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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Al-Fārābī's Classification of Musical Instruments


Translated By Dr. George Dmitri Sawa




Al-Fārābī's Classification of Musical Instruments:

A Hierarchical, Aesthetic, Culture Specific,
and Philosophical System

Al-Fārābī was a prominent philosopher, music scholar, and scientist of the medieval Islamic world. He was born in Farab, in what is modern-day Uzbekistan in 872 CE, and died in 950 CE. One of his great works was Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir (The Grand Book of Music). Dr. George Sawa has translated and summarized pages 77-80 of the Cairo 1967 edition as follows:

The system starts from the lowest to the highest:

  1. Instruments used in war to frighten the enemy. These instruments are very loud and unbearable to the human ear, e.g., bells used by the ancient Egyptian kings, instruments used by the Byzantine kings, or shouters used by the Persian kings.
  2. Zafn, which consists of moving the shoulders, eyebrows, head, and similar organs. These are only movements, and they generate no sound.
  3. Clapping, dancing, playing the tambourines, playing the hour-glass shaped doubled headed drum, and playing the cymbals. All these are of a similar class and they are superior to the zafn by the fact that they produce a sound at the end of the movement. However, they do not produce musical notes.
  4. The ūd (lute), tunbūr (long-necked lute), mi'zafa (lyre), rabāb (spike fiddle), and mizmār (oboe) are superior to the above ones because they produce musical notes.
  5. Nothing is more perfect than the voice because it contains all the qualities of the above instruments, and, probably in the mind of Al-Fārābī, because it uses words that have meanings and express emotions.

Al-Fārābī then divides Category 4 into instruments that imitate the voice best; that is, those having a sustained sound similar to the voice and almost affect the listener the same way, such as the rabāb and the mizmār, then the ūd, and then the mi'zafa and instruments similar to it.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This drawing appears in al-Fārābī's The Grand Book of Music. It depicts a musical instrument known as a shahrud.




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Dr. George Sawa was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He has over 50 years of experience in Arabic music performance, history and theory, and has performed and lectured extensively worldwide: Canada, USA, Brazil, Mexico, Europe (Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Greece) and the Middle East (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates). He studied qanun, theory and voice at the Higher Institute of Arabic Music.

After immigrating to Canada, Dr. Sawa studied ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto, and obtained his doctorate in historical Arabic musicology. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on medieval, modern, and religious music of the Middle East at the University of Toronto and at York University.

Dr. Sawa is the author of:

  • Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era. 132-320 AH/750-932 AD
  • Rhythmic Theories and Practices in Arabic Writings to 339AH/950 CE (Ottawa: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2004 and 2009)
  • An Arabic Musical and Socio-Cultural Glossary of Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) of al-Isbahani (d. 971) (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2015).
  • Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers

Dr. Sawa has published over 50 articles on Arabic music in refereed journals and encyclopedias, and is frequently invited to give lectures and concerts worldwide. In 2005, he received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture for his research in Arabic music history.

George Sawa

George has been the musical director for several productions of the Toronto-based Arabesque Dance Company, and taught hundreds of dancers at the Arabesque Academy and Hannan's Bellydance Studio in Toronto, as well as studios in Canada, USA, Brazil and Mexico. His first CD release, The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, Vol. 1, was nominated for a JUNO Award in World Music in 2009. A subsequent volume, The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, Vol. 2, was released in 2009.

His book Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers has won international acclaim and serves as an invaluable - one of a kind - companion to bellydancers all over the world. (It is available in English, Chinese, French, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, German and Portuguese). A companion set of two DVDs produced with Lulu Hartenbach in Brazil includes over 50 tracks of dancing instruction from his CDs and book: Lulu and George Dimitri Sawa. Apreciação de Música Árabe para Bailarinas - Teoria & Prática 2 vols. Sao Paulo: Ventreoteca. Produzido por Kaleidoscopio de Ideias. Shimmie, 2015.

Presently Dr. Sawa is working on a book Erotica, Love, and Humor in Arabia which will be published by McFarland in 2016.

For more information on Dr. Sawa's books, musical recordings, and videos, see his web site at .

Dr. George Sawa




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