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Middle Eastern Music -
An Introduction


by Shira



Table of Contents



There is a good reason why Middle Eastern music sounds somewhat exotic to those of us raised in European-based culture — it does have some identifiable characteristics that distinguish it from the European-influenced music those of us in Europe and North America have heard all our lives. People with musical training in European-based music theory often quickly become fascinated with Middle Eastern music once they have learned a bit about it.

Music in general is a vast, very complex subject, and it's impossible to cover everything that's worth knowing in an article like this. This article provides an introduction, and therefore needs to rely on simplifications and generalities. I can't possibly cover such a vast topic in the detail it deserves. My aim is simply to offer just enough information to help you get started.




General Styles of Music

This is an over-simplification, intended only to provide an introductory look. Ethnomusicology is a topic that graduate students and college professors can spend their entire careers studying.

The particular flavors of Middle Eastern music that are usually used to accompany dancers can, for the most part, be divided into the following categories:

  • Folk music
  • Muwashahat and Other Art Music
  • Modern Egyptian classical music
  • Pop music

Introductory information about each of these genres appears below. See my separate article Genres of Middle Eastern Music Used in Belly Dancing for more detail.

There are, of course, other styles of Middle Eastern music that are not used for raqs sharqi (belly dancing). Those lie outside the scope of this article.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows the Musicians of the Nile playing rebabas in a performance at Mena House Hotel in Giza, Egypt. Photo taken by Shira, in Egypt.

Folk Music

Folk music refers to music that arose out of the day-to-day lives of people living in the rural village areas. It was played on traditional instruments crafted from whatever materials were available in the village, and generally was built on simple melody lines that ordinary people with ordinary voices could sing. Often, no one really knows who composed a given folk song.

Some popular music has also been written in the folk style, although the composer may be known. Examples of composers who did this were the Rahbani Brothers in Lebanon, Metqal Qenawi in Egypt, and Aziz Osman in Egypt.

Examples of folk music that are popular with dancers would include Egyptian baladi, Saidi, Lebanese debka, and Turkish Roma oyun havasi.

Muwashahat & Other Art Music

In the Arab world, art music has enjoyed a long history in the courts of royalty and wealthy patrons. The forms that most raqs sharqi artists have heard of are muwashahat and taqasim. Others, which are part of much of the music used for dance even today, include dulab, samai, dawr, and the tahmilla, but these terms aren't known to most dancers.

Muwashahat (singular muwashah) are based on poetry composed in an ancient Andalusian format, though many of these have have been created in modern times following this traditional structure. Musicians who are particularly well known for their performances of muwashahat include Fairouz from Lebanon and Sabah Fakhri from Syria. Typical instruments that would have been used to play this genre of music include oud and qanoun, though today they are often performed by full Arab orchestras.


20th Century Orchestral

In the early 20th century, a new form of orchestral music arose in Egypt. This music was based on the Arab style of music often referred to as tarab music because of its classical composition techniques, but added influence from Europe.

One of these influences was introduction of European musical instruments. In a 1966 interview, legendary nightclub owner Badia Masabni said she was the first to create orchestras which consisted of both traditional Middle Eastern instruments (oud, qanoun) and foreign instruments. Composers such as Mohamed Abdel Wahab became known for creating music suitable for these new-style orchestras.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This is a photo of Oum Kalthoum, the legendary Egyptian singer. The photo is on display at the Oum Kalthoum museum in Cairo, Egypt.

Pop Music

Pop music is a recent offshoot of modern music, written to appeal in particular to the younger generation. Pop music tends to vary from one region to another, with some crossover.

Egypt and Lebanon both have a long history of vibrant music scenes, superstar artists, and successful record labels. Modern pop music that comes from one of these countries is likely to enjoy popularity in both.

The 20th century orchestral music described above used to be the popular music of its day in Egypt and Lebanon. Music was something that people sat and listened to. However, in the latter part of the 20th century, young people's tastes shifted to a different style, that of music that they could get up and dance to with their friends in discos.

Turkey has also enjoyed its own variation of get-up-and-dance pop music. The pop artist best-known in the U.S. is Tarkan, who rose to fame with his hit song "Simarik". Another popular Turkish artist is Sezen Aksu. She has been successful as both a singer and a songwriter.

