Introducing maqamat

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General considerations

  • Maqam: مقام
    • from Arabic "qama" قام (to stand)
    • literally "place" where one can stand, "station"
      • maqam def 1: saint's shrine, place of annual musical festivities celebrating the saint's passing
      • maqam def 2: spiritual "station", on the mystical journey...
      • maqama : literary genre: a narrator recounts stories about people at a place he's visited
      • maqam def 3: In music of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia (the "Islamicate": region of Muslim civilizations, and Muslim majority, though certainly not everyone was always a practicing Muslim!): melodic mode (also sometimes a suite of pieces, featuring a particular mode).
    • Maqam def 3: Melodic mode. Sometimes other names are used, depending on place within the Islamicate: makam in Turkish, dastgah in Iran, Shashmaqam in Central Asia, Tab` or Nawba in North Africa. (The modal concept of raga in Hindustani music is quite different, but genealogically related via Afghanistan, which features both kinds of tradition.) Not introduced in treatises until Abd al-Qadir al-Maraghi (14th century), but now back-projected to cover Islamicate concepts of mode.

In the Islamicate

  • As concept of Islamicate music
    • Widespread
    • Tended to unify or diversity according to sociopolitical conditions
    • Owen Wright argues for a unified tonal system among Persian and Arabic speakers around the 13th-14th century represented by the "systematist school" of Safi al-Din al-Urmawi (Kitab al-Adwar and al-Risala al-Sharafiyya) and Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (Durrat al-Taj).
    • Later with rise of competing Ottoman, Savafid, and Mamluk empires they diverged
    • Mughal concept of rag is quite different but related

Comparing maqam to western concepts of tonality

  • Maqam vs Western modes/scales: similarities and differences
    • a transposable pitch collection, usually 7 tones replicating at the octave
    • a pitch collection ordered in a sequence (i.e. scale)
    • a scale plus tonal functions, including tonic, dominant, leading tone, stopping point....(as in major/minor, e.g. key; Egyptian concept of maqam)
  • Maqam vs Western scales: differences:
    • Each maqam features distinctive melodic patterns (opening, development [Syrian sayr], places to start, ascending vs. descending forms, points of repose or tension, ornaments, closing formulas). (Cf: Raga in Hindustani music. Note that in Western music we also have ascending/descending form for minor scales.)
    • Maqams may incorporate "microtones" (though popular music tends to avoid them, in order to incorporate Western instruments and harmony)
  • Maqam (like mode generally) thus exhibits a range from musically abstract to concrete
    • a scale
    • a scale plus tonal functions
    • ... plus melodic pathway (sayr) (series of tonal milestones)
    • ... plus melodic formulas, patterns, or tendencies
    • ... plus melodies or even whole pieces (i.e. Persian radif, maqam Iraqi or Uzbek/Tajik shashmaqam (6 maqams), or Andalusian nawba (originally 24))
  • "Microtones" (note that the term itself is ethnocentric!)
    • intervals outside the frame of 12TET (12 tone equal temperament, i.e. roughly the notes on the piano...the microtones fall between the cracks!)
    • intervals outside the frame of low-integer ratio "just" intonations (e.g. Pythagorean={2,3} or 5 limit={2,3,5}. For instance: in 5 limit an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, a major third 5:4, a minor third 6:5, a major second won't find the "microtones" in there!)
    • i.e. you can't find them on the tempered piano or any Western just intonation instrument! (but they're waiting for you on the violin and trombone, and in your vocal cords!)
    • Islamicate theorists like al-Farabi (872-950) struggled to reconcile these intervals with Greek theory, which insisted on integer ratios, following the thinking of the ancient Pythagoreans, who detested irrational numbers (they wouldn't have liked 12TET, which depends on the 12th root of 2!)
    • Here are al-Farabi's theorization of oud tunings in his day. Note the enormous fractions he uses in order to cast intervals like Zalzal's into a "rational" form. It would not be possible to construct a fret using such large numbers!
    • Today the octave is commonly theorized as comprising 24 equal quarter tones (24 TET), i.e. the 12 semitones of the piano, plus another 12 shifted by 50 cents - though in practice musicians don't play the "microtones" at exactly the 50 cent mark, and they may vary a microtone depending on the maqam and the melodic context.
    • Arabic music is primarily melodic. Stepwise melodic intervals include semitone (minor 2nd), tone (2nd), 1.5 tone (augmented 2nd), and 3/4 tone. The quarter tone is not used as a melodic interval.
  • Due to these variables, the maqamat are numerous! (unlike the two primary scales of Western Art Music: major/minor)
    • a dozen or more in Egypt (Here are the basic maqamat taught in Egypt, though only a few are used these days)
    • many dozens in Turkey
    • their exact number often depends on whether slight differences are distinguished with a new name, or simply considered variants
  • Maqam and jins (type)
    • Theorists conceive each maqam as constructed out of a number of smaller units, each one called "jins" (type) (plural: ajnas)
    • Confusingly, the jins carry the same names as the maqamat.
    • Usually each maqam centers on two primary jins: lower and upper
      • The lower jins is rooted at the tonic, and gives its name to the maqam as a whole.
      • The upper jins is rooted at the dominant.

the concept of maqam in music of the Arab mashriq: theory and practice

General overview

Maqam World is a wonderful resources for this region, including maqam (as well as rhythm, instruments, repertoire). Let's have a quick look at the way maqam is presented theoretically. This presentation is close to that of Egypt's conservatories.

  • Each maqam is divided into ajnas, singular: jins (Greek tetrachords, though not always 4 notes!).
    • Related maqamat are considered a "family"
    • They typically share the same lower jins, but may vary in the upper jins.
    • Sometimes they are identical but in a different key, such as Farahfaza (Nahawand on G), or Shahnaz (Hijaz Kar on D). Generally the maqamat are relative pitch, but moving from one to another different "keys" can be established.
  • Special tonal functions in the maqam:
    • Qarar or rukuz: tonic
    • Jawab: upper octave
    • Ghammaz: dominant note (start of 2nd jins)
    • Hassas: leading tone
    • Marakiz: stopping points
  • Modulation from one maqam to another, usually by varying the structure incrementally. Three common forms of modulation are:
    • changing the lower jins without altering its tonic/dominant
    • changing the upper jins entirely, or
    • shifting the tonic to the root of the upper jins
  • Use of accidentals: quick excursions to a related maqam, but without fully modulating
  • Saltana: getting the maqam stuck in your head! Today we'll try to generate some saltanah in bayati.
  • Maqam is used in both composition and improvisation. Purest expression is thought to appear in improvisations, which are mostly ametric, thereby focusing attention on the maqam
    • taqasim: instrumental improvisation
    • mawwal: vocal improvisation
  • Notation

Maqam Bayati

Let's examine Bayati more closely...

  • Maqam Bayati and its ajnas. Compare the structure and sound of ajnas differing in the 2nd degree:
  • Maqam Shuri and its ajnas. (Note: The only difference is that the upper jins is converted from nahawand or rast into hijaz, featuring the augmented 2nd.)
  • How about some ear training - Bayati, Nahawand, and Kurd
  • Putting it together in a song: Ah Ya Hilu (performed by Sabah Fakhri, one of the Arab world's most celebrated classical singers)
  • To learn maqam you need to listen a lot! Then sing along. Finally, try singing alone or playing on your instrument. Then (PLUG!) please join the Middle Eastern and North African Music Ensemble = MENAME (Winter 2022) to learn more about this music, through study and performance! See where you can browse past programs and also sign up for our mailing list. You don't need to play any Middle Eastern instruments to join.
  • Additional resources: