Music of Andalusia

Reflections of a Time Past

The Music of Andalusia Yesterday and Today

By Nicole LeCorgne

From the eighth to the fifteenth century, Arabs occupied and controlled much of southern Spain, establishing the Muslim-ruled empire known as al-Andalus, or Andalusia. Regarded by many as a golden age of tolerance and cultural exchange, these eight centuries were a time when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in an atmosphere of intellectual and cultural symbiosis despite the existence of political tensions and religious differences. Complex social and class structures allowed religions and races to coexist peaceably on social, professional and political levels, even to intermarry with relative ease. In Andalusia, the Arab East met the European West and each contributed to the other in culture, science, mathematics, philosophy and the arts.

The music of al-Andalus has a rich and colorful history, and many traces of this music are still present in modern Arabic musical forms. Most of the musical traditions from Andalusia were brought to the Maghreb, or North Africa, when the Arabs were forced out of Spain with the fall of Granada in 1492. Today, vestiges of Andalusian musical developments can be found across much of the Arab world, despite wide variations in form and style among the music of these cultures. Some of the musical differences date back to the days of Andalusia and may be attributed to divisions among schools of music theory of that time; others occurred after the exodus to North Africa, as a result of musical schools settling in different isolated environments subject to local influences.

L’Orchestre al-Brihi de Fes, a Moroccan Andalusian ensemble, from the Anthologie “Al-Âla” Musique.

Andalusian History

The impact of the music of ancient Andalusia on modern Arabic music can be more thoroughly understood by exploring the political and social history of the region. The history of Andalusia begins in the great dynasties of the eastern Arab world. In 711 the Arab world was ruled from Damascus by Caliph al-Walad I of the Umayyad dynasty. His governor in Tunisia, Musa Ibn Nusayr, began the westward expansion of the empire. In 714 he crossed the Straits of Gibraltar with Berber tribes and defeated the Visigoths, bringing Arab-Berber culture to Spain and claiming the new territory, al-Andalus, for the Umayyad Empire. When the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown in 750, ‘Abd al-Rahman, a prince of the caliphate, fled Damascus and sought refuge in Morocco. With help from Umayyad allies from Spain, he recaptured the western territories in 756 and was proclaimed Emir of Andalusia. The first in a line of five generations of Umayyads to rule the Iberian Peninsula, al-Rahman established an empire that was to be remembered as a crucible for cultural interaction between Muslim and non-Muslim peoples. Despite warring tribes and political fragmentation, Andalusia has been continually revered for its cultural effervescence and tolerance.

Two important factors contributing to the success of this Islamic melting pot were language and religion. While Arabs, new to the land, learned the Romance language out of necessity, young Christians of the ninth century, chose to read and write in Arabic, turning away from their Latin roots to study pre-Islamic poetry and Arabic literature. Spanish Jews spoke both Romance and Arabic, in addition to Hebrew, and acted as translators between Christians and Arabs.1 Cultural integration was further promoted by the Muslim belief in “the fundamental unity of Faith,” acknowledging Jews and Christians as fellow monotheists venerating the same God. Muslims considered Jews and Christians “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab) and allowed them to participate in all aspects of Andalusian life as “tributaries” of the umma (the community of the faithful), despite the feeling that their belief systems were incomplete. In Andalusia, the cooperative relationship between the umma and its non-Islamic counterparts provided a social structure that had little discrimination based on religious belief.2

Much of the musical influence in Andalusia, and the Arab world in general, was a result of an emphasis on arts education in the courts of Baghdad. The Abbasid caliphs, who replaced the Umayyad in Syria, moved the capital of the Arab world from Damascus to Baghdad, which soon became the center of musical development. The courts of the Abbasid dynasty increased patronage to the arts, elevating the status of music and promoting cultural life in the region. During this period, it was expected that educated, cultured men would be schooled in the musical arts, and in turn, musicians would be educated, cultured individuals. Music became the subject of intellectual discourse and public debate. Al-Kindi (d.873) was the first of the great Arab music theorists to emerge from the burgeoning scene in Baghdad. His work “al-Musiqa” was based partially on translations of Helenic musical theory texts. All later theory of maqam (Arab modal theory) including the work of Persian philosophers al-Farabi and al-Isbahani, largely stems from al-Kindi’s work.3


The musical history of Andalusia begins in Cordoba in 822, when a young Persian freedman from Baghdad named Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi’ (789-857), popularly known as Ziryab (“blackbird”) arrived from Baghdad. Ziryab was first known for his musical endeavors in the Abbasid court as a student and faithful disciple of the famed ‘ud player Ishaq al-Mawsili. All accounts state that his musical excellence was equal to and may have even surpassed that of his teacher, and that he left Baghdad to fulfill his own ambitions and gain higher status in another court. Some speculate, however, that his departure may have been the result of a bitter rivalry and unexpected confrontation between Ziryab and his master, causing him to flee Baghdad in fear for his life.

