Listen and Describe

+ What are all the components of a musical experience? (Think beyond the notes!)

  • How is this music taught and learned?
  • How much is improvised?
  • How old or new is this repertoire?
  • What are the connections of this music to geographical locations, past and present?
  • What meanings and associations does this music have for the people who make it? How are those different from any associations we might have about the sounds being made?
  • What values are used to judge whether this is a “good” performance of this type of music?
  • Who made this recording and what is that person’s relationship to the performer(s)?
  • What other questions could help lead you to the kinds of information would help to understand more about each example?


Arab music is performed in parts of the Arab Peninsula, North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East, as well as among diasporic communities in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. This is an example of a takht ensemble, a traditional type of performance that was especially popular in the early eighteenth century. Many other kinds of music are now also common, from various types of folk music to Arab pop music.

Texture and Tuning

The texture of Arab music is heterophonic. This means that each individual musician is playing the same melody, and in fact each would be reading off the same single-line score as in this example, but they are each ornamenting and embellishing the melody in different ways. In Arab music, each instrument uses its own idiomatic techniques of embellishment. For example, the ‘ud (Arab lute, seen in the first solo in this video at 1:00) can strum repeatedly or will play octaves to emphasize important notes or moments in the melody, the violin (whose solo starts at 2:18) can vary vibrato or bend pitches easily, the qanun (plucked lap zither, whose solo starts at 4:03) can easily play runs, and the nay (Arab reed flute, featured here at 6:25) player will often trill, bend the pitch, or alter the timbre of the sound. You can learn more about Arab musical instruments here.

People unfamiliar with Arab music may perceive that the musicians are occasionally playing out of tune. This is not the case, but rather has to do with the tuning system used. In addition to whole tones and semi-tones, Arab music also includes quartertones, and scores include symbols for half sharps and half flats. These symbols can be seen in the key signature and the first line of the notation example, linked above. These extra possibilities in combinations of intervals contribute to the rich and complex system of modes, called maqam. This example is in maqam hijaz, and you can explore more about this and other maqam-s here.

Improvisation and Audience Interaction

You may also notice the audience reacting vocally and with applause at certain moments in the middle of the performance (for example at 4:32, and at the end of most of the taqasim). The structure of many pieces allows for taqasim, or improvised solos, by individuals. During this time, the rest of the ensemble may drop out or play a drone or riff softly on a short phrase, providing an aural backdrop to the solo. The soloist will then improvise within the particular maqam, usually following a typical structure involving gradually introducing or outlining the maqam and increasing in complexity and intensity, and may include modulations to other maqam, before a triumphant return to the original maqam and characteristic phrase of the piece.

The goal or any performance and especially of taqasim, is for both the performers and the audience to achieve a feeling of musical ecstasy, or tarab. This is often achieved by expertly and creatively expressing the emotional qualities and essence of the particular maqam. If the audience members feel that the soloist has played an especially evocative or moving passage, for example, they may respond with applause or words of encouragement or praise. This in turn can encourage the inspiration of the soloist to continue performing well, eventually leading to the experience of tarab.

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