Lesson 1: