Arabic, Turkish, Persian music

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Along with the Indian tradition, the music of the Middle and Near East (Arabic, Turkish, and Persian) is one of the important microtonal music traditions.

A central concept is "maqam" (pl. maqamat), which corresponds somewhat (but not exactly) to the Western "mode". An introduction to maqam theory can be found on Maqam World. The Arabic and Turkish systems differ to some degree from the related Persian system of dastgah.

The use of microtones in these systems can be extremely subtle, as is demonstrated in a podcast by Arabic violin player Sami Abu Shumays: by his count, there could be 12 different notes within a semitone.

Maqamat in equal temperaments

English Wikipedia has an article on:
English Wikipedia has an article on:
English Wikipedia has an article on:

There have been various endeavors, also in recent history, to establish a common tuning standard. A few of these are described in a paper by Ozan Yarman. However, none of these have been really successful (at least not as successful as 12edo in Western music). The extremely extensive level of detail in Middle Eastern music makes this task very difficult, if not impossible.

Depending on the accurateness that is wanted, we can distinguish different levels.

Level 1

The absolute minimum requirements that a tuning system must be able to do in order to support maqamat could be summarized as follows:

  • There must be perfect fourths and fifths.
  • There must also be minor and major seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths. Along with the fourths and fifths, these would preferably be organized in a "sort-of Pythagorean" structure.
  • Additionally, at least one type of neutral second and neutral third is necessary.

The smallest EDOs that fulfill these conditions are 17edo and 24edo, which are indeed both used for maqam music in both theory and practice. 24edo, although not universal, is particularly common since it is a small multiple of 12edo, making it easy to produce instruments with a Western reference frame.

The mohaha temperament reflects this concept in the framework of regular temperaments. Mohaha can be realized in any equal temperament that supports just intonation subgroup, including 17c (the important non-patent val for 17edo), 24edo, 31edo, and 55edo.

Level 2

Systems that just fulfill level 1 are still generally considered significant compromises. For more accuracy, one would have a smaller neutral second for the Bayati tetrachord and a larger one for the Rast tetrachord. Moreover, the major second would preferably be a "major" wholetone, while the minor second should be a "small" semitone - as a consequence, the whole tone is to be divided into a smaller semitone and a larger one. Or, in other words, semitones will be available in two varieties as well.

Important EDOs that meet these requirements are 53edo and 72edo. Both of these have found a certain dissemination in Middle Eastern music.

For Turkish music, Ozan Yarman also proposes 34edo, 41edo and 46edo, within limits also 29edo, as acceptable compromises. 29edo has submajor and supraminor seconds and thirds, whereas 34edo and 41edo have exact neutral seconds and thirds as well as submajor and supraminor ones. In 34edo and 41edo, the submajor second has a character close to a minor wholetone, and, playing the Rast maqam with it, the third note is less a neutral third than a 5/4-style major third. This matches the Turkish variant of Rast which indeed has such a third – the Arabic variant, however, is closer to the exact neutral one. 34edo and 41edo thus are versatile systems for both Turkish music and for Arabic music.

And here we see another nemesis of the tentatives to establish a common tuning standard: there is not one Middle-Eastern system but many. There are not just differences between Arabic and Turkish systems, but there is also significant regional variations within each musical culture.

Level 3

Even 53edo and 72edo, although already containing much more pitches than the vast majority of Western musicians can imagine, still do not cover all details. For these. there are some other, still larger subdivisions that have been investigated.

A system that meets the tuning needs to a satisfactory degree is proposed in Ozan Yarman's dissertation (also summarized in the mentioned paper ): a 79-tone MOS subset of 159edo. A short description (quoting a post to the tuning list) is also in 79MOS 159edo.

Tsaharuk, as proposed by Jacques Dudon, can be realized in 77edo, 94edo, 111edo, 128edo, 145edo, 171edo, 359edo.

Unequal temperaments for maqamat

In equal temperaments, as seen above, there is always a tradeoff between the diverging requirements of high pitch accuracy and a manageable pitch count. One possible way out of this dilemma is use of unequal temperaments. These allow for playing of multiple maqamat with comparatively few notes, though this comes at the cost of being more restricted in the ability to modulate (at least from a fixed Arabic or Turkish perspective) between keys or maqamat.

A paper by Erv Wilson, describing a variety of layouts of Middle Eastern tunings on generalized keyboards, can be found here:

Ozan Yarman has developed a number of such temperaments, e.g. Yarman24 (24 notes), Yarman29 (29 notes) and Yarman36 (36 notes).

All these and more are available in the scala file archive.

Unequal temperaments for maqamat were also developed by Margo Schulter , e.g. Bamm (20 or 24 notes) and Turquoise17 (17 notes).

If high pitch accuracy and possibilities to modulate are emphasized and the number of pitches matters less, we get systems as developed by Julien Jalaleddine Weiss, going beyond 100 different pitches per octave. See tuning systems for the qanun, or Stefan Pohlit's dissertation.

Tsaharuk is a 77-note-per-octave linear or planar temperament proposed by Jacques Dudon based on Julien Jalaleddine Weiss qanun tunings.

See also:

External links




Temperament finder links

Here a collection of selected tunings in the temperament finder