2.10.2 Arabic music

This section highlights issues that are relevant to notating Arabic music.


References for Arabic music

Arabic music so far has been mainly an oral tradition. When music is transcribed, it is usually in a sketch format, on which performers are expected to improvise significantly. Increasingly, Western notation, with a few variations, is adopted in order to communicate and preserve Arabic music.

Some elements of Western musical notation such as the transcription of chords or independent parts, are not required to typeset the more traditional Arabic pieces. There are however some different issues, such as the need to indicate medium intervals that are somewhere between a semi-tone and a tone, in addition to the minor and major intervals that are used in Western music. There is also the need to group and indicate a large number of different maqams (modes) that are part of Arabic music.

In general, Arabic music notation does not attempt to precisely indicate microtonal elements that are present in musical practice.

Several issues that are relevant to Arabic music are covered elsewhere:

See also

Notation Reference: Common notation for non-Western music, Key signature, Manual beams.

Snippets: World music.


Arabic note names

The more traditional Arabic note names can be quite long and are not suitable for the purpose of music writing, so they are not used. English note names are not very familiar in Arabic music education, so Italian or Solfege note names (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si) are used instead; modifiers (accidentals) can also be used. Italian note names and accidentals are explained in Note names in other languages; the use of standard Western notation to notate non-Western music is discussed in Common notation for non-Western music.

For example, this is how the Arabic rast scale can be notated:

\include "arabic.ly"
\relative do' {
  do re misb fa sol la sisb do sisb la sol fa misb re do
}

[image of music]

The symbol for semi-flat does not match the symbol which is used in Arabic notation. The \dwn symbol defined in ‘arabic.ly’ may be used preceding a flat symbol as a work around if it is important to use the specific Arabic semi-flat symbol. The appearance of the semi-flat symbol in the key signature cannot be altered by using this method.

\include "arabic.ly"
\relative do' {
  \set Staff.extraNatural = ##f
  dod dob dosd \dwn dob dobsb dodsd do do
}

[image of music]

See also

Notation Reference: Note names in other languages, Common notation for non-Western music.

Snippets: World music.


Arabic key signatures

In addition to the minor and major key signatures, the following key signatures are defined in ‘arabic.ly’: bayati, rast, sikah, iraq, and kurd. These key signatures define a small number of maqam groups rather than the large number of maqams that are in common use.

In general, a maqam uses the key signature of its group, or a neighbouring group, and varying accidentals are marked throughout the music.

For example to indicate the key signature of a maqam muhayer piece:

\key re \bayati

Here re is the default pitch of the muhayer maqam, and bayati is the name of the base maqam in the group.

While the key signature indicates the group, it is common for the title to indicate the more specific maqam, so in this example, the name of maqam muhayer should appear in the title.

Other maqams in the same bayati group, as shown in the table below: (bayati, hussaini, saba, and ushaq) can be indicated in the same way. These are all variations of the base and most common maqam in the group, which is bayati. They usually differ from the base maqam in their upper tetrachords, or certain flow details that don’t change their fundamental nature, as siblings.

The other maqam in the same group (Nawa) is related to bayati by modulation which is indicated in the table in parenthesis for those maqams that are modulations of their base maqam. Arabic maqams admit of only limited modulations, due to the nature of Arabic musical instruments. Nawa can be indicated as follows:

\key sol \bayati

In Arabic music, the same term such as bayati that is used to indicate a maqam group, is also a maqam which is usually the most important in the group, and can also be thought of as a base maqam.

Here is one suggested grouping that maps the more common maqams to key signatures:

maqam groupkeyfinalisOther maqmas in group (finalis)
ajammajorsibjaharka (fa)
bayatibayatirehussaini, muhayer, saba, ushaq, nawa (sol)
hijazkurdreshahnaz, shad arban (sol), hijazkar (do)
iraqiraqsisb-
kurdkurdrehijazkar kurd (do)
nahawandminordobusalik (re), farah faza (sol)
nakrizminordonawa athar, hisar (re)
rastrastdomahur, yakah (sol)
sikahsikahmisbhuzam

Selected Snippets

Non-traditional key signatures

The commonly used \key command sets the keyAlterations property, in the Staff context.

