Arab music: Introduction


"Arab music" is music created by Arabs. Beyond that, it is difficult to say precisely what makes it "Arab". As in other parts of the world, its development is the result of multiple influences.

"It is an amalgam of the music of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and the music of all the peoples that make up the Arab world today. It also influenced and has been influenced by ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Persian, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkish, Indian, North African music (i.e. Berber), African music (i.e. Swahili), and European music (i.e. Flamenco)." –

Although the characteristics of classical Arab music are well defined, there is also a wide variety of musical genres, some of them largely confined to specific parts of the region. Existing alongside these traditional forms is modern Arab pop music – often with a distinctive "Arab" sound – but also including Arab versions of rock, rap and even heavy metal.

In an article on the Turath website, Ali Jihad Racy, a professor of ethnomusicology, identifies several unifying traits of Arab music, though he cautions that these may not be universally and their orientation and detailed features may differ from one community to another:

One aspect of unity in Arab music is the intimate connection between the music and the Arabic language. This is demonstrated by the emphasis placed upon the vocal idiom and by the often central role played by the poet-singer. Examples are the sha'ir, literally "poet," in Upper Egypt and among the Syrian-Desert Bedouins, and theqawwal, literally "one who says," in the Lebanese tradition of zajal, or sung folk-poetry. This link is also exemplified in the common practice of setting to music various literary [poetic] forms, including the qasidah and the muwashshah.

Another salient trait is the principal position of Arab melody in Arab music and the absence of complex polyphony, a phenomenon distinguishing music of this part of the world, and a good portion of Asia, from the music of Europe and certain areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, Arab music exhibits refinement and complexity in the melody marked by subtle and intricate ornaments and nuances. Melody in Arab music also incorporates microtonality, namely intervals that do not conform to the half-step and whole-step divisions of traditional Western art music.

The concept of melody is commonly connected with modality, a conceptual organisational framework widely known under the name maqam(plural maqamat). Each of the maqamat is based on a theoretical scale, specific notes of emphasis, and a typical pattern of melodic movement, in many instances beginning around the tonic note of the scale, gradually ascending, and finally descending to the tonic ... 

The modal conception and organisation of melody is paralleled by a modal treatment of Arab rhythm. In Arab music, metric modes are employed in various metric compositions and are widely known by the name iqa'at (singular iqa') ... Eachiqa' has a specific name and a pattern of beats ranging in number from two to twenty-four or more ...

Another feature of musical unity in the contemporary Arab world lies in the area ofmusical instruments. Instruments such as theqanun (a trapazoidal plucked zither), 'ud (a fretless plucked lute), nay (a reed flute) and the Western violin are found in most urban Arab orchestras.

Further information

Classical Arabic music 
A website focusing on classical and traditional Arab music. It includes audio samples, plus some videos and sheet music for sale.

Arabic Music and Its Development 
Fikrun wa Fann (Goethe Institut)

"The oldest site on the web dedicated exclusively for the education, analysis, reviews, and resources for traditional Arab music worldwide".

Politics and Pop Culture in the Middle East and North Africa
A collection of articles from Muftah

Music of the Arab World 
A series of articles by Saeed Saeed looking mainly at contemporary Arab music, published in the Emirati newspaper, The National, in 2012:

Arabic pop pops! 

Arabic hip-hop 


History and development of Khaleeji music 

The sound of Islam 

Gnawa music offers songs with soul 

Rock and heavy metal 

Classical crooners and songbirds 

Music and Islam

Music is more controversial in the Arab countries than in most other parts of the world. The more puritanical kinds of Muslims associate it with frivolity, time-wasting and licentiousness – and regard it as forbidden. In the words of one Islamic scholar:

"Music is a useless activity which, in fact, is a state of passiveness."

Complete rejection of music is still very much a minority view among Muslims, though it has become more prevalent with the growth of political Islam and increased religiosity.

In general, the less traditional types of music – especially those that develop a cult following among Arab youth – tend to meet with stronger disapproval. In several countries, for example, the authorities have tried to suppress heavy metal music on the grounds that it involves devil-worship. The Saudi authorities, who officially recognise the power of black magic are especially suspicious of rock, punk and metal music.