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Middle Eastern Music - An Introduction


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 we have heard all our lives. People with musical training in Western music often quickly become fascinated with Oriental music once they have learned a bit about it.

Music in general is a very subtle, very complex subject, and it's difficult to render a discussion of it into writing. Even more challenging is attempting to cover such a topic within the space constraints of a brief article like this. Many of the comments in this article are simplifications and generalities--enough to give a taste of how Oriental music is structured, but not enough to explore the subject in the depth it truly deserves.

Note Throughout this article, this "note" icon will indicate a brief sound file is available in MP3 format. Titles of albums and musician contact information appear at the end of this article for those who would like to purchase the full-length song.



General Categories

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:

  • Classical music
  • Folk music
  • Egyptian classical music
  • Pop music

In this respect, at least, it is not so very different from Western music. The term "traditional music" can often refer to either folk music, modern music, or classical music, depending on the context, but would not refer to pop music.

There are, of course, other styles of Middle Eastern music that are not used for dancing. For examples, it would be extremely offensive to do a dance performance using sacred Islamic music. This article focuses on the type of music most likely to be heard with dance performances.


Reaching back across the centuries, a historical Arabic musical form of classical music was the muwashaha. The best-known song in this genre is probably "Lamma Bada Yata Thanna", which can be traced back to the 10th century. It is a fascinating piece of music done in the samai rhythm, which is written in 10/8.


Lamma Bada Yata Thana

John Bilezikjian's version

Brothers of the Baladi version

"Lamma Bada Yata Thanna" continues to be a familiar piece of music in the Arabic world today. Several modern-day musicians, including Brothers Of The Baladi, John Bilezikjian, and Reda Darwish offer their own recordings of Lamma Bada on their albums.

The lyrics are based on a classical Arabic love poem: "When she began to sway, her beauty amazed me. She imprisoned me with a glance. She was a swaying branch that consumed me."

Typical instruments that would have been used to play this genre of music include oud and qanoun.

Muwashaha music is not used very often for raqs sharqi (the Arabic name for belly dance) performances, though it could be. Mahmoud Reda used muwashaha for a series of Reda Troupe choreographed dances in his theatricalized Egyptian folk style.

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 had simple melody lines that ordinary people with ordinary voices could sing. Often, no one really knows who composed a given folk song.

Egyptian Baladi

A major category of Egyptian folkloric music is often referred to as baladi. This term, which is not specific to music, refers to "the village my family originally came from" and is widely used to refer to anything typical of the traditional rural lifestyle and its values.

Baladi music is typically played on traditional acoustic instruments, such as the ney (a type of flute), the mizmar (which resembles an oboe), and the rebaba (a stringed instrument).


Tahtil Shibbak

Fatme Serhan's version

Oriental Fantasy version

Laura in Balady version

The song "Tahtil Shibbak" is a very popular example of a song played in the baladi style. A translation of it is available elsewhere on this web site. This song is played with an upbeat percussion rhythm known as masmoudi saghir, which means "little masmoudi".




From the album titled On Fire

The word baladi is often used to refer to an improvised solo piece of instrumental music known as the tet baladi. Other terms that people use to refer to this are baladi taqsim or baladi progression. Today, this style of music is often played on an accordion or a violin. The term "progression" refers to the fact that the music opens with slow, introspective improvisation, then gradually builds in speed and intensity, finishing with a joyful climax. This clip contains the final 30 seconds of a tet baladi.




Saidi music is a variation on baladi that is specific to Upper Egypt, also known as The Said. This is the rural part of Egypt south of Cairo, located around Luxor, Assuit, Minya, and Aswan.


Dyati Mali

Metkal Kenawi's Version

Instruments particularly associated with Saidi music include a stringed instrument known as a rebaba, an oboelike wind instrument known as a mizmar, and frame drums with a deep sound known as tabla baladi. Saidi rhythms are pervasive in Egyptian music, including even much of the Egyptian pop music today.

This clip features the song, "Dyati Mali", which means, "I have no money." The band, Metkal Kenawi and the Musicians of the Nile, are the most famous of the artists who play this style of music.


Tfarrak al-Halawa

Metkal Kenawi's Version

This clip features the song "Tfarrak al-Halawa", another song characteristic of the Saidi sound. This clip is also played by Metkal Kenawi and the Musicians of the Nile.


When modern-day bands play this music, the band members typically wear the traditionally full-length Egyptian robe known as a gallabeya, with Egyptian-style white turbans on their heads.



In Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, the prevailing style of folk music is the debke, which is typically used for line dancing.


A Nada

Sabah's version

George Abdo's version

Brothers of the Baladi version

This song is a debke, sometimes alternatively known as "Al Nadda", "Al Nedda", or "To Nadda" (a woman's name). The singer, Sabah, was not only a famous vocalist, but also a movie star.




Nasri's version

George Abdo's version

This song, another debke, is known as "Haddouni".

Turkish Folk Music

Rhythms common in Turkish folk music include a fast chiftetelli, a 9/8, and ayyoub. There is a certain slow, bluesy version of 9/8 that is closely associated with the Roma (Gypsies) who traditionally lived in the part of Istanbul known as Sulukule. A famous Turkish Romany musician is Selim Sesler.



