Period Arabic Musical Modes


Classical Arabic music, as it is practiced today, has its roots in the medieval Arabic music of al-Andalus, the Maghreb, and Persia. We are blessed to have inherited a wealth of medieval texts on the theory and practice of music, including al-Farabi’s Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir, al-Isfahani’s Kitab al-Aghani, and the works of al-Kindi and Safi al-Din. Unfortunately, the texts we have today represent only a fraction of the texts which were available in period. There are dozens, even hundreds of texts whose names and descriptions have been retained through secondary mention in contemporary sources, but whose content has been lost.

In addition to the loss of countless scholarly works, our study of the medieval literature on Arabic music is further limited by the paucity of Western scholarship on the topic, and the obvious bias and lack of contextual comprehension on the part of those scholars and translators who have ventured into this area of academia. A scholar without proficiency in Arabic is forced to depend on translations composed by early 20th century orientalists, especially the work of H.G. Farmer, a musicologist whose goals were worthy, but whose contextual understanding was severely limited

While I am acquiring the language skills necessary to undertake long-overdue new translations of these seminal works of music theory, I am, at present, limited to the work of Farmer, and few of his contemporaries, who I regret to say are even less reliable than he. Fortunately, I can bring to the table something which Farmer sadly lacked — a solid, working knowledge of Classical Arabic music in its current form. Through very careful readings of Farmer’s texts, I am able to produce, through educated conjecture, a growing list of Period Musical & Rhythmic Modes, which I am providing here, along with links to modern examples of the maqamat (musical modes) and iqa’at (rhythmic modes) in performance.

Let me be very clear: I cannot, at this time, guarantee that the maqamat and iqa’at are performed the same way today as they were in period. I do have reason to believe that the most of them have undergone only minor changes, but that will be addressed in a forthcoming paper.

For more information about modern maqamat and iqa’at, go to www.maqamworld.com



If you are unfamiliar with the modern practice of Classical Arabic music, and it’s division into maqamat (musical modes) and iqa’at (rhythmic cycles), please start here:


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Period Maqamat Still in Use

The following maqamat are mentioned by name in at least one period source. Each maqam is followed by the modern scale, a link to modern examples of the maqam in use, and, in some cases, additional historical or practical information.

NOTE: A maqam is more than a scale. Each maqam also has a sayr, which describes the melodic development intrinsic to the musical mode. It includes the starting note, ending note, tonic, common modulations, cadential formulae, and leading tones. In the course of most musical compositions the performer modulates through multiple maqamat.

Hijaz

maqam hijaz.png

Period Source: Safi al-Din

Maqam Hijaz was listed by al-Din as one of the primary maqamat in use in 14th century Baghdad. It is the most common Arabic mode used in Western literature, and is strongly associated in the minds of most Westerners with an Arabic “feel.” It was adapted for use in medieval Ladino music.


Huseyni

Maqam husayni.png

Period Sources: al-Farabi, Safi al-Din, al-Munajjim

Although Maqam Huseyni was widely found in period, it is no longer common as an independent maqam in the classical tradition. Its sayr retains importance as a part of Maqam Bayati, and it continues to be used in the folk tradition of the wider region.


‘Iraq

maqam iraq.png

Period Source: Safi al-Din

Maqam ‘Iraq was listed by al-Din as one of the primary maqamat in use in 14th century Baghdad. It is no longer common as an independent maqam, but remains an important modulation in the sayr of Maqam Huzam.


Isfahan (Modern: Bayati)

maqam bayati.png

Period Sources: al-Farabi, Chelebi, al-Munajjim

Maqam Isfahan was widely known in period. It is still popular today, under the name Maqam Bayati.


Nairuz

Maqam nairuz.png

Period Source: Safi al-Din

Maqam Nauruz is listed as a compound or secondary maqam, used primarily in modulation. It continues to be rare as an independent maqam, but is frequently used in the sayr of Maqam Rast.


