The Maqams of Middle Eastern Music

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12659

Although, scientifically-speaking, all music is made of the same notes, different cultures have distinct-sounding compositions. You can't be totally scientific-music involves feelings and expressions!


Musical Arts, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


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

Taqasim al-Qanun fi Maqam Kurd:

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 different parts we need to make sense of our own culture’s kind of music from an early age. If you grew up in North America, you probably didn’t grow up listening 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 make sense of that now that you know its origin.

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

The most obvious one is the kind of 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, there is another factor that would tell you right away that this music is not a traditional American or European form, and that is the scale.

A scale is a series of notes that are used to make musical melodies and harmonies. These scales can sometimes be examined to recognize the place in which that style originated. Listen to the scale that is probably most familiar to you: C Major Scale piano lesson tutorial, from 


Now, compare that scale with this one:

Ta’lim Maqam al-Kurd alaa ‘Adat Darajaat ma’ Mithal (Galant Go TV; clip ends at 1:08):


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 the mood, or “feel,” of each of the scales?
  • 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 type of musical scale that uses a different arrangement of notes than that found in most Western music. The maqams are what give certain kinds of music that “Middle Eastern feel.”

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

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