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Arabian maqam

Arabic maqam ( / ALA-LC: maq m) is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or rank. The Arabic maqam is a melody type. Maqam is "a technique of improvisation" that defines the pitches, patterns, and development of a piece of music and which is "unique to Arabian art music."[1] There are seventy two heptatonic tone rows or scales of maqamat.[1] These are constructed from major, medium, and minor seconds (see Arab tone system).[1] Each maqam is built on a scale, and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, important notes, melodic development and modulation. Both compositions and improvisations in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqams can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.

An essential, decisive factor in maqam performance is that each describes the "tonal-spatial factor" or set of musical notes and the relationships between them, including traditional patterns and development of melody while the "rhythmic-temporal component" is "subjected to no definite organization."[2] A maqam does not have an "established, regularly recurring bar scheme nor an unchanging meter. A certain rhythm does sometimes identify the style of a performer, but this is dependent upon his [sic] performance technique and is never characteristic of the maqam as such."[2] The compositional or rather precompositional aspect of the maqam is the tonal-spatial organization including the number of tone levels and the improvisational aspect is the construction of the rhythmic-temporal scheme.[2]

The Iraqi genre of maqam al-`iraqi is often considered the most perfect form of the maqam.[3]



The designation maqam appeared for the first time in the treatises written in the fourteenth century by al-Sheikh al-Safadi and Abdulqadir al-Maraghi, and has since then been used as a technical term in Arabic music. The maqam is a modal structure that characterizes the art of music of countries in North Africa, the Near East and Central Asia. In this area we can distinguish three main musical cultures which all belong to the maqam modal family, the byzantine, namely the Persian, the Arabic, the Turkish as well as the closely related Greek because Arabs developed and mastered the musical theory of the Music of ancient Greece.[4]

A strong similarity exists between these three families in which the same modal structure is known as Makam in Turkish music, Dromoi in Greek music, Dastgah in Persian music, Mugam in Azerbaijan, Meqam in Kurdish music, Makam in Assyrian music, Shash Maqom in Uzbek music and Muqam in Uyghur music.

The maqam was preceded by seven centuries, by the Dastgah of Persia, developed by Barbod. Many Arabic maqams can trace their names to the Persian language, e.g. Nikriz, Farahfaza, Suzidil, Suznak, Rast, Sikah (from Se-Gah), Jiharkah (from Chehar-Gah) and Nairuz (from Nowruz). The reverse is also true, with Persian Goosheh names taken from Arabic, e.g. Hejaz (from Hijaz), Hoseyn (from Husayni), Oshshagh (from 'Ushshaq) and Hodi. Similarly, many Arabic maqam names come from the Turkish Makam, such as Sultani Yekah, Buselik and Bastanikar, while the following Turkish Makam names trace their origin to Arabic: Hic z, Irak, H seyn , S nb le and U akpuselik (?).

Tuning system

The notes of a maqam are not of equal temperament (meaning that the difference in pitch between each note is not identical, unlike in the chromatic scale used in modern Western music). A maqam also determines other things, such as the tonic (starting note), the ending note, and the dominant note. It also determines which notes should be emphasized and which should not.[5]

Arabic maqams are based on a musical scale of 7 notes that repeats at the octave. Some maqams have 2 or more alternative scales (e.g. Rast, Nahawand and Hijaz). Maqam scales in traditional Arabic music are microtonal, not based on a twelve-tone equal-tempered musical tuning system, as is the case in modern Western music. Most maqam scales include a perfect fifth or a perfect fourth (or both), and all octaves are perfect. The remaining notes in a maqam scale may or may not exactly fall on semitones. For this reason maqam scales are mostly taught orally, and by extensive listening to the traditional Arabic music repertoire.


Since microtonal intervals are impractical to accurately notate, a simplified musical notation system was adopted in Arabic music at the turn of the 20th century. Starting with a chromatic scale, the Arabic scale is divided into 24 equal quarter tones, where a quarter tone equals half a semitone in a 12 tone equal-tempered scale. In this notation system all notes in a maqam scale are rounded to the nearest quarter tone.

This system of notation is not exact since it eliminates microtonal details, but is very practical because it allows maqam scales to be notated using Western standard notation. Quarter tones can be notated using the half-flat sign

or the half-sharp sign
. When transcribed with this notation system some maqam scales happen to include quarter tones, while others don't.

In practice, maqams are not performed in all chromatic keys, and are more rigid to transpose than scales in Western music, primarily because of the technical limitations of Arabic instruments. For this reason, half-sharps rarely occur in maqam scales, and the most used half-flats are E

, B
and less frequently A


The 24-tone system is entirely a notational convention and does not affect the actual precise intonation of the notes performed. Practicing Arab musicians, while using the nomenclature of the 24-tone system (half-flats and half-sharps), still perform the finer microtonal details which have been passed down through oral tradition.