Nawa (variant of Modern: Dalanshin)

Maqam dalanshin.png

Period Source: Safi al-Din

Maqam Nawa is almost the same as the modern Maqam Dalanshin, except for the addition of a C natural, which must have been added later. The modern maqam is primarily used as a modulation from Maqam Rast.


Rast

Maqam rast.png

Period Sources: al-Farabi, Safi al-Din, al-Munajjim

Maqam Rast was a dominant maqam in all part of the Arab world, from the 9th century onwards. It continues to be extraordinarily popular throughout the region.


Saba

maqam saba.png

Period Source: al-Farabi

Maqam Saba is a very popular mode today. It’s overlapping jins (tetrachords) provide many overlap points from which to modulate to other maqamat.


Shahnaz

Maqam hijazkar.png

Period Source: Safi al-Din

Maqam Shahnaz is listed as a compound or secondary maqam, used primarily in modulation. It is commonly used as a modulation of Maqam Hijaz.


‘Ushaq

maqam ushaq_masri.png

Period Sources: al-Farabi, Safi al-Din, al-Munajjim

Maqam ‘Ushaq was a dominant maqam in all parts of the Arab world, from the 9th century onwards. Today it is seen as a variant of Maqam Nahawand, although it was once an independent mode.


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List of Period Modes and Sources

The following maqamat are mentioned by name in at least one period source. Those that are underlined and marked with an asterisk have a modern equivalent. 

  • Abu Salik (Safi al-Din)

  • Buselik (al-Farabi, Evliya Chelebi)

  • Büzürk /Buzurg (al-Farabi, Safi al-Din)

  • Dil (al-Munajjim)

  • Gharibat al-husain (al-Munajjim)

  • Gharibat al-muharra (al-Munajjim)

  • Hamdan (al-Munajjim)

  • Hicaz (al-Farabi) **could be an alternate spelling of Hijaz

  • Hijaz* (Safi al-Din)

  • Hijaz al-kabir (al-Munajjim)

  • Hijaz al-mashriqi (al-Munajjim)

  • Hisar (al-Munajjim)

  • Hüseyni* /Huseyni /Husain (al-Farabi, Safi al-Din, al-Munajjim)

  • Inqilab al-ramal (al-Munajjim)

  • Iraq* (Safi al-Din)

  • ‘Iraq al-’arab (al-Munajjim)

  • Isfahan* /Isbahan (al-Farabi, Evliya Chelebi, al-Munajjim)

  • Isthilal al-dil (al-Munajjim)

  • Kardaniyya (Safi al-Din)

  • Küçek (al-Farabi)

  • Kuchi (Evliya Chelebi)

  • Kuwasht (Safi al-Din)

  • Mashriqi (al-Munajjim)

  • Maya (Safi al-Din, al-Munajjim)

  • Mazmum (al-Munajjim)

  • Mujannam al-dil (al-Munajjim)

  • Nauruz* /Nairuz (Safi al-Din)

  • Nawa* (Safi al-Din)

  • Neva (al-Farabi)

  • Ramal al-dil (al-Munajjim)

  • Ramal al-maya (al-Munajjim)

  • Rast* /Rasd (al-Farabi, Safi al-Din, al-Munajjim)

  • Rasd al-dil (al-Munajjim)

  • Rahawai /Rehavi (al-Farabi, Evliya Chelebi, Safi al-Din)

  • Saba* (al-Farabi)

  • Salmak (Safi al-Din)

  • Shahnaz* (Safi al-Din)

  • Ushaq* /Ushshaq /Ussak (al-Farabi, Safi al-Din, al-Munajjim)

  • Zaidan (al-Munajjim)

  • Zankula (Safi al-Din)

  • Zaurankand (al-Munajjim)

  • Zengule /Zirgule /Zangula (al-Farabi, Evliya Chelebi)

  • Zirafkand /Zirefkand (al-Farabi, Safi al-Din)