Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Religion and Music

     Assumptions bother me.  Especially when they generalize a culture that has such a diverse history.  I am speaking of course about the Arab world.  More so in particular about the Levantine area which includes the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan.  This area is also known by such names as, Bilad il-Sham, Al-Mashriq, or Greater Syria.  Most people ASSUME that since I am an Arab, I am Muslim.  While I have nothing against my Muslim brothers and sisters, I am Christian, and more specifically an Orthodox Christian.  Many people fail to realize that most of the Levantine area was Orthodox Christian before the rise of Islam.  So how does music fit into all this?
     To start, lets take a brief Western music history lesson.  Music in Western civilization has its roots within the Catholic church.  The Catholic church had a huge influence on all aspects of life in Western history including music.  Out of the religious musical tradition we start to see the emergence of secular music in the West around the end of the Medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance period  The same thing can be said about "Eastern" or Arabic music.  This is one instance were "East" mirrors "West".  As I have stated in previous posts on this blog, Arabic music has its roots in the Byzantine Church.  If we you listen to Orthodox Liturgical chant, you can easily hear similarities with Arabic music such as, style, melodic shape, intonation, and maqamat (modes).
     Now let me show you how Arab music has its roots in the Orthodox Church.  Before reading any further, listen to this video (click here).  The video from YouTube is an excellent example of Byzantine chant in the Orthodox Church.  There are eight modes or "tones" in Byzantine chant.  Tones 1 and 5 are close to maqam bayati in Arabic music. Tones 2 and 6 are close to maqam hijaz. Tones 3 and 7 are mix of maqams ajam and jiharkah. Tone 4 is a variant of maqam sikah.  Tone 8 is close to maqam rast.  Without going in to all the theology and theory behind Byzantine chant, the basic differences between each tone or mode is the tone treats that certain maqam or mode.  In the video example it is clear that the choir is chanting in tone 2 or in Arabic music we would say this sounds like maqam hijaz.  While the choir is not singing the hijaz scale as it would be sung or performed in Arabic music with regards to tuning, it has many things in common with its treatment of that maqam.  The "dominant"* note in tone 2 and maqam hijaz is the fourth scale degree.  The treatment of the notes below the tonic of the the mode share common principals.  In Arabic music maqam hijaz usually plays the tetra chord below the tonic as maqam rast.  For example if I were to play maqam hijaz on "D",  the notes below the tonic would be G, A, B half-flat, C, and D. This would sound like maqam rast in Arabic music.  In the YouTube video the choir does almost the same thing with the notes below the tonic.  They do not complete the rast tetra chord at first by going all the down to the G, but they still use the "quarter tone"**  on the second note below the tonic, about 50 seconds into the chant they do complete the rast tetra chord starting from the fifth note below the tonic and ascending upwards to the tonic again with differences in tuning from the Arabic tradition.  Another way we know that tone 2 is close to hijaz in the video is by listening to the intervals between the second and third note of the mode.  While again there is a difference between the Arabic tuning of the hijaz scale and the Byzantine tuning, there still is a wider interval between the second and third note of the mode which is characteristic of maqam hijaz.
     Aside form the similarities in modes  or maqams and their treatment, there is also a stylistic similarity.  Listen to these two videos, one of a priest chanting (click here), and the other of a violin taqasim*** performed by Sami Al Shawwa (click here).  If you listen carefully you will hear that Arabic music and Byzantine chant share many similarities when it comes to ornamentation and phrasing.  This can be illustrated by observing the Ornaments the priest does with his voice and comparing them to the ornaments done in the violin taqasim.  Other similarities include the use of drones, sliding and bending of notes, and of course modulations in and out of the maqams or modes.  It is much easier for some one who has grown up listening to Arabic music and Byzantine chant all his or her life to spot these similarities.  For those who are not well versed in either type of music, the best thing to do would be to really listen to each detail of both types of music.  The principals of both styles of music are the same, and that is to uplift the listener, or in other words, Tarab.  Tarab is used in both Byzantine chant and Arabic music.  Tarab in Byzantine chant is used to elevate the listener to a higher state of prayer while Arabic music uses tarab purely as an affect on the listener so that he or she may enjoy or apperciate the music on a deeper level.  In any case both genres of music are intended to impact the listener in one way or the other. 
     As I have stated in the second paragraph, Western music has its roots in the Catholic Church which was the dominant religion in the West at the time.   In this blog I  have shown how Arabic music and Byzantine chant are alike.  The similarities are clear, and it is a fact that the Orthodox Church was the main religion in the Arab world before the rise of Islam.   It would make sense that Arabic music has its roots in the Byzantine Church, amongst other cultural influences from in the Middle East.  Religion has always been there to witness and be a part of a cultures growth and expansion.  We see this not only in the Arab world, but with the Greek, Russian, and European civilizations as well. So it comes to no surprise that a religion such as the Orthodox Church would have some hand in the development of Arabic music.  But then again, I may be assuming.

