Guide to Arabic Music - All About Arabic Music


History of Arabic Music

Arabic music has a long history and is formed by various musical genres of many other regions. It is an amalgam of the music of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and the music of all the peoples that make up the Arab world today. It also influenced and has been influenced by ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Persian, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkish, Indian, North African music (i.e. Berber), African music (i.e. Swahili), and European music (i.e. Flamenco). 

Now it signifies music traditions practiced in Arabic-speaking world. We cannot clearly divide the art and folk or popular music in the Arab world. In any ways, it is possible to identify entertainment music which can be described as art music, from folk music, which signifies religious chanting, work-songs, narrative pieces, songs and dances in weddings and so on. Arab art music is supported at courts, patronized by urban élites and performed by professionals; it is a part of a sophisticated high culture. Whereas the ‘folk’ music can be performed by amateurs, professionals or semi-professionals and it reflects various human reactions in various social conditions.

Within the Arab world, the music can be grouped under two structures;

  • Music of eastern Arab world; principally Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq
  • Music of western Arab world; Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia

Both divisions probably derived from the court music in 7th and 9th centuries (Umayyad and Abbasid periods) and they stemmed from each other. The western Arab music tradition is seen as the remains or a survival of the Andalusian music of Moorish Spain. Until the early 13th century the western Arab art music was perceived as distinct from the eastern, and it was protected from the interaction between Arab, Persian and Turkish music and their influences. Through the centuries Arab music absorbed and permitted local variations to exist, yet it could evolve and be somehow standardized.

You may also like; What are the differences and similarities between Turkish, Arabic and Persian music?

The Arabic Maqam

As in Turkish music, Arabic music compositions and improvisations are also based on maqams (maqamat, singular: maqam). Maqam signifies a group of notes that are used together with the rules determining the relationships between them and their melodic pattern. The Arabic scales are tuned differently than the scales of Western classical music; 5th notes are tuned based on the 3rd harmonic and the rest of the notes are tuned depending on which maqam you are in.


Arabic maqamat are based on a musical scale of 7 notes, this scale repeats at octave. Most maqam scales include a perfect fifth and perfect fourth and the octaves are perfect. The modern Arab tone system is based upon the theoretical division of the octave into 24 equal divisions or 24-tone equal temperament. Those divisions are made by quarter-tones and in many maqamat, there are notes that can approach to quarter tones (indicated with a half-flat sign or half-sharp sign); however, those quarters do not fall exactly halfway between two semitones. Since Arab music is microtonal, the quarter-tones depicted on the score may actually include microtonal subtleties depending on the maqam and not exactly generate the pitch in the middle of the semitones. Therefore, maqams are taught orally by the master to the pupil and the pupil should intensely listen to the maqams and traditional Arab music repertoire for exact learning.


A wide range of musical instruments are used in Arab music. The traditional Arabic ensemble (takht) includes five main instruments: oud, ney, qanun, violin, and a percussion instrument, most probably riq, or table or daff. After this brief overview about Arab music, we recommend you to deepen your understanding by listening to and even playing an Arab music instrument and explore these extraordinary sounds.

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