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Arabic Maqam

Arabic maqām (Arabic: مقام; pl. maqāmāt مقامات or maqams) is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or rank. The Arabic maqam is a melody type. Each maqam is built on a scale, and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, important notes, melodic development and modulation. Both compositions and improvisations in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqams can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.


•             1 Background
•             2 Tuning system
•             3 Notation
•             4 Intonation
•             5 Ajnas
•             6 Maqam families
•             7 Emotional content
•             8 Modulation
•             9 Further reading
•             10 See also
•             11 External links



                The designation maqam appeared for the first time in the treatises written in the fourteenth century by Al-Sheikh Al-Safadi and Abdulqadir Al-Maraghi, and has since then been used as a technical term in Arabic music. The maqam is a modal structure that characterizes the art of music of countries in North Africa, the Near East and Central Asia. In this area we can distinguish three main musical cultures which all belong to the modal family, namely the Turkish, the Greek, the Persian and the Arabic.

A strong similarity exists between these three families in which the same modal structure is known as Makam in Turkish music, Dastgah in Persian music, Mugam in Azerbaijan, Meqam in Kurdish music, Makam in Assyrian music, Shash Maqom in Uzbek music and Muqam in Uyghur music.

The maqam was preceded by seven centuries, by the Dastgah of Persia, developed by Barbod. Many Arabic maqams can trace their names to the Persian language, e.g. Nikriz, Farahfaza, Suzidil, Suznak, Rast, Sikah (from Se-Gah), Jiharkah (from Chehar-Gah) and Nairuz (from Nowruz). The reverse is also true, with Persian Goosheh names taken from Arabic, e.g. Hejaz (from Hijaz), Hoseynî (from Husseini), Oshshagh (from 'Ushshaq) and Hodi. Similarly, many Arabic maqam names come from the Turkish Makam, such as Sultani Yekah, Buselik and Bastanikar, while the following Turkish Makam names trace their origin to Arabic: Hiçāz, Irak, Huseyni, Sűnbűle and Uşşak.

Tuning system

Arabic maqams are based on a musical scale of 7 notes that repeats at the octave. Some maqams have 2 or more alternative scales (e.g. Rast, Nahawand and Hijaz). Maqam scales in traditional Arabic music are microtonal, not based on a twelve-tone equal-tempered musical tuning system, as is the case in modern Western Music. Most maqam scales include a perfect fifth or a perfect fourth (or both), and all octaves are perfect. The remaining notes in a maqam scale may or may not exactly fall on semitones. For this reason maqam scales are mostly taught orally, and by extensive listening to the traditional Arabic music repertoire.


Since microtonal intervals are impractical to accurately notate, a simplified musical notation system was adopted in Arabic music at the turn of the 20th century. Starting with a chromatic scale, the Arabic scale is divided into 24 equal quarter tones, where a quarter tone equals half a semitone in a 12 tone equal-tempered scale. In this notation system all notes in a maqam scale are rounded to the nearest quarter tone.

This system of notation is not exact since it eliminates microtonal details, but is very practical because it allows maqam scales to be notated using Western standard notation. Quarter tones can be notated using the half-flat sign  or the half-sharp sign  . When transcribed with this notation system some maqam scales happen to include quarter tones, while others don't.

In practice, maqams are not performed in all chromatic keys, and are more rigid to transpose than scales in Western music, primarily because of the technical limitations of Arabic instruments. For this reason, half-sharps rarely occur in maqam scales, and the most used half-flats are E , B  and less frequently A .


The 24-tone system is entirely a notational convention and does not affect the actual precise intonation of the notes performed. Practicing Arab musicians, while using the nomenclature of the 24-tone system (half-flats and half-sharps), still perform the finer microtonal details which have been passed down through oral tradition.

Maqam scales that do not include quarter tones (e.g. Nahawand, Ajam) can be performed on equal-tempered instruments such as the piano, however such instruments cannot faithfully reproduce the microtonal details of the maqam scale. Maqam scales can be faithfully performed either on fretless instruments (e.g. the oud or the violin), or on instruments that allow a sufficient degree of tunability and microtonal control (e.g. the nay or the qanun). On fretted instruments with steel strings, microtonal control can be achieved by string bending, as when playing blues.

The exact intonation of every maqam scale changes with the historical period, as well as the geographical region (as is the case with linguistic accents, for example). For this reason, and because it is impractical to precisely and accurately notate microtonal variations from a twelve-tone equal tempered scale, maqam scales are in practice learned orally.


Maqam scales are made up of smaller sets of consecutive notes that have a very recognizable melody and convey a distinctive mood. Such a set is called jins (pl. ajnas), (Arabic: جنس) meaning gender or kind. In most cases a jins is made up of 4 consecutive notes (a tetrachord), although ajnas of 3 consecutive notes (a trichord) or a 5 consecutive notes (a pentachord) also exist.

