Arab maqamat

The Arab maqam is a compositional device based on a scale with a particular interval pattern, and including a set of 'perfomance rules' indicating which notes should be emphasised and key melodic patterns. The ideal showcase for the structure of a maqam is an instrumental taqsim, a semi-improvised form in which the performer may modulate to several related maqamat before returning to the original maqam. This is a highly skilled art and relies on an intimate knowledge of the structure of the different maqamat and the relationships between them, something which can only be learned after many years of study and experience.

A maqam scale can be thought of as being constructed from simple building blocks, each consisting of three, four or five notes (a trichord, tetrachord or pentachord). Each building block or jins (plural ajnas has a characteristic pattern of intervals and is usually based on a particular note. When two or more ajnas are combined in a maqam, the maqam is often named after the most important jins. Clicking on the link below will reveal a list of the most common ajnas.

There are obviously thousands of ways to combine different ajnas, but only a small proportion of these combinations are used in actual maqamat. Around a hundred maqamat are currently in use, although some are much more common than others and many are restricted to a particular country or region (for example, several maqamat are unique to Iraq, and this may be due to an earlier Persian influence). I have chosen to group the Arab maqamat according to their 'base' note, and you can see a listing of some of those that are most likely to be encountered by clicking on the link below:

As mentioned above, during a taqsim the performer will usually start from the 'home' maqam, often beginning with phrases at the bottom of the scale and working up to a higher register. It should be evident from the scale diagrams of the maqamat that several different overlapping ajnas can often be found within the scale, and by changing the pitch of one of the notes in the scale slightly, one can form new ajnas. This is the starting point for modulation to related maqamat - the experienced performer will recognise that certain note sequences, either within the 'home' maqam or slightly modified from it, allude to other related maqamat. Of course, it is possible to keep modulating further and further away from the 'home' maqam, but in practice the performer will gradually and skilfully return to the 'home' maqam to conclude the taqsim. Click on the link below for more details of the rules governing modulation:

During the course of the taqsim the performer will follow the general melodic structure of the maqam, known as the sayr, and will stress a number of important notes within the scale. The main tone in the scale is the qarar or tonic/final. The starting pitch of the maqam is called the mabda' (also aghaz), and is not necessarily the same as the qarar. Also important is the ghammaz, which is the most prominent note of the climactic part of the melody, and is often a 5th above the qarar (but may be a 3rd or 4th above it). The term zahir is used both for the note a step below the qarar, i.e. a leading tone, and for a cadential phrase ascending towards the qarar. The zahir may be a semitone, three-quarter tone or whole tone below the qarar, depending on the maqam. The final significant tone is the markaz or medial stop, on which the melody may rest during the maqam.

[Note: In the pages linked to above, names of maqamat and ajnas are capitalised (e.g. Maqam Rast), whereas names of notes in the Arab scale are in lower case (e.g. rast).]



d'Erlanger, R. (1949) La Musique Arabe - Tome Cinquième, Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner.

el-Hilu, S. (1961) Al-Musiqa Al-Nadhariyya (الموسيقى النظرية), Beirut: Dar Maktabat Al-Hayat.

Marcus, S.L. (1989) Arab Music Theory in the Modern Period, Ph.D. thesis, University of California.

Simms, R. (2004) The Repertoire of Iraqi Maqam, Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Touma, H.H. (1996) The Music of the Arabs, Portland: Amadeus Press.


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