Middle Eastern music

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Middle Eastern music refers to different various music styles that span across the Middle East. The various nations of the region include the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East, the Iranian traditions of Persia, the Jewish music of Israel and the diaspora, Armenian music, the varied traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkey, traditional Assyrian music, Coptic ritual music in Egypt, and the Andalusian (Muslim Spain) music very much alive in the greater Middle East (North Africa), all maintain their own traditions. It is widely regarded that some Middle-Eastern musical styles have influenced Central Asia, as well as Spain, and the Balkans.


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, and Byzantine influence to spread through the region rapidly from the 7th century onward. The Arabic scale is strongly melodic, based on various maqamat (sing. maqam) or modes (also known as makam in Turkish music). The early Arabs translated and developed Greek texts and works of music and mastered the musical theory of the music of ancient Greece (i.e. Systema ametabolon, enharmonium, chromatikon, diatonon). [1] 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, with influence from the West. 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 monophonic texture. Traditional Middle Eastern music does not use chords, or harmony in the Western sense.

Often, more traditional Middle-Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length, building up to anxiously awaited, and much applauded climaxes, or tarab, derived from the Arabic term طرب tarraba. [2]

Instruments used


Many instruments originate in the Middle East region. Most popular of the stringed instruments is the oud, a pear-shaped lute that traditionally had four strings, although current instruments have up to six courses consisting of one or two strings each. Legend has it that the oud was invented by Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. This is stated by Al-Farabi, and it is part of the Iraqi folklore relating to the instrument. Legend goes on to suggest that the first oud was inspired by the shape of his son's bleached skeleton. [3]

Historically, the oldest pictorial record of the oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon, [4] Editor of Iraq at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. [4]

Used mostly in court music for royals and the rich, the harp also comes from ancient Egypt c. 3500 BC. [5]

The widespread use of the oud led to many variations on the instrument, including the saz, a Turkish long-necked lute that remains very popular in Turkey.

Another popular string instrument is the qanoun, developed by Farabi during the Abbasids era. Legend has it that Farabi played qanoun in court and alternately made people laugh, cry, or fall asleep. The qanoun developed out of string instruments described in inscriptions that date to the Assyrian period. [6] It has about 26 triple-string courses, plucked with a piece of horn. The musician has the freedom to alter the pitch of individual courses from a quarter to a whole step by adjusting metal levers.

Middle Eastern music also makes use of the violin, which is European in origin. The violin was adopted into Middle Eastern music in the 19th century, and it is able to produce non-Western scales that include quarter-tones because it is fretless. [7]


Percussion instruments play a very important role in Middle Eastern music. The complex rhythms of this music are often played on many simple percussion instruments. The riq الرق (a type of tambourine) and finger cymbals add a higher rhythmic line to rhythm laid down with sticks, clappers, and other drums. An instrument native to Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon, the doumbek (or tombak), is a drum made of ceramic clay, with a goatskin head glued to the body.[ citation needed ]


The Armenian duduk is a very popular double reeded, oboe-like instrument made out of Apricot tree wood. The Moroccan oboe, also called the rhaita, has a double-reed mouthpiece that echoes sound down its long and narrow body. A similar instrument is called the sorna. Equivalent to the mizmar and zurna, it is used more for festivals and loud celebrations. A Turkish influence comes from the mey, which has a large double reed. 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.

International music

Music pervades Middle Eastern societies. [8] While traditional music remains popular in the Middle East, modern music reconciling Western and traditional Arabic styles, pop, and fusion are rapidly advancing in popularity. [9] Lebanese rock Star who performs in English, Lydia Canaan, is listed in the catalog of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio, USA [10] [11] as the first rock star of the Middle East. [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] Canaan fused Middle Eastern quarter tones and microtones with anglophone rock, innovating a unique style of world music. [16]

Common genres

Geographical varieties of Arabic music of Middle East

Geographical varieties of non-Arabic and music of Middle East

Related Research Articles

Music history, sometimes called historical musicology, is a highly diverse subfield of the broader discipline of musicology that studies music from a historical point of view. In theory, "music history" could refer to the study of the history of any type or genre of music. In practice, these research topics are often categorized as part of ethnomusicology or cultural studies, whether or not they are ethnographically based. The terms "music history" and "historical musicology" usually refer to the history of the notated music of Western elites, sometimes called "art music".

Oud Pear-shaped stringed instrument

The oud is a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument, usually with 11 strings grouped in 6 courses, but some models have 5 or 7 courses, with 10 or 13 strings respectively.

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Qanun (instrument) Middle-Eastern stringed instrument

The qanun, kanun, ganoun or kanoon is a string instrument played either solo, or more often as part of an ensemble, in much of the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, Central Asia, and southeastern regions of Europe. The name derives from the Arabic word qanun, meaning "rule, law, norm, principle", which is borrowed from the ancient Greek word and musical instrument κανών (rule), which in Latin was called canon. Traditional and Classical musics executed on the qanun are based on Maqamat or Makamlar. Qanun trace its origins to a stringed Assyrian instrument from the Old Assyrian Empire, specifically from the nineteenth century BC in Mesopotamia. This instrument came inscribed on a box of elephant ivory found in the old Assyrian capital Nimrud, which is located about 35 km from the city of Mosul in Iraq. The instrument is a type of large zither with a thin trapezoidal soundboard that is famous for its unique melodramatic sound.

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Rabih Abou-Khalil

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Culture of Lebanon

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Munir Bashir

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  1. Habib Hassan Touma - Review of Das arabische Tonsystem im Mittelalter by Liberty Manik. doi : 10.2307/
  2. Pappé, I. The Modern Middle East, (London, 2005), p. 166-171.
  3. Erica Goode (May 1, 2008). "A Fabled Instrument, Suppressed in Iraq, Thrives in Exile". New York Times . (citing Grove Music Online)
  4. 1 2 British Institute for the Study of Iraq, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-01-23. Retrieved 2010-04-20.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  10. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives – Lydia Canaan Subject File
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  12. Salhani, Justin. "Lydia Canaan: The Mideast’s First Rock Star", The Daily Star , Beirut, November 17, 2014.
  13. Livingstone, David. "A Beautiful Life; Or, How a Local Girl Ended Up With a Recording Contract in the UK and Who Has Ambitions in the U.S.", Campus, No. 8, p. 2, Beirut, February 1997.
  14. Ajouz, Wafik. "From Broumana to the Top Ten: Lydia Canaan, Lebanon's 'Angel' on the Road to Stardom", Cedar Wings, No. 28, p. 2, Beirut, July–August 1995.
  15. Aschkar, Youmna. "New Hit For Lydia Canaan", Eco News, No. 77, p. 2, Beirut, January 20, 1997.
  16. Sinclair, David. "Global Music Pulse", Billboard , New York, May 10, 1997.