The Maqams of Middle Eastern Music

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12659

Scientifically speaking, all music contains the same notes, but different cultures have distinct-sounding compositions. Music cannot be totally scientific because it involves feelings and expressions!


Musical Arts, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Listen to the music in the video below.

  • Where do you think this music is from?
  • What makes you think it is from that place?

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Music is sometimes likened to language.

The comparison suggests that music, like language, communicates something to the listener, but in a way beyond the limits of ordinary language. Language is very complex and involves so much more than mere words.

Think about all the parts that play a role in language and help us make and understand meaning: the vocabulary we use, and of course, the grammar, but also the inflection of our voice, our regional accents, body language, context, and other factors.

Music is also complex, and like language, we learn the parts we need to make sense of our culture’s kind of music from an early age.

If you grew up in North America, you probably didn’t listen to music like that you heard in the opening video; that music is a Middle Eastern style. You may have guessed that correctly, or you can understand it now that you know its origin.

  • How could you possibly tell that it was not a Western style of music?
  • It is clearly a different language of music, but what factors would tip you off?

The most obvious is the instrument being played. That instrument is known as a Qanun (pronounced ka-noon) and is a traditional Middle Eastern instrument.

Even if the tune were played on a more familiar-sounding instrument, another factor would tell you right away that this music is not a traditional American or European form, which is the scale.

A scale is a series of notes to make musical melodies and harmonies. These scales can sometimes be examined to recognize where that style originated.

Listen to the scale probably most familiar to you in the video below.

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Now, compare that scale with this one.

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Watch the playing of those two scales again, and this time, write down the answers to these questions.

  • What do the players do differently on the piano keyboard?
  • How would you describe each scale's mood, or feel?
  • How many notes do there seem to be in each scale?

These two scales represent two very different musical traditions. The major scale is one of the foundations of Western music. The second kind of scale you listened to is not usually called a scale but is referred to by the Arabic word maqam.

A maqam is a musical scale that uses a different arrangement of notes than most Western music. The maqams give certain kinds of music that Middle-Eastern feel.

Delve into the world of maqams in the Got It? section.

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