Maqam scales that do not include quarter tones (e.g. Nahawand, `Ajam) can be performed on equal-tempered instruments such as the piano, however such instruments cannot faithfully reproduce the microtonal details of the maqam scale. Maqam scales can be faithfully performed either on fretless instruments (e.g. the oud or the violin), or on instruments that allow a sufficient degree of tunability and microtonal control (e.g. the nay or the qanun, or the Clarinet). On fretted instruments with steel strings, microtonal control can be achieved by string bending, as when playing blues.

The exact intonation of every maqam scale changes with the historical period, as well as the geographical region (as is the case with linguistic accents, for example). For this reason, and because it is impractical to precisely and accurately notate microtonal variations from a twelve-tone equal tempered scale, maqam scales are in practice learned orally.

Phases and central tones

Each passage consists of one or more phases which are sections "played on one tone or within one tonal area," and may take from seven to forty seconds to articulate. For example, a tone level centered on g:

Maqam tone level example
Maqam tone level example


The tonal levels, or axial pitches, begin in the lower register and gradually rise to the highest at the climax before descending again, for example (in European-influenced notation):

Maqam phase sequence example
Maqam phase sequence example


"When all possibilities of the musical structuring of such a tone level have been fully explored, the phase is complete."[7]


The central tones of a maqam are created from two different intervals. The eleven central tones of the maqam used in the phase sequence example above may be reduced to three which make up the "nucleus" of the maqam:

Example maqam nucleus
Example maqam nucleus


The tone rows of maqamat may be identical, such as maqam bayati and maqam 'ushshaq turki:

Maqam bayati and 'ushshaq turki tone row, the backwards flat sign indicating quarter tone flat
Maqam bayati and 'ushshaq turki tone row, the backwards flat sign indicating quarter tone flat

but be distinguished by different nuclei. Bayati is shown in the example above, while 'ushshaq turki is:

Maqam 'ushshaq turki nucleus
Maqam 'ushshaq turki nucleus


Maqam scales are made up of smaller sets of consecutive notes that have a very recognizable melody and convey a distinctive mood. Such a set is called jins (pl. ajnas), meaning "gender" or "kind". In most cases, a jins is made up of four consecutive notes (tetrachord), although ajnas of three consecutive notes (trichord) or five consecutive notes (pentachord) also exist.

Ajnas are the building blocks of a maqam scale. A maqam scale has a lower (or first) jins and an upper (or second) jins. In most cases maqams are classified into families or branches based on their lower jins. The upper jins may start on the ending note of the lower jins or on the note following that. In some cases the upper and lower ajnas may overlap. The starting note of the upper jins is called the dominant, and is the second most important note in that scale after the tonic. Maqam scales often includes secondary ajnas that start on notes other than the tonic or the dominant. Secondary ajnas are highlighted in the course of modulation.

References on Arabic music theory often differ on the classification of ajnas. There is no consensus on a definitive list of all ajnas, their names or their sizes. However the majority of references agree on the basic 9 ajnas, which also make up the main 9 maqam families. The following is the list of the basic 9 ajnas notated with Western standard notation (all notes are rounded to the nearest quarter tone):

`Ajam ( ) trichord, starting on B
Bayati ( ) tetrachord, starting on D
Hijaz ( ) tetrachord, starting on D
Kurd ( ) tetrachord, starting on D
Nahawand ( ) tetrachord, starting on C
Nikriz ( ) pentachord, starting on C
Rast ( ) tetrachord, starting on C
Saba ( ) tetrachord, starting on D
Sikah ( ) trichord, starting on E

(for more detail see Arabic Maqam Ajnas)

Maqam families

Bayati <!-- audio -->
Shad `Araban <!-- audio -->
Shad `Araban
Hijaz <!-- audio -->
Huzam <!-- audio -->
Jiharkah <!-- audio -->
Nawa Athar <!-- audio -->
Nawa Athar
Husayni `Ushayran <!-- audio -->
Husayni `Ushayran
Rahat al-Arwah <!-- audio -->
Rahat al-Arwah
Rast <!-- audio -->
Saba <!-- audio -->

