This article is going to be a concise introduction to Arabic maqam theory. My hope is that this will break down the basics for you to understand what is going on in Arabic music in terms of what scales are being played and how to modulate. For a beginner, one of the most important things to do in order to learn this music is to listen to Arabic music a lot. You must get it in you, so to speak.
When I was a young boy listening to Persian music, and learning Persian music on the Santour, I didn’t even comprehend the idea of scales and different notes. I just recognized when one note was the same note in a different octave. After a few years, I started to comprehend that some tunes gave different feelings and sounded different than others. The easiest way to experience this is by listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048: I. Allegro. It is knowing the difference between a major scale and a minor scale. These two scales give very different feelings, and that is the beginning of comprehending music. What comes next is knowing exactly what changed in each melody, and that is a harder part. That is the intellectual side of music. Listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto mentioned above, and take notice when the tune changes from a major scale to the minor scale. If you have no idea what I mean by this, then listen for when the feeling or mood changes and that is when the notes in the scale have changed. This is a very basic example of exactly how modulation works in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian music.
A maqam is a set of notes.
D Eq F G A Bb C
(q stands for quarter flat, as in Eq = E quarter flat) (b stands for flat, Bb = B flat)
A maqam is a collection of sub-maqams called Jins (singular) or Ajna (plural) in Arabic.
D Eq F G
F G A
G A Bb C
Bb C D
Altogether it looks like this:
D Eq F G A Bb C D
The first thing you must do is forget about “scales”.
What we have in Middle Eastern music is a range of notes that can be mixed and played in many combinations. Our “scales” are made up of 3 to 5 notes of different intervals called jins. This word means “nature” or “type”. In order to remember this, think of the English words gene, or genes. Ajna is plural for Jins. Ajnas are the genetic makeup of Maqamat. These are the terms used in Arabic music theory. As far as I know, we don’t have these terms in Persian music. Regardless, Persian music can be described or analysed in this way as well.
All the different Ajna can be found on maqamworld.com. Knowing them all by heart is not terribly important at first if you have got the music in you by listening to it and digesting it.
Ajna are characterized mainly by the specific interval between each note. For example, the jins for Ajam you will see is the first 3 notes in the Western major scale. It is always 3 notes separated by whole steps.
C D E
Bb C D
F G A
This is all jins Ajam.
The key to understanding everything about Arabic, Turkish, and Persian music is understanding that Ajna make up different maqam, and that maqam can be described and played as the combination of different ajna put together. When you know this, then you can understand how modulation works. Modulation is the shifting from one melodic focal point to another melodic focal point. In my understanding of Middle Eastern Music, I would argue that you can have two types of modulation. The first modulation is where you focus on certain notes within a given set of notes thereby changing the mode of the melody.
Example in Western Music:
In the Key of C major C D E F G A B C the relative minor is the Key of A.
A B C D E F G A
So if you started playing a melody in the C major scale, you could theoretically shift your focus to the A note of the scale and develop a minor scale with the exact same set of notes. That is one type of modulation.
In Persian music, we have a “scale” called Abu-Atta which is similar to Bayati. It is summed up with these notes with the focus on D.
D Eq F G A Bb C D
But if you shift the focus to F you have another “scale” called Bayat Tork.
F G A Bb C D Eq F
This scale is like a scale within a scale. Check out the sound file below to hear these in action:
The other way you can modulate is by manipulating the Ajna that make up a maqam, in other words changing them to create another sound.
If we start with Bayati we have:
D Eq F G A Bb C D
We start by playing a melody using the notes D to G and we establish this as the foundation of our melody. We then play attach a different jins to bayati from G onward, let’s say Hijaz from G. It would look like this:
D Eq F G Aq B C (Hijaz in Bold)
This is the second and most well-known type of modulation. It is heard all throughout every type of regional music out there.
What this is in fact, is just replacing one jins with another one. In this case we replaced Jins Nahawand with Jins Hijaz. Also important to note here is that we used the note common to both Bayati and Hijaz to modulate, G. G is the pivot note where you can change to another maqam. Likewise, the first note of each individual jins is a note which can be used to modulate as well.
This is such a common modulation that it is even given it’s own name, Bayati Shuri.
In Middle Eastern music there are specific ways of doing this. That is the tricky thing to learn. The art of modulation and improvisation is learning how to do it so that it is pleasing to the ear and musical, the same way you compose a song, deciding where the bridge will go and how many verses, etc, etc. In Arabic music, modulation can happen many times and may include many different maqam in a very short time span when playing a taqsim. Whereas in Persian music, modulation occurs maybe once or twice in a performance. Usually one maqam is used throughout the performance. Coming to Arabic music from Persian music, I found the movement from maqam to maqam very disturbing, and actually made me sick at first. I have become more used to it, but there are times when I still find some Oud taqsim improvisations too abrupt for my taste, and I must shut it off!
In Oud for Guitarists, we introduce maqams in a nice progression for beginners without getting bogged down with different variations. The Complete and Fast Track Packages contain Oud Maqam Fingerboard Diagrams, which help you visualize the maqams on the fingerboard of your Oud, so you can learn the positions of the notes more easily and faster.
For some good scholastic articles on maqam, check out maqamlessons.com.