Melodic Material



In this chapter I will explain what the basics are in Arabic music theory in terms of tonal material. I will describe the maqam system, and the building blocks (ajnas) it is made up of. Furthermore I will aim to provide an overview of the possibilities that arise within the rules and limits of a maqam, and which routes are useful for practice purposes. I will do this specifically for the maqamat hijaz, rast and sikah, because these are the topics of my research. At the end of this chapter I provide a graphic overview that can be used for practice purposes, as well as a method to practically play quartertones on the upright bass.



Arabic music and maqamat, which I will elaborate on in chapter maqam, are built from small building blocks of generally four notes called tetrachords or ajnas. But a jins (pl. ajnas) is a building block for not only notes, but also for melodic fragments. Melodies and improvisations tend to stay in the range of one jins, giving an exposition of its colours, sounds and characteristic phrases, before moving up or down to another part of the maqam.[1] A piece or improvisation in Arabic classical music has mostly one jins at its base, while building under it or above it will create a number of possibilities of melodic development. The total amount of used ajnas in Arabic music is hard to determine. The book Inside Arabic Music speaks of “some two dozen” that are used throughout the 20th century. Not all of them are evenly useful, and the book names the nine most commonly used: Ajam, Bayati, Hijaz, Kurd, Nahawand, Nikriz, Rast, Saba and Sikah. When the ajnas are stacked on each other they can be either of the same type (homogenous, i.e. Rast + Rast) or of different types (heterogenous, i.e. HijazNahawand). This way a huge amount of different combinations and maqamat can be formed using these ajnas. A jins starts on a tonic, or qarar (“bottom”), also named darajat al-rukuz (“the resting point”),[2] and ends on a ghammaz. The ghammaz is basically the primary point of modulation, where the next jins is chained to it. This can be the 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th note in the scale.[3] In practice, Arab musicians often call this note a dominant. It should be noted that in Western music, the term dominant refers to the fifth note of the scale, or the V-chord in harmony theory. Therefore it can be confusing to what it means in Arabic music, since it may as well be the fourth note, for example, of the jins, as stated before.


For this research I will look in detail at jins hijaz, rast and sikah, because they form the basis of the maqamat I have decided to study. But aside from that, we need to know some more ajnas to make sense of the analyses to come. Therefore I will briefly discuss the (also common) ajnas of bayati, kurd, ajam, nahawand, nikriz, saba. To view the notation of the jins hover the pointer over the name of the jins. A total overview can be found in appendix  1. These graphics show the general intervals between the notes within that are characteristic for the jins. The starting note that the jins is pictured with is in all cases a very common starting note, but not the only possible starting note. I want to make clear that every note could be the starting point to form the jins. The reason some are more common than others has to do with the instrument they are played on, because of open strings, for example. Listening to recordings of traditional Arabic music you may also commonly find that the tuning reference is not fixed (like A=442) but can differ widely.



Jins hijaz is the base jins of maqam hijaz. It sets the mood for this very characteristic maqam. Hijaz is named after a region in western Saudi Arabia, including the cities of Mecca and Medina. The notes that make this jins stand out are the 1½ interval between the second and third note (i.e. D-Eb-F#-G) This is also where we have to be cautious! The intonation of these notes differs from equal tempered tuning. Because the interval of 1½ note is found to be quite large, the gap is made smaller by intonating the second note slightly higher, and the third note slightly lower. The exact intonation of these notes varies heavily from region to region, and time-period to time-period. It is recommended to learn the sound of the intonation by loads of listening and playing along.

          The figure displays the basic jins hijaz. It could start on other notes than D (other common tonics are G, C, and A).[4] Depending on which maqam it forms, and on which note it starts it might have different names. For the sake of clarity we use the example as stated above and treat every note relatively to the root note D. As mentioned before, the basic tetrachord is D-Eb-F#-G, utilising the highly recognizable interval of an augmented second between the Eb and the F#. The (perfect) fourth of the jins is a G, and serves as the ghammaz, dominant or pivot note in this jins. From this note other jins can be played to form different maqamat.  Typical modulations from the ghammaz are Nahawand, Rast, Nikriz and Ajam.



