American String Teacher - May 2004 Vol. 54 No. 2
By Leanne Darling, copyright 2004.

The Middle East has a rich tradition of string playing that is little known in the Western World. Bowed string playing has existed in the region surrounding the Mediterranean from Turkey to Morocco long before the violin was invented. The violin was introduced to the region from Italy in the 19th century and has since been embraced by all of the cultures of the Middle East. The violin plays a prominent role today in classical Arabic music, a style originating in the region from Syria to Morocco and practiced throughout the Middle East.

When studying classical Arabic music, the best place to start is through listening. Traditionally, a student of Arabic music will establish a close relationship with a master teacher, studying for many years and learning the music aurally. Because westerners cannot recreate the musical environment that exists in the Arab world, they need to expose oneself to as much recorded music as possible in order to accurately hear and reproduce the subtlety of the intonation and phrasing. (See Resources on page 81.) Letting one’s ears be a guide can be the most effective way of translating the inexplicable qualities that make up Arabic music.

There are five elements that set Arabic music apart from all other types of music: homophony, melodic mode (scale), embellishment, rhythm, and improvisation. The first and most important is the concept of homophony or heterophony . The concept of Western harmony does not exist in Arabic music. Everyone plays the melody, sometimes in different octaves, in an Arabic ensemble, with the only exception being the occasional drone played under the melody.


The scale, or Maqam, as it is called in Arabic, takes on a more important role, therefore, in the expression of various musical colors, and the motion of a melody. Hundreds of Maqamat (pl.) exist, and many of them contain quarter tones. The temperment is slightly different for each Maqam, and the tuning is very precise. The Maqam is made up of 7 notes, grouped into 2 main tetrachords, called Jins or Aj-nas (pl.), and up to 3 secondary Aj-nas (tetrachords). (See Example 1) A Jins can have three to five notes. By altering a note or two, by as little as a quarter or half step, a player can change the Jins and modulate from one Maqam to another. This modulation in Arabic music is as significant as a modulation in western music.

Although many Maqamat contain quarter tones, there are many that do not, and are easily played. The most common of these is Maqam Hijaz, beginning on D Eb F# G A Bb (Bhalf flat) C D. (See Example 1) Another is Maqam Nawa Athar: C D Eb F# G Ab B C. With both of these Maqamat, the augmented second is narrower than in western classical music. For example, the Eb in Hijaz would be slightly higher, and the F# is lowered, as one would play against a D a third below.

Students should practice these scales against a tonic drone, and really listen to the relationship between each interval, closing the eyes and imagine what emotional qualities come to mind when playing the scale. To be aware of, and sensitive to, the expressive quality of each note of the scale is essential in Arabic music.

Rhythm is based on a cycle (Iq’a) of strong and weak beats, with beat cycles ranging from 2 to 34 beats, and often includes odd meters such as 5, 7, and 10 beats per cycle. The strong beat is called dum and the weak beat tak after the sounds made on the Arabic drums. Almost all music is accompanied by drumming, and each melodic phrase follows the emphasis of the beat cycle.

You do not need to have a drum to learn Arabic rhythms. Clapping the rhythms, using a regular clap for the dum and the back side of the hand for the tek brings an immediate sense of the emphasis in the rhythmic cycle. Start with a simple cycle in a four beat pattern such as Maqsum “dum tek rest tek dum rest tek rest”. (See Example 2) Take turns playing a scale with a partner clapping the cycle. Singing a scale or phrase while clapping is even better at giving a sense of the rhythmic pattern. After mastering Maqsum, one can move on to longer more complex patterns such as Dawr Hindi, a seven beat cycle: dum tek tek dum rest tek rest.


Unlike western music, where an embellishment is used to highlight a note or series of notes, embellishment in Arabic music is woven organically into the music. A melody is almost never played in its simple form. Embellishment varies with the individual, the maqam, and the type of instrument. A player never repeats any melodic phrase the same way twice, using embellishment as an improvisatory element in the music. A group of musicians each embellishing a melody slightly differently gives the music a heterophonic quality and a richness of timbre unlike homophonic music. The most common types of embellishment are trills, turns, and slides, and various combinations of the three.

Trills are fast, starting on, below, or above the note, involving light finger movement and very clear articulation. Mordents and grace notes are played above and below the main note, with very specific rhythmic placement. (See Examples 3b, 3c, 3d, and 3e) Turns move as in western music from the note to the upper neighbor, back to the note, to the lower neighbor, then back again. (See Example 3a) Turns and trills are often combined in various ways. With all of these ornaments, the movement in the left hand is very efficient. If one were to look at an Arabic violinist’s left hand, one would see hardly any movement. The left hand has a hammer-like motion, but at the same time remains light, with the focus being on the upward finger movement.

