Cañada College MUS 250 WORLD (MUSIC)


Arab, Persian and Turkish Sound-Cultures


CAVEAT: not only are Arab, Persian or Iranian and Turkish cultures distinct, their musical cultures are also distinct from each other.  However, there are some elements of practice and approach that are shared and the musical examples used in class came from all three cultures.



Music is often considered to be a "good thing" without question; however Arab-Islamic culture is an example in which the sensuality of music, particularly rhythm, is regarded with suspicion.  The results of that attitude, combined with the Islamic respect for scientific and rationalistic thinking, produce an inclination toward an elaborate music theory that has had direct influence on the performance and creation of music.  The interesting exception:  Sufi attitudes about music and spirituality.


Recommended websites:, referred to below;

An interesting way of laying out information is in this “knowledge web”:

A longer, more conventionally structured and ordered source is on the following pages: 

·         Arab Music - Part One Ali Jihad Racy and Jack Logan

·         Arab Music - Part Two Ali Jihad Racy and Jack Logan

·         Arab Music - Part Three Ali Jihad Racy and Jack Logan

·         Arab Music - Part Four Ali Jihad Racy and Jack Logan


Some Shared Components of Arab, Persian and Turkish Sound-Cultures

I. Musical Specifics

A.     Pitch –

1.      scales - a complex system of maqam: a two-octave scale or mode that has intervals of 2, 3, 4, or 5 quarter tones between each pitch.  Some 70 are in use.  Hear them at this terrific website:  Arabic Maqam World.

2.      melodic tendencies:  highly ornamented, often staying within a narrow ambitus, and gradually moving to other registers.   Harmony is generally not a consideration for this primarily melodic music.

B.  Rhythm -- a wide range of tempos are used from fast to slow.  Meters can be additive (asymmetrical) or feature odd numbers such as five.  More importantly, the music is marked by the use of rhythmic modes.  These have more detail than the general concept of meter, featuring particular patterns of rhythmic accents played on percussion instruments.   A taksim performance would stress the gradual transition back-and-forth between sections with no sense of pulse or meter to one's with a sense of pulse and meter.  Adzhan or khandan (Persian), the call-to-prayer and recitation of the Koran, generally avoids any sense of pulse, repetition or meter.

C.  Form -- how is the music organized?  Repetition large and small?  This depends heavily on the genre.  A taksim (improvised performance piece) is a very free variation form with very little discernible repetition.  Other examples repeat phrases.

D.  Texture -- sung recitation of the Koran is usually monophonic, as is a solo performance of a taksim;  ensemble performance tends to be a mixture of homorhythmic and heterophonic with fairly uniform or well-coordinated rhythms.

E.    Timbre --

1.     instrumental preferences:  two instruments were discussed, the ud (oud) and the double clarinet that was demonstrated in class.

2.     vocal preferences are for an intense, penetrating sound, techniques include florid ornamentation and vocal shakes (wide trills) known as tahrir (Persian).

F.  Sound intensity -- as we heard in class, the dynamic range of a taksim performance can range from silence to moderately loud.

II.  Social Organization of Music

A.  Who can participate (play, listen, make instruments) in this music?  Who is excluded?

B.  How many musicians are appropriate for an ensemble?  Solo music is more prestigious; ensembles may include 5-10 players.  Is there a distinction between musician and audience member or is there a continuum of roles?  Is there such a thing as a “musician” or an “audience”?  There is a rigid distinction between musician and audience.

C.  Transmission -- how is the music learned and passed on to others?    “In many Arab capitals today, traditional Arab music and Western music are taught in government institutions organized in the Western conservatory tradition.”  (from Nettl describes the process of learning hundreds of tunes to form an individual’s personal vocabulary for improvisation.  

D.  Social status of musicians: the musicologist Bruno Nettl observe that in Iranian culture, the amateur musician has much higher prestige than the paid professional musician, since the paid professional musician is more like a servant and its associated with music as entertainment, not an intellectual exploration of maqam

III.  Ideas about Music

A.  Music and the belief system -- music is a sensual distraction from the spiritual.  Sung recitation of the Koran is regarded as something other than music.  The great exception to this in general attitude about music is Sufi belief, which holds that mystical contact with God is possible, and one of the ways of achieving that contact is through music.

B.  Contexts for use of music -- "music" would not be found in religious ceremonies, but certainly sung recitation and the call to prayer is a sound signature of Islam around the world.  Taksim performances are definitely for aesthetic enjoyment.  (Sufism would be the great exception to this, as music is very much a part of the religious ritual and practice.)

C.  History of music -- there is an acute awareness of history in Arab music, with the names of prominent musicians and theorists being recorded for well over a thousand years.  This website,, reflects that historical awareness.  A major conference on Arab music theory was held in Cairo in the 1930s, reflecting the continuing evolution of this musicking

D.   Composition – There are definitely well-known and set pieces, as heard in the ensemble playing.  The awareness of individual composers has increased in recent centuries; improvisation has more prestige.

E.    What is the contribution or role of improvisation?  This depends on genre.  The more improvisation, the greater the prestige of the genre.  Taksim performance, 100% improvised; ensemble music, not improvised.

F.    Genres –  Adzhan (Arabic) or khandan (Persian) recitation of the Koran is distinct from all other types of what we would call music (musiqi).  The performance of taksim is distinct from ensemble music.

G.   Theory – very important and extensively developed in written texts and actual practice; a great awareness throughout history of famous theorists; further revival and intensification of theory in the 20th Century.  (For example, the Cairo conference in the 1930s.)

IV.  Allied Arts

A.  Texts – What is appropriate or the usual subject matter for sung texts?  The pain of love (missing one's beloved, feeling separation, etc.) is often emphasized.  In Sufi practice, these romantic love songs often are transmuted into songs about God, feeling the pain of separation from God, seeking union with God, etc.

B.  Movement – the devotional dance of Sufi dervishes is quite striking; otherwise dance is primarily associated with sensual entertainment.

C.  Visual parallels – art, textiles, sculpture, architecture.  Not covered.  The intricate patterns of Arab art bring to mind the intricate ornamentation heard in melodic presentation.

V.  Listening & Personal Response

A.    1st hearing reaction

B.    After repeated hearings and discussion?

C.   What would the “ideal” trained & sympathetic listener-participant find in this music?


Other recommended websites


The list of world cities by population over time


If  you found the brief sample of Uum Kulthum (Wade track 25) of interest, here is more info on her music and its context:


For more on the recitation of the Koran:


For more on Sufi music and dance in the Turkish context:




Revised Sep, 2006

DC Meckler

Email: mecklerd –at sign –

Cañada College