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Arabic music

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Arabic music

Bayad plays the oud to The Lady. from the Riyad & Bayad, Arabic tale

Arabic music or Arab music (Arabic: الموسيقى العربية – ALA-LC: al-mūsīqá al-‘Arabīyah) is the music of the Arab world.

Arab music, while independent and very alive, has a long history of interaction with many other regional musical styles and genres. It is an amalgam of the music of the Arab people in the Arabian Peninsula and the music of all the peoples that make up the Arab world today. As was the case in other artistic and scientific fields, Arabs translated Greek texts and works of music and developed the musical theory of the Greeks (i.e. Systema ametabolon, enharmonium, chromatikon, diatonon).[1]


  • History 1
    • Pre-Islamic period 1.1
    • Early Islamic period 1.2
      • Al-Andalus 1.2.1
      • Influence of Arabic music 1.2.2
    • 16th century 1.3
    • Male instrumentalists 1.4
  • 20th century 2
    • Early secular formation 2.1
    • Interaction with Western popular music 2.2
      • Franco-Arabic 2.2.1
      • Arabic R&B, reggae, and hip hop 2.2.2
      • Arabic electronica 2.2.3
      • Arabic jazz 2.2.4
      • Arabic rock 2.2.5
  • Musical regions 3
    • North Africa 3.1
    • Arabian Peninsula 3.2
    • Levant 3.3
  • Genres 4
    • Secular art music 4.1
    • Sacred music 4.2
  • Characteristics of Arabic music 5
    • Maqam system 5.1
      • Ajnas 5.1.1
    • More notes used than in Western scales 5.2
      • Regional scales 5.2.1
      • Practical treatment 5.2.2
    • Vocal traditions 5.3
    • Instruments and ensembles 5.4
  • See also 6
  • Sources 7
  • Further reading 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10


Pre-Islamic period

Pre-Islamic Arab music was similar to that of Ancient Middle Eastern music. Most historians agree that there existed distinct forms of music in the Arabian peninsula in the pre-Islamic period between the 5th and 7th century AD. Arab poets of that time—called shu`ara' al-Jahiliyah (شعراء الجاهلية) or "Jahili poets", meaning "the poets of the period of ignorance"—used to recite poems with a high notes.[2]

It was believed that Jinns revealed poems to poets and music to musicians.[3] The choir at the time served as a pedagogic facility where the educated poets would recite their poems. Singing was not thought to be the work of these intellectuals and was instead entrusted to women with beautiful voices who would learn how to play some instruments used at that time such as the drum, the oud or the rebab, and perform the songs while respecting the poetic metre.[3] The compositions were simple and every singer would sing in a single maqam. Among the notable songs of the period were the huda (from which the ghina derived), the nasb, sanad, and rukbani.

Early Islamic period

Both compositions and improvisations in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqams can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.

Al-Kindi (801–873 AD) was the first great theoretician of Arabic music. He proposed adding a fifth string to the oud and discussed the cosmological connotations of music.[4] He build upon the achievements of the Greek musicians in using the alphabetical annotation for one eighth. He published fifteen treatises on music theory, but only five have survived. In one of his treatises the word musiqa was used for the first time in Arabic.[5]

Abulfaraj (897–967) wrote a book about music. Kitab al-Aghani is an encyclopedic collection of poems and songs that runs to over 20 volumes in modern editions.

Al-Farabi (872-950) wrote a notable book on music titled Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir (The Great Book of Music). His pure Arabian tone system is still used in Arabic music.[6]

Al-Ghazali (1059–1111) wrote a treatise on music in Persia which declared, "Ecstasy means the state that comes from listening to music".

In 1252, Safi al-Din developed a unique form of musical notation, where rhythms were represented by geometric representation. A similar geometric representation would not appear in the Western world until 1987, when Kjell Gustafson published a method to represent a rhythm as a two-dimensional graph.[7]


By the 11th century, Islamic Iberia had become a center for the manufacture of instruments. These goods spread gradually throughout France, influencing French troubadours, and eventually reaching the rest of Europe. The English words lute, rebec, and naker are derived from Arabic oud, rabab, and nagqara'.[8][9]

Influence of Arabic music

A number of musical pipe),[12] the shawm and dulzaina from the reed instruments zamr and al-zurna,[13] the gaita from the ghaita, rackett from iraqya or iraqiyya,[14] geige (violin) from ghichak,[15] and the theorbo from the tarab.[16]

