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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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Hello Bob Porter,


Thank you for your thoughts.


You said,


“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.”


Looking at the original midi:


It does not appear to be a “melody by itself,” since it has accompaniment with the strings, the percussion, and bass rhythm.   The percussion accompaniment is so ABSOLUTELY loud in this midi, that aspects of harmony and the character of the melody itself are obscured, which is why I altered it in the first place.   I have mailed it out to some people, and there seems to be some preference for the clarinet version over the euphonium version and the original.  (Clarinet version)


On the broader cultural question, you said,



“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.”


I am not comfortable with the idea that “the West” is currently the acme of civilization, especially in moral or cultural realms.  The West (the US and Europe) is still polluting the planet more than the Chinese are, even though the Chinese have a greater population.  Furthermore, the goods being “exported” are being produced in China, sure; but the organization of production and the plans for production, are being done with virtually an equal measure of input from US and European based multinational corporations.  It’s a cooperative effort, to use China’s cheap and abundant supply of labor. 


On the Arab question:


“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 think this may be a stereotype perpetrated by Western media, to a large degree; and in the light of recent socio-political events.   For many centuries, Arab culture has been urban as well as rural; it has been cosmopolitan as well as tribal; and it has been transnational as well as local.  We hear about tribal cultures now, in part, because US-Western bombing in places like Libya and Iraq, has played a role in causing a reversion back to more basic social structures.  I hesitate to make a broad generalization about tribal culture, and apply this to all Arab culture and tradition.   The cultures of great cities like Cairo, Algiers, Baghdad, Damascus (Sham) and Beirut can hardly be called “tribal” today.



“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.”



I have no idea, really. It seems more likely to me that there have been substantial changes, and too many of them for people to keep track of.  The record is poor, in the West, and we don’t understand it.  The problem is, we don’t know what is happening in Arab culture; and I think that is part of the tragedy of the West and the Arab World:  The West thinks it knows enough about Arab cultures to be able to dictate their course, through military intervention and through economic and political pressures, and the West believes such actions will somehow benefit the Arab peoples and their own fortunes.  It’s a grave error, I think, based mostly on ignorance.


“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. It sounds like traditional instruments are being used in traditional ways. I have no problem with that.”


It’s a good question.  I don’t know, but I would like to know.  Some people will say, Western music has degenerated, and we have lost much since the days of Renaissance music, when things were simpler and tonalities were more clearly defined.  And then, the same people, might say, look at Arab music:  it’s too simple, it’s tonality is too limited, it’s harmony is not rich enough.  We have nothing to learn from them. (All this in spite of the fact that the 24-tone scale in Arabic music is still virtually incomprehensible to us).


I have learned this much just from that one little clip.  Arab melody and harmony are very different from ours, and we don’t really understand it.   Even popular Arab music still sounds “exotic” and unusual to us—in this day and age—so it must be because it rests on different assumptions with regard to tonality, and harmony and even something so simple as the nature and fluctuation of a melody.  


I want to delve into it more.  

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