In this chapter I want to explain how notation and transcription can help with learning and understanding the elements of traditional Arabic music. Although the original method of passing on musical material is via aural transmission, I think that analysis, transcription and notation can help a great amount in understanding the tradition. I will deal with some of the downfalls of the western music notation, but also with the possibilities it provides.




In terms of musical notation, Arabic music comes with a couple of challenges. As I have mentioned before, Arabic music is historically passed on via aural tradition. This means that there is no official way of notating Arabic music. Instead, musicians started using the western music notation, with some adaptions. Some information may be lost, and other information can be interpreted differently. Nonetheless I think that notating music is one of the best ways to visualise the material, which makes analysis a lot more comprehensible, especially if the musical material is new and the ears are not used to the sound of the music (yet).

          So what exactly are the challenges that present themselves while writing down Arabic music? The first problem that I want to address is the problem of intonation. Not only does the tradition enforce the usage of quartertones, but also Arabic music is not equally tempered music. Very small nuances exist between maqamat, as well as differences in intonation between various regions and cultures. Unfortunately it is not possible to write these exact intonations with the western notation system, although some efforts have been  made using arrows to direct towards the intended intonation,[1] like in the picture below.










          A big part of the style of a specific Arabic performer is in their use of ornamentation. It is a common way to add a personal flair to the execution of a piece. When a song is written down, the writer has a choice to add all ornamentation to the notation or to just write the ‘skeleton’ of the piece, with only the basic contours of the melody. The latter can be best compared to how a standard from the jazz repertoire is presented in a lead sheet, or in the RealBook. It has the purpose of transmitting the essence of the piece and to make it as easily readable as possible. Then the interpretation of the tune is to be filled in by the player who performs the piece. In terms of analysis, this also serves the objective. When the goal is to understand the musical material of which the song is composed, it could be argued that the exact ornamentation is only clouding the core elements of the piece. Writing the melody as simple as possible gives a clear vision on which notes are used, which notes are emphasized and how the melody progresses.[3]

          When the objective of the notated version of the song or performance is to gain a deeper understanding of a player’s personal style, writing down the exact ornamentation is much more relevant. The notation may give a visual insight in patterns that are commonly used, or ways of embellishing certain passages.


Another struggle with Arabic music and western music notation emerges with vocal performances and lyrics. This is not extremely relevant for my personal practice, but I want to mention it briefly. The problem that arises is that musical notation reads from left to right, as opposed to the Arabic language, which is written from right to left. The two most common solutions to this problem are either to write the text transliterated into Latin script, or to break down the Arabic writing into syllables and align them with the notes.



As a jazz player I have always learned that a big asset in learning to play a certain kind of repertoire is transcription. To listen to a recording or a phrase over and over and try to write it down and play it back. In my opinion this method of studying is very close to transmitting music aurally from one person to another. Therefore it lies very close to the traditional method of passing on Arabic music. I recommend transcription as part of the learning curve of Arabic music for two important reasons.

          The first is that I believe that when you transcribe music it sinks in much deeper into your ears and muscle memory, than when it is handed to you by somebody else, either in the form of sheet music, or by somebody telling you the specific notes for example. This is because it involves a certain amount of steps in which the music is processed through your brain and muscles.

          First of all you need to listen over and over again, trying to really get the phrase. A great amount of repetition will make you not only get used to the sound of the phrase, but also to the sound of the style and the music in general. Secondly, you have to reproduce the phrase. You sing it, or you play it on your instrument. This makes you process it through another part of the brain. First it was receiving information, now it is transmitting the information back, comparing it to the original sound, altering it slightly if necessary and polishing it to resemble the original. The last step would be to write it down. This is where you really have to think about the exact notes, and the rhythmic placement. This step could be omitted, but I think writing the music helps even more to let the material sink in. Even more so, if it is written down it can give a visual insight of how the notes interact, and maybe some unexpected pattern may reveal itself. Additionally, when written down, the music is preserved and can be accessed later on, saving time when you want to play it again, but can’t remember by heart.

[1] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 183

[2]Maqam Sikah Baladi,” Maqam World, accessed March 7, 2021,

[3] Nizar Rohana, personal interview, September 2019.