Oum Kalthoum



Country of Origin

Middle Eastern music can also be generally categorized by country of origin. For example, there are quite different characteristics of music from Egypt, Iran, the Khaleegy, Turkey, and Lebanon.

It's possible to describe some of the differences in the musical styles of different regions by discussing rhythms, musical instruments, etc. However, the most effective way to learn how to distinguish different types of music is to listen to them.



The Structure of Middle Eastern Music

Here are some generalizations about Middle Eastern music. Please bear in mind that Middle Eastern composers have evolved their art form over time as they sought new sources of inspiration and catered to the changing tastes of consumers. So the structure described here applies reasonably well to older, folkloric music, but more recent works, particularly pop music, may incorporate Western influence.

The Scale Vs the Maqam

One major difference between Western music and Middle Eastern music is that Western music tends to be based on a scale (sometimes called a key signature), while Middle Eastern music is based on a maqam. In the words of the late San Francisco musician Mimi Spencer, a maqam is "something more than a scale, something less than a tune."

This paragraph is a simplified view of key signatures, meant to provide a starting point for people who have had little or no training in music theory. In music based on typical European formats, there are 12 possible notes to choose from. However, only 7 of these notes are normally used within a given song. The 7 notes selected as the basis for a given song comprise a scale, and there are certain specific rules regarding which 7 notes can be used in a certain scale. The scale defines certain relationships between the notes for determining which notes the chords will consist of, and which chords will serve as the basic building blocks for a given song.

In Arabic and Turkish music, the maqam utilizes only selected notes from the full range of possible notes available, so in that respect it resembles the Western scale. But the maqam goes farther in its influence on the resulting music. It also consists of a melody scrap based on certain key notes from that scale and a certain tendency of movement. So a song written in a certain maqam must not only use the particular notes in that maqam, but it must also incorporate the melody scrap for that maqam into the melody line of the song or improvised taqsim.

Half Steps and Quarter Tones

In European-based music, the musical notes are a half step (semitone) apart. On a standard piano or keyboard, each white key and each black key represents one of the 12 possible notes that can be used, and each is a half step higher than the key immediately adjacent to its left.

However, many (but not all) Middle Eastern songs use quarter tones. A quarter tone is a pitch that is halfway between two adjacent keys on a Western piano. So, instead of having 12 possible notes to use as the basis of building a scale, Middle Eastern music has twice as many possible notes to choose from in building a maqam. It would be impossible to play a Middle Eastern song that uses quarter tones on many standard Western instruments such as standard pianos, trumpets, and saxophones, because certain notes would simply not have corresponding keys or finger combinations — they would fall halfway between two adjacent ones.

Quarter tones represent one of the major reasons why Middle Eastern music often sounds exotic to people accustomed to music based on European formats.


Western music makes extensive use of chords, which are constructed according to certain rules from the notes in the scale that the song is in. Classical music from Europe relies heavily on chords. The typical song designed for a chorus to sing often positions the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass vocalists each on a different note of a chord. Certain composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, are particularly known for composing choral music.

Traditional Middle Eastern music does not use chords — when multiple instruments play, then usually one instrument will carry the primary melody, while the others will layer melody scraps or rhythm segments over it. For example, while one instrument is holding a note in the primary melody line, another might play a little trill over the top of it, with the trill constituting a separate but compatible melody scrap. The rhythm segment concept is also found in Western music — think of a tuba playing "oom-pah" while a trumpet plays the melody line. Alternatively, different instruments can take turns carrying the melody. Or, one instrument will play the melody while another plays a descant. This general concept should be familiar to Western musicians who have experience playing in an ensemble, because orchestral and jazz arrangements will often use these same techniques. The main point is that traditional Middle Eastern music doesn't use chords, although more modern music influenced by Western music might.

Given these basic structural differences between Middle Eastern music and Western music, it's no wonder many beginning-level belly dancers have trouble hearing what the music is truly doing and learning to dance in time to it. Learning to do Oriental dance is not just a question of learning a bunch of hip articulations, undulations, and arm motions--it also involves training the ear to hear and absorb brand-new musical rhythms, strange new musical notes, and a whole set melodies that are entirely unfamiliar.



