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History Of Arabic Music Essay, Research Paper

Arabic music is my favorite musical styling.

Although I have come to enjoy classical and contemporary styling as well,

Arabic music has almost an innate quality of enjoyment for me. Its

songs speak of the life and culture of Arabic countries and its melody

is not commonly heard on American radio stations. Its songs tell

the story of the Arabic people, people who are similar to Americans but

also different in many ways. The songs are a romantic and wonderful

inspiration to me while living and studying in America.

The tradition of Arabic music has been

cultivated throughout Arab regions for thousands of years. Although it

has undergone many changes over the centuries, it has retained certain

distinctive traits.

The Arabic music tradition developed in

the courts of dynasties in the Islamic empire from the 7th century to the

13th century. It flourished during the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th

century and 8th century in Syria. Great performers were drawn to Baghdad,

now the capital of Iraq, under such rulers as Harun ar-Rashid, who was

a patron of the musical arts during the late 700s.3

The cities of the Islamic empire, from

Spain across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, boasted many

fine musicians. These early musicians were often composers and poets as

well as performers. Although the major writings on Arab music appeared

after the spread of Islam in the beginning of the 7th century, the music

tradition had already begun. Before the spread of Islam, Arab music incorporated

music traditions of the Sassanid dynasty (224-641) in Persia and the early

Byzantine empire (4th century to 6th century) and of sung poetry from the

Arabian Peninsula.3 Arabic-speaking scholars also studied the treatises

of ancient Greek philosophers on music. Music theorists of the 10th century

and 11th century, such as al-Farabi and Avicenna, produced their own theories

of music based on what they had learned from the Greeks and on the music

of their own times. Greek works translated by the Arab scholars were later

studied by European scientists and philosophers.

Melody and Rhythm

Arabic music is created using unharmonized

melodic and rhythmic systems. Arabic melodies draw from a vast array of

models, or melodic modes, known as maqamat. Arabic books on music include

as many as 52 melodic modes, of which at least 12 are commonly used.3 These

modes feature more tones than are present in the Western musical system,

including notably smaller intervals that are sometimes called microtones,

or half-flats and half-sharps. Arabic melodies frequently use the augmented

second interval, an interval larger than those of most Western melodies.3

The sound of Arabic music is richly melodic and offers opportunity for

subtle nuance and creative variation.

The rhythmic structure of Arabic music

is similarly complex. Rhythmic patterns have up to 48 beats and typically

include several downbeats (called dums) as well as upbeats (called taks)

and silences, or rests.3 To grasp a rhythmic mode, the listener must hear

a relatively long pattern. Moreover, the performers do not simply play

the pattern; they elaborate upon and ornament it. Often the pattern is

recognizable by the arrangement of downbeats.

In Arab tradition, good musicians offer

something new in each performance by varying and improvising on known pieces

or models in a fashion similar to that of jazz musicians. The inventions

of musicians can be lengthy, extending ten-minute compositions into hour-long

performances that bear only a skeletal resemblance to the models. The inventions

of the musician traditionally depend upon the response of the audience.

Listeners are expected to react during the performance, either verbally

or with applause. Quiet is interpreted as disinterest or dislike. The audience

members, in this tradition, are active participants in determining the

length of the performance and in shaping the piece of music by encouraging

musicians to either repeat a section of the piece or to move to the next


Modern Era

Born of the cultures of the Arab World

stretching from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, Arabic music is

becoming popular world-wide. It is made up of an astonishing variety

of folk, classical, and popular musical traditions. Many of these have

survived for centuries, reflecting the musical sensibilities of the ancient

world as well as the Middle Ages.

While each region within the Arab World

has its distinctive styles, commonalities of instrumentation, modal structure,

rhythmic patterns, performance techniques, and lyric content extend across

the area, forming a fascinating weaving of artistic tradition that changes

and evolves while remaining true to its ancient heritage. In the

last decades a growing global audience has come to appreciate the richness

of this music.

The global audience is hungry for information

about these traditions, their history, the playing techniques and theories

behind them, as well as news about performances, recordings, and concerts.

Listeners, performers and students rely on word of mouth to keep current

on Arabic music news. This is due to the fact that it is primarily

distributed through smaller recording labels, and since performances occur

outside the mainstream concert circuits.

Arabic Song and its English Translation1

?Sawah? (Vagabond)

What follows is a translation

into English of the song lyrics for Sawah. Also, there is a transliteration

into the Roman alphabet of the original Arabic lyrics. This song was first

popularized by Abdel Halim Hafez.


Arabic Lyrics1

English Translation2

Sawah, wei mashee feil beilaad,


Vagabond, and walking between countries,


Weil khatwa beinee wei bein habibee


And the step between me and my beloved

[is] big

Meish war bei-eed, wana feeh gareeh

A long journey, and I’m wounded

from it

Weil leil yei-arab, weil nahar rawah

And the night approaches, and the

day goes


Wein laakom habibee, saleimulee


And if you see my beloved, say “Hello”

to him [her]

Tameinuneel asmaranee, amla eil

el ghorba fee

Reassure me: how is my brown-looking

girl doing so far away

Sawah, wana mashee layalee

Vagabond, I’m walking all night

Sawah, walla daree bhalee

Vagabond, not knowing what I’m doing

Sawah, meil for-a ya ghalee

Vagabond, and the separation, oh

my dear

Sawah, eih elee garalee

Vagabond, what has happened to me?

Weisneen, weisneen wana dayeib bsho’

wei haneen

And years, years, and I’m melting

in loneliness and tenderness

Ayeiz a-araf bass taree-u meinein

I want to know just where is his

[her] road

Repeat Chorus:

Ya eounee, ah ya eounee,

My eyes, oh my eyes

Eih garalak fein enta, wei bta-meil


What has happened to you and what

are you doing?

Ya znounee, ah ya znounee mat seibounee

My worries, oh my worries, leave

me alone

Meish naaeis ana heer aleil

I’m worried enough about him [her]

Lana areif ar-taah, wana ta-yeih


Neither can I rest, and I’m lost

like a vagabond

Repeat Chorus:

Ya amar ya naseenee

Oh moon, who is forgetting me?

Raseenee alee ghayeib

Take me to the absent one

Nawarlee, wareenee, seikeit el habayeib

Enlighten me, show me the road to

the beloved

Waseitak, weiseiya, ya shaheid alaya

I’ve made you promise, you who witnessed

Teikeelu alei beiya

To tell him [her] of my state

Weilee aseito blayaleiya

And what I’ve suffered during my



1. Goodyear, Amina. Sawah

- song compositional elements. 1996.

2. Ibrahim, Nicole. Sawah

- song translation, transliteration. 1996.

3. Nassen, Abdul. Arabic

Music and Its Cultural Influences. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

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