The music of the troubadors may have had some Arabic origins. Ezra Pound, in his Canto VIII, famously declared that William of Aquitaine, an early troubador, "had brought the song up out of Spain / with the singers and veils...". In his study, Lévi-Provençal is said to have found four Arabo-Hispanic verses nearly or completely recopied in William's manuscript. According to historic sources, William VIII, the father of William, brought to Poitiers hundreds of Muslim prisoners.[17] Trend admitted that the troubadours derived their sense of form and even the subject matter of their poetry from the Andalusian Muslims.[18] The hypothesis that the troubadour tradition was created, more or less, by William after his experience of Moorish arts while fighting with the Reconquista in Spain was also championed by Ramón Menéndez Pidal in the early 20th century, but its origins go back to the Cinquecento and Giammaria Barbieri (died 1575) and Juan Andrés (died 1822). Meg Bogin, English translator of the female troubadors, also held this hypothesis, as did Idries Shah. Certainly "a body of song of comparable intensity, profanity and eroticism [existed] in Arabic from the second half of the 9th century onwards."[19]

One possible theory on the origins of the Western

Arabian Music source:



  1. ^ Habib Hassan Touma - Review of Das arabische Tonsystem im Mittelalter by Liberty Manik.
  2. ^ - khaledtrm.netSinging in the Jahili period (Arabic)
  3. ^ a b ibid.
  4. ^ Farmer 1988, pp. 241, 257
  5. ^ Saoud, R. "The Arab Contribution to the Music of the Western World" (PDF). FSTC. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 
  6. ^ Habib Hassan Touma (1996), The Music of the Arabs, p. 170, trans. Laurie Schwartz, Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, ISBN 0-931340-88-8
  7. ^ Toussaint, Godfried (August 2004), A Comparison of Rhythmic Similarity Measures, 5th International Conference on Music Information, retrieved 2009-07-06 
  8. ^ Smith, Douglas Alton (2002). A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance.  
  9. ^ 32, no. 1: Tribal Music of India"Asian Music". Retrieved 2010. 
  10. ^ Farmer 1988, p. 137
  11. ^ Farmer 1988, p. 140
  12. ^ Farmer 1988, pp. 140–41
  13. ^ Farmer 1988, p. 141
  14. ^ Farmer 1988, p. 142
  15. ^ Farmer 1988, p. 143
  16. ^ Farmer 1988, p. 144
  17. ^ M. Guettat (1980), La Musique classique du Maghreb (Paris: Sindbad).
  18. ^ J. B. Trend (1965), Music of Spanish History to 1600 (New York: Krause Reprint Corp.)
  19. ^ John Stevens, Ardis Butterfield, and Theodore Karp, "Troubadours, trouvères", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  20. ^ Farmer 1988, pp. 72–82
  21. ^ Miller, Samuel D. (Autumn 1973), "Guido d'Arezzo: Medieval Musician and Educator", Journal of Research in Music Education 21 (3): 239–45,  
  22. ^ Edward D'Mello, Gulf News, November 29, 2000
  23. ^ , October 10, 2014RedDeer InternationalFumiya Akashika,
  24. ^ Holgate, Steve (14 September 2006). "Guitarist Dick Dale Brought Arabic Folk Song to Surf Music". The Washington File. Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 29 August 2010. 
  25. ^ Celli A. "Ya Catarì. La musica leggera franco-araba". In Alle radici dell'Europa. Mori giudei e zingari nei paesi del Mediterraneo occidentale, vol. III, XX-XXI Century, ed. Felice Gambin. Verona: SEID, 2010 (155-174).
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ "Arabian music" on the on-line edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, at
  29. ^


  • Fernández Manzano, Reynaldo y Santiago Simón, Emilio de (Coordinación y supervisión ed.). Música y Poesía del Sur de al-Andalus. 1995. ISBN 8477823359
  • Fernández Manzano, Reynaldo.: La música de al-Andalus en la cultura medieval, imágenes en el tiempo, Granada, Universidad e Granada, 2012. ISBN 9788490280935

  • Lodge, David and Bill Badley. "Partner of Poetry". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 323–331. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN
  • Shiloah, Amnon. Music in the World of Islam. A Socio-Cultural Study 2001. ISBN
  • Julián Ribera y Tarragó. La música árabe y su influencia en la española (1985). (Spanish)
  • Fernández Manzano, Reynaldo. De las melodías del reino nazarí de Granada a las estructuras musicales cristianas. La transformación de las tradiciones Hispano-árabes en la península Ibérica. 1984. ISBN 8450511895

Further reading

  • Shireen Maalouf (2002). History of Arabic Music Theory: Change and Continuity in the Tone Systems, Genres, and Scales. Kaslik, Lebanon: Université Saint-Esprit.
  • Peter van der Merwe (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198163053.
  • Habib Hassan Touma (1996). The Music of the Arabs, trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 1-57467-081-6.