Some Middle Eastern Instruments

Today, much modern Middle Eastern music is played on instruments that look very familiar to people familiar with European and North American music: synthesizers, keyboards, clarinets, accordions, and violins. Some of these must be specially tuned to work with the quarter tones that appear in Middle Eastern music.

However, traditional Middle Eastern music was played on instruments that were distinctly unique to the Middle East.

String Instruments

The oud, sometimes spelled ud, was the forerunner to the lute that was known in Medieval Europe. It is pronounced "ood" where the "oo" sound is like that in "moon". It has 11 strings and no frets. The melody is produced through plucking the strings. Literally, the word "oud" means "wood", and the instrument is made by gluing thin tapered strips of wood edge to edge. The glue line is usually no more than a thousandth of an inch wide! The oud was introduced by the Persians to Arabia in the Middle Ages, and passed to Europe through Islamic Spain.

The qanoun, sometimes spelled kanun or kanoun, somewhat resembles a zither. It is pronounced "kuh NOON". This instrument is common in Turkey and Arabic countries. Its wooden frame is designed to lie flat on a surface such as a table or the performer's lap, and the strings across it are plucked to produce the melody.

The rebaba, sometimes spelled rababa, is a stringed instrument with one or two strings and played with a bow. The echo chamber is typically made of a coconut, and the strings are typically made of hairs from a horse's tail. It is pronounced "ruh BAH buh". This is typically used in music of the Said (Upper Egypt). The music by Metkal Kanawi uses rebabas extensively.

The photo shows three members of the Musicians of the Nile playing rebabas at a show at the Mena House hotel in Giza, Egypt. The one in the foreground wearing the rust-colored gallabeya is Moussa Kenawi, the son of Metkal Kenawi.

Photo of Three Musicians Playing Rebabas

The saz, pronounced "sahz", is a gourd-shaped Turkish stringed instrument, resembling a lute but with a smaller base. It has frets whose positions can be adjusted, enabling the musician to produce varying quarter tones. Different maqamat require the frets to be set in different positions because they employ different musical notes. The saz was the ancestor of the Greek bouzouki.

Percussion Instruments

The hourglass-shaped tabla, sometimes called dumbec, doumbek, doumbec, or darbuka, is a very popular percussion instrument used with Arabic music. It is pronounced "DOOM bek". Traditionally, dumbeks were made of ceramic, with the head made of either goatskin or fish skin. In modern times, many dumbeks have synthetic heads, and the drum body may be made of metal.

The def, pronounced "def", is a Middle Eastern frame drum which looks like a large tambourine. In a band large enough to have more than one percussionist, one musician might play the primary rhythm on the tabla while another plays a background rhythm such as ayyoub on the def.

The riqq, sometimes spelled riq or reque, is the Arabic tambourine. It is pronounced "reek". The riqq can be used for either lead percussion (instead of the tabla) or background rhythm, however the musicians prefer.

Finger cymbals are called sagat (or zagat) in Egypt, meaning "small metal trays", or zillya in Turkish.

Wind Instruments

The ney, sometimes spelled nay, is a traditional instrument used in Turkish and Arabic folk music that resembles a flute both in appearance and sound. It is pronounced "nay". The ney is a very difficult instrument to play.

The mizmar is a member of the oboe family of musical instruments. It is pronounced "MIZZ mar". It produces a loud, blaring sound which is ideal for occasions where an ethnic style of music and dance would be appropriate.

The photo shows two members of the band Musicians of the Nile playing mizmars at a performance at the Mena House hotel in Giza, Egypt. Because the mizmar is a folk instrument, it is typical for members of Egyptian bands who play it to wear the gallabeya (robe-like garment) with Egyptian-style turbans on their heads.

The zurna, which is used in Turkish folk music, is very similar to the mizmar and produces a similar sound. Like the mizmar, it is a member of the oboe family. It is pronounced "ZERN uh". It produces a loud tone that is particularly well-suited to ethnic-style music and dance.

Musicians of the Nile Playing Mizmars



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