en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 13, Number 4April 1962

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Sound Of Arabian Music

An American visitor to Beirut, Lebanon rode in a taxicab along a seaside boulevard. It was late afternoon and cool breezes wafted through the car's open windows.

As he watched the fading Mediterranean sunset exhaust itself in the blue mountains behind the city, he thought he heard the driver murmur something. "Excuse me," the visitor said, "I didn't quite hear you." The driver continued to murmur, then turned and smiled. The sound still issued from his barely open lips.

The driver was, of course, merely singing to himself, his voice deep in his throat. The sound spun out softly in breathy vibrations with very little inflection. From time to time it rose in pitch but only slightly. For seconds on end the driver's voice wavered on a single high note. Then it fell quickly, tremulously, in short linked tones that slurred one into the other. Over and over the same tones buzzed in the driver's throat.

The American waited for a clue to this strange vocalise —something familiar in the rhythm, or at least a melodic turn that would signal the end of the unfamiliar song.

To the American visitor, and to most Western ears, Arabian music is unfamiliar indeed. In it may be hidden the whisper of the ages, for Arabian music is very old. In fact, the few clues to very early Arab music that still exist lead some music historians to conclude that the people of the Arabian Peninsula were the inheritors and conservators of much of the ancient Mesopotamian cultures.

From earliest times music enriched the daily life of the Arab. Birth, death, marriage and all other private and public ceremonial occasions were marked by music making. In his study, History of Arabian Music, H. G. Farmer states that Arabian music often had a deep effect upon its listeners. Swooning, for example, was one result of the music's "killing charm," as it is described in the Arabian Nights. Other poetic Arab sayings compare music to "a fan on a sultry day" or "a painter's work set off with gold."

During the high tide of Islamic music from the ninth through the eleventh centuries, theorists such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi and ibn Sina (Avicenna), who were more philosophers, physicians and mathematicians than musicians, dealt with the problems of rhythm, acoustics, dissonance, consonance and musical production. Even before these men, Arab musicians had developed a system of notation, a fact that was long overlooked by Western historians.

Farmer notes that Arabian musical traditions have enjoyed a long continuity. He mentions "the toil song, a relic from the cradle of humanity" that "not only softened the sweat of toil, but ordered it rhythmically" and the domestic music such as the lullaby, children's ditties, the bridal song and the elegy. Camel chants were undoubtedly popular and devised to fit specific situations, such as loading camels, marching and stopping at water holes. The chants, perhaps accompanied by shepherds' pipes of antelope horn and rudimentary stringed instruments, were sung joyfully, much as sailors of later days sang their sea chanteys.

Despite Arabian music's long, rich past, its exotic sounds have always bewildered Westerners who find its unfamiliarity an obstacle to understanding. In the Lexicon of Musical Invective, Nicolas Slonimsky calls attention to the "psychological inhibition which may be described as the Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar." He cites a Viennese critic writing in 1804: "The Beethoven Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon. . .."

Lebanese musicologist Afif A. Bulos, who is familiar with both Eastern and Western music, claims that the absence of Western enthusiasm for music of the Middle East is no secret to the Arabs. "Arab music," he writes, ".. . is far from being popular with Europeans or Americans, who with few notable exceptions are firmly convinced that it is nothing but an incoherent jumble of discordant sounds. . . ."

A change in attitude is, however, in the making. Television, records, radio and especially jet travel, which transports entertainers quickly and frequently from one country to another, tend to break down barriers to musical appreciation. The ability to perform in Damascus one day and Sydney the next leads to a kind of lingua franca music—an international music that borrows what is easily assimilated from all music and levels out the differences.

Recently an American visitor to the Middle East asked what he thought was a simple question: "Just what is it about Arabian music that sounds so unfamiliar to us?"

It would take many words to skim even the surface of the basic differences between Western and Eastern musics, but there are some differences in the sounds and impulses of these two worlds of music that quickly provide clues to the confusion of the Westerner hearing a performance of "Ah Ya Zain." This Iraqi folk song is often sung by a tenor and vocal ensemble accompanied by an instrumental group.

Let us assume the Westerner is English or American and is accustomed to hearing popular music played on saxophones, trumpets, trombones and pianos. He will search in vain for these familiar sounds as he listens to "Ah Ya Zain."

