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What are some distinct differences between the Western and Arab musical minds?

What are some distinct differences between the Arab and Western musical minds? An Arab Melody.

With large sections of the West and the Arab World ramping up tensions, and getting ready to throw themselves foolishly into another needless full scale war, I wanted to pose this question.

One could say that “the Arab mind” and the “Western mind,” even after many centuries of close contact and interaction, are not able to comprehend each other very well. This is especially true with the West’s inability to absorb, to try to understand, or come to terms with Arab and Muslim culture (and of course, the Arab World has its own ambivalence and difficulty with many aspects of Western culture; though many of these, if not all, stem historically from a long series of direct Western military interventions, especially from the US, England and France).

On a purely cultural plane, Arab Music, especially in the US, is something altogether almost alien, even to this day. There has been no major successful attempt to familiarize the public with Arab musical idioms in either popular music or in the concert hall. Contrast this with Ravi Shankar’s popularity in the West, and the Beatles’ use of Indian musical idioms, in a song like “Within You, Without You.”

Within You Without You- The Beatles

There is no equivalent of this song in Western popular culture that derives from Arab culture. Although Arabs make many films, with musical sound tracks, these don’t appear to have nearly the appeal or circulation that Indian “Bollywood” musical films have in the US. Western “Art Music” concert hall composers, (Messiaen, Partch, Cage, and Scelsi, to name just a few) have drawn a great deal on the Indian tradition, the Tibetan Buddhist musical tradition, and even Japanese and Chinese musical techniques; but no one speaks of a composer (that I know about, anyway) who draws at all from Arab musical models.

I contend that this does not stem from any lack of sophistication or quality residing in the long history of Arab musical culture. The Arab systems of tonality are rich and complicated. The octave itself is divided not merely into 12 semitones, but 24 quarter tones, which creates a large set of scales that differ from the traditional Western and Indian scales. But I won’t go into details about that here.

Suffice it to say, I think we suffer from a severe dearth of knowledge and understanding about Arab musical culture, and Arab culture in general (more Americans study the ancient Greek language still, than study the Arab tongue). Part of the aversion is political, part of it is socio-economic, and part of this is philosophical. Arabs are still looked down upon, culturally speaking: They are despised by some for their lack of political achievements, their apparent inability to develop diverse economies, and an alleged resistance to alternative philosophical outlooks, that come either from the West or their neighbors in South Asia. There is a strong anti-Muslim religious prejudice, of course, which has a bearing on this. But worse than that, there is a kind of racial prejudice, which sees the Arab Middle East still as a “free-invasion zone,” where the US and Europeans can bomb at will, as if most of the Arab nations were still colonies of the West. Putting the socio-economic, the political, and the religio-philosophical to one side, however, let us look at the musical mind of the Arab, which should interest people. An Arab melody (same as above).

I simply place here, for people’s consideration, this short excerpt from an Arab musical work. I am interested in the features of the melody in particular, which is very unlike any Western melody I know.

Music is said to be a “universal language,” and this is true, since its effect does not come about through specific linguistic culture. Yet it must be said that musical languages do have “cultural flavors,” and many people here could identify a work’s country of origin—say whether it is German, Russian, French, American, English, Italian, Spanish or Mexican—simply because of the musical idiom. What about Middle Eastern music, and Arab music in particular? If you listen to this linked piece, I wonder how strongly you will hear what is quintessentially “Arabian.”

Is this an illustrative melody? Perhaps it is. I am curious to know if it seems to display some characteristics of Arab musical thinking that are unique, and worthy of our contemplation.

I have re-worked the original, a bit, simply to highlight and emphasize the subtlety of the melody (which might otherwise be overlooked), while softening the percussive accompaniment and bass rhythms slightly. The melodic and harmonic content have not been changed, and the tuning is authentically “Arabic.” I would like to invite people to listen to this melody carefully, and make any observations that might occur. A solo clarinet presents the melody. I won’t say anything more about it, but simply post it, to get people’s reactions.

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Here is a "score" which gives some details about the melody.


Very astute Ondib, well posed and a tooth that should and needs to be 'cut'.