He traveled to Kairoun, now known as Tunisia, and was immediately accepted into the court of the emir, Ziyadat Allah I. Here his reputation as a musician grew, and he earned much wealth and respect. Yet, in 821, after offending the ruler with one of his songs, he was condemned to be beaten and was banished from Kairoun.4 As luck would have it, an envoy to the Umayyad emir in Cordoba witnessed the event and invited Ziryab to Spain. During the journey he learned that the emir, al-Hakim I (796-822), had died. Nevertheless, when Ziryab arrived in Cordoba he was received with great enthusiasm by the emir’s son and successor, ‘Abd al-Rahman II (822-852), who offered him a large salary. With his exceptional charm and talent, Ziryab quickly earned his place as one of the emir’s favorites. Once again his popularity grew, and this time he remained in the court’s favor influencing many areas of Andalusian culture, such as hairstyles, fashion and cuisine.

When Ziryab left Baghdad, he took with him an incontestable mastery of contemporary Arabic music traditions (it is said he knew the words and melodies of more than 10,000 songs) as well as his talent as an innovator. Ziryab was also a very influential teacher, creating the institutional basis to transmit musical culture across Andalusia. In Cordoba, Ziryab established a conservatory, teaching musical structure and theory based on his own reforms and developments. He developed innovative and systematic teaching methods for assessing and improving students’ vocal ability and musicianship. He required students to have an understanding of the fundamental skills of melodic structure before allowing them to move on to the more difficult tasks of improvisation and ornamentation. Ziryab developed students’ knowledge and appreciation of rhythmic structure by requiring them to recite or sing poems to tambourine accompaniment. His emphasis on rhythm led to later experimentation in metered song forms that revolutionized musical styles throughout the Middle East.5

Ziryab’s command of performance and technique allowed him to approach music from artistic and analytical perspectives, while his theoretical models tended to emphasize the more spiritual or esoteric elements. Ziryab believed that the strings of the ‘ud—predecessor to the western lute and a primary instrument in Middle Eastern music—were associated with cosmic influences and elements of human physiology. He added a fifth string to the instrument, which he claimed symbolized “life and the soul.”6

Nubah, Muwashshah and Zajal Traditions

Ziryab is also credited with developing the concept of nubah, a suite form containing pieces composed in a single mode, and grouped according to rhythmic structure. The twenty-four nubat,7 established by Ziryab, are the basic structural elements that early Andalusian music was founded upon. Each of the twenty-four nubat supposedly corresponded in quality with an hour of the day, and with different temporal, seasonal and emotional characteristics. Together they formed what is called “a symbolic tree of temperances.” The performance of each nubah is said to have served a therapeutic function by keeping various body humors in balance.

While Ziryab’s theories were based in the metaphysical world, his counterparts in the East followed a different path. Rather than focusing on mystical concepts, the Arab East developed theoretical models of music based on rationalistic Greek theories and philosophies, which were being translated into Arabic during the latter half of the eighth century. An example of these conceptual differences is the term used for mode: in Andalusia, a mode, or the structured set of intervals on which the music is based, is referred to as tab’, meaning “nature” or “character”; in the East the term used is maqam, meaning “location” or “position.” While the music of the East was (and is) dependent on the rules of scale structure and use, Andalusian music, and the nubah in particular, is more dependent on rhythm and textual content. As a result, the Eastern maqamat9 have a more developed scale structure with distinctive use of certain “micro-tonal” intervals not commonly used in Andalusian music.10

The traditional nubah structure is divided into five movements, called miyazin. Each of the mizan11 has a corresponding rhythm that progresses from slow to fast over the course of its performance. It will often have a free-metered vocal introduction followed by a musical interlude, intended to set the mood of the particular mode being used. A number of different songs may be used and interchanged to make up the body of each mizan, allowing for great variety within a given performance. Performing any single nubah could take between five and nine hours; consequently, the suites are rarely performed in their entirety today.

