Melodic Material



Before getting into identification and analysis of specific maqamat, I want to give a general overview of what a maqam means in Arabic music, what its building blocks are and how to recognize them. To fully understand the sound of a specific maqam, one cannot only read about the matter. The system can be explained through text and musical notation, but the only way to comprehend the sound and correct intonation is learning it aurally. This means, listening to recordings and playing along, or learn it from someone first-hand.

          A maqam can be described as a scale or modal system associated with a rich tradition of orally transmitted melodic pathways.[1] This definition contains a number of aspects. Firstly, a maqam is a scale or modal system, meaning it is a set of notes (in most cases over more than one octave) from which it is built. In this way a maqam is similar to a scale or mode in western music (i.e. C major or D dorian, etc.). But secondly, a maqam contains more than just the scale, or mode. With this palette of notes comes a tradition of melodic pathways. This means that every maqam has a number of melodic developments it can follow. The melodic development of a maqam is known in Arabic music as the sayr (see Melodic Development), and is determined by tradition and stylistic preference. This means that next to a set of notes, a maqam can contain any number of modulations that are almost mandatory to follow. Modulation in this sense does not mean to move to a different maqam, but rather changing the identity of the current maqam, by interchanging one jins for another. This is where the difference between a maqam and a maqam family appears. When the term maqam is used, it generally refers to a specific combination of a couple of ajnas. As an example: the name Maqam Hijaz indicates the maqam built of jins hijaz as a primary jins, with jins nahawand on as a secondary jins. When the maqam family of hijaz is mentioned, it refers to a collection of maqamat that all share the same primary jins (hijaz in this case). When a variation of a maqam gets used more frequently, it will often be given a separate name for it. The same can happen when the tonic of a maqam is changed (so the whole mode transposes). I will elaborate more on this in the chapter on modulations.


So how does the usage of the maqam system affect the form of a musical performance? In terms of melodic construction, the system works in a similar way for the different song forms, for songs that are composed, as well as for improvisations. To read more about the differences in musical forms and performances, see the chapter on Forms.

          The way maqam and jins is used in Arabic traditional music is very consistent and organized. As I mentioned before, maqam doesn’t only encompass the melodic material, or notes of the scale, but also the melodic development of a piece. A specific maqam may develop to different places than another, but the system works similarly for each one, and the music that is composed/improvised with it. The length of the performance can vary. Taqasim (instrumental improvisations commonly used as introductions) can be short, while certain suites by Umm Kalthoum could last for hours.

          A traditional piece (or improvisation) generally starts with a kind of exposition of the base jins of the piece. This is an important part of setting the mood of the piece. The character of the maqam will be showcased here, to let the listener know in what environment the piece is going to take place. This means that the melodic material will, more or less, stay within the register between the root and  the ghammaz. Some notes outside this register may occur, to give extra emphasis on other notes, but not as targeted notes. This also goes for the ghammaz itself, unless the exposition is finished, because when that point is reached, it’s an indication that the piece is moving forward to the next jins. From this point on a similar thing happens. The secondary jins is showcased with all its characteristics. After this, the melodic material can be expanded, with modulations (see Modulations), on the secondary jins for example. Usually a high point or climax is reached after a period of time, where the notes reach their highest point, and the performer will show their virtuosity. After that, the piece will be ‘wrapped up’ with a cadenza, summarizing the melodic material that was used in it.


To show a notated version of the maqam, hover with the pointer over its name.



Maqam Hijaz

Maqam Hijaz is the most common maqam within the hijaz family. The name derives from the region of Saudi Arabia, where the cities Mecca and Medina, are situated. I did not find any sources saying that the maqam has its origin in that region as well. Maqam hijaz is commonly used in the islamic call to prayer, and since Mecca and Medina are the most important cities to the Islam, the name might be a reference to that.

          Maqam hijaz has two possible variations, but both have jins hijaz as a primary jins. As a secondary jins, maqam hijaz can have either jins nahawand or jins rast. From the octave jins hijaz can be played again. Another possible conjugation is to play jins nikriz on the 4th degree. The maqam is then called maqam hijazkar. Below the root of the maqam, jins rast may be played starting on the 4th degree below the root.



Maqam Rast

As mentioned before, rast is the Persian word for ‘right’ or ‘straight’. Maqam rast is often considered to be one of the most important maqamat in the Arabic music tradition, and there are many songs composed in this mode. It is constructed with jins rast at its base, followed by another jins rast at its ghammaz. Note that the secondary jins rast is a tetrachord instead of a pentachord, otherwise there would be another ghammaz on the high D, which is not the case. Another thing to notice is that the figure shows a different jins to be played when melodies make a downward motion, namely jins nahawand. The realization of this in practice can be compared to the melodic minor scale in classical music theory, which uses a natural 6th and 7th degree on the way up, and a minor 6th and 7th when going down.

            Other conjugations of rast within the maqam rast family can be built with the following ajnas on the 5th degree: hijaz, bayati and saba. On the octave one can play the ajnas rast and nahawand. There are also some modulations possible, like sikah on the 3rd degree, which I will explain here below.


Maqam Sikah (and maqam Huzam)

The maqam sikah family describes all maqamat with jins sikah at its base. We have seen with maqam hijaz and maqam rast that those two maqamat, after which the family is named, are the most commonly used maqamat in the family. With sikah this is a little bit different, because the maqam that is most commonly used of the sikah family is actually called maqam huzam. Maqam huzam (above) has jins sikah at its base, jins hijaz on the 3rd degree, and then rast on the 6th degree. As you can see here, maqamat within the sikah family have often not one, but two ghammaz, namely on the 3rd and on the 6th degree. Maqam sikah (below) is composed of jins sikah at its base, a rast tetrachord on the 3rd, and rast again on the 6th degree. Both maqamat can occur within the same piece or improvisation as part of melodic development. Other conjugations are bayati, nahawand or saba on the 3rd degree for example.

          The most challenging thing about maqamat in the sikah family is that the root note is on a quartertone. Therefore it can sound very disorienting to an untrained ear.



To gain familiarity with the sound of the different ajnas and maqamat, I recommend playing around with them, and slowly broadening your spectrum. For each maqam family I have made an example path to follow during your explorations of the different colours of the maqam. It is highly recommended to set a drone to the root of the maqam you want to practice, so you can always relate the different intervals of the notes to the root of the mode.  


 Maqam hijaz exploration path:




 Maqam rast exploration path:
 Maqam sikah exploration path:

[1] Faraj & Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 161.