I had no idea even that Arabic music was based on any scale at all.(westerner  haha) 

The 24 quartertones is curious in so much as it correlates to magnetic resonance and

frequency which is also an aspect of the ancient secret knowledge of the Free Masons

and part of the secret to Ed Skalenin (sp.?) ' Coral Castle' and harmonic levitation.

What does one have to do with the other you may ask?

Someday string theory will be revised to a 'sound' theory and the expression of

frequencies, which seem to already be addressed to some degree in Eastern

philosophies, ergo, reflected in their music (?) nonetheless- an interesting post

I'll listen to your link later         RS

Bob, you said, "Please post the original performance" There is no "original performance," other than a midi. The midi is best heard, in my opinion, when loaded into composition software, like Logic Pro, for instance, and then adjusted to suit the capabilities of the software. In this case, the bass rhythm was electronically synthesized, or made to sound that way, in the "original." It did not sound at all "natural" to me; and the main melody was played by a "trumpet," which didn't sound quite right either, given the limitations of the encoded trumpet, both for midis and for my composer software. The accompanying percussion was not set well in the original midi. It had standard Western percussion kit setting, but luckily I have a middle eastern/south Asian percussion kit that worked much better. Even so, it was too loud; more like what you might hear in a nightclub rather than in a serious musical performance, which I believe this is.

I tried quite a few different adjustments, including the use Persian and Indian instruments for the main melody; even Chinese erhu (violin) and Irish fiddle. A solo tuba setting, with the melody transposed down an octave sounded very melodious, I thought, since the tuba sounded like a euphonium, in that range; and there is a tradition now for Arab brass bands. It’s odd, and symptomatic of the whole problem, that even Logic Pro’s World Music collection does not have Arab or even Turkish instruments, like an oud or a saz.

Still, I can post the original, as it is translated into my software, without any adjustments, and I would be interested in your own conclusions. I used the clarinet because it sounded “authentic” to me, in way that the original did not, based on similar types of performances I heard in southern Turkey, on the Mediterranean Coast, in the small town of Taşucu (where one catches the ferry boat to Northern Cyprus—by the way, Southern Cyprus, or Greek Cyprus, is the only country near the “Middle East” right now that is allowing US planes to fly out and bomb Iraq. Even though the US has air force bases closer to the “target area” in Turkey, and in other Islamic countries in the region, these countries do not appear eager to facilitate the US bombings of their fellow Muslims and/or fellow Arabs. It’s not a point highlighted in the mainstream media, for obvious reasons).

I had to look up the Turkish and Arab clarinet, to learn what it was exactly. The Turks have a kind of clarinet, called a ‘sipsi,’ which is used in folk music performances. We heard it being used for a very festive rural wedding celebration.

Regarding String Theory, Roger, I have been reading that physicists are getting fed up with it, to some degree, because it seems unverifiable, and will continue to be unverifiable for the foreseeable future. Some physicists are now lining up to get on the “Quantum Loop Gravity” bandwagon. I suppose people on Composers Forum would all like to see “String Theory” confirmed, since that would make it appear as if the universe is a sort of huge symphonic performance, with violins (or something similar) as the featured instruments.

So here, Bob, is the "original," more or less unchanged. After listening to it, in this form, I have to say, although I like the melody, I don't like the instrumentation at all here. Use of the "pop organ" which is supposed to sound like an accordion, mars the piece very badly I think. And there are other problems, too. But you can let me know what you think. I did not post the whole thing, since picosong has size limitations.

Title: Arab Music on Trumpets
Artist: Anonymous Artist
Album: World Famous Anonymous Artists from World Famous Arab Nations, like Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Sudan, and LIbya
Length: 1:56
Filename: Arab Music on Trumpets.mp3
File size: 2.22 MB

While I'm at it, I might as well post the Tuba (Euphonium) version, which may actually be the best.
Arab Music for Euphonium

I think this pushes the music (perhaps) a bit beyond the edge of what a Euphonium player might be able to do, but I like this kind of virtuosity, in theory or in practice. (The notes are technically, within the range of what a Euphonium can play).


A concise linking of string theory and quantum theory has already been done in the books of Mitzi deWhitt. Her first book (Aristoxenus' Ghost) starts from basics, in that it exposes Pythagorean music theory as a quantum / Big Bang exposition. The maths can get formidable, but quite manageable to those with a music theory background.

