Arabic Music

Written by Serena Berger
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Arabic music is difficult to categorize simply because it can come from many different areas in the Arab world, from the Gulf to the Maghreb, from Egypt to Lebanon. "Classical" Arabic music is defined first by a particular set of scales, which are very different from the scales used to form Western classical music. While Western ears are only trained to hear whole tones and half tones, and our scales are either seven or twelve notes, Arabic scales use quartertones as well as halves and wholes, and 17, 19, or 24 tones are not uncommon to the scales used.

Classical Arabic music is not limited in its instruments, with modern recordings using both acoustic and electric instruments. Any instrument, however, must be able to play the quartertones required in an Arabic scale, which means performance would exclude many Western instruments. Modern Arabic pieces are being written that avoid using Arabic scales, specifically in order to be able to incorporate Western instruments and appeal to a wider audience; but great Arabic musicians do not want to ignore the beautiful legacy of their traditional music entirely.

Improvisation in Arabic Music

The tradition in Arabic music has always been defined by improvisation, most often on solo instruments. Changing between modes (the aforementioned variety of scales) is valued, and the manner in which a performer sets up and executes these modulations is the foundation for his reputation as a great artist. The improvisation itself is often what you might call train-of-thought, following a musical idea for a while and then coming back to the original melody.

Plucked strings are the most commonly played solo instruments in Arabic music. Lute-like instruments abound, such as the 'ud, which is an ancestor of many occidental stringed instruments. It is impossible to describe the sound of Arabic music--you simply must hear it for yourself. If you are curious, you can look on the Internet for samples, and purchase CDs from overseas music stores which would not be available in the U.S.


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