Ornamentation in Arabic Music

One of the challenges we face when playing the double-bass as a solo instrument in Arabic music, even before the interaction with quarter-tones, is ornamentation. Ornamentation is an inseparable part of this music and we must try and express it convincingly on the double-bass. Due to the technical and acoustic limitations of the instrument, special adjustments are sometimes required of us. Before we discuss what is required of us to execute the ornamentation, we should understand its importance and role in Arabic music:

…Ornamentation is more than decoration. It is a necessity…there has to be enough of it, and of the right kinds.”

The following quote is taken from Robert Donington’s book Baroque Music- Style and Performance[1], and although it was written about baroque performance, it is also highly appropriate for Arabic music performance. Donington adds that sometimes, playing without ornamentation is tantamount to playing the wrong note (ibid).

Al Faruqi- Ibsen[2], in her persuasive paper on the performance of taqasim in Arabic music, goes further and states that ornamentation in Arabic music is the raw material, and not the decoration but the content of the piece. To better understand the Arabic ornamentation, al Faruqi- Ibsen directs the reader to the Arabic visual arts, and shows that these arts do not use natural materials, characters or phenomena that require ornaments. In this art, known as “Arabesque”, the material itself is what we usually view as the ornament – a connection of abstract geometric shapes that have no uniqueness and are naturally blurry.

Al Faruqi claims Arabesque, like music, is a “time art”, in the sense that the design determines where the viewer’s eyes will wander, and in what order, and in that sense how he will view the piece. It is the same in Arabic music, where there is no acknowledgement of a melodic core with notes that can be embellished in certain points, but rather the listener is taken through a carefully selected ornamental path.

Taiseer Elias[3] also states that ornamentation does not merely assist the melody, but is the music itself. Despite the aforementioned, ornamentation in Arabic music, its different types, performance methods and notation has not been fully studied. Its treatment remains the performer’s personal interpretation, and it is a main source of individual expression in performance.

[1] Donington, Robert, Baroque Music: Style an Performance, England: Faber Music, 1985: 91

[2] al Faruqi, Lois Ibsen: “Ornamentation in Arabian Improvisational Music.” the world of music 20, 1978(1):17-32.

[3] Elias Taiseer, The Latent Regularity in Improvisation of Arab Music (taqsim) in Israel, in Terms of Learned and Natural Schemata, Ph.D, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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3 Responses to Ornamentation in Arabic Music

  1. galit says:

    Very interesting. Would love to learn more about the subject

  2. Hagai,
    Interesting … I am a jazz pianist in San Francisco, who has become very interested in Middle-Eastern music over the last few years. I am listening to much oud music – taqasiim especially. Our jazz tradition is based on melodic improvization. Last night, trying to decide what was really going on in some oud improvisations to which I was listening, I asked myself, “where is the melody?” I realized, that at least to my ear, there was no discernible melodic basis, but the taqsim was all about the ornamentation. This morning I wake up and come across your post! So, this relatively-uninformed-about-mid-east-music jazz player has come to the same conclusion without it being suggested to him. Interesting …

    • Dear George,
      Thanks for commenting,
      This is great!
      I had to run into the article to notice it, I dont know if and when it would have occurred to me…
      Isn’t it just obvious after you think about it?:)
      Here’s to more secrets of this music, and music in general, to be thought of!
      Thanks again,

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