Mellifluent Maqam

The Mellifluent Maqam

by Jeanette Cool

As an eclectic student of music, it was a matter of time until Arabic music would enter my audio arena. Still, that moment I remember well — when a friend placed an album on my turntable, I heard the most peculiar yet hypnotic sounds wafting through the living room. It was at once pleasing yet discordant — beckoning yet distant, lyrical yet melancholy. There appeared within the musky melody undulating shapes winding into vine-like arabesques within a veiled mysterious darkness. The entrancing evocation was enchanting while arousing an exotic unfamiliarity. Something was seemingly out of tune!

Um Kalthoum

Nearly a year later I was introduced to a band of “self-proclaimed gypsies” in northern California who were enamored with this same Arabic music. They spent hours each night playing their renditions of Oriental tunes from recordings, and dancing with abandon — then later in the night lying in smoky silence under the powerful singing of Um Khoultum. We floated along the contours of the trance-like melodies as one, with occasional pockets of discord — those peculiar out of tune notes! As I committed to memory the wonderful melodies, singing along, I would “translate” these flattened intervals into conventional western ones of the tempered scale, ignorant of the richness within the foundations of the Arabic modal system. This fascinating music urged a more analytical look. Having studied western music theory at university, delighting in the rules of composition and harmony, I endeavored to look at the basic structure of Middle Eastern music and its similarities and differences from that of its western counterpart.

A most conspicuous difference is in the intervallic structure of the maqamat (scales) which contain “quarter tones” (those pesky “out-of-tune” notes previously ignored). The tonal material of western music is a tempered system of twelve equal semitones within an octave. The Arabic maqam is un-tempered, with twenty-four quarter tones (microtones between the semitones with which western ears are familiar) within the octave lending rich subtlety and bounteous melodic possibilities. Though there is no final count, there may be anywhere from 50 to 120 maqamat (depending on definition and source) yet perhaps only around 60 are used and 10-15 of those used commonly. Unlike the western classical scales, of which there are only major and minor scales and their transpositions, in the Arabic maqam system any tonal change or transposition may require a new name, hence the high number of different maqamat. (Example: Nahawand, a maqam whose normal tonic is C, when transposed to G is called Farah Faza.) The Western scales exist within the frequently used maqam system — major is called Ajam, minor, Nahawand and harmonic minor, Hijaz, the latter easily recognized and notable for the augmented second interval that creates a very plaintive sound. Other frequently used maqamat are: Rast, Bayati, Sigah, Huzam, Kurdi, Sabah, Nawarthur, Nakriz, Husseini, Hijaz Kar, Ajam Ashiran, and Shad Arban (Kurd on G).

The construction of melody is modal, that is executed within the narrow frame represented by the particular maqam chosen to announce it, enhance its characteristics and bring forth its inherent personality. Each maqam creates a unique emotional response which is an important factor in its selection for composition — just as the character of major and minor evoke a quite different response. In a classical piece, such as “Ansak,” sung by Um Khoultum, there is a long and well-developed muqaddima (introductory section) which sets up the maqam Rast before she begins singing in the same maqam.1 Like western music, modulations occur within these great pieces, usually between “related” maqamat (i.e., those related by similar tetrachords or the same tonic, for instance). Listeners and dancers will hear and feel these shifts of tonality created by modulation.

Mohammed Abdul Wahab

It is traditional for a piece to begin and end in the same maqam. However, Mohammed Abdul Wahab pioneered the practice of ending a piece in a maqam different from that with which he began. This tool was considered a bit of a rebellious act; however, it worked very well musically, and therefore must be included in theory as an acceptable compositional path.

When studying Arabic music, the classical western student may find it unusual that the melodies composed are not always performed note-for-note. Can you imagine changing one note in any of the melodies of Chopin, Schumann or Rachmaninoff? Impossible! Peculiarly, melodies in Arabic music may be highly ornamented, much like the decorative ornamental patterns in Arabic architecture and visual art in general, from the filigree work in decorative objects to embroidered patterns on clothing. In fact, rarely do musicians play a piece exactly as it was written, and the liberty taken, especially with ornamentation, is the way s/he demonstrates virtuosity.