Although the nubah is the oldest and one of the most distinctive Andalusian musical structures, it is not the most geographically far-reaching. The North African writer al-Tifashi (d.1253) states that by the eleventh century a new song form emerged that “combined Christian songs with those of the East.”12 This new form was called the muwashshah, whose development is attributed to another musical master, Ibn Bajja. The muwashshah was a musical form based on strophic poetry (alternating verse and chorus), which replaced the single line rhyme schemes of the classical qasida. So popular was this new style that it bridged the gap between eastern and western music forms of the times and provided an Andalusian-derived style whose survival is not exclusive to the Maghreb. The muwashshah was incorporated into the eastern system of maqam when it traveled across North Africa into Egypt, where musicians, theorists and composers sought to analyze and emulate its form. From Egypt the muwashshah made its way to Syria, and it was not long before Syrian composers had adopted the style. The muwashshah composers that began settling in Syria as early as the twelfth century brought a musical form to the region that is still used today.

Another popular song form called zajal developed in Andalusian Spain during the eleventh century. The zajal was similar to the muwashshah in form but was sung in colloquial languages as opposed to classical Arabic. It allowed more rhythmic freedom than the muwashshah, but required that the song begin with the verse; in the muwashshah, the opening verse is optional. The song forms also differ in the number of times that verses are repeated throughout the song. The zajal and muwashshah were combined with the nubah musical structure to form the basis of most music still known across North Africa as Andalusian.


Central to the performance of traditional forms of Andalusian music is an instrument called the rebab, a small, boat-shaped, bowed instrument that is unique to Andalusian music. (Some other bowed instruments carry the same name, but are of slightly different construction and not used in Andalusian music.) The rebab is played like a cello, with the bottom end resting on the musician’s knee. The Andalusian orchestra probably consisted of a rebab, lutes of varying sizes, a drum and a tambourine. Modern orchestras, however, can be quite large and incorporate modern instruments such as the violin, and even the piano, flute and clarinet. These instrumental adaptations have led to the diminished importance of the rebab, formerly the primary instrument in Andalusian music.

Andalusian Music and Modern Interpretations

The structures of the nubat being performed today vary greatly due to regional stylistic differences. In Morocco, for example, it has become common practice to perform a series of songs from the same mizan, one movement from a particular nubah. Each of the songs is based on the same rhythmic pattern and melodic mode. The mizan can take over an hour to perform, and the orchestra will often play a series of miyazin from differing nubat to add variety to the performance. The order of the songs within each mizan is well established, and the audience is, therefore, familiar with and can anticipate the musical progression. On the other hand, it is common practice in Algeria to perform vocal sections that correspond roughly to the rhythmic progressions of a single nubah. In this tradition, the orchestra leader chooses the songs while on stage, a kind of improvisation that leaves the audience anticipating what piece will be played next. Other variations in form occur according to the social setting of the music: weddings, concerts or religious performance inspire different progressions of pieces.

In Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, the muwashshah has become so integrated with classical music traditions that it has taken on its own life there and can no longer be considered completely Andalusian. In the last several centuries, Aleppo, Syria, has been known for its tradition of muwashshah. The Aleppo version of the classical wasla,13 another suite form, uses only muwashshahat for its vocal sections. In Syria, the Andalusian origin of the muwashshah was obscured over time; scholars rediscovered its historical ties to Andalusia only in the twentieth century.

Much of the music of ancient Andalusia has been lost. In the late eighteenth century, al-Hayik, a scholar from Tetouan, tried to recreate and transcribe the original twenty-four nubat, but could find only eleven complete forms. The few odd pieces that were left he called itama, or orphans.14 He took these itamas and organized them by mode into new suites. This accounts for the changes in mode found in some of the present day nubat performances. The work of al-Hayik and subsequent scholars on the surviving eleven nubat is what most North African Andalusian orchestras use to comprise their repertoire. Yet these treatises, however meticulously researched, are based on limited sources, suggesting that the music that exists today is a modern interpretation of an ancient form, a reflection of times past.

Modern Arabic popular culture often invokes Andalusia as a lost paradise of Arabic political power, religious tolerance and flourishing arts. In 1966 the Rahbani Brothers composed music for the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz that fused muwashshah and qasida traditions with modern musical styles. Their album entitled Andalussiyat claims a place in the long lineage of Andalusian music. When compared to the more traditional forms practiced in the Maghreb, Andalussiyat seems unrelated, but the key to its connection with Andalusia is more metaphorical, than musical. Due to religious and political oppression, artistic expression in the Arab world is often forced to take on a metaphorical quality; given the political climate of Lebanon in the late sixties, it is easy to see the need to connect with a time when Arab rule was prosperous and enlightened. So, while the musicians of the Maghreb seek to preserve Andalusia through adherence to its traditional musical forms, artists of Egypt and the Levant invoke the mythological characteristics of al-Andalus and its legacy through the muwashshah.


