Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Teaching Arab Tuning to Western Musicians

When I tell people that I am teaching non Arabs how to play Arabic music, the most common reaction is, "Can they play the Quarter tone?" My answer is always "Absolutely!" I approach teaching Arabic music to western trained musicians as learning a new vocabulary of music. It is the same concept as a college undergrad learning how to play Bach cello suites, you are basically learning how to play in that style of music, nothing about your playing changes other than the style of playing. The same thing is true with Arabic music. So how does that effect playing Arabic Maqams (modes) with the proper tuning? I believe that I have the most effective and efficient way to do this. I start by giving the musicians Recordings of each Arabic Maqam they are playing. I play them in whole notes about 50 beats per minute and have them play along with that at home. In rehearsals I use a technique which i picked up form one of my teachers, Simon Shaheen, I play a phrase and have them play it back. This does two things, it gives them a sense on what Arabic phrasing should be sound like, and it helps them be more consistent with the intonation. Another thing I have the students do is SING! My high school band teacher has always said if you can sing it, you can play it.! The trick to singing is you have to force the musicians to sing OUT LOUD!, this is because we learn pitch through vibrations, and when we sing out loud our ear registers those vibrations and the actual pitch becomes easier to recognize. There is one common problem people encounter when playing Arabic Maqams. I always have to deal with this and finally figured out why. Western Musicians are taught intonation on instruments such as the violin by the distance of one finger to the other. This is why when a western musician plays a quarter tone (microtone is more proper) like the E Half-Flat, the notes around it (like the "F") go sharp or flat. The only remedy for this is to keep them mindful of the fact that ONLY the quarter is the new note they are learning, everything else stays the same! I can go on forever in greater detail but i believe this a very good start for anyone who wants to learn to play Arabic music PROPERLY!!! The next step (for a later time) would be to learn the the proper tuning of each Maqam and how the quarter tone really works as opposed to just being a not in between a half step!


  1. Hi! Wow--this is great! I think you have a great topic for an article. We can work on musical examples, etc.

  2. Thank you for this article. But do you have any tips how can Westerner learn Arabic singing? I fail every time I practice. I know arabic language and pronunciation, and try to practice by listening and singing along, and I think I succeed. But as soon as I turn the tape off I notice how Western I really sound and get depressed! It is embarrassing. I have never read an article about this, tried to search one but didn't find. Are there any techniques to teach Westerns arabic singing?

  3. Do you know of any music teachers based in NYC who are of a similar approach?

  4. Hello i work as an oriantal music teacher .. i m from egypt if you need an oriantal music teacher please mail me...
    This is my email ..galaall2012@gmail.com