See also

The Arab world has incorporated instruments from the West, including the electric guitar, cello, double bass and oboe, and incorporated influences from jazz and other foreign musical styles. The singers have remained the stars, however, especially after the development of the recording and film industry in the 1920s in Cairo. These singing celebrities are the biggest stars in Arabic classic music, they include Farid Al Attrach, Asmahan, Abd el-Halim Hafez, Sayed Darwish, Mohammed Abd el-Wahaab, Warda Al-Jazairia and Umm Kulthum.

The prototypical Arabic music ensemble in Egypt and Syria is known as the takht, and includes, (or included at different time periods) instruments such as the 'oud, qānūn, rabab, ney, violin (introduced in the 1840s or 50s), riq and dumbek. In Iraq, the traditional ensemble, known as the chalghi, includes only two melodic instruments—the jowza (similar to the rabab but with four strings) and santur—accompanied by the riq and dumbek.

Front and rear views of an oud.

Instruments and ensembles

Arab classical music is known for its famed virtuoso singers, who sing long, elaborately ornamented, melismatic tunes, and are known for driving audiences into ecstasy. Its traditions come from pre-Islamic times, when female singing slaves entertained the wealthy, inspired warriors on the battlefield with their rajaz poetry, and performed at weddings.

Vocal traditions

Musicians and teachers refer to these in-between notes as "quarter tones," using "half-flat" or "half-sharp" as a designation for the in-between flats and sharps, for ease of nomenclature. Performance and teaching of the exact values of intonation in each jins or maqam is usually done by ear. It should also be added, in reference to Habib Hassan Touma's comment above, that these "quarter-tones" are not used everywhere in the maqamat: in practice, Arabic music does not modulate to 12 different tonic areas like the Well-Tempered Klavier. The most commonly used "quarter tones" are on E (between E and E), A, B, D, F (between F and F) and C.

Practical treatment

As a result of these findings, the following recommendation was issued: "The tempered scale and the natural scale should be rejected. In Egypt, the Egyptian scale is to be kept with the values, which were measured with all possible precision. The Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi scales should remain what they are..." (translated in Maalouf 2002, p. 220). Both in modern practice, and evident in recorded music over the course of the last century, several differently-tuned "E"s in between the E-flat and E-natural of the Western Chromatic scale are used, that vary according to the types of maqams and ajnas used, and the region in which they are used.

Regional scales

Additionally, in 1932, at the Henry George Farmer - experiments were done which determined conclusively that the notes in actual use differ substantially from an even-tempered 24-tone scale. Furthermore, the intonation of many of those notes differ slightly from region to region (Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq).

The main difference between the Western chromatic scale and the Arabic scales is the existence of many in-between notes, which are sometimes referred to as quarter tones, for the sake of simplicity. In some treatments of theory, the quarter tone scale or all twenty four tones should exist. According to Yūsuf Shawqī (1969), in practice, there are many fewer tones (Touma 1996, p. 170).

More notes used than in Western scales

The maqam consists of at least two ajnas, or scale segments. Ajnas is the plural form of jins, which in Arabic comes from the Latin word genus, meaning "type". In practice, a jins is either a trichord (three notes), a tetrachord (four notes), or a pentachord (five notes). A maqam usually covers only one octave (usually two ajnas), but can cover more. Like the melodic minor scale, some maqamat use different ajnas when descending and ascending. Due to continuous innovation and the emergence of new ajnas, and because most music scholars have not reached consensus on the subject, a solid figure for the total number of ajnas in use is uncertain. In practice, however, most musicians would agree there are at least eight major ajnas: rast, bayat, sikah, hijaz, saba, kurd, nahawand, and ajam, and commonly used variants such as nakriz, athar kurd, sikah beladi, saba zamzama. Mukhalif is a rare jins used almost exclusively in Iraq, and it is not used in combination with other ajnas.