The slide is truly what separates Arabic string playing from all other types. The slide is short and fast, imitating a vocal sigh. The best technique for learning the exact speed and execution of the slide is through the horizontal slide technique. Put first and second fingers on the fingerboard next to one another as if playing a half step. Rather than picking up the second finger vertically, slide it across the string very slowly diagonal to the fingerboard (if the fingerboard is 12 o’clock, the finger would go back in the direction of 2 o’clock). Gradually less and less surface area of the of the finger will touch the string, creating a sliding sound when the string is played.

Playing with with one’s eyes closed will help in hearing the slide. This technique is especially useful when sliding in half steps. Gradually work your way up to sliding greater distances, but keep in mind the slide is always fast and doesn’t encompass the whole interval (with an augmented second slide the length of a whole step). Slides can me made between any two notes; however most slides happen between the more expressive intervals in a Maqam -- for example, between Eb and F# in Hijaz. Slides can be made up to and down from notes, and combined with trills and turns.

A useful exercize for mastering these embellishments is to practice them within a Maqam. For example, play Maqam Hijaz and do a turn over each note, beginning slowly and building up speed. Always be aware of the bow during embellishments, keeping it in the string with a steady bow speed, without accents. Then try playing the Maqam but sliding between notes; play slowly at first, but make sure the slides are relatively fast. Finally play the Maqam with different combinations of embellishments -- a trill to a turn sliding to the next note.

After practicing embellishments, one can take scale/Maqam practice further and create small melodic patterns within the ascending and descending scale motion. Start simple, perhaps by going up a third step-wise and down from the starting note, and then moving to the next note, going up and down the scale with this pattern. (See Example 4a) Slowly make these patterns more elaborate. (See Example 4b and 4c) Short on ideas? Listen to a recording. Arabic music is filled with lovely step-wise melodic patterns. Use your ears to tell you what motion in a Maqam works best. With each Maqam there are patterns that sound better than others. Remember to make each pattern relatively short and simple. By practicing these patterns, you are building facility, familiarizing oneself with the Maqam, and creating a repertoire of phrases that later can be used for improvisation.

Embellishment is one smaller element of improvisation in Arabic music; the main form of improvisation is called Taqsim. It is used to outline and introduce the Maqam, and to showcase an individual player. It consists of short, simple melodic phrases, often traveling throughout the register of the instrument. A Taqsim usually contains at least one modulation from one maqam to another. Thorough presentation of the Maqam and skillful modulation make up the artistry of the Taqsim.

Scale patterns can be used to practice improvisation. (See Example 2 for drum pattern) Gather students or friends together, and divide the group in two, with one smaller group acting as the drum section, either clapping, playing a drum (tambourine, frame drum, etc.) or playing the tonic in octaves. Start the drum section in the Maqsum Iq’a described above, and have the melodic group play a descending scale pattern, repeating several times until everyone is comfortable and is playing the pattern from memory. (See Example 5 for melodic pattern in Hijaz) Take turns having one person play the first four notes alone, and the entire group answer with the remaining three, and then the soloist takes the next four notes, and so forth down the scale to the bottom. Repeat with everyone playing the pattern, then have someone else take a turn. When soloing, try all of the different embellishments, even coming up with patterns that are based on the four notes. Don’t limit it to simple melodic embellishment, try rhythmic syncopation as well. The whole time during this the drum section should just play the rhythmic pattern; however, one can give the percussionists a chance to solo rhythmically over the four beats. Switch groups so everyone gets a chance to play melody and rhythm. Although this is not considered Taqsim, it is a good introduction to basic improvisation, familiarizing oneself with the Maqam, and bringing an awareness of playing over the rhythmic cycle.


Because the beginnings of western classical music were heavily influenced by Middle Eastern traditions, many of the practices discussed here were also commonly used in music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Improvisation through simple embellishment of trills and turns was expected of any musician. Most secular music was accompanied by percussion. Tuning was not standardized, so there was much more attention placed to the function of tuning within a particular scale, not to mention the sensitivity towards a certain intonation was much greater. By studying the elements of Arabic Music one can in effect connect with the history of western classical music, as well as enrich one’s own musical vocabulary.

Further study of Arabic music requires some research. At the time of this article, there is currently no one textbook in English on Arabic string pedagogy, or a comprehensive collection of music. There are, however, many sources on the web that contain musical examples, explanations, and some sheet music For those wishing to study with a teacher, I encourage them to make contact with Arab musicians in their area. Most cities now have belly dance performances often accompanied by live musicians. Every August there is a week-long Arabic Music Retreat in Massachusetts and a Middle Eastern Music Camp in California. Both camps welcome newcomers to Arabic music.

news | bio/press | projects | teaching | calendar | music | photos | links | contact

Web Design by Dennis Cronin
Photos by Dennis Cronin and Michael Benabib
copyright 2009 Leanne Darling