Song Forms



This chapter deals with some of the most common song forms in traditional Arabic music. The most important one being the taqsim, because from this most can be learnt in terms of tonal material and melodic development. But I will also discuss the very popular instrumental form samaii and the vocal song form muwashshah.




Before getting into transcribing and analysing different taqsims (or taqasim), it is important to understand what it is. Traditionally a taqsim is an improvisation, performed by one musician (solo) or occasionally with very little accompaniment, like a drone or a basic rhythm,[1] which serves as an introduction to a song or composition. This introduction has mainly two purposes. The first one is to create an exposition of the tonal material that the following composition consists of. This means, for example, that if a composition is written in maqam rast, the taqsim will also mainly feature maqam rast. Even more so, it is customary for the taqsim to follow the same melodic development, or sayr as the following piece will do. The other purpose of the taqsim is to showcase the virtuosity of the musician performing it. Over the years, this second application of the taqsim has become more and more prominent, even leading to the taqsim becoming an individual part of a performance, or recording, rather than serving as an introduction.[2]

          A taqsim is a free improvisation, but it comes with a lot of traditions and customary characteristics. First of all, although a taqsim is played without a time signature or meter, it is very rhythmical in character. Its core rhythmical material is mostly eighth notes, and sixteenth note ‘jumps’. What I mean by core rhythmical material is that even though you will most likely hear a lot of fast passages, with even faster ornamentations, the essence of the phrases can be most likely brought back to eighth notes. The amount of complexity added to this framework depends on the performer and their abilities on their instrument. After each rhythmical phrase there will be a short pause before moving on to the next phrase. Each phrase will have some characteristics that showcase either the player’s style, or display common phrasing for the maqam in question. The tonal material used in the taqsim is defined by the maqam it is played in, and the sayr, or melodic development. This way, a taqsim is typically very structured, in a melodic way. It starts out with exposing a characteristic jins of a certain maqam. This may be the base jins or an upper jins, and the improvisation will stay within the range of the first jins. Within this jins, the performer will expose the tonal characteristics of the jins, and the maqam that belongs to it. For example, in a taqsim in maqam hijaz, the improvisor would lay a lot of emphasis on the characteristic 1½ step within the hijaz jins. When the performer has finished his exposition on the first jins of the maqam, he moves on to the next part of the taqsim. In this part any number of modulations can happen. This part is where the soloist can truly express their virtuosy. One jins connects to another using what the ghammaz, as explained in the chapter jins. From there a number of modulations can take place, as much as the performer desires. Usually the exploration of new ajnas will lead to a brief return to the base jins, to re-establish the root of the maqam, before exploring more material. A high point can be reached when the soloist plays the next ghammaz, and reaches its highest note. At the end of a taqsim there is most likely some form of cadenza to wrap up the material that is showcased, and which brings us back home to the original jins and the root of the maqam.




The samaii is a popular instrumental song form that consists of a certain structure. The samaii is devided into four verses (khanat) and a chorus (taslim), which is repeated between each khana. The main time-signature for samaii is 10/8, as we have seen in the chapter on rhythmic material. This is the time-signature for the first three khanat and the taslim. The last khana is typically a 3/8 time-signature in a faster tempo. This khana is often a bit longer than the others. The fourth khana is sometimes followed by a short solo improvisation, before going back to the last taslim.




The muwashshah is a vocal song that derives from Arabic poetry. It has a variable structure, as well as a variable rhyme structure. A muwashshah is traditionally performed by a singer who is accompanied by an ensemble (takht) and background singers. The parts of the ensemble and the background singers are usually very composed, but the vocalist has a lot of freedom (and is encouraged) to improvise, ornament and modulate. The genre is very popular in Syria. The subject of a muwashshah is usually love, and muwashshahat are filled with metaphors.

            A muwashshah can be divided into sections. The first section is the dawr, which introduces the song’s main maqam. After this section a khana will be introduced. In this section modulations from the main maqam can occur, and it might include a (vocal) solo. After that, the original dawr melody returns, together with the original maqam and the song ends. One of the characteristics of the muwashshah is that often longer, or more complex iqa’at are used, like 6/8 all the way up to 17/8. [3]




[1] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 335.

[2] Plenckers, Arabische muziek, 174.

[3] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 125-129.