The basis of Arabic music is the maqam (pl. maqamat), which looks like the mode, but is not quite the same. The tonic note, dominant note, and ending note (unless modulation occurs) are generally determined by the maqam used. Arabic maqam theory as ascribed in literature over the ages names between 90 and 110 maqams, that are grouped into larger categories known as fasilah. Fasilah are groupings of maqams whose first four primary pitches are shared in common.[29]

A Maqam tone level example

Maqam system

  1. The Arab tone system; that is, a musical tuning system that relies on specific interval structures and was invented by al-Farabi in the 10th century (p. 170)
  2. Rhythmic-temporal structures that produce a rich variety of rhythmic patterns, known as awzan or "weight", that are used to accompany metered vocal and instrumental genres, to accent or give them form.
  3. A number of musical instruments that are found throughout the Arab world that represent a standardized tone system, are played with generally standardized performance techniques, and display similar details in construction and design.
  4. Specific social contexts that produce sub-categories of Arabic music, or musical genres that can be broadly classified as urban (music of the city inhabitants), rural (music of the country inhabitants), or Bedouin (music of the desert inhabitants)..."
  5. An Arab musical mentality, "responsible for the esthetic homogeneity of the tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures throughout the Arab world whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or sacred." Touma describes this musical mentality as being composed of many things.

Habib Hassan Touma (1996, p.xix-xx) submits that there are "five components" that characterize Arabic music:

Much Arabic music is characterized by an emphasis on melody and rhythm, as opposed to harmony. There are some genres of Arabic music that are polyphonic, but typically, Arabic music is homophonic.[28]

Characteristics of Arabic music

Arabic religious music includes Jewish (Pizmonim and Baqashot), Christian, and Islamic music. However, Islamic music, including the Tajwid or recitation of Qur'an readings, is structurally equivalent to Arabic secular music, while Christian Arab music has been influenced by Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Coptic, and Maronite church music. (ibid, p. 152)

Sacred music

Secular genres include maqam al-iraqi, andalusi nubah, muwashshah, Fjiri songs, qasidah, layali, mawwal, taqsim, bashraf, sama'i, tahmilah, dulab, sawt, and liwa (Touma 1996, pp. 55–108).

Secular art music



Arabian Peninsula

North Africa

The world of modern Arabic music has long been dominated by musical trends that have emerged from Cairo, Egypt. The city is generally considered a cultural center in the Arab world. Innovations in popular music via the influence of other regional styles have also abounded from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Beirut has become a major center, dictating trends in the development of Arabic pop music. Other regional styles that have enjoyed popular music status throughout the Arab world, including:

Musical regions

Arabic Rock has been gaining a lot of attention lately in the Middle East with bands like JadaL and Akher Zapheer of Jordan, Mashrou' Leila and Meen of Lebanon, Massar Egbari, Sahara, Wyvern and Cartoon Killerz of Egypt, Khalas, and Chaos of Palestine and Acrassicauda of Iraq. The band Hoba Hoba Spirit from Morocco is also gaining popularity, especially in the Maghrebi region. Rachid Taha, an Algerian musician, plays a fusion of rock and raï.

Rock music is popular all around the world, the Arab world being no exception. There have been many Arab rock bands along the years that fused rock, metal and alternative rock sounds with traditional Arab instruments.

Arabic rock

Arabic Jazz has met many new kinds of composition since the end of the 20th century:

Another popular form of West meets East, Arabic jazz is also popular, with many songs using jazz instruments. Early jazz influences began with the use of the saxophone by musicians like Samir Suroor, in the "oriental" style. The use of the saxophone in that manner can be found in Abdel Halim Hafez's songs, as well as Kadim Al Sahir and Rida Al Abdallah today. The first mainstream jazz elements were incorporated into Arabic music by the Rahbani brothers. Fairuz's later work was almost exclusively made up of jazz songs, composed by her son Ziad Rahbani. Ziad Rahbani also pioneered today's oriental jazz movement, to which singers including Rima Khcheich, Salma El Mosfi, and (on occasion) Latifa adhere. We can also find a lot of jazz music in Mohamed Mounir's songs starting from his first album Alemony Eneeki in 1977, and he is considered to be the King of Arabic Jazz and Arabic Music generally. Another notable performer of this genre is the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani who blends Jazz with Arabic music, both in her own compositions and in her arrangements of traditional songs.[26][27]

Arabic jazz

Electronic dance music is another genre to come out into popularity. Often, songs in this genre would combine electronic musical instruments with traditional Middle Eastern instruments. Artists like Richii popularized this style with songs like "Ana Lubnaneyoun". Nightclubs in the Arab world that play this kind of music.

Arabic electronica

However certain artists have taken to using full R&B and reggae beats and styling such as Darine. This has been met with mixed critical and commercial reaction. As of now it is not a widespread genre.

Also there is the Moroccan pop introduced by the Moroccan singer Ryan Belhsen who's mixing between the American and the Moroccan music in his songs.

