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Arabic Music History

The word "Music" comes from the Greek word "Mousiki" which means the science of the composing of melodies. 'ilm al-musiqa was the name given by the Arabs to the Greek theory of music to distinguish it from 'ilm al-ghinaa' which was the Arabian practical theory.

The source of the Arabian theory of music was an older Semitic one which had an impact on, if it had not been the foundation of Greek theory. "Of course, the Arabs and Persians possessed a theory of music long before they became influenced by the translations made from the Greek at the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th century."

Little is known of Arabian music before the Hegira (A.D. 622), but afterward under the Umayyad caliphs (661-750) a consolidation of Persian and Syrian elements with the native musical style took place in Arabia. Ibn Misjah devised a system of modal theory that lasted throughout the golden age under the first Abbasid caliphs (750-847).

In the 9th century at Baghdad many treatises on music theory and history were written by such men as the philosopher Al-Kindi (9th cent.) and the illustrious Al-Farabi (c.870-c.950), who wrote the most important treatise on music up to his time.

"Al-Farabi was a good mathematician and physicist, and that enabled him to do justice to what the Arabs called speculative theory, even to not repeating the errors of the Greeks. Yet he was something more. He was a practical musician and could appreciate the art as well as the science, which was more than Themistius could do, as Al-Farabi himself mentions.


As a performer with a reputation, he could bring the practical art to bear upon the discussions. So whilst he was more thorough than the Greeks in handling the physical bases of sound, he could also make valuable contributions to physiological accoustics, i.e. the sensations of tone, a question which the Greeks left practically untouched."

Al-Farabi (d.950) describes a musical instrument called Al-Tunboor Al-Baghdadi which was used in his time. The instrument's frets (dasateen, a Persian word) gave a "pre-Islamic scale." It was a quarter-tone scale which was developed by dividing a string into forty equal parts.

In the 11th century, under the last Abbasid caliphs a strong Turkistan influence was brought into Arabian music by the Seljuk Turks, and a gradual decay began in the traditional art. With the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 came the end of specifically Arabian musical culture, and only a few late examples of this music are extant.

The style was preserved in Egypt and Syria because the Arabic language was spoken there, but it had lost its vitality; even this vestige died when the Ottoman Turks overran Egypt in 1517.

Other words such as adufe, albogon, anafil, exabeba, atabal, and atambal are originally Arabic as well. They are from Ad-Duff, Al-Booq, An-Nafeer, Al-Shabbabe, At-Tabl and At-Tinbal. The adufe is a square tambourine. Another kind of tambourine mentioned in Farmer's book is a round type called panderete. "The word equates with the Arabic bendair."

The Bendair resembles the Taar, but without jingling metal discs. Instead, there are "snares" stretched across the inside of the head, which give the instrument a tone like the Western side drum. The Taar is another type of tambourine with jingling plates in the rim.

The albogon, resembles the Arabian al-booq, was in one case a horn, and in another a sort of saxophone improved by the Andalusian Sultan Al-Hakim II. Al-Shalahi (13th century) informs us that the Christians borrowed the instrument from the Arabs.

Article about: History of Arabian/Arabic music

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