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Eastern Instruments



Scales-The Basic Building Block
Middle Eastern music is based on the maqam system. A maqam roughly corresponds to a Western musical scale. For example, where an American musician might perform Pachelbel’s Canon in D (a canon - a classical form - played in the key of D major), a Middle Eastern musician might perform the Samai Kurd Shaheen. (A samai - a classical form - played in the maqam known as Kurd and composed by Simon Shaheen.) A composition can begin in a certain maqam, then shift to others during the course of the song. There are at least 24 distinct maqamat, developed over thousands of years of musical history.

A maqam tells a musician what the correct intervals are between the notes of a scale, and which notes should be emphasized. Often, the notes of a scale lie only a quarter-tone apart, rather than half-steps apart. What can sound like dissonance to American ears are actually extremely subtle differences in tone.

Middle Eastern music often contains overlapping rhythms. The drummer may be playing one rhythm, the violinist another, the riq (tambourine) player a third, while the dancer keeps yet another on her sagat (finger cymbals), yet all are woven together into a seamless tapestry of sound. The dancer’s job is to embody the different rhythms for the audience, while also expressing the emotion of the music.

Middle Eastern musicians frequently perform taqasim - the art of improvisation. Taqasim may be woven into existing compositions - similar to a guitar riff in the middle of an American rock song - or played as an art in themselves, as in the Arabic classical tradition. The musician begins with a well-known melody, a maqam, or a simple collection of notes, then embellishes it in a free-flowing manner.

Often, Middle Eastern music involves ornamentation. In the same way a dancer’s delicate hand gestures ornament her dance, a musician’s style may embrace and color individual notes. Ornamentation includes the use of grace note, trills, runs, arpeggios, "bending" a note, and other techniques. To draw a parallel, imagine singing a simple child’s melody like "Three Blind Mice." Then imagine how a jazz musician might play with the song, stretching out certain notes or adding syncopation. You still recognize the basic melody, but the musician has put his or her stamp on it. Both improvisation and ornamentation allow musicians to express their individual style within traditional forms.