The second book (All and Almost Everything) expands this into relationship with the Kaballah (from a musically structured perspective), and from this she derives the exact sizes of the Indian shrutis and the intervals of the Chinese and Persian scales (which are not, as presumed haphazardly by Westerners, quarter tones). An important part of this treatise is the method and reasoning between combining the Greek Perfect system and the Indian Just system.

The third book (Gurdjieff, String Theory and Music) relates string theory (and its deficiencies, as you pointed out) and quantum mechanics to the musical 'semitone adjustments and expanding of intervals' documented by Gurdjieff (who wrote over 500 works) within his theories of the musical octave. These, when decoded, relate to the combining of the just and perfect systems, as above, to generate the 17, 22 and 48 (sometimes 56) shruti intervals of both the Indian and Arabic scales


The third book

Hi John, thanks for the input. I've just started to research this subject and had no idea

 of all the 'prior art' studies and books. (is there a Reader's Digest version anywhere?) lol

Shruti intervals huh, the first thing that strikes me is that the numbers don't make sense

when taking the harmonics of sacred geometry into consideration. I'll have to look at the math.

While I've got you on the phone here, any insight or lead as to why 'A' 423 was changed to 440 ?

Thanks, Roger ( the opinionated amateur )


The shruti intervals fit in with sacred geometry, its just that you need to derive them gradually from first principles to see how they fit in.

Ms deWhitt's books are available on Kindle (Amazon), though I'd recommend getting the printed versions, as the complex diagrams and tables are difficult to read in electronic format.

No philosophical reason, I believe, for changing the standard pitch, other than suitability for modern instruments, plus a subconscious raising of general tension to resonate with increased paranoia


Thank you, John Summers, for sharing all that information, especially about Gurdjieff.

I looked on youtube . . . listen to this AMAZING work done by him:


Yes, I've seen that clip. I have found that one of the best sources of G's music is the ECM label.

This also led me to Siwan - an album by Jon Balke: Jon is a Norwegian composer, the singer, Amina Alaoui (sublime!), is Moroccan, and also a musicologist. She is from the Gharnati heritage: from the Al Andalus period of Muslim Iberia (730 to 1492). The result is a mixture of western baroque, Iberian and improvisation - using a combination of traditional instruments and modern keyboards - which is a fine example of the differences (or not) between western and Muslim styles, on display for all to hear.


Thanks.  You are giving us a lot of good information, John.


The Gurdjieff flute performance--G.I.Gurdjieff's music - No 40 "Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble"/duduk,kamancha ... -- reminded me of music I heard in Turkey. The musical accompaniment of the Mevlana, or Sufi Dances (Whirling Dervishes) that I heard on special occasions in the city of Konya, was very similar to this.  I also heard similar performances in Istanbul, when the stricture against Mevlana performances were further relaxed. 


I will look up Siwan, John Balke, Amina Alaoui, the Gharnatic tradition, and learn more about the Al Andalus period (which was a fascinating cultural phenomenon).

.... and watching the faces in the audience as well as the performers, showed me

 that they were intently listening and appreciative ,so to speak, and 'involved' in the music.

I wonder if the youth automaticly accept this traditional sound or are attempting to

synthetize cultures and find a new sound that's their own.     RS  
Bob Porter said:

OK , Ondib, I thought this was a melody that was part of a piece of music that had been recorded. It is all well and good to take the melody and play it alone for study purposes, I suppose, but I seldom enjoy melodies by themselves.

Your discussion of the differences between Western and Arab cultures has occurred to me before. How about this. At one time Arabs did some of the most advanced scientific work of their time. The same can be said of the Chinese, of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and so forth. And where are this cultures now? The Chinese are trying to become a world power, but in doing so are polluting the planet and producing not very high quality exports.

We have no idea how the Pyramids were built, or what Stonehenge was for.

I think one of the problems with Arab culture is that it is a tribal culture.  There is more loyalty to the tribe than anything else.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Arab music may not have changed much over the last three hundred years. Probably longer. Where Western music has developed quit a bit. Are there Arabs that are trying to get composers to write modern music because the old ways are tired? Doesn't sound like it from the clips presented. I sounds like traditional instruments are being used in traditional ways. I have no problem with that.  

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