Omar Faruk Tekbilek's version

John Bilezikjian's version

This song, "Şişeler", is a traditional Turkish drinking song. A translation of it is available elsewhere on this web site.


Rampi Rampi

John Bilezikjian version

Omar Faruk Tekbilek version

This 9/8 song is sometimes called "Rampi Rampi" because those words appear in the chorus, and it is sometimes called "Çadırımın Üstüne Şıp Dedi" because those words appear at the beginning of the first verse. It is a very well-known Turkish folk song, and people associate it with the Turkish Rom (Gypsies). A translation is available elsewhere on this web site.


Istemem Babacım

John Bilezikjian version

Omar Faruk Tekbilek version

This Turkish folk song contains a comic dialogue between a man and his marriageable daughter. A translation is available elsewhere on this web site.



Brothers of the Baladi version

Sultans version

"Dere" (which means "River") is an old, traditional Turkish folk song in the 9/8 rhythm. A translation is available elsewhere on this site.

20th Century Egyptian Classical

This is the style of music most typically used to accompany modern day Egyptian raqs sharqi (Oriental dance), which is the culturally accurate name for what Americans call "belly dance".

In the early 20th century, a new form of classical music arose in Egypt. This music drew influence from the symphonic musical structure of Europe, combining it with the native classical muwashaha and sometimes even folkloric sound.

The colonial presence of the British and French diplomats, businessmen, and tourists in Egypt provided a market opportunity for a new kind of industry to arise in the 19th century, that of the nightclub. The foreigners sought entertainment similar to that they had enjoyed back home, and Egyptian entrepreneurs were happy to accommodate them. These clubs attracted not only the foreigners, but also the royal family, pashas, and other upper-class locals, providing a fertile environment in which to experiment with fusing the music of East and West.

Some of Egypt's famous composers of this era included:

  • Mohammed Abdel Wahab. His compositions included "Enta Omri", "Zeina", and "Cleopatra".
  • Baligh Hamdi. His compositions included "El Hob Kulu" and "Alf Leyla wa Leyla".
  • Farid al-Atrache. His compositions included "Gamil Gamal", "Habena", and "Me Alli we Oltelu".

Egyptian classical music typically follows this format:

  • Instrumental overture at the beginning
  • Vocal segment to a different melody
  • Instrumental interlude, which is often different from the melody of the opening overture
  • Vocal segment
  • Repeat iterations of the above, which can last from 15 minutes to an hour


Enta Omri

Oum Kalthoum's version

The song in this clip is "Enta Omri", which was composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab and sung by Egypt's legendary vocalist Oum Kalthoum. This clip comes from the opening instrumental overture.



Alf Leyla wa Leyla

Oum Kalthoum's version

The song in this clip is "Alf Leyla wa Leyla", which was composed by Baligh Hamdi and sung by Egypt's legendary vocalist Oum Kalthoum. This clip comes from the opening instrumental segment.


Musical instruments typically used in Egyptian orchestras that play classical music include accordion, violin, ney (a type of flute), oud (a type of lute), qanoun (a type of zither), tabla (the hourglass-shaped drum that some people call a doumbec), and sagat (finger cymbals). The band members typically wear dark-colored suits, white shirts, and ties.

Pop Music

Pop music is a recent offshoot of modern music, written to appeal in particular to the younger generation. There are two prevailing types of pop music in Egypt, al jeel and shaabi. Turkey separately has its own genre of pop music, as does the Persian Gulf region.

Egyptian al Jeel

In Egypt, the rise of al jeel and shaabi began in the 1980's. Some well-known recording artists whose work could be considered the al jeel genre are Amr Diab, Sherin, and Nancy Ajram. The singers Mohammed Mounir and Gawaher bring a distinctively Nubian flavor into their music.


Habibi Ya Nour el Ain

By Amr Diab

This song was released by vocalist Amr Diab in 1996, and won the prize for best Arabic song of 1996. It was the hit that propelled Diab to stardom.




By Amr Diab

This release by Amr Diab followed "Nour el Ain", and achieved hit status in its own right.



Sobry Alil

By Sherin

Sherin's music is popular among teen-age girls. Both "Sobry Alil" and another song "Boussi Ba'a" contain lyrics in which a young woman scolds the man in her life for failing to pay enough attention to her, paying too much attention to other women, etc.




By Mohammed Mounir

Mohammed Mounir is Nubian, so his pop songs tend to contain a Nubian flavor that gives him a distinctive sound.

Egyptian Shaabi

Well-known recording artists of the grittier shaabi music include Hakim and Saad al-Sogheir. Raqs sharqi dancers who wish to use shaabi music would be well-advised to take care. Well-educated upper-class Arab audiences often consider shaabi music to be beneath them, due to its origins with the poorer working classes, and therefore they would have less appreciation for a dancer who uses shaabi than they would for one who uses classical or al jeel music. For this reason, it is wise to research the audience's tastes before using shaabi music in a raqs sharqi performance.


