Improvisation in the Arabic Musical Tradition, Some Thoughts (part 3)

3:16 pm Arabic Music, Improvisation, Music, Oud

This post discusses compositions that have sections that are partially improvised, as well as the improvisation that takes place while playing a composed melody line (aka ornamentation, interpretation, styling, etc..). Both instrumental and vocal forms will be discussed.

Improvisation within compositions

Tahmila: A tahmila will typically start with a composed head played by the entire ensemble. The improvised sections then follow, which will be improvised to the beat. The unique thing about the tahmila is that each improvised solo has to end on a specific pitch, and in a specific part of the measure. When a solo ends, the ensemble plays a specific melody (a bridge) at the end of which the next improvised solo begins. Certain escalations are fairly common in Tahmilas. One such escalation is that the ending pitch of the solos and the maqam of the bridge changes. Notice that unlike taqasim, the improvisations in the tahmila form are rhythmic melody lines. The phrasing has to be crafted carefully so that the end is on the right beat in the measure and on the right pitch.

Other instrumental forms with place for improvisation do exist (dulabs, some dance music, to name two). Generally they can be seen as a special case of taqasim or tahmilat

Vocal compositions with room form improvisation can be divided into two categories. One category are songs that literally stop and a mawwal or layali or both are sung, after which the song resumes. In this category, the composer simply defines the stopping point, and the parameters of the mawwal or layali (typically starting maqam, ending maqam, and, in the case of mawwal, the lyrics for the mawwal). (see part 2 for definition of these terms)

The second category are songs where at a certain point in the piece, similar to tahmila, the soloist improvises the melody to a line of lyrics (or layali syllables) with the chorus responding with a composed line following each solo. Similar to tahmila, each such iteration is rhythmic, typically short and has to end on a specific pitch and beat in the measure. One form that includes such improvisations is the Dawr.

Finally, an Arabic singer or an instrumentalist will always modify the line they are performing, or variate on it. This includes adding ornaments (both diatonic and from outside the mode), changing the expression, dynamic, articulation, and /or rhythm. The greater the musical mastery and virtuosity cf the performer the greater the musical territory covered by these variations and ornaments.


In Arabic (as well as many other traditions) improvisation has little to do with whim. In order to be able to “improvise” within the idiom, the successful practitioner will need to have:

  1. A solid grounding in the maqam system.
  2. A solid sense of rhythm and phrasing
  3. The ability to compose on the spot within the constraints of the style, form and mode system.
  4. The technical ability to execute those compositions.

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