Middle Eastern Music Short History & Instruments

Middle Eastern music spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Iran.

Middle Eastern Music spans in a very large territory ranging from North and East Africa to Central Asia, including the Arab, Persian and Turkish civilisations. These cultures from very early times created diverse music and sound performances with different motives for thousands of years. 

Pre-Islamic era.

During this era, sung poetry was a much appreciated form among the Arabs because they shared with many people in Africa and other parts of the world, the quality of perpetuating knowledge through oral tradition. The Arab civilization were also constituted in diverse nomadic clans a musical form known as ‘Huda’ was created, which consisted of a song performed during long caravans, which purpose was to help the camels to relax during the trips. It was a rhythmic and strong song in which lyrics were intimately linked to the feeling of tiredness and insecurity during the caravan trips.

Other known musical forms existed were the ‘ghyna’, the first songs of the Islamic and the ‘qaynat’ to animate the warriors before the battles, all this under the influence of the Byzantine and Persian empire, in which the music was a fundamental part of life, endowed with supernatural powers that influenced the spirit.

Islamic Era.

The introduction of Islam is approximately in the seventh century, it is in this period where several works of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato were translated, and the writings of Pythagoras about music, including the theory of the spheres widespread in Arabic music.

The music will be practically at the service of prayer, the music of this period is highly poetic and is intended to impact the faithful in such a way that they can elevate the spirit and transcend what they specifically know as the ‘tarab’. Generally it is about melodies that follow each other by quarter of tone, with a great use of short adornments and where the word is the great protagonist of the music, as can be appreciated in the call to prayer. The figure of the musician, unlike the Western musician covers various roles such as composer, improviser and musician respectively, where the virtuosity is measured by the ability they have to impact the emotions in order to achieve the point of exaltation or tarab.

The Maqam

The Maqam is the musical structure in which basically all Arabic music is made, these are structures that determine the mode that will govern the whole melody. The most approximate in the West to the maqam are the Greek scales or modes. However, maqam tends to have much more than melodic-type indications, but also brings with it indications of rhythmic structures or relationship structures between predominant notes and others that present other functionalities. The maqam can vary according to many aspects: depending on the time of year, time of day, feeling, functionality and others. There are about 70 maqamat (plural of maqam) and they are sung according to the need of the moment.

String Instruments:


The Úd or Lute: is considered the most important of the instruments due to the number of treatises in which this instrument has been spoken or approached and by the relationship they have established between their strings and various aspects, such as parts of the human body, zodiac signs, seasons, etc. It is an instruments with wooden body and pear shape that has in the back of its soundboard, wooden strips, has a circle in the front so that the sound can come out and a short and wide handle where they are the strings, usually each one of a color. Currently, it has about five strings.

The Qanun: it is a wooden box in the shape of a trapeze in which several strings are tensed, which the performer plays using a species of pens or straws that adapt to the performer’s fingers.

The Santur: similar to the qanun but with doubled and double strings that are touched when hit with thin sticks.

El Tunbur: similar to the UD but with a sharper sound.

The Rabat: is a low resonance instrument, small and rounded and with a long neck that has two strings that are played in a pulsed manner although there are performers who also play it through the friction with the bow.

The Kemenche: kind of violin of three strings.

Wind Instruments

Armenian Duduk: popular double reeded, oboe-like instrument made out of Apricot tree wood.

The Ney: is an end-blown flute that figures prominently in Middle Eastern music. The ney has been played continuously for 4,500–5,000 years, making it one of the oldest musical instruments still in use.

A Kaval is a three-part flute that is blown in one end, whereas the ney is a long cane flute, played by blowing across the sharp edge while pursing the lips.

Percussion Instruments 

Darbuka: is a membrane drum, narrow in the part below and wide above.

Duff: is the tambourine used generally to accompany dance and popular music. It is also the name of a drum with ropes similar to that of the Pygmies of Africa but Arabic has a double membrane.

Riqq: is a kind of tambourine, which has a membrane fitted to a circle made of wood, to which metal pieces are attached.

The Sufism & Music in Middle East

Sufism is a movement and lifestyle that sought the exaltation of the spirit toward the divine from changes in human behavior such as humility, abstention and abdication, to find the stage of fusion with God. Great believers of the power of music, the Sufis attributed to it, the power to nourish the spirit and be a way for transcendence and the encounter with God. Sufists will bequeath some musical forms such as the ‘dhirk’ which is a kind of repetitive rosary of some sacred word or phrase, which begins with a slow tempo and then progressively increases as a rhythmic and corporal accompaniment to achieve a high concentration begins. And thus find ‘the tarab’. The ‘ada’ is a collective walk accompanied by drums and percussion instruments in fast tempo and the ‘m’louk’ that are made to pray to Allah and thus get the healing of a sick person. The m’louk is interpreted by a soloist and choir which, maintaining the responsorial form, dedicate themselves to declaim sacred verses headed by the soloist and answered by the chorus.

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