  • `Ajam - `Ajam ( ), Jiharkah ( ), Shawq Afza ( or )
  • Sikah - Bastah Nikar ( ), Huzam ( ), `Iraq ( ), Musta`ar ( ), Rahat al-Arwah ( or ), Sikah ( ), Sikah Baladi ( )
  • Bayati - Bayatayn ( ), Bayati ( ), Bayati Shuri ( ), Husayni ( ), Nahfat ( )
  • Nahawand - Farahfaza ( ), Nahawand ( ), Nahawand Murassah ( or ), `Ushaq Masri ( )
  • Rast - Mahur ( ), Nairuz ( ), Rast ( ), Suznak ( ), Yakah ( )
  • Hijaz - Hijaz ( ), Hijaz Kar ( ), Shad `Araban ( ), Shahnaz ( or ), Suzidil ( ), Zanjaran ( )
  • Saba - Saba ( ), Saba Zamzam ( )
  • Kurd - Kurd ( ), Hijaz Kar Kurd ( )
  • Nawa Athar - Athar Kurd ( ), Nawa Athar ( or ), Nikriz ( )

Emotional content

Each maqam evokes a specific emotion or set of emotions determined by the tone row and the nucleus, with different maqams sharing the same tone row but differing in nucleus and thus emotion. Maqam rast evokes pride, power, soundness of mind, and masculinity.[9] Maqam bayati: vitality, joy, and feminity.[9] Sikah: love.[9] Saba: sadness and pain.[10] Hijaz: distant desert.[9]

In an experiment where saba was played to an equal number of Arabs and non-Arabs who were asked to record their emotions in concentric circles with the weakest emotions in the outer circles, the Arab subjects experienced saba as "sad", "tragic", and "lamenting" while only 48 percent of the non-Arabs described it thus with 28 percent describing feelings such as "seriousness", "longing", and tension" while 6 percent experienced feelings such as "happy", "active", and "very lively" and 10 percent identified no feelings.[10]

Emotion is evoked in part through change in the size of an interval during a maqam presentation. Maqam saba, for example, contains in its first four notes, D, E-quarter-flat, F, and Gb, two medium seconds one larger (160 cents) and one smaller (140 cents) than a three quarter tone, and a minor second (95 cents). Further, E-quarter-flat and G-flat may vary slightly causing a "sad" or "sensitive" mood.[11]

Generally speaking, each maqam evokes a different emotion in the listener. At a more basic level, each jins conveys a different mood or color. For this reason maqams of the same family share a common mood since they start with the same jins. There is no consensus on exactly what the mood of each maqam or jins is. Some references describe maqam moods using very vague and subjective terminology (e.g. maqams evoking 'love', 'femininity', 'pride' or 'distant desert'). However there has not been any serious research using scientific methodology on a diverse sample of listeners (whether Arab or non-Arab) proving that they feel the same emotion when hearing the same maqam.

Attempting the same exercise in more recent tonal classical music would mean relating a mood to the major and minor modes. In that case there is a wider consensus that the minor scale is sadder and the major scale is happier. Attempting the same exercise in older modal classical music with Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes would probably produce similar results.(Source?)


Modulation is a technique used during the melodic development of a maqam. In simple terms it means changing from one maqam to another (compatible or closely related) maqam. This involves using a new musical scale. A long musical piece can modulate over many maqams but usually ends with the starting maqam (in rare cases the purpose of the modulation is to actually end with a new maqam). A more subtle form of modulation within the same maqam is to shift the emphasis from one jins to another so as to imply a new maqam.

Modulation adds a lot of interest to the music, and is present in almost every maqam-based melody. Modulations that are pleasing to the ear are created by adhering to compatible combinations of ajnas and maqams long established in traditional Arabic music. Although such combinations are often documented in musical references, most experienced musicians learn them by extensive listening.

See also

  • Raga
  • Mujawwad
  • Ali Merdan
  • Makam
  • The Iraqi Maqam
  • melisma
  • Pizmonim
  • The Weekly Maqam
  • Taqsim

Further reading

  • el-Mahdi, Salah (1972). La musique arabe : structures, historique, organologie. Paris, France: Alphonse Leduc, Editions Musicales. ISBN 2856890296.
  • Lagrange, Fr d ric (1996). Musiques d' gypte. Cit de la musique / Actes Sud. ISBN 2742707115.
  • Maalouf, Shireen (2002). History of Arabic music theory, Faculty of Music, Universit Saint-Esprit de Kaslik, Lebanon.
  • Marcus, Scott Lloyd (1989). Arab music theory in the modern period, Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles. Published by U.M.I. 300 N. Zeeb Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48106.
  • Racy, Ali Jihad (2003). Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of arab. Publisher: Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521304148.


External links

ar: de:Maqam (Musik) es:Maqam fa: ( ) fr:Maq m he: nl:Maqam ja: pl:Makam tr:Makam (m zik)

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