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Maqamat (Arabic scales)

Maqamat are quite different to Western scales. There are many maqamat which carries "microtones", this is concretely "half flattened" notes.

If you consider that between a natural note and the following one (for instance, C and D) there are 9 hertz (Hz, or cycles per second) of tonal difference, and a flattened note falls 5 Hz, there is some space to put a "middle" tone between a note and its flattened counterpart. About 2.5 Hz, an easy task to recognize if you have a prepared ear. But our Western-educated brains must make an effort in order to accept it as a real note, and not as a "detuned" one. However, I must tell you that Arabic fine music theorists insists that microtones are just 1 Hz below natural note! It must be so, I suppose, but since we easily can recognize that "detuned" notes in any Arabic music, I feel such difference would sound almost imperceptible.

Not all maqamat have microtones. For instance, nahawand maqam (singular for maqamat) hasn't. So, it's a good starting point to approach to the Arabic scales.

There are described about 52 maqamat on Arabic music theory, but a dozen of them are used routinarily for playing purposes. Below of this paragraph you can check five of the most important maqamat: nahawand, rast, bayyati, hijaz and saba. Also, you'll can hear each of them through brief mp3 files!

Finally, we can say that Arabic music "moves" into maqamat, ascending and descending, following these scales. Also, it's usual to the players to "improvise", starting on some known music and then using the respective maqam as a "pattern" to do that. That kind of improvisation is named taqsim. We can compare it with jazz music, where players do the same!


Nahawand C D Eb F G Ab B C - C Bb Ab G F Eb D C mp3

Easy, isn't it? You can see two groups of 8 notes each, the first part is of course the ascending mode of the scale, and the second part the descending one. Note that they aren't exactly the same, it has always one difference (I mark it on color for quick recognition). Let's see now the following maqam:


Rast C D E F G A B C - C Bb A G F E D C mp3

Oops! Complications begins. The crossed flat sign () is the "half flat" for E and B notes, then you should play them about a 1/4 tone below natural ones. Hear the mp3, and try to point your brain to get it. Again; the descending scale differs, here B gets fully flattened.

Before continuing, try to catch well nahawand and rast maqamat. It's a good starting point, and if you go straight for the others, soon you'll have a terrible headache! Trust me, I passed for this stuff. By the way, these two scales are rested on C, but the following three are rested on D.

Are you ready to continue? Well, let's try now with:


Bayyati D E F G A B C D - D C Bb A G F E D mp3

Bayyati chromatic alterations are, in certain way, similar to rast maqam. Let's compare the two scales, then put off the first C, and add a D on the final line! Of course, forget the musical implications, it's just a mnemonic rule.


Hijaz D Eb F# G A B C D - D C Bb A G F# Eb D mp3

Like bayyati maqam, but "widening" the space between E and F (E gets fully flattened, and F becomes #).


Saba D E F Gb A Bb C Db - Db C Bb A Gb F E D mp3

And in this final maqam, you have the alterations alternated with natural notes, the first is a half flattened E and the rest are full flattened ones. And where is the colored note that changes at descending mode? Hehe, not here...


Don't desperate if you can't get all maqamat at once, it's completely normal! Take your time, and read and hear them the times you need. If you are the lucky owner of an oud, try to play the scales making a "duet" with my mp3. And if you feel it's becoming a hard job, then surf the rest of my page for a while before trying again, or put off the PC and go to take a walk away!

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