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?

  • 1
    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 '20 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 '20 at 11:31
  • Likewise. 1/4 tones are more recogisable audibly with bends on guitar!
    – Tim
    Mar 8 '20 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 '20 at 11:43

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... :)

  • 2
    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 '20 at 18:02
  • the buzuq is the Turkish precursor of the bouzouki, so you could hardly call this westernised music
    – clayRay
    Mar 9 '20 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 '20 at 15:47

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.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.