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Does anyone know what scale this is? I know it may be a scale that's not used in Western countries and also uses quarter tones...but can it be described in Western music terms? It sounds similar to the Phrygian mode of the major scale except there is also a raised/major sixth at 00:12 and a #4 at 1:42. These are the pitches I'm hearing: 1, m2, m3, p4, (#4, only used once) p5, m6, (M6, only used once) m7.

Also, I know this is a Maqam, which is one of the modes of Arabic music...but I'm wondering if there is anything specific about it that could help a student identify it as a Maqam/Arabic piece in a listening exam? I have heard similar music to this in Greece and I'm also wondering if other Eastern European countries or perhaps North African countries such as Egypt, might have very similar scales/music?

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    Since the tuning isn't 12tet, and there are half sharps and flats, it won't equate to any normal Western scale. It comes close to Phrygian mode, though.
    – Tim
    Mar 8, 2020 at 11:23
  • Thanks Tim. Finding it difficult to hear quarter tones myself, it all sounds like Western semitones to me, even though I know this music is supposed to have a different tuning system.
    – John MC
    Mar 8, 2020 at 11:31
  • Likewise. 1/4 tones are more recogisable audibly with bends on guitar!
    – Tim
    Mar 8, 2020 at 11:33
  • I agree. It seems it would be difficult to find clear indications of where this piece is from in a blind listening exam.
    – John MC
    Mar 8, 2020 at 11:43

5 Answers 5

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There are two instruments in this recording.

In the left channel is a Greek bouzouki, which is a fretted instrument, tuned in typical Western fashion (12 tempered semitones).

In the right channel is an Arab Oud, which is a fretless instrument (imagine a medieval lute, but without the frets, played with a plastic pick that looks like a popsicle stick). I once had the chance of playing it for a few days, learning from a friend, a pro player from Syria.

Because one of the two instruments (the Bouzouki) has tempered tuning, the other guy (the Oud) is also by and large playing almost the same way (temperate) in this case. Conversely, the Bouzouki seems to try to imitate the quarter notes, occasionally, by bending the strings. (And it's not quarter notes, it's more like 30 cents off, but never mind that).

In other words, this is a very Westernized kind of Arab music. I wouldn't even call it Arab music, really. George Harrison plus a sitar does not Indian music make...

So this tune feels to me like a sort of a (pretty good, to be sure) crossover piece, with each instrument trying to accommodate for the other, creating some middle ground between the two traditions (Greek and Arab in this case).

A classic of this kind of thing is "A meeting by the River" with Ry Cooder (slide strat) and Vishva Mohan Bhatt (Indian classical musician who plays a slide guitar which is actually a sitar of sorts). Def check it out. I also once heard him (V.M. Bhatt) play Indian classical music live in Calcutta, and totally blew me away, but that's another story.

Anyway if you want to hear real Middle-Eastern, non-temperate scale based music, the above is not the right place to start, go for some real stand-alone Oud playing instead. And give yourself at least a few days of listening without trying to prematurely explain everything to yourself. Just listen and let it sink in by itself. As you are already a musician, it won't take long before your start to get it, and, quite possibly, enjoy it a lot too... :)

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    more than a greek bouzouki this should be a buzuq (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buzuq) and capable of a wide range of non-western scales, cf also: i2.wp.com/www.artsearth.org/wp-content/uploads/…
    – kr1
    Mar 8, 2020 at 18:02
  • the buzuq is the Turkish precursor of the bouzouki, so you could hardly call this westernised music
    – clayRay
    Mar 9, 2020 at 3:16
  • @clayRay If you allow me a metaphor, Turkish music is to Arabic music as, say, British Rock is to American plantation delta blues. Related? Definitely. Same thing? Not quite!
    – MMazzon
    Mar 25, 2020 at 15:47
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This is definitely Arabic playing by two well known Arab musicians. The title says it is Maqam Kurd, which is pretty much Phrygian mode. However a maqam is not exactly like a scale. It is made up of ajnas (jinns in the singular). These are generally 4 or 5 note sequences. Although a certain set of 7 notes is associated with a maqam, the performance of a maqam will involve modulation by playing ajnas that are NOT in the main maqam in order to change the mood and hint at other maqams. Without analysing this piece closely I can't offhand say what ajnas are being introduced to do this, but I can hear moments when quarter tones and other sequences of notes not in the main 7 notes of maqam Kurd are being used. And definitely the buzuq is not using bent notes to get these. It is similar to Turkish saz, having extra frets so that some in between tones can be played.

