Music in Muslim Lands

Pretty broad topic for a 90-minute illustrated lecture-demonstration, but there are some things that clearly need to be included:

This weblet is intended to contain some background information that I may not get to in the oral presentation.

So can we talk of "Muslim music"? Short answer: no. Islam has no parallels to the liturgical music that is found pretty much throughout Christianity, and the Muslim Call to Prayer is explicitly not considered by Muslims to be 'music'. Indeed, music and musicians are regarded with considerable suspicion by Muslim orthodoxies; on the other hand, music has often thrived at Muslim courts, and certainly music plays a very important part in some of the woolier corners of Islamic heterodoxy --notably in many of the Sufi orders.

Whenever different cultures or peoples come into contact with one another a range of exchanges is likely to take place. Genetic material has a way of leaking across cultural boundaries; items of material culture are traded avidly; ideas and ways of doing things get appropriated, sometimes with interesting local adaptations. But people tend to retain a lot of their own distinctiveness even when they adopt the religions and languages of others.

Music (as ideas and instruments) is a commodity that moves easily and adapts readily to new surroundings. Just why this is so isn't well understood, but surely has a lot to do with what musicians are all about: they're compulsive tinkerers and experimenters with sound, with their ears tuned to hear novelties. Musicians are cultural specialists, much in demand for certain events and ceremonies, but their powers are often viewed with suspicion and in many societies they are viewed as declassé and disreputable: you wouldn't want your daughter to marry one.

...'bad people' who lie, cheat, make excessive demands for money, who do not care about religion, whose wives are prostitutes and whose sons are dancing boys. Their behavior is regarded as deviating from the expressed ideals of Muslim society.
(John Baily 1979, writing about professional musicians in Afghanistan)

So we need to consider musicians, the sonic constituents of music (scales, melodies, rhythms), and the instruments which project and realize these ideas. And we're doing this over time and space.

Let's take the example of a single basic type of musical instrument, the short-necked lute. Its most refined form is the Middle Eastern 'ud

(variant names and forms: oud, lauto, outi, lute...[see an
essay on history]), but the same physical instrument also occurs with other names: in Malaysia it's called gambus

(borrowed from

though in Turkey the homophonous cümbüs isn't exactly the same thing:

And the Moroccan guimbri (or outar) is a cousin:

in some respects more like a number of West African instruments (having a skin head and a round neck) but pretty clearly at least related. There are other instruments with clear parallels: the Ukranian and Romanian kobza, Byzantine kobuz, Kazakh kobuz (a bowed instrument)...

The European lute is a direct descendant of the oud (and European music and musical instruments owe a great deal to the Muslim world, particularly Moorish Spain pre-1492).

A similar tale of geographical variation, borrowing, adaptation and evolution can be spun for the long-necked lute, which includes the Turkish saz and tanbur,
the Greek bouzouk, Italian colascione and Arab buzuk, the Persian sehtar [literally: '3-string'], and Central Asian instruments with a variety of names. Some of the instruments of North Indian classical music (notably the sitar and tanpura) are also related, as are the Thai grajappi, Cambodian cha pei, Sumatran hasapi, and the sapih of Borneo.

While the instruments themselves have a certain fascination, and virtuoso players do amazing things with them, the underlying musical ideas are also reasonably accessible to us --close enough to 'Western' musical elements to be comprehensible, but different enough to challenge our ears. Consider a few generalizations:

'European' musics have for a good 600 years emphasized and elaborated the harmonic dimension --the relations among simultaneous notes; in 'Middle Eastern' music, nuances are mostly expressed in melodic development of sequential notes, and harmony is of minor interest.

In the rhythmic dimension, most 'Western' music isn't very complex: a lot of 3/4, 4/4 --nice danceable stuff. But in Turkish, Arabic and North Indian musics the rhythms are sometimes very complex cycles.

And in the 'West' the classical forms are stored as and learned from notation, while in most non-Western traditions notation is secondary to ear training. Improvization (within traditional frameworks) is more central to many non-Western traditions than it is in Western art music. This means that musicians learn by traditional means, by relationships with masters who know and embody the [oral/aural] tradition.

Let's take the melody example first: 'Western' music is understood in terms of scales and keys, and the common image is the black-and-white of the piano keyboard. An octave has 12 notes in it, equally spaced. A well-tuned piano plays a "tempered" scale, and by convention A=440 cycles per second. To simplify a bit, an octave can be divided into 1200 cents, and thus each equal-tempered interval is equal to 100 cents. So you can imagine a circle divided into 12 30 degree wedges; each line represents a note in the tempered scale (C, C#, D, D#, E...).
Scales based on non-equal intervals are quite common in musics of the world, and provide sound flavors that challenge the ear which has learned to expect equal intervals.

Another way to visualize non-equal intervals: compare the fingerboard of a guitar (an equal-tempered instrument) to that of a Turkish saz or tambur. Both of the latter have moveable ligatures to permit retuning to accomodate various scales, and both usually offer more than 12 intervals in an octave, so that the player can choose one or another preset interval to accord with the desired scale. In short, "microtonal" tuning systems (with, for example, 22 intervals in the octave) are pretty common.

Western folk musics are often modal: their melodies are confined to scales defined by spaces between the notes more than by exact pitch [details]. Turkish and Arabic and Persian musics are based on greatly elaborated modal systems (makam, maqamat, dastgah), many of the modes of which have unequal temperament.

Some worthwhile links

You might be interested in exploring a recent BBC production, The Musical Nomad: a multimedia record of a month-long tour of parts of Central Asia with photographs and sound clips. RealPlayer is necessary to hear them).

If you have RealPlayer, you can retrieve lengthy selections of Tunisian music from Radio Tunis

Islamic Music: a library guide from Middlebury College

A Topic of Dispute in Islam: Music (a denunciation of music by Mustafa Sabri, 1910)

Listening to Umm Kulthûm (Virginia Danielson)

alMashriq on Umm Kulthûm

Solo Improvisation (Taqâsîm) in Arab Music (Scott L. Marcus)