* Dominant is a term used in Western music that is used denote the fifth scale degree.  The dominant in Arabic music is not fixed like Western music, it could be the fourth, fifth, an even the third scale degree.

** Quarter tone is a generic term for notes between whole steps that are not in the Western tuning system.  These notes are not necessarily in between half steps, the maqam or mode would usually determine the tuning of the "quarter tone"

*** A taqasim is an improvisation in Arabic music that starts and ends on the same maqam or mode.


  1. Thank you for another excellent essay. Without implying any value judgements about the various religious groups, I am curious as to how much impact you attribute to the effect of Christian emigration on the current state of ME music. I've read that there are more Lebanese Christians, Egyptian Copts, and Iraqi Chaldeans in Metro Detroit than in the Middle East now. Do you feel they took some of the intellectual creativity out of the contemporary ME music scene when they moved? Obviously, one cannot talk about Tarab without names like Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Umm Kalthoum, so I'm not implying any bias against or attempting to diminish the contributions of Muslim musicians. The cultural dynamic has shifted over the last 50 years for lots of different reasons--I'm just trying to explore where you feel the Orthodox influence is now in the music, and whether you feel there is a correlation between the measurable decrease in the ME Christian population and what you (legitimately) perceive as a decline in the quality of secular music, or if it's more of a generic "dumbing down" effect, independent of any religion.

    As someone from a Roman Catholic background, I certainly admire the Orthodox Churches' desire to preserve their musical traditions. For centuries, religious services provided an opportunity for people who could not afford concerts or court musicians to hear beautiful, intelligent compositions written and performed by gifted individuals. The service music in the majority of RC churches I have attended recently is all Post-Vatican II now--the old (even 50-year-old) traditions have been largely destroyed in the name of misguided populism. In addition, the quality of the musicianship is deplorable. RC service music has become a pageant of tone deafness and vanity. If you think Arabic pop music is bad, you should go to a RC Mass: banal songs and cliched lyrics, performed by musicians with little talent or technique. At least Haifa Wehbe has the decency to hire professional backup musicians and run her vocals through Auto-Tune before inflicting her CDs on the public.

  2. I just discovered your blog via a link to this article. Born and raised in North America, I am far removed from the culture of my homeland. I am steeped in the byzantine chant style, and have grown to love it - and your examples do a great job of showing how it has influenced arabic music. I am becoming a huge fan of byzantine chant, and I have also always found Maronite service music to be beautiful (I only hear this occasionally, however). I also love the classical arabic music - infused with soul and real orchestration, there is really nothing like it. In many ways, it is a precursor to American blues and soul.

    As for the pop music coming out of the Middle East, it is a real turnoff to me. I hope you will take some time on this blog to explore "roots" arabic music as an education to people like me who would love to learn more but who's experience goes no farther than Mom and Dad's old Fairuz records.

    Thanks for your work so far. Looking forward to reading more.

  3. I think you cannot say that Arabic music has its roots in the Byzantine chant. Rather I'd suggest to assume that they both have the same source. This source is in itself a hybrid one, since there has always been a lively cultural exchange in West and Central Asia. The history of the maqam theory and practise clearly shows the influence of Persia, the Beduin region, the Egyptians and Iraqis ... it was a lively melting pot of musical ideas and practise which then again was codified and fixed in different traditions. Here you come to the point where Byzantine chant and the Arabic maqamat (in the sense of guidelines for religious recitations and prayers) came into being.