When listening to classical Arabic music, the orchestra presents a full multi-textured sound using a complete family of western string instruments with solo sections featuring individual instrumentalists. Upon close examination one will note perhaps the most predominant difference between the Arabic and European classical music for orchestra — that is, the homophony of the former. The body of instruments move in unison, step by step, as the modal melody is punctuated with interspersed short motives called lawazim. The well-developed elements of harmony which have enriched the western ear for centuries, did not appear in Arabic music until very recently, with limited utilization and success — mostly in popular music. In addition, counterpoint — the independent melodic and rhythmic movement of singular voice lines — developed by J. S. Bach and continually evolving to the present day, is also unused in the classical Arabic genre. Rather, the voices follow one another in unison at various octaves. In fact, well-respected accompanying instrumentalists have the remarkable capability of following, quite literally, the vocalist, even through improvisation, immediately after s/he spontaneously sings it.

The Arabic orchestra has a well-developed percussion upon which the music relies heavily, compared to our symphony orchestras. All have noted the symphonic member waiting endlessly for the sporadic addition of a cymbal crash, bass drum beat or even triangle tingle. Not so in the Arabic orchestra with the percussionists’ steady hands producing a backbone for the music and its startling rhythmic changes. The tambourine as we know it, for instance, is a “throwaway” instrument, but it is a classical instrument in the Middle Eastern orchestra requiring many years of study and a profound knowledge of rhythmic modes. The Arabic listener embraces easily many different signatures of rhythm, such as 7/8, 9/8, 10/8, 13/8, which are rather foreign to the western orchestra, which uses such meters with less frequency and duration.2

Finally, we must look at the art of improvisation — that creative element in Arabic music by which a musician demonstrates his uniqueness, his emotional language and his/her virtuosity. Unfortunately, improvisation is nearly lost in the western classical tradition since the decline in piano cadenzas of the 19th century. No longer practiced by composers and performers, improvisation survives chiefly among pipe organ virtuosos. However, this skill is refined and advanced in the western jazz idiom. In fact, there are similarities between the Arabic takht, (an ensemble comprised of acoustic Arabic instruments and violin) and jazz ensembles, in that a composed melody is further enhanced by individual improvisation and ornamentation. In fact, jazz masters have also developed the modal system inherited from the Greeks, creating additional scales with many altered tones and complicated modulations just like the Arabic virtuosos.

Most of us have heard during a presentation of Arabic taksim (improvised music) by a formidable player, the audience calling out favorable exclamations of praise or sighs of noted feelings. This may occur when the artist has “pulled in” an altered tone from outside the maqam in which he is playing, momentarily continuing in a different maqam, then returning. Or perhaps s/he altered a quarter tone just a bit further microtonally, communicating an unpredicted emotional moment which is caught by the listener and answered vocally or with applause.3 Audience outbursts also occur when the taksim phrase is ended by a qaflah, a traditional cadential formula that is highly ornamented and rhythmically complex, descending rapidly to the tonic. In fact, there are live performances by Um Khoultoum when the overwhelming audience response was noted in kind by the orchestra repeating the entire section of music right there on the spot!

Music theory is a study of immense proportion. However, the rewards of listening to music are greatly enhanced with even the most elementary study and understanding of musical organization. A first step for me was to examine Arabic music as it compared to the western music I know and love. Such contrasting has increased my appreciation of both genres and presented many intriguing questions for further study. As one listens repeatedly to the great music of the Arabic culture and attends live concerts and recitals, a foundation for understanding supports greater exploration into the subtlety and complexity of this wonderful music.


Azzam, Nabil S., Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Wahhab in Modern Egyptian Music, UMI Dissertation Services, 1990.

Lammam, Georges, consultation in private conversation, 1996.

Marcus, Scott L., Arab Music Theory in the Modern Period, UMI Dissertation Services, 1989.

Patai, Raphael, The Arab Mind, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Inc., 1973.

Scholes, Percy A., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 1977.


1. Notable among the exceptions, is “Fakarooney,” by Mohammed Abdul Wahab, in which the muqaddima begins in Nahawand modulating to Rast, where the singing begins in Rast.

2. Dancers, note the changes from 4/4 to 10/8 in “Le Danse Orientale Classique” by Nadia Gamal, on Rare Glimpses, Dances from the Middle East, Volume I, by Ibrahim Farrah.

3. Such audience response and participation would never occur in the western classical concert hall, however welcomed in the presentation of jazz music.

Jeanette Cool, M.M. (Masters of Music Theory) is an accomplished pianist, organist and flutist, and is studying the classical Middle Eastern instrument, kanun. She is music director for Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Ms. Cool has studied and taught Middle Eastern dance for fifteen years. She is co-founder of Amorfia Productions with her husband, Arabic violin virtuoso Georges Lammam.

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