Cultural context



My goal in this research is to take musical material from traditional Arabic music and incorporate it into my own style and professional practice. Before blindly doing so I want to be weary not to insult anyone or deny and disgrace certain cultural or religious aspects of this music. Therefore I looked into the role of music within the Islam, being the main religion in my area of research throughout history.

          The view of the Islam on music is somewhat open for discussion. In the early development of the Islam (7th century), music played an important part of the entertainment around the court of the caliph.[1] The music life was defined by the qiyan, a professional female singer who was a slave to a wealthy family. The hedonistic lifestyle was not much appreciated by the religious leaders in Mecca and Medina. However the Quran does not explicitly condemn music. Therefore it was initially not prohibited, but frowned upon.

          The main reason of Muslims to condemn music is that it would derive people from their devotion to god: "... its maximal effect can send the listener into an emotional, even violent paroxysm.... This quasi-somnambulistic state is considered to be in contradiction to the exigencies of rational religious precepts".[2] Muslims who support the use of music in Islam argue that music lets them into the spiritual world. An early treaty on music by the Ikwan as-Safa (The Pure Brothers) argues that an understanding of all music leads to an understanding of all secrets of the Creation.[3]

          In his paper on music in the world of the Islam, John A. Maurer concludes that music doesn’t have a specific religious role within the Islam. Verses of the Quran may be sung, but only to emphasize their meaning, and not to distract from the intentions of the verse. The other way around, Arabic music is very much influenced by the Islam. Maurer mentions that the characteristics of Arabic music are in line with the visions of the Islam, like melismatic melodies, microtonal passages, intricacy and the use of repetition to achieve a sense of the eternal and divine: “In sum, most Muslim musicians employ various techniques of abstraction to instil a fundamental sense of tawhid in their music, or ‘sound art.’”[4]


Taking all this in consideration I believe there is not any issue with religious aspects of the music when incorporating it into other styles. However, since the Arabic music tradition and the Islam are linked on a spiritual level, I expect to inevitably encounter moments where my music will overlap with spiritual meaning. Since I am not a practitioner of the Islamic religion, these spiritual meanings will not affect me as much as it would someone who grew up within the Arabic tradition. Even so, I aim to give a short overview of the meaning and heritage before discussing each maqam or song form. I will do this to gain a full understanding of the meaning of the subject, and to avoid misinterpreting its aspects.

          In my analyses I will use western music notation to write down musical material. This is nowadays the standard for Arabic music notation.[5] Before the 20th century Arabic music had no system to write down music, but had a rich tradition of aural transmission.[6] In conversation, Arab musicians use the fixed do, re, mi, etc. system to name the notes C, D, E, etc. Also the French words bémol and dièse are used to refer to flats and sharps respectively.[7] The notational system is adapted to encompass quartertones as well. The symbols used are , meaning a half flat, or nuss bémol, and , meaning a half sharp, or nuss dièse. Nuss means “half” in Egyptian Arabic.[8] Although far less common, other notations may be used as well, like a reversed flat, or double flats/sharps.


The double bass is an instrument that is not used traditionally in Arabic music. The bass function is something that is usually filled by the oud player, playing their bass strings. Nonetheless the bass is an instrument that lends itself well for this music tradition. Because the bass is a fretless instrument, it can play all nuances of microtonality that Arabic music encompasses. In this way it is more easily adaptable to Arabic music than for example a piano, an accordion, or a (fretted) guitar, although Arabic versions of these instruments have been made to function in it. The bassist can play either as an accompanying player, or as a melodic player. Furthermore, the upright bass can be played pizzicato, taking more after the playing style of the oud or kanun, or it can be played arco, which makes it more alike a rebab (violin) or a ney (flute), in terms of the decay of a note.

          In jazz music, the upright bass serves as a bridge between the musical parameters of rhythm and harmony, often connecting the drums to the piano or a guitar. In traditional Arabic music there is no harmony. Therefore the bass could not fulfil the same role in Arabic music as it does in jazz. The Arabic music tradition is a musical genre that uses melody and rhythm as its main parameters. I think the bass can still function within this style, and is very suitable to be the bridge between rhythm and melody, connecting the percussion to the singer or the soloist. Since the styles differ in character, the function of the bass will change, and I will have to rethink what role or position the bass will have while playing Arabic music. I do think the bass is very well suitable to take on this role, and that is why I think the bass is still a good fit for Arabic traditional music.

[1] Plenckers, Arabische Muziek, 33.

[2] Amnon Shiloah, Music in the world of Islam (Wayne State University Press, 1995), citated by John Maurer, Music in the World of Islam, 1998.

[3] Plenckers, Arabische Muziek, 55.

[4] Maurer, 1998

[5] J. Faraj & A. Shumays, Inside Arabic Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 179.

[6] Marcus, Scott. "The Eastern Arab World." In The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions, edited by Church Michael, 280. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; Rochester, Ny, USA: Boydell & Brewer, 2015. Accessed February 1, 2021. doi:10.7722/j.ctt155j3zb.18.

[7] Faraj & Shumays, 180.

[8] Faraj & Shumays, 181.