Classical Arabic Music Primary Terms

Here are a few Important Primary terms of classical Arabic music.

This list is taken from my yet unpublished paper “Introduction to Playing the Double Bass as a Solo Instrument in Arabic Music” by Hagai Bilitzky:

Arabic note names

Note names in Arabic music theory are rooted in a period when the Persian and Arabic traditions were interconnected. Therefore, most note names are of Farsi origin.

Nowadays, the basic note names of the Arabic music system are a combination of the Persian names and Arabic words, and the basic notes are as follows:

Rast – the first sound. Nowadays equal to the western C.

Duka – D (Farsi for ‘second place’)

Sika – E half-flat (‘third place’ in Farsi)

Jaharka – F

Nawa – G

Hussaini – A

Auj – B half-flat

Qurdan – high C

Jins (plural: ‘ajnas’) – the Arabic name for a tetrachord, a group of four notes. The different ajnas have different names according to the different interval structures that make them up.

Maqam (plural: ‘maqamat’) – for our purposes, the maqam is the Arabic modal framework. Like western scales, each maqam has a scale made up of two tetrachords (or sometimes trichords – three notes, or pentachords – five notes). The low tetrachord is called the root tetrachord or the “trunk”, and in many cases gives the maqam its name. The higher tetrachord is the “branch”. The tetrachords are connected to each other by three kinds of connections: a joined connection (conjunct – when the note ending the trunk is the note beginning the branch), a separated connection (disjunct – when a tone separates the trunk and the branch), and an overlapping connection (when more than one note at the end of the trunk belongs to the branch as well). This last connection is not part of the western system connecting tetrachords into scales.

But the maqam is not just a scale. Each maqam has its own typical melodic features, to the extent that two maqamat can exist with the same scale intervals, but they will each have a different name due to a difference in melodic features that is typical to each one. Often, the same maqam has a different name when it is played following a different note, as the limitations of the instrument or other extra-musical factors will then cause different melodic features. In the past, the maqamat were connected to many extra-musical factors such as the seasons, cosmic connections with the heavens, hours of the day, materials, temperatures, etc. Nowadays, the connections to those aspects are completely gone (Cohen, 1996).

Qarar – literally, “decision”, from a word resembling “stability”. It is the note that begins the maqam, and like the ‘finalis’ in church modes it is the “tonal center” where the piece will end. It is also called asas, which means ‘foundation’.

Ghamaz – literally, “wink”. It is the second most important note in the maqam after the qarar, and it is the beginning of the branch tetrachord.

Quarter tone – a generic term used by musicians to describe notes in the maqam approximately a quarter of a tone higher or lower. The Arab method of dividing the octave into 24 quarter tones was probably developed in the 18th century (Marcus, 1993), and was accepted with some reservations at the 1932 Cairo Congress for Arabic music (ibid). Nowadays, these notes are not thought of as being changed by a quarter tone, but as being three quarters of a tone from a neighboring equal note, and are therefore called “three-quarters tone notes” as well.

Dulab – one of the most popular genres in Arabic music. It is a short instrumental piece intended to prepare the listener to the playing of a specific maqam. Its origin is in the opening section of a collection of works in the same maqam, which were played one after the other, similar to a western suite. This Arabic “suite” was common throughout Arab culture, and is known as a wasla in the Egyptian version and the dulab is the opening section, before the taqsim. In Turkey this “suite” is known as a fasil, and in North Africa it is popular to this day, and is known as nuba (Cohen, 1996; Shiloah, 1999).

Taqsim (plural: taqasim) – literally, “division”. It is an improvisational genre with no meter or rhythm, and in which the improviser performs the maqam along with its features. According to Taiseer Elias “this genre is characterized by rhythmic freedom, is not composed ahead of time, and is the main representation of improvisation in Arabic music” (2007, page 1). Elias also adds that “the taqasim usually appear in four main uses: independent taqasim, taqasim that serve as a sort of prelude to a precomposed vocal or instrumental segment , interludes throught a singer’s vocals, or rarely as the postlude – an ending and summarizing segment of a song or instrumental piece” (ibid, page 13).

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8 Responses to Classical Arabic Music Primary Terms

  1. Pingback: Eastern Positions for the Double Bass |

  2. Pingback: Learn Maqamat |

  3. Nat Hulskamp says:


    Thanks for the great info on your site. I was wondering if you know the Arabic word for “counter time”? Or ”
    “syncopation” would work too.

    Thanks for any help you can give with this!


    • Thank you Nat,
      I don’t think I know a word for that, but I’ll check it up, maybe someone here knows?
      Sorry my machine put your comment in the spam and I just got it now…
      All my best,

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