Overview of Arab Music

In order to better understand the relationships and differences between Arab and Western music, an individual must have working knowledge of Arab music. In doing so, one will have the necessary knowledge needed to understand what happens in a performance of Arab music. Given the complex and diverse nature of Arab music, we will be taking somewhat of a “crash course” to provide enough information that will allow the listener to understand the concepts behind Arab music. Hasan Habib Touma, an ethnomusicologist and author of the book, The Music of the Arabs, has described Arab music in five separate components.
Hasan Habib Touma has described Arab music in five components:

Maqam System

A tone system with specific intervallic structures. This is called a maqam system. Which is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or position. ... 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.



Rhythmic-temporal structures (rhythmic cycles) that produce a rich variety of rhythmic patterns, used to accompany the metered vocal and instrumental and give them form. Arabic music is composed over rhythmic cycles called iqa‘at (singular iqa‘), which are patterns of beats that repeat every measure. A composition can switch back and forth between many different iqa‘at. Each iqa‘ is defined using a prototypal measure and the two basic sounds: dum (bassy and sustained) and tak (dry and sharp).


MidEast x MidWest:

Musical instruments that are found throughout the Arabian world and that represent a standardized tone system, are played with standardized performance techniques and exhibit similar details in construction and design.

urban or Bedouin

Specific social contexts for making music, whereby musical genres can be classified as urban (music of the city inhabitants), or Bedouin (music of the desert inhabitants). By way of example, consider the Bedouin, by virtue of mass media, can listen to any music in his desert tent but who would never make music himself outside of a specific context.

Arabic is Tarab:

A musical mentality is responsible for the aesthetic homogeneity of Arabian music's tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures, whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or sacred. The word for this in Arabic is Tarab, defined by Dr. Ali Jihad Racy as the ecstatic feeling that the music produces.