What is a Maqam ?
Arabic music, a maqam (plural maqamat) is
a set of notes with traditions that define relationships between
them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development. Maqamat
are best defined and understood in the context of the rich Arabic
music repertoire. The nearest equivalent in Western classical
music would be a mode (e.g. Major, Minor, etc.)
Arabic scales which maqamat are built from are not even-tempered,
unlike the chromatic scale used in Western classical music. Instead,
5th notes are tuned based on the 3rd harmonic. The tuning of the
remaining notes entirely depends on the maqam. The reasons for
this tuning are probably historically based on string instruments
like the oud. A side effect of not having even-tempered tuning
is that the same note (by name) may have a slightly different
pitch depending on which maqam it is played in.
are Quarter Tones ?
maqamat include notes that can be approximated with quarter tones
(depicted using the half-flat sign
or the half-sharp sign ),
although they rarely are precise quarters falling exactly halfway
between two semitones. Even notes depicted as semitones sometimes
include microtonal subtleties depending on the maqam in which
they are used. For this reason, when writing Arabic music using
the Western notation system, there is an understanding that the
exact tuning of each note might vary with each maqam and must
be learned by ear.
peculiarity of maqamat is that the same note is not always played
with the same exact pitch. The pitch may vary slightly, depending
on the melodic flow and what other notes are played before and
after that note. The idea behind this effect is to round sharp
corners in the melody by drawing the furthest notes nearer. This
effect is sometimes called the law of attraction or gravity, and
is common in other musical traditions (e.g. in Byzantine music).
maqamat transposable ?
Arabic maqamat are taught and documented, each maqam is usually
associated with the same starting note (tonic). For example, maqam
Bayati is almost always
shown as starting on D in reference textbooks.
general maqamat are transposable, but only to a handful of other
tonics. For example, maqam Bayati
usually starts on D, but it can also start on G and A. When transposing
Arabic maqamat, musicians mention the tonic name after the maqam
name for clarity (e.g. "Bayati on G" or "Bayati
on A"). For
this reason also, only a few quarter tones are exploited (with
the understanding that the term quarter tone is approximate, and
that many semitones include microtonal variations). The most frequently
used quarter tones are: E,
is unlike scales in Western classical music, where for example
each scale can have 11 possible tonics. Total freedom to transpose
requires playing Western music on even-tempered instruments (e.g.
the piano) where all semitone intervals are exactly equal.
reasons behind this limitation are probably technical and pragmatic,
and have to do with the difficulty of transposing freely on classical
Arabic instruments (oud, nay, qanun). On the oud for example,
it is important to be able to exploit open strings to play tonics,
4th and 5th notes, since the sound on open strings is always in
tune and louder. In addition, since the oud tuning is not even-tempered
but based on harmonic 4th and 5th intervals between open strings,
maqamat dont sound equally in tune and pleasant on every tonic.
maqamat change names when transposed because they vary in their
feel or mood. A maqam could also have a different melodic development
(sayr) when transposed, including a different dominant note, etc.
maqam Rahat El Arwah
is a transposed version of maqam Huzam,
but they have different moods. To describe the difference using
very subjective terminology, the first is lower, more mellow and
spiritual, the second is higher, lighter and funkier.
reason for different transposed versions of a maqam having different
names might be historic, since each name (and tonic) may have
been used in a different region (Arab, Persian, Turkish. etc.).
An example of this is the Hijaz
Kar, Shadd Araban,
Shahnaz, and Suzidil
maqamat, which all have the same tonal intervals.
on the subject of transposition, musicians often retune their
instruments a few semitones higher or lower than the absolute
reference (e.g. A = 440 Hz) rather than transpose a maqam, especially
in old 1920's and 1930's recordings. The reason for doing this
is that melodies sound much better when their tonics and 4th/5th
notes fall on open strings, because of the way string instruments
like the oud or violin resonate. This is not the case with voice,
can maqamat be broken down ?
building blocks for maqamat are sets of 3, 4 or 5 notes, called
trichords, tetrachords and pentachords, respectively. The Arabic
word for these sets is jins (plural ajnas). The
word jins means the gender, type or nature of something.
In general each maqam is made up two main ajnas (sets) called
lower and upper jins. These can be joined at the same note, at
two adjacent notes, or can overlap each other. A maqam may also
include other secondary ajnas which are very useful for modulation.
Instead of thinking of a maqam as a collection of 8 or more individual
notes, it's often useful to think of it as a group of two or more
See the Ajnas (Sets) section.
there harmony in Arabic music ?
music is mostly melodic, which means it rarely includes harmony
and chords. There are a few exceptions, read more in this excellent
article about Harmony
and Arabic Music. The main reason why harmony is rarely used
is that chords dont sound very pleasant when they include quarter
tones or microtonal variations. Harmony sounds best when notes
have a natural harmonic relationship (3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th harmonic,
etc). In Arabic music, this is true for a tonic and its fifth
(3rd harmonic), but most of the time not true for any other note
is the difference between a maqam and a scale ?
Arabic maqam is built on top of the Arabic scale. The maqam is
generally made up of one octave (8 notes), although sometimes
the maqam scale extends up to 2 octaves. But the maqam is much
more than a scale:
See the Modulation section.
many maqamat are there ?
are dozens of Arabic maqamat, too many to list, including many
Persian and Turkish hybrids. It's difficult to find a definitive
list of Arabic maqamat that all textbooks agree on, or a definitive
reference on which maqamat are strictly Arabic and which are Turkish
or Persian. There are also many local maqamat used only in some
regions of the Arab world (e.g. Iraq and North Africa), and unknown
in others. But the most widely used and known maqamat are about
30 to 40, and these are the ones covered in this web site
See the Maqam Index section.
is the intonation of the Arabic maqam changing with time ?
There is no absolute reference for the Arabic scale. In 1932,
the Arabic Music Conference in Cairo established that regional
variations existed in the intonation of Arabic maqamat. Within
each region, oral traditions continued and created de-facto standards,
although these standards converged to some extent with the advent
of recording and broadcasting.
phenomenon that greatly influenced intonation in Arabic music
was the introduction of even-tempered instruments (some of which
were altered to produce quarter tones), mostly in the second half
of the 20th century. The accordion, electric guitar, electric
(fretted) bass, piano, guitar, electric piano, electric organ
and synthesizer were gradually introduced to the Arabic ensemble.
The main incentive behind this change was innovation, modernization,
and the desire to add harmony to Arabic music.
Arabic maqamat are performed on even-tempered instruments, they
sound different in subtle ways for the following reasons: