In 2016 I participated in a project that was organized around the idea to have students from the Dutch conservatories team up with music students from Syria. We worked together for one week, where we had workshops with Nizar Rohana, Moslem Rahal and Ahmad al Khatib. We loved playing together so much that we decided to stay together as a band, that later took on the name NAJWA. During this week, my eyes got opened to a whole new world of beautiful musical possibilities. I loved the sounds of the music, and I liked to play it, but I also felt in the dark and unable to play along with all these new sounds I was hearing. That is when I decided that I wanted to learn more about the Arabic musical tradition, to learn what theory lies behind the melodies and rhythms and how to find my role in this music as a bass player.


In this thesis, my goal is to gain an understanding of Arabic musical customs and traditions useful for my own practice in music. The term Arabic world generally encompasses the countries and regions where the Arabic language is spoken. This is a huge geographical area spreading across the Middle East and northern Africa. Being such a large area, the Arabic world has a wide variation of different cultural traditions. Therefore it is impossible to mention Arabic music as a clear and well-defined genre. Because of this I have decided to focus my research on a specific area. In my own practice in music, the Arabic musicians with whom I play have a cultural heritage in Syria, or close to it. For this reason I have chosen to restrict myself to the cultural and musical nuances deriving from this area. This is a geographical restriction, as well as a restriction in a musical sense, since it is impossible to cover all theory, intonations, rhythms, song forms and other aspects within the practical boundaries of my Masters studies.


The Arabic world can be geographically divided in two large sections: the Mashriq (east) and the Maghreb (west). The Mashriq (loosely translated: Place of the sunrise) is the region between the Mediterranean Sea and Iran, but also encompasses Egypt and Sudan. The Maghreb (loosely translated: Place where the sun sets) encompasses the (mostly) Muslim parts of North Africa, from Libya to Morocco. Historically, the music in the Mashriq has derived from Persian traditions, inheriting the base of the tonal system (including the ¾ tone interval), musical instruments and song forms. The music tradition in the Maghreb, with Seville as its centre, at some point in time was very similar to the music tradition in the Mashriq. However, influences from European music, like the diatonic system and song forms, have had their impact since the occupation of Andalusia by the Roman Empire around the 12th century. This resulted in the adaption of the western tonal system, consequently losing the ¾ tone interval.[1]

          For my research I have chosen to focus mainly on the music tradition of the Mashriq. But even within this (still huge) area there are countless small nuances in intonation and sorts. To make my research align with my day-to-day practice, I have narrowed my area of research further down to the region of Syria. As mentioned, this is because most Arabic musicians I know and get in contact with are from Syria, or from nearby Syria. They will provide me with knowledge and skills of the contemporary musical practices in Syria.


My goal is to gain understanding in the tonal system, or maqam system, by studying a selection of maqamat. The main aim is to gain familiarity with these maqamat by recognizing, playing and using them in composition. Additionally I want to study some rhythms and song forms that are characteristic for the Arabic music tradition. Consequently, I will not try to construct a complete guide to the entire system, but I do hope that the documentation of my process in this will be applicable to many if not all other maqamat in the Arabic tonal system. For my research I have chosen to research the maqamat Hijaz, Rast and Sikah, for which I have the following reasons:

  1. Maqam Hijaz: In the western music world the common knowledge about Arabic music is very limited. There is actually one scale that is, not exclusively but intensively, associated with Arabic music, or more specifically, with ‘an Arabic sound’.  The scale is known in Western music theory as the Phrygian dominant scale, so taken the E as a tonic, this would mean: E, F, G#, A, B, C, D, E. Arabic music does encompass, but isn’t limited to, this scale that is characterized by the interval between a minor second and a major third. The actual intonation of the notes is in practice a bit different. I will aim to clarify the nuances between the Western version of the scale, and the traditional Arab version.
  2. Maqam Rast: This is one of the most commonly used scales in traditional Arab music, and has its heritage in Persian music. The scale uses a quartertone as a third. This is also known as the neutral or Zalzal third, which lies between a minor and a major third. This note is obviously not included in European or common practice music theory. Therefore I think it is very interesting to learn about this maqam, and try to fully understand it.
  3. Maqam Sikah: This maqam is quite related to maqam Rast. The two scales use the same base notes, but the root note of Sikah is the (neutral) third of maqam Rast. In that way it is comparable to Phrygian in the Gregorian modes. I am very interested in how to deal with a quartertone as a bass note.


All of the above has lead me to my research question:

          How can I implement elements like maqam, quartertones and rhythms from the Arabic musical tradition, with a focus on the region of Syria, into my repertoire as a jazz bass player?


[1] Leo Plenckers, Arabische Muziek (Amsterdam: Bulaaq, 2014), 67-71.