Patience will finally uncover the sound of violins, but they seem to slur weirdly around certain tones. An older American might recall the slurs of country musicians on their homemade fiddles. The alert listener may also detect several different plucked string instruments. One would be a qanun, a trapezoidal zither. Another might be a more ancient Arabian instrument, the 'ud, or more correctly, d-'ud, precursor of the Renaissance lute.

A wind instrument emerges. It sounds like a flute and it is one, but probably a vertical flute tuned, as are all the instruments, according to the Arab ladder of tones and not according to the Western scale. Later an oboe solos briefly, and again the sound is vaguely familiar.

A few listenings to "Ah Ya Zain" and the instruments begin to sound less strange. But the American listener still complains that something is missing. The "something" is harmony, for there is no harmony in Arabian music.

The instruments and voices in a combo sound the same tone in unison. Or they sound the same tone an octave apart. Sometimes they play four tones apart and, rarely, five.

Without the supplemental chordal fullness of the harmony that fleshes out a tone, Arabian music seems to drone to the untrained American ear. Perhaps, unconsciously, the American listener misses this richness he first may have admired when he heard a church choir sing a glowing "amen."

Harmony in popular music generally moves from discord to concord, from tension to relaxation. It thus adds its tonal weight to the forward impulse of a song. In "Ah Ya Zain" the American listens fruitlessly for chords that rest his ear, excite him or indicate the climax of the tune.

When the tenor enters for his first solo in "Ah Ya Zain," he does not sing the melody or the words of the song. Instead he steps out on a high, held note and then drops, through a series of quick slurs of linked sixteenth notes, to an octave below his original note. This dramatic cadenza, in which the singer uses his voice like an instrument, demonstrates his virtuosity and reveals yet another barrier to Western understanding—the microtonal variation in Arabian music that is commonly, and incorrectly, called a quarter tone. The microtones are minute variations in pitch that occur between the familiar tones in the Western scale.

As the tenor slurs, the American ear hears pitches that are not present in the Western scale. But there is quite a bit of microtonality in popular music derived from American Negro singing. For example, Negro blues singers almost invariably change the pitch downward on the third and fifth tones of the scale. However, these pitch deviations, as well as those heard in jazz, almost always lead toward or away from true pitch, either explicitly or by implication. The Arabian microtone is the correct pitch, a fact that tends to puzzle an American listener.

The melody of "Ah Ya Zain" is eight measures long, the same length as "Jingle Bells," and similarly constructed of two nearly alike four-bar phrases. It is also the same length as the first segment of a typical Tin Pan Alley tune. A standard such as "These Foolish Things" is made up of four melody segments: A-A-B-A. Tune A lasts eight bars. It is immediately repeated; then comes tune B, called the bridge or release, which also lasts eight bars. Then tune A is repeated once again. This is the basic blueprint of the American popular song.

In our performance of "Ah Ya Zain" there are fifteen choruses. Seven are vocal, with words; three are vocalise, without words; five are instrumental. The effect is that of going through the song fifteen times in a row.

To the American ear it sounds as though the song goes on and on. Subtle variations are lost on the newcomer, and there arises the complaint that Arabian music is repetitious.

But assume you are sitting in the ballroom of a large hotel. The orchestra launches into "These Foolish Things." One chorus passes. Then two, then four. Finally the dance ends after about six choruses. Remember that in the song, "These Foolish Things," there is one eight-bar basic melody that is repeated three times in each chorus. Therefore, you have just heard that same phrase eighteen times! Obviously the problem in listening to Arabian music is not one of repetition but of repeating the unfamiliar.

The melody of "Ah Ya Zain," which means "Oh Thou Beautiful," is very pretty. Fleshed out with familiar harmony, it might make a hit in the United States as a mood piece. But then it would no longer be Arabian music. Something of this smoothing-out process goes on constantly in the commercial use of the musics of the world.

But there remains the beauty of the original. In ancient Arabia the rhythmic nature of traditional poetry almost demanded that the reciter chant it. It was this desert poetry that fashioned the classic Arabic language of the Koran, and a Westerner hearing the call to prayer from a mosque easily grasps the musical quality of the chanted words.

In his novel Justine, Lawrence Durrell, describing the cantillation of the Muslim call to prayer (adhan), comes exquisitely close to evoking the feeling of this fervent moment: "I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque ... a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria. . . . The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy subconscious . . . coil after shining coil of words—the voice of the muezzin sinking from register to register of gravity...."

This article appeared on pages 15-18 of the April 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for April 1962 images.