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  • Welcome and thanks for a good answer to an old question. Any chance you could take a stab at my question here: music.stackexchange.com/questions/114753/… ? I believe the double harmonic scale corresponds roughly to maqam Hijaz Kar.
    – Theodore
    Nov 18, 2021 at 22:31
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The arabic music has microtonal differences to western scales, and lots of pitch bending. You could work out something similar if you just improvise and try match the notes, but it won't be quite the same as these instruments are microtonally different to say a guitar.

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I'm not familiar with arabic music, but in western terms he is playing something close to the dorian b2 scale (2nd mode of melodic minor). As well as phrygian, as you say. The #4 you refer to I hear more as a temporary b5, making it locrian instead of phrygian for a brief moment.

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The basic scale here is known as maqam Kurd (or more precisely, Hijaz Kar Kurd) in Arabic music. In scale terms, as others have noted, it corresponds almost exactly to a Phrygian scale: 1 m2 m3 4 5 m6 m7 8. In practice, it has a number of other characterstics beyond the scale description.

As you noticed, there is a M6 used around 0:12. For comparison, if you listen at 0:19 there is a neutral 6th (1/4 lower) followed by the usual m6 at 0:20.
In theory terms, the M6 is a temporary leading tone to the m7 degree. The neutral 6th is the third of a brief detour into jins Rast on the 4th degree (Rast is 1 2 n3 4 5, so in context this is 4 5 n6 b7 8). The m6 brings us back to the parent maqam.

At 0:23, you hear a M2, similarly used as a temporary leading tone to the m3. He does it again at 0:51, 1:34 and 1:41.

At 1:35 and 1:42 the d5 (not #4, as the 4 is part of the melody as well) is a common descending cadential figure. He explores this more fully around 5:10.

At 1:56 there is a subtle microtonal shift to a jins called Jiharkah. It is very close to the first 5 notes of a major scale, however, the 3rd and 4th degree are lowered slightly (between 1/5 and 1/8 tone). So hear we hear a 6 that is slightly lower than a M6 and a 7 that is slightly lower than a m7. But not lowered a full quarter tone. He changes this back to n6 and m7 around 2:08 (leading up to the octave). He then proceeds to play with this sound, going back and forth a bit between the different sounds.

At 5:18, there is a similar figure to what you heard with d5, but using the d4 degree (effectively M3, but the m3 is also included). The 1 m2 m3 d4 jins is known as Saba Zamzama. ("True" Saba has a n2, the version with a m2 is what makes it "Zamzama"). At 5:32, there is a shift to Saba on 8. This has the structure 1 n2 m3 d4 (or 1 n2 m3 M3). This continues until 5:47 where he uses the M6 again as a leading tone that sets us up to hear the b2 (actually b9 here).

From here he establishes Rast (1 2 n3 4 5) on 4 more fully, giving us 4 5 n6 b7 8. He uses this to expand to a full maqam Suznak on 4: Suznak is Rast + Hijaz (1 m2 3 4) on 5. So we end up with 4 5 n6 b7 8 m9 10 11, locally sounding like 1 2 n3 4 5 m6 7 8.

The m2 and M3 in hijaz are narrowed, with the m2 about 1/8 tone higher and the M3 about 1/8 tone lower than their equal tempered counterparts (JI aficianados may notice this is close to ideal JI ratios for these notes).

I could go on, but this should give you a good sense of what to listen for and how much is going on. In this piece, we have heard 4 different 6ths, 4 different 2nds/9ths, and 2 different 7ths, as well as chromatic alterations to the 3rd and 5th.

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