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Theory

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Quarter-Tones

     A number of theoretical descriptions of microtones in Arabic music exist, describing various divisons of the octave. The most important thing is to listen carefully to Arabic performers and try to hear what the notes sound like. The basic system in contemporary Arabic notation is to use a 24-note octave, with half-sharps and half-flats in between the 12 tones of a western chromatic scale. Sometimes these are erroneously referred to as ¼-sharp and ¼-flat notes; however, since a flat or sharp is already ½ of a step, the quarter-step is only ½ of that (i.e., in a whole step there are 5 notes, inclusive—0, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 1). In other words, the note is half-way between a natural and a flat (or sharp).
     The notation is usually a flat symbol with a slash through it for half-flats and a sharp with only one vertical line for half-sharps. There are different notation conventions used in Turkish music, although the actual sound of most intervals is very similar (there are differences, however, perceptible to the astute listener). I find it easier to visualize the distance of a ¾-step than a ¼-step. The ¾-step is halfway between the interval of a minor third (E ½-flat between D and F on your 3rd string, or B ½-flat between A and C on your 4th string are easy places to start). Listen carefully to recordings, as the exact intonation of the intervals depends on the maqam being used. This is true of all the notes, not just the quarter-tones; western music uses an equal-tempered system which divides the octave into 12 equal semitones. However, the natural pitch relationship determined by the physics of sound suggests slightly different divisions, depending on the tonic (key note) and other factors. This fact is also observed in Western music in the performance of string quartets and choral music, because they are not bound by fixed pitch relationships.

The Jins & Maqam

     The melodic base for Arabic music is the maqam (makam in Turkish). A maqam is somewhat like the western concept of a scale, but has an implicit path (sayr) of melodic development. The sayr includes: starting note, ending note, tonic, common modulations, cadential formulae (qaflat), and leading tones. The sayr is evident in the taqasim of masters, and in the classical compositions. Note that the sayr is not a collection of "rules," per se—but an aggregate set of tendencies. Any of the tendencies may be avoided in a particular piece of music if done in a masterful way, but there still must be a good sense of the sayr if the maqam is to retain its identity. The full understanding of the identity of each particular maqam takes years of careful study with a master musician; needless to say, I don't have that kind of thorough understanding, therefore my discussion here will be necessarily rather incomplete.
     The jins is the basic building block for the maqam. A jins (plural is ajnas) is a group of 3-5 notes which form a trichord, tetrachord, or pentachord. Most of the ajanas are tetrachords. A maqam is made up of two or more ajnas, with the second starting usually on the 4th or 5th degree. This way of building scales is similar to that used in medieval times in the construction of the church modes, although the tetrachords used are different. Below are the basic ajnas used in Arabic music; all the maqamat can be categorized by lower jins used. In addition, it is helpful to deconstruct the maqamat according to the ajnas.

Here are the ajnas and the common tonalities you're likely to find. The notes given first are for the lower jins—common modulations in the upper jins are in parentheses.

Nahawand (aka Busalik1): 1, ½, 1 (e.g., C D Eb F) Commonly in C, D, G (F, A). Same as first 4 notes of the minor scale.
Kurd: ½, 1, 1 ( D Eb F G) Commonly in D, G, A, C.
Hijaz: ½, 1½, ½ (D Eb F# G)--intonation on Eb is slightly higher (much higher in Turkish music), F# is slightly low. Commonly in D, G, A, C (F, E).
Nawa'athar (aka Nakriz2): 1, ½, 1½ (C D Eb F# G) Commonly in C, D (F, Bb).
'Ajam: 1, 1, ½ (Bb C D Eb) Commonly in Bb, F, C (Ab, Eb). Same as first four notes of the major scale.
Rast: 1, ¾, ¾ ( C D E½b F) Commonly in C, G, F.
Bayati: ¾, ¾, 1 (D E½b F G) Commonly in D, A (G).
Saba: ¾, ¾, ½ (D E½b F Gb) Commonly on D, A, (G).
Sikah: ¾, 1 (E½b F G) Commonly on E½b or B½b (A½b).
ajnas - low resolution for screen

The above image is low resolution in order to display properly on the screen. If you wish to print it out, download this version (Adobe Acrobat file).

Each jins has more or less specific leading tone tendencies, which are often dependent on what key it's in. Some examples:
Nahawand: usually ½ step (C: A B C or Ab B C)
Hijaz: Either ½ or whole step (D: C# D or C D; A: usually G# A)
Nawa'athar: Often ½ step, occasionally a whole step (D: C# D)
'Ajam: always ½ step (Bb: A Bb)
Rast: always ¾ step (C: B½b C),
Bayati: always a whole step (D: C D)
Saba: always a whole step
Sikah: either ¾ step or ¼ step (E½b: D E½b or D# E½b)

A couple of words about one jins that shows up a lot, called Jaharkah. It's a lot like 'Ajam on F, but has some peculiarities. Foremost is that the leading tone is usually an E½b, not an E. More subtly, the A is slightly flat (I think the theoretical measurement is 1/9 step) and so is the Bb (very slightly). It really is in a category by itself, and is uniquely beautiful.


1-These two names refer to the same basic structure, although the starting notes are different, and the 3rd note in Busalik is very slightly lower
2-I'm not sure what the distinction between these names is, they seem fairly interchangeable except when applied to specific maqamat

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