How many maqams are there?

Arabic Music, Music Theory No Comments

This question is not only one that a new comer to Arabic music would ask. It is also valid when asked by an Arabic music theorist. There are three main reasons for that:

  1. Simplification of the definition of maqam therefore not recognizing some of the characteristics that distinguish different maqams sharing the same scale. As a result, many maqams that share the a scale are now considered one maqam.
  2. Maqams that are no longer in use are omitted from theory books.
  3. Not recognizing intonation details rendering several different maqams as identical. Read the rest…

New Blog Feature: Lists

Music No Comments

Since I have a tendency to write articles in lists, I have added a list navigator to the blog. If you want to read the entire list to which an article belongs, just choose the list name and all the articles in the lists will appear before you with the first article on top. This makes perfect sense, and is a response to a suggestion from several readers. Thank you.

I’ve also reorganized the categories a little. That’s an on going effort. I want the blog to be informative. To be successful at that, the information has to be organized in such a way that it is easy to find stuff.

How we teach maqams

Arabic Music, Taqasim No Comments

One thing that I am extremely disappointed with is the general weakness in academic resources on Arabic music theory. Don’t get me wrong, I have about 3 shelves full of Arabic music theory books. There is no shortage of books. In fact, if you have only one book you will feel good. They all talk with confidence about the topic and you will feel that the book you hold is actually The Truth, the final word, the definitive resource, your key to the gates of musical heaven.. It’s got everything. They even got rhythms, and cheap photocopy quality pictures of Al-Hambra palace or some random Arabesque ornaments(what does that have to do with it anyway).

Until you open the next book.. The cheap photocopies won’t bother you much. But the maqam information.. As if they’re talking about an entirely different civilization.

How can we make matters worse? As if we already had a true and well researched and documented way to teach maqams that is too complicated, now many music schools are going for simpler ways to teach maqams. In other words, if you are tired of learning Arabic music theory using the traditional “rigorous” and “complex” approach, you now have a choice. You can study diet-maqams. I have one book of diet-maqams.

I am venting because as I am working on my book, I had a few questions about a maqam. I opened six different theory books and got.. Four different answers. Two never really addressed the maqam in any serious detail. So I am referring to the repertoire. Analyzing 19th and early 20th century compositions trying to fish for details.

Also annoying is the fact that it is evident that these books were written by people who actually never read a music theory book. That’s fair enough. It’s an oral tradition. But if you’re going to write a text book, you’ve got to think pedagogy before cheap photocopies of palaces and ornaments.

How we die

Music No Comments

A completed piece of music, like a completed sculpture, painting, building, or any artwork for that matter, is a message. We lay it bare, before the public in a jewel case, a tape, a bound opus, or in the heavy air of a concert hall. We lay it bare and walk away from it: we have said our piece. Now it’s in the ears of the beholder to understand it, like it, appreciate, hate, or be annoyed by it (or possibly all of the above). Read the rest…

The true and definitive story of the birth of music..

Free Improv, Improvisation, Music, Taqasim No Comments

Some thousands of years ago someone hit a stick against a piece of wood, deliberately, not for the purpose of making a tool or for hunting or farming. S/He did it for the purpose of hearing the sound of it. Music was born.

How did music start? Why do we play music? What was the first music like? Was it invented by a child or an adult? Was it invented in daytime or nighttime? Was it improvised or composed? Why do we still improvise? Where is music going? Why are there so many different kinds of music? Read the rest…

Nahat Repair, Prgress Report 2

Music, Oud No Comments

I had to put this project down for a few days as I was a bit under the weather. I am back on it.

I put the oud together, strung it, worked on the pegs. Played it. The tone is beautiful.. It is well rounded, clear, a bit dark, a bit frothy, just the way I like a oud to sound.

The bridge, as with my other Georgy Hanna Nahat is a little low. I was advised to make it higher to make the fingerboard work easier. I didn’t do that because that is certain to change the tone. I could have chosen a thinner pick guard wood which would have given me more play. But it’s on now, and I am not going to touch it. I will make minor adjustments to the way I play, if necessary. Read the rest…

Things to decide about a composition before playing it {AKA playing our best part 4}

Music No Comments

In a part 2 we identified three categories of behavioral patterns that prevent us from playing as well as we can. We dealt with the first category in part 3. Today we talk about the second category. Before we do, please notice that these solutions are by no means complete and may not apply to everyone. In fact, as I said several times in the series this discussion covers my experience and that of my students and colleagues with whom I discussed this issue. This is a limitation. It would be great if these articles were written by a psychologist who is also a musician, an educator, a philosopher a social scientist and a motivational speaker. However, they’re not. I am only a musician.

However, what I discuss here seems to have worked for me, and many other people..

Apologies out of the way, now we can discuss the real issue. The second category of patterns discussed in part 2 all stem from playing a piece before having developed an understanding of it. Here’s a quote describing the pattern: Read the rest…

Why you should not audition for the AOSF

Music No Comments

The Arab Orchestra of San Francisco is Accepting Auditions
Here is why you shouldn’t audition

  1. The music is very demanding in terms of intonation. You actually
    have to hear a 12th of a whole step. Semitones aren’t hard enough?
  2. You have to improvise within the style
  3. You have to learn to play Arabic ornaments
  4. You have to be able to read music and also be able to memorize.
  5. The AOSF repertoire is so diverse. You’ll have to learn all those
    different styles. Imagine playing in a western orchestra that plays
    Brahms and Bartok, but also Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, as well as
    original pieces that blends the styles..

Yes, OK, so you do receive training so that by the time you are ready
to sit on stage and perform you are completely ready to rock and roll,
so to speak.

But can you imagine the mental stress and the emotional distress of
having to be challenged with all these new things?

Does anyone need their craftsmanship and creativity pushed to the limit?

Sun Drenched Rain

Arabic Music, Music, Taqasim No Comments

Solid blue skies today in San Francisco. The sun drenched sidewalks and I are listening to Matar Muhammad playing buzuq. On the face of it the music is catchy and easy to listen to. But there is so much to this music beyond the face of it.

Matar’s exquisite virtuosity and the energy of his performance are captivating. His genius is most glaring in the perfection of his improvised phrases. It is a very fine balance between what is familiar and accessible on the level of tradition, what is familiar and accessible on a deeper human level, and what is unfamiliar. Our familiars make it easy for us to remain engaged, allowing him to pass his subversive musical messages.

Lebanese buzuq master, Matar Muhammad died at 56 in 1995. Is that an age in which to die?

The CD is called “Tribute to a Master of the Buzuq” and is under the Inedit label.

Matar in Arabic means rain.

Definitions, definitions. Arabic (and other) musical terms in 15 words or less.

Arabic Music, Music, Oud, Taqasim No Comments

As I work on restoring the Nahat for hours on end (so far a few hours each day for the past two weeks), I have had time to think strange thoughts (try planing wood continuously and very carefully for an hour as a catalyst for strange brain activity). One interesting theme: How few words does it take to define something?

By the way. I didn’t count prepositions, “or” or “and” and neither should you.


  • Arabic Maqam: Tonalmode consisting of one or more scales and rules governing melodic progression and cadences
  • Maqamat: Plural of Maqam Read the rest…

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