Ayeela Tayeha

by Ahmed Adaweya


Although some shaabi songs may contain innocuous lyrics about love, others may speak of murder, social injustice, political themes, or other topics that could be offensive to audiences. For this reason, it is wise to research what shaabi songs are about before using them in a raqs sharqi performance.



Efred Masalan

by Hakim



Ahmed Adaweya was an early shaabi artist.

The song "Efred Masalan", is one of Hakim's many hits that is suitable for dancing.



by Hakim


Another one of Hakim's songs that is suitable for dancing is "Talakik."


Turkish Pop Music

The Turkish pop music artist best-known in the U.S. is Tarkan, who particularly 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.



by Tarkan


The song "Simarik" has been translated and re-recorded in a number of other languages, including an English version titled "Kiss Kiss" sung by Holly Valance. It was composed by Sezen Aksu and recorded in Turkish by Tarkan.



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 sound clips above represent well-known songs, and can provide a starting point for developing an ear for how the songs from different countries sound.



The Structure of Middle Eastern Music

Here are some generalizations about Middle Eastern music. Please bear in mind that Middle Eastern composers, especially since the dawn of the entertainment industry in the early years of the 20th century, may borrow techniques from Western music as they seek to new sources of inspiration. So the structure described here applies reasonably well to older, folkloric music, but more recent works 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), while Oriental 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."

In typical Western music, there are 12 possible notes to choose from: A, A Sharp (also known as B Flat), B, C, C Sharp (also known as D Flat), D, D Sharp (also known as E Flat), E, F, F Sharp (also known as G Flat), G, and G Sharp (also known as A Flat). But only 7 of these notes are normally used in 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. For example, a typical Western song in the key of D Major will use only the notes D, E, F Sharp, G, A, B, and C Sharp. The scale also 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.

Half Steps and Quarter Tones

In Western music, the musical notes are a half step (semitone) apart. For example, on a standard Western piano or harpsichord, each white key and each black key represents one of the 12 possible notes that can be used in Western music, 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, Oriental 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 pianos, trumpets, and saxophones, because certain notes would simply not have corresponding keys or finger combinations--they would fall halfway between two adjacent ones. (It is possible to tune some Western instruments to play music with quarter tones, but the standard instrument tuned for normal Western symphonic or concert band music would not be capable of playing quarter tones.)


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.

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 Westerners: synthesizers, keyboards, clarinets, accordions, and violins. Some of these must be specially tuned to work with the quarter tones that appear in Oriental 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



Obtaining the Recordings

This article has included short clips of several Middle Eastern songs. The following albums contain the full-length songs that were featured above:

Magic of John Bilezikjian

The "Magic" of John Bilezikjian contains:

  • "Lamma Bada Yata Thana"
  • "Istemem Babacim"

Can be ordered at


Sirocco (co-produced by John Bilezikjian and Var Daghdevirian) contains:

  • "Rampi Rampi"
  • "Şişeler"

Can be ordered at

Metkal Kenawe

Sahra Seada contains Saidi music by Metkal Kenawi, including:

  • "Dyati Mali"
  • "Tfarrak al-Halawa"

Can be ordered from most sources of bellydance music and Arabic music.

Amazon Store: U.S.

Eye on the World

Eye of the World by Brothers of the Baladi contains:

  • "Lamma Bada Yata Thanna"
  • "Dere Dere"

Amazon Store: U.S. Canada U.K.

Best of Saidi

Beware of the misleading title, Best of Saidi. Although this album contains some good music, it does not contain any Saidi music! It does contain:

  • "Tahtill Shibbak"

Can be ordered from most sources of bellydance music and Arabic music.

On Fire

On Fire: The Hottest Bellydance Music contains:

  • "Balady" [Egyptian Accordion Balady]

Amazon Store: U.S. Canada U.K.

Gypsy Fire

Gypsy Fire by Omar Faruk Tekbilek and Richard Hagopian contains:

  • "Şişeler"
  • "Rampi Rampi"
  • "Istemem Babacim"

Amazon Store: U.S. Canada U.K.

Enta Omri

Enta Omri by Oum Kalthoum. The song is an hour in length, and fills the entire CD:

  • "Enta Omri"

Amazon Store: U.S.


This was Tarkan's first hit album. Others have followed.

  • "Simarik"

Amazon Store: U.S. Canada U.K.

Garh Tani

Garh Tani was Sherin's first hit release. (Her name is sometimes spelled Sherine or Shareen.) This album contains:

  • "Sobry Alil"

Amazon Store: U.S. Canada U.K.

Very Best of Amr Diab

The Very Best of Amr Diab contains several of his hits, including:

  • "Habibi Ya Nour el Ain"
  • "Amarain"

Amazon Store: U.S. Canada U.K.


Hope by Brothers of the Baladi contains a variety of world music, including:

  • "A Nada"
  • "Habibi Ya Nour el Ain"

Amazon Store: U.S. Canada U.K.

Best of the Sultans

Best of the Sultans by the Sultans includes a variety of Middle Eastern music, including:

  • "Dere Geliyor"
  • "Tfarrak al-Halawa"

Amazon Store: U.S.



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