Study of Iraq, http://www.britac.ac.uk/INSTITUTES/IRAQ/officers.htm
  5. ^ The Oxford Journals: Music and Letters 1929 X(2):108-123; doi:10.1093/ml/X.2.108. Oxford University Press ©1929 [2]
  6. ^ Dr. Rashid, Subhi Anwar: The musical Instrument of Iraqi Maqam
  7. ^ a b c d Horace Mann Middle School (12 October 2009). Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance. San Francisco Unified School District. 

External links

  • Foreigners Discover the Beauty of Middle Eastern Music at ArabNews