Ajnas are the building blocks of a maqam scale. A maqam scale has a lower (or first) jins and an upper (or second) jins. In most cases maqams are classified into families or branches based on their lower jins. The upper jins may start on the ending note of the lower jins or on the note following that. In some cases the upper and lower ajnas may overlap. The starting note of the upper jins is called the dominant, and is the second most important note in that scale after the tonic. Maqam scales often includes secondary ajnas that start on notes other than the tonic or the dominant. Secondary ajnas are highlighted in the course of modulation.

References on Arabic music theory often differ on the classification of ajnas. There is no consensus on a definitive list of all ajnas, their names or their sizes. However the majority of references agree on the basic 9 ajnas, which also make up the main 9 maqam families. The following is the list of the basic 9 ajnas notated with Western standard notation (all notes are rounded to the nearest quarter tone):

Ajam (عجم) trichord, starting on B

                Bayati (بياتي) tetrachord, starting on D

                Hijaz (حجاز) tetrachord, starting on D


Kurd (كرد) tetrachord, starting on D

                Nahawand (نهاوند) tetrachord, starting on C

                Nikriz (نكريز) pentachord, starting on C


Rast (راست) tetrachord, starting on C

                Saba (صبا) tetrachord, starting on D

                Sikah (سيكاه) trichord, starting on E


Maqam families

•             Ajam - Ajam (عجم), Jiharkah (جهاركاه), Shawq Afza ( شوق افزا or شوق أفزا)

•             Sikah - Bastanikar (بسته نكار), Huzam (هزام), Iraq (عراق), Mustaar (مستعار), Rahat El Arwah (راحة الارواح or راحة الأرواح), Sikah (سيكاه), Sikah Baladi (سيكاه بلدي)

•             Bayati - Bayatayn (بیاتین), Bayati (بياتي), Bayati Shuri (بياتي شوري), Husseini (حسيني), Nahfat (نهفت)

•             Nahawand - Farahfaza (فرحفزا), Nahawand (نهاوند), Nahawand Murassah (نهاوند مرصّع or نهاوند مرصع), Ushaq Masri (عشاق مصري)

•             Rast - Mahur (ماهور), Nairuz (نوروز), Rast (راست), Suznak (سوزناك), Yakah (يكاه)

•             Hijaz - Hijaz (حجاز), Hijaz Kar (حجاز كار), Shadd Araban (شد عربان), Shahnaz (شهناز or شاهناز), Suzidil (سوزدل), Zanjaran (زنجران)

•             Saba - Saba (صبا), Saba Zamzam (صبا زمزم)

•             Kurd - Kurd (كرد), Hijaz Kar Kurd (حجاز كار كرد)

•             Nawa Athar - Athar Kurd (أثر كرد), Nawa Athar (نوى أثر or نوى اثر), Nikriz (نكريز)

Emotional content

Generally speaking, each maqam evokes a different emotion in the listener. At a more basic level, each jins conveys a different mood or color. For this reason maqams of the same family share a common mood since they start with the same jins. There is no consensus on exactly what the mood of each maqam or jins is. Some references describe maqam moods using very vague and subjective terminology (e.g. maqams evoking 'love', 'femininity', 'pride' or 'distant desert'). However there has not been any serious research using scientific methodology on a diverse sample of listeners (whether Arab or non-Arab) proving that they feel the same emotion when hearing the same maqam.

Attempting the same exercise in Western music would mean relating a mood to the major and minor modes. In that case there is a wider consensus that the minor scale is sadder and the major scale is happier.


Modulation is a technique used during the melodic development of a maqam. In simple terms it means changing from one maqam to another (compatible or closely related) maqam. This involves using a new musical scale. A long musical piece can modulate over many maqams but usually ends with the starting maqam (in rare cases the purpose of the modulation is to actually end with a new maqam). A more subtle form of modulation within the same maqam is to shift the emphasis from one jins to another so as to imply a new maqam.

Modulation adds a lot of interest to the music, and is present in almost every maqam-based melody. Modulations that are pleasing to the ear are created by adhering to compatible combinations of ajnas and maqams long established in traditional Arabic music. Although such combinations are often documented in musical references, most experienced musicians learn them by extensive listening.

Further reading

•             el-Mahdi, Salah (1972). La musique arabe : structures, historique, organologie. Paris, France: Alphonse Leduc, Editions Musicales. ISBN 2856890296.

             Lagrange, Frédéric (1996). Musiques d'Égypte. Cité de la musique / Actes Sud. ISBN 2742707115.

•             Maalouf, Shireen (2002). History of Arabic music theory, Faculty of Music, Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik, Lebanon.

•             Marcus, Scott Lloyd (1989). Arab music theory in the modern period, Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles. Published by U.M.I. 300 N. Zeeb Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48106.

•             Racy, Ali Jihad (2003). Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of arab. Publisher: Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521304148.

•             Touma, Habib Hassan (1996). The Music of the Arabs, trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340888.


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Last updated: 10/15/08.