The word “music” comes from the Greek word Mousiki which means the science of composing melodies. Ilm al-musiqa was the name given by the Arabs to the Greek theory of music as to distinguish it from ilm al-ghinaa, the Arabian theory. The Arab music tradition developed in the courts of dynasties in the Islamic Empire from the seventh to the thirteenth century. It flourished during the Umayyad dynasty in the seventh and eighth centuries in Syria. Although the major writings of Arab music appeared after the spread of the Islamic religion in the beginning of the seventh century, the music tradition had already begun. Before the spread of Islam, Arab music incorporated music traditions of the Sassanid dynasty (224-651) in Persia and the early Byzantine empire (fourth to sixth century) and of sung poetry from the Arabian Peninsula.
Arab music is created using non-harmonized melodic and rhythmic systems. Arabic melodies draw from a vast array of models, or melodic modes, known as maqamat. Arabic books on music include as many as 52 melodic modes, of which at least 12 are commonly used. These modes feature more tones than are present in the Western musical system, including notably smaller intervals that are sometimes called microtones, or half-flats and half-sharps. Arab melodies frequently use the increased second interval, an interval larger than those of most Western melodies. The sound of Arab music is richly melodic and offers freedom for subtle nuance and creative diversity.
The rhythmic structure of Arab music is also complex. Rhythmic patterns have up to forty-eight beats and typically include several downbeats (called dums) as well as upbeats (called taks) and rests. To grasp a rhythmic mode, the listener must hear a relatively long pattern. Moreover, the performers do not simply play the pattern; they decorate and elaborate upon it. Often the pattern is recognizable only by the arrangement of downbeats.
The order of these systems of melody and rhythm is essential to the composition and performance of Arab music. Students learn pieces of music, both songs and instrumental works, but rarely perform them exactly as they were originally composed or presented. In Arab tradition, a good musician is someone who can offer something new in each performance by varying and improvising on known pieces or models in a fashion similar to that of musicians. The creations of musicians can be lengthy, extending ten-minute compositions into hour-long performances that bear only a skeletal resemblance to the models.
The style of the new works traditionally depends upon the response of the audience. Listeners are expected to react during the performance, either verbally or with applause. Quiet is interpreted as disinterest or dislike. The audience members, in this tradition, are active participants in determining the length of the performance and in shaping the piece of music by encouraging musicians to either repeat a section of the piece or to move to the next section.
Instruments typically used in an Arab musical performance include the ud, a prototype of the European lute, and the nay, an end-blown reed flute. Frame drums, with or without jingles, and hourglass-shaped drums are common percussion instruments. These instruments vary in name and shape depending upon the region of their origin. Double-reed instruments of varying sizes, such as the Lebanese mijwiz and the Egyptian mizmar, are played at outdoor celebrations. The Arab rababah, a spike fiddle, may have been the prototype for the European violin, which is now also found in many Arab regions.
Solo performance consisting of the interactive invention of good music with an appreciative audience represents a peak of musical accomplishment for the instrumentalist similar to that which the singing of poetry represents for the vocalist. In a taqsim, a form of instrumental improvisation, the instrumentalist chooses a melodic mode, offers interpretation of the mode, and in pitch, and modulates to other modes. Eventually the instrumentalist descends to close in the original mode. Musical accomplishment lies in the musicians technical virtuosity, creativity, and subtlety in suggesting other modes, other compositions, or even the music of other artists.
Performances considered traditionalwhether they are neoclassical events in concert halls, entertainment in hotels, or television programmesusually include both song and instrumental performances, although often not played in unison, that last about an hour and are arranged to reach a high peak in a vocal performance. Such collections of piecesmetrical and non-metrical, vocal and instrumental, simple and complex, and often unified by modeare central to Arab music.Examples include the North African nawbah, thought to have originated in Andaluca, and the eastern Mediterranean waslah musical forms, which were previously the standard of entertainment for small gatherings of elite Arab men.
While the general principles have remained the same, the tradition of Arab music has changed throughout the centuries. Distinctive local practices have evolved and become important to the cultural identity of their respective societies. For example, the North African cities of Fs, Tlemcen, Tetuan, and Tunis have distinct versions of the Andalusian nawbah that help define local culture and are closely associated with the histories of their regions.Melodic modes of the same name are tuned slightly differently in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and the countries of North Africa. Music of these regions is distinguishable by pitch. Rhythmic modes also have varying articulations in different locales, and the styles of melodies and renditions differ. Sung poetry, particularly informal verse, changes with local dialects. The Iraqi maqam is not simply a melodic mode, but an unfolding of pieces in a particular mode. The word maqam in Iraq carries a meaning closer to that of waslah or nawbah than it does maqam in other places.
Because of the absence of recording or notation until the 20th century, it is impossible to be certain of the age of the melodies. Particular melodies, specifically those of Andalusian or Syrian muwashshahat, may be centuries old, but it is highly unlikely that they have remained exactly the same throughout the years. Widely known musical pieces of early times were probably subject to reinterpretation at different places throughout history.