To create non-standard key signatures, set this property directly. The format of this command is a list:

\set Staff.keyAlterations = #`(((octave . step) . alter) ((octave . step) . alter) ...) where, for each element in the list, octave specifies the octave (0 being the octave from middle C to the B above), step specifies the note within the octave (0 means C and 6 means B), and alter is ,SHARP ,FLAT ,DOUBLE-SHARP etc. (Note the leading comma.)

Alternatively, for each item in the list, using the more concise format (step . alter) specifies that the same alteration should hold in all octaves.

For microtonal scales where a “sharp” is not 100 cents, alter refers to the alteration as a proportion of a 200-cent whole tone.

Here is an example of a possible key signature for generating a whole-tone scale:

\relative c' {
  \set Staff.keyAlterations = #`((6 . ,FLAT)
                                 (5 . ,FLAT)
                                 (3 . ,SHARP))
  c4 d e fis
  aes4 bes c2
}

[image of music]

See also

Music Glossary: maqam, bayati, rast, sikah, iraq, kurd.

Notation Reference: Key signature.

Learning Manual: Accidentals and key signatures.

Internals Reference: KeySignature.

Snippets: World music, Pitches.


Arabic time signatures

Some Arabic and Turkish music classical forms such as Semai use unusual time signatures such as 10/8. This may lead to an automatic grouping of notes that is quite different from existing typeset music, where notes may not be grouped on the beat, but in a manner that is difficult to match by adjusting automatic beaming. The alternative is to switch off automatic beaming and beam the notes manually. Even if a match to existing typeset music is not required, it may still be desirable to adjust the automatic beaming behaviour and/or use compound time signatures.

Selected Snippets

Arabic improvisation

For improvisations or taqasim which are temporarily free, the time signature can be omitted and \cadenzaOn can be used. Adjusting the accidental style might be required, since the absence of bar lines will cause the accidental to be marked only once. Here is an example of what could be the start of a hijaz improvisation:

\include "arabic.ly"

\relative sol' {
  \key re \kurd
  \accidentalStyle forget
  \cadenzaOn
  sol4 sol sol sol fad mib sol1 fad8 mib re4. r8 mib1 fad sol
}

[image of music]

See also

Music Glossary: semai, taqasim.

Notation Reference: Manual beams, Automatic beams, Unmetered music, Automatic accidentals, Setting automatic beam behavior, Time signature.

Snippets: World music.


Arabic music example

Here is a template that also uses the start of a Turkish Semai that is familiar in Arabic music education in order to illustrate some of the peculiarities of Arabic music notation, such as medium intervals and unusual modes that are discussed in this section.

\include "arabic.ly"
\score {
  \relative re' {
    \set Staff.extraNatural = ##f
    \set Staff.autoBeaming = ##f
    \key re \bayati
    \time 10/8

    re4 re'8 re16 [misb re do] sisb [la sisb do] re4 r8
    re16 [misb do re] sisb [do] la [sisb sol8] la [sisb] do [re] misb
    fa4 fa16 [misb] misb8. [re16] re8 [misb] re  [do] sisb
    do4 sisb8 misb16 [re do sisb] la [do sisb la] la4 r8
  }
  \header {
    title = "Semai Muhayer"
    composer = "Jamil Bek"
  }
}

[image of music]

See also

Snippets: World music.


Further reading for Arabic music

  1. The music of the Arabs by Habib Hassan Touma [Amadeus Press, 1996], contains a discussion of maqams and their method of groupings.

    There are also various web sites that explain maqams and some provide audio examples such as :

    There are some variations in the details of how maqams are grouped, despite agreement on the criteria of grouping maqams that are related through common lower tetra chords, or through modulation.

  2. There is not a complete consistency, sometimes even in the same text on how key signatures for particular maqams should be specified. It is common, however, to use a key signature per group, rather than a different key signature for each different maqam.

    Method books by the following authors for the Oud, the Arabic lute, contain examples of mainly Turkish and Arabic compositions.

    • Charbel Rouhana
    • George Farah
    • Ibrahim Ali Darwish Al-masri

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