The music of Andalusia was a product of the greatest and most enduring periods of Arab success in the European world. This tradition was founded by a man who was exiled from his homeland in the East to find wealth and success in the West, a figure to whom the modern Arab can easily relate. Through Ziryab’s teaching, the nubat were transmitted and developed throughout Andalusia, and in the eleventh century, these teachings were combined with the muwashshah and zajal to form what is now understood as the music of Andalusia. Much of the original repertoire is lost, and the music as it actually sounded in Ziryab’s time is probably gone forever; yet the spirit and vibrancy of Andalusian music lives on in a number of Arabic musical traditions. Each tradition has sought to preserve the music either in form or in spirit. Perhaps more importantly, musicians throughout the entire Diaspora have been able to identify with an Andalusian heritage as an important way of asserting Arab identity.

End Notes

1. Hernandez. “The Roots of Coexistence.” p. 21

2. Ibid. p. 20

3. Shiloah. “The Dimensions of Sound.”

4. Guettat. “Ziryab, Master of Andalusian Music.” p. 75

5. Ibid. p. 76

6. Ibid. p. 76

7. plural of nubah

8. Fuson. “The Musical Heritage of al-Andalus.”

9. plural of maqam

10. Schuyler. “Moroccan Andalusian Music.” p. 3

11. singular of miyazin

12. Reynolds. “Musical ‘Membrances of Medieval Muslim Spain.” p. 234

13. Not to be confused with the wasla of Egypt, the Syrian wasla form uses only muwashshah in its vocal sections.

14. Schuyler. “Moroccan Andalusian Music.” p. 4 (of article)


Arie, Rachel. “Singular and Plural: The Heritage of al-Andalus.” The Unesco Courier (December 1991): 15-19.

Fuson, Timothy D. “The Musical Heritage of al-Andalus.” Department of Music, University of California, Berkeley.

Guettat, Mahmoud. “Ziryab, Master of Andalusian Music.” The Unesco Courier (July/August 1992): 74-76.

Guichard, Pierre. “Cordoba the Magnificent.” The Unesco Courier (December 1991): 28-31.

Hernandez, Miguel Cruz. “The Roots of Coexistence.” The Unesco Courier (December 1991): 20-23.

Latham, Derek. “The Rise of the Umayyad Dynasty in Spain.” The Unesco Courier (December 1991): 24-27.

Racy, Ali Jihad. “Arab Music – Part One.” [on line] Music in Our World.

Reynolds, Dwight F. “Musical ‘Membrances of Medieval Muslim Spain.” In Hispanic Issues, Vol. 21, Charting Memory: Recalling Medieval Spain, pp. 229-262. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 2000.

Schuyler, Phillip D. “Moroccan Andalusian Music.” (reference unavailable)

Shiloah, Amnon. “The Dimension of Sound.” The World of Islam, Ch. 6. Thames and Hudson, 1976.

Nicole LeCorgne is a percussionist and teacher originally from New Orleans, LA, currently living in San Francisco, CA. She did most of her early musical studies in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she received a B.A. in World Music and Dance from the University of Minnesota and began her pursuit of Middle Eastern and Balkan music. While in Minneapolis, she freelanced with a number of local folk and rock groups while maintaining her own band, an improvisational acoustic trio, Tandava Slinky. She moved to the Bay Area in 1995 where she has since worked with such groups as Susu and the Cairo Cats, The Aswan Dancers, The Georges Lammam Ensemble, Slavko Silic, and several other local Arabic and Balkan wedding/dance bands. In 1996 she traveled to Egypt and Turkey to study with master drummers in Cairo and Istanbul. For the past five years, Nicole has been the musical accompanist and resident drum teacher for Oasis Dance Camps. She is currently a member of The Georges Lammam Ensemble, and is also collaborating with several of the Bay Area’s top female Balkan influenced musicians in a “world gypsy” band called Panacea.

At present, Nicole works as a special education teacher in both the private and public school systems of San Francisco where she has the opportunity to teach art and music adapted to students with special needs.

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