    The whole idea of a musical lineage has to be looked at with scepticism, I suppose. The linear developement is a very "Western" idea, that is nowadays put on anything to explain things. But why? Instead think of musical practises as a pluralistic expression of human beings. Music as "humanly organized sound" (as John Blacking puts it) pops up in different forms at different times, melts ideas together and differentiates again.. it's exciting to go down the paths of history to discover, but be aware that in the end, the here and now of music shows us exactly that: ongoing hybridity.

  4. Hello oudman, I found this old blog when googling the word "tarab". I agree with everything you are talking about. Your articles are great! I'm Armenian and our music if you didn't know is part of the Middle Eastern world, although with its own "accent" as you put it. Unfortunately in Armenian we don't have a word equivalent to tarab (at least not that I know of, I'm not fluent) but we absolutely have the same concept. And we have the same problem of people playing too cleanly. With Armenian music its not so much America vs. Armenia but rather different groups of Armenians. Some play folk music with "tarab" and some play it too cleanly (which started in the Soviet Era). In a good Armenian ensemble the instruments should all be slightly improvising on the same melody as in good Arabic music. Even the singer every time he/she sings a song, does it differently. The musicians who have real "tarab" also don't use sheet music, which is related. The music should uplift the listeners with "tarab" whether in a religious or secular way. Then the band responds to the listeners and so on. I often lead the Armenian line dance and our local oud player says to me, "I love when you guys dance the haleh (a type of dance) i just feed off of that" So that brings me to my only difference with you, in the Armenian community we also have the problem of pop music which has no tarab and is mediocre as you describe. But I wouldn't even like to hear that music at a wedding or dance the "dabke" to it! In the Armenian community we have two kinds of wedding bands, one that plays modern pop music and one that plays traditional dance music. The traditional Armenian dance band (we call them "kef" bands) plays with tarab and ornamentation and all the things you have described. In fact, they are the only Armenians who play tarab - we don't really have eastern classical music, our classical music became westernized over the past 100 years leaving only the folk/wedding/dance musicians to preserve the Eastern roots of the music. Now in the last 40 years the pop music has come up to challenge the traditional dance music. In parts of Armenia you can still hear traditional dance music, and parts of America as well. But the huge Armenian community in Syria/Lebanon completely turned over to pop music, which is very influenced by Arabic pop music. They just don't know what tarab is all about! They have a little tarab when they sing Armenian nationalist songs about fighting the Ottomans, thats it. I call myself a "kefji" which in Armenian-American culture means a tarab lover - I don't like the Middle Eastern pop music. I am very interested in the relationship between Middle Eastern secular music and the Eastern religious chant. In the Armenian church we don't use Byzantine system of chant but we have our own chant based on modes which are equivalent to the eastern makams. So I completely agree that Byzantine chant influenced Arabic and Turkish music. I don't think you are "assuming" anything. But I would guess that Coptic and possibly Syriac chant also had an influence, and Armenian chant in the case of Turkish music. At any rate, its all Christian chant so basically the same thing you are saying. There is so little understanding in America that most of the Middle East was once Christian, in the days of the Byzantine Empire and the Armenian kingdoms. I don't know if the exodus of Christians from the Middle East led to decline in music. That is an interesting concept, although I don't think its true. It's too long to explain here but I think it is due to a general decline. I live in Michigan (Detroit area) as well, although unfortunately I have never seen the Michigan Arab Orchestra. I sing and play clarinet and oud. I have a blog here which you might find interesting: http://keftimeusa.blogspot.com/

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. There is a useful site for you that will help you to write a perfect. And valuable essay and so on. Check out, please Evolution Writers

  7. Wow, absolutely fantastic blog. I am very glad to have such useful information.


  8. The best ringtones for the mobile phone

    Hi everyone!

    Does your phone have good and attractive ringtones? You want to own a unique and fun ringtones on your phone? I will suggest to you the list of the best ringtones for the mobile phone, you can download to your phone.

    Top 5 ringtones hot in 2019:
    Let Me Love you ringtone
    Shape Of You ringtone
    Despacito ringtone
    Havana ringtone
    Iphone 8 ringtone

    There are also many other ringtones. All ringtones are downloaded for free. To learn more about the latest ringtones, you can visit homepage: https://bestringtonesfree.net/