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The music of Western Asia and North Africa spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Afghanistan, and its influences can be felt even further afield. Middle Eastern music influenced (and has been influenced by) the music of Greece and India, as well as Central Asia, Spainmarker, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as in chalga. The various nations of the region include the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the Persian tradition of Iranmarker, the Greek traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkeymarker, traditional Assyrian music, various Jewish traditions from Israelmarker, the Kurdish music, Berbers of North Africa, and the 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 influence to spread through the region rapidly from the 7th century onward. The Arabic scale is strongly melodic, based around various maqam or modes (also known as makam in Turkish music). 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 filtering through Western interaction. 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 homophonic texture.

Often, more traditional Middle Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length, building up to anxiously waited for, and much applauded climaxes, or atrab, deriving from the Arabic term tarraba.

Musical Style

In Arabic music a scale consists of 17, 19 or 24 notes in a single octave. Rhythm in Middle Eastern music is very complicated and must be memorized by the musicians. There are at least 32 documented different “beat styles” for the drum or tambourine used in this music. Arabic music is generally monophonic, with only one line that instruments and voice follow in unison. Singers often start in a solo and have the instruments or background singers repeat in a dialog method. Because many of the classical musicians learn “by ear” from a teacher, there is much room for improvisation. Most of the groups include only four people, to allow a greater dynamic and bond for the musicians. The most frequent theme for songs from the Middle East include love and longing for the homeland. This can also tie into the very diverse cultural settings from which many of the musicians come from. Countries such as Turkey, Persia and Egypt are some of the most influential to the overall musical style recognizable with the Middle East. Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. / 

Instruments Used

There are many instruments geographically known to the region of the Middle East. Most popular of all stringed instruments is the oud. An oud traditionally had four strings, although current models have increased to up to six. The oud traveled from Persia and became refined during the Arab golden age. This early ancestor to a lute also has a hollowed back, much like a modern guitar. Used mostly in court music for royals and the rich, the harp also came from Persian influence, showing up in the fifteenth century. Another instrument used in court performing was the Persian fiddle. This instrument has two strings played by a bow, a close relative to the Chinese erhu. The widespread use of the oud led to many variations, including the saz, a Turkish longneck lute. The saz is still a very popular instrument in Turkey today. Last of the popular string instruments is the quanun. This complex instrument contains 26 triple-strings. Plucked with a piece of horn, the musician has the freedom to alter the pitch from whole steps to quarter steps by adjusting metal levers. Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. / 
Percussion instruments play a very important role in Middle Eastern music. The complex rhythms of such music can be represented by many common or simple instruments. The rig, a type of tambourine and finger cymbals, adds a higher rhythmic line, whereas rhythm sticks and clappers offer a sense of time. An instrument native to Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon, the doumbec (tombak, tabla) is a drum made of ceramic clay, with goatskin glued at the body to echo the hollow sound and amplify the noise. Nasehpour, Peyman. "Drums in Persian Paintings." Peyman and His Tonbak. Web. 12 Oct 2009./>.
The last section of instruments is the woodwinds. Picture a crowded market place, with a snake charmer entertaining tourists on an instrument. He is playing an oboe-like instrument, which can be one of many used in Middle Eastern music. The Moroccan oboe, also called the Raita has a double reed mouthpiece that echoes sound down its long and narrow body. Similar instruments are called zurnas (the Persian oboe) which were used more for festivals and loud celebrations. A Turkish influence comes from the mey, a clarinet-like instrument that looks more like an oboe. 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. Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. / 

Dance and Music

As with many cultures, dance and music go hand in hand in Middle Eastern music. Before the influence of Islam, Arabic music was associated with prostitution and drunken entertainment. Under the wide rule of Islam, vulgar lyrics and suggestive dancing by women became illegal. Much of post-Islam 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 with his/her “God”. Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. / 

Influence of Religion

The influence of religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam 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. Typically conducted by a muezzin, or prayer caller, chants that used to be spoken are now put to music, and even allowed to be improvised by the muezzin. Only since the nineteenth century have individual recitors started singing the Qur’an while still strictly abiding by the laws and rules. Mann, Horace. "Islamic and Middle Eastern Music and Dance." San Francisco Unified School District. Web. 12 Oct 2009. / 

Common genres

See also


  1. Pappé, I. The Modern Middle East, (London, 2005), p. 166-171.

External links

  • PersianPersia - About Persian classical and modern music including instrumental(with english version)-more than 10,000 songs-free listen and some download

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