There has also been a rise of R&B, reggae and hip hop influenced Arab music in the past couple of years. These songs usually feature a rapper in a traditional Arab pop song (such as Ishtar's song 'Habibi Sawah'). The Moroccan singer Elam Jay developed a contemporary version of the Gnawa genre that is fused with R&B which he named Gnawitone Styla. Another variation of contemporary Gnawa played in Morocco is introduced by Darga. Based in Casablanca, the group fuses Gnawa with Reggae. Political Reggae artists such as TootArd from the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Walaa Sbeit from Haifa (Originally from Iqrith) started gaining popularity in Palestine in 2011 after the YouTube premiere of a song about the Arab Spring (mainly the Tunisian revolution), called "The Green Revolution", sung by them and an ensemble of Palestinian artists, most notable among them being Mahmoud Jrere of DAM. Notable is Shadia Mansour, a Palestinian British rapper known as "The First Lady of Arab Hip Hop." Much of her music focuses on the Palestinian cause.

Arabic R&B, reggae, and hip hop

Franco-Arabic music is a popular form of West-meets-East style of music, similar in many respects to modern Arabic Pop. This blend of western and eastern music was popularized by artists such as Dalida (Egypt), Sammy Clarke (Lebanon), and Aldo from Australia. Although Franco-Arabic music includes many forms of cross-cultural blending between the West and the Middle East, musically the genre crosses over many lines as is seen in songs that incorporate Arabic and Italian, Arabic and French and, of course, Arabic and English styles or lyrics.[25]


This song opened the door in front of Arabic music in the way of internationality and to be popular all over the world.

In 1996,( Amr Diab - Habibi ya Nour El Ain ) was released, becoming a tremendous success not only in the Middle East nor the Arab world but throughout the entire world. The title track, and its English version "Habibi", was an international phenomenon, becoming a massive crossover hit. In this song Amr Diab has mixed three music civilizations in one track. The Spanish music in flamenco music, French music by accordion solo and Arabic which showed in the playing of drums by Duff instrument and tamphits.

In the 1990s, several artists have taken up such a style including Hakim, Fares Karam, Julia Boutros, and Amal Hijazi.

Western pop music was also being influenced by Arabic music in the early 1960s, leading to the development of surf music, a rock music genre that later gave rise to garage rock and punk rock. Surf rock pioneer Dick Dale, a Lebanese American guitarist, was greatly influenced by the Arabic music he learnt from his uncle, particularly the oud and derbakki (doumbek) drum, skills which he later applied to his electric guitar playing when recording surf rock in the early 1960s.[24]

During the 1950s and the 1960s, Arabic music began to take on a more Western tone - artists Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez along with composers Mohamed Abd al-Wahab and Baligh Hamdi pioneered the use of western instruments in Egyptian music. By the 1970s several other singers had followed suit and a strand of Arabic pop was born. Arabic pop usually consists of Western styled songs with Arabic instruments and lyrics. Melodies are often a mix between Eastern and Western. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Lydia Canaan, generally regarded as the first rock star of the Middle East,[22][23] fused English lyrics and Western sound with Middle-Eastern quarter notes and became the first internationally successful Lebanese recording artist.

Interaction with Western popular music

One of the first female singers to take a secular approach was Umm Kulthum, quickly followed by Lebanese singer Fairuz. Both have been popular through the decades that followed and both are considered legends of Arabic music.

In the 20th century, Egypt was the first in a series of Arab countries to experience a sudden emergence of nationalism, as it became independent after 2000 years of foreign rule. Turkish music, popular during the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the region, was replaced by national music. Cairo became a center for musical innovation.

Musicians in Aleppo, 1915.

Early secular formation

20th century

Male instrumentalists were condemned in a treatise in 9 CE. They were associated with perceived vices such as chess, and love poetry. Following the invasion of Egypt, Napoleon commissioned reports on the state of Ottoman culture. Villoteau's account reveals that there were guilds of male instrumentalists, who played to male audiences, and "learned females," who sang and played for women .

Musicians in Aleppo (18th century)

Male instrumentalists

Bartol Gyurgieuvits (1506–1566) spent 13 years as a slave in the Ottoman empire. After escaping, he published De Turvarum ritu et caermoniis in Amsterdam in 1544. It is one of the first European books to describe music in Islamic society. In India, the Islamic Mughal emperors ruled both Muslims and Hindus. The greatest of these, Akbar (1542–1605) had a team of at least fifty musicians, thirty-six of whom are known to us by name. The origins of the "belly dance" are very obscure, as depictions and descriptions are rare. It may have originated in pre-Islamic Arabia. Examples have been found from 200 BCE, suggesting a possible pre-Islamic origin.

16th century

[21] and Samuel D. Miller.[20]

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