Jins rast is one of the most common and iconic ajnas in Arabic music. The word ‘rast’ means “right” or “straight” in Persian, and is also the name of the C4 note. This is also often the note of the lowest ud string.  Therefore it usually starts on a C, but F and G are also common (again, because of the strings on the ud). The main characteristic of jins rast is the intonation of the third note, which is (around) a ¾ step above the second note. Again, the intonation varies slightly between regions and time periods, and aural training is the way to internalize it. As the figure shows, the ghammaz of rast is the (perfect) 5th degree. From here, connecting ajnas can be rast (again), nahawand, hijaz, bayati or saba.  When the secondary jins on rast is again rast, the ghammaz of the second, or upper jins will be the 4th note, instead of the 5th, to create another ghammaz on the octave.




Jins sikah is named after the Persian words ‘seh (three) and gah (position),[5] and refers to the 3rd note of jins rast. This note (E in this example) is also the root of jins sikah. Since in jins rast, this note is so interpretive in terms of intonation, a lot of musicians have trouble to get the same intonation on different instruments. Faraj & Shumays write: ‘It would not be unusual for an Arabic ensemble with diverse instruments to negotiate the sikah note in order to arrive at an acceptable consensus before a long-song or suite in a sikah maqam family member.’[6] Though sikah is displayed above with the root on E it also commonly starts on B and A.

          Something peculiar about sikah is that the ghammaz lies on the third note on the scale. Typical modulations on the ghammaz are hijaz, bayati, saba and nahawand. Rast could also be played, but this is actually a modulation on the 6th note, instead of the 3rd.[7]



Jins bayati, in terms of tonal material, can be thought of as the 2nd degree of jins rast, using the same quartertone as said jins. In this way it’s similar to rast as the dorian mode is to a major scale: it uses the same notes, but the center of gravity is completely different, and therefore the phrasing as well. Bayati is the name of a historic tribe from Saudi Arabia.[8] An important thing to remember is that bayati’s ghammaz is on the 4th note of the scale. Common tonics are D, but bayati can also appear on G, A, E, and C. We will see bayati a lot as a secondary jins, built on top of rast and sikah.



Jins ajam comes closest to what we know as the first 5 notes of a major scale in Western music. This is only true to some extent, since Ajam is not equal-tempered. Also, the phrasing is different from typical phrasing in the major scale. Nonetheless, this is a pretty easy to understand jins for musicians with a background in Western music. It is written here on C, but other common root notes are Bb, F and G.



Jins Nahawand resembles most the first five chords of the minor scale in Western music. Like ‘ajam it is not equal-tempered, but it still sounds similar to minor. Next to C, D, F and G are common tonics. We will encounter nahawand as a secondary jins, or as a modulation from another jins.



Jins kurd is homogenous to what the start of the Phrygian mode is in western music, with its characteristic minor second interval between the first two notes. In traditional music it is not used very commonly, although it gained more popularity with the westernization of Arabic popular music, because of its playability on western instruments.[9] Also this jins has its ghammaz on the 4th degree. Common tonics are D, A, G and C.



Jins nikriz shares the augmented second interval with jins hijaz, which makes them sound very similar, especially when used as a secondary jins. As a base-jins and maqam, nikriz is more common in Turkish and Eastern European music. Common tonics, other than C, are D, F and G.



Saba in Arabic means “yearning” and that correlates to the sound of the jins. It is very characteristic, using a quartertone on the second degree, and an augmented second between the diminished 4th and the perfect 5th. The intonation of the diminished fourth is actually quite low, so the gap between Gb and A (with D as the jins’ tonic) is even bigger. Saba is very commonly used as a secondary jins.

[1] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 193.

[2] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 195.

[3] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 197.

[4] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 218.

[5] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 224.

[6] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 225.

[7] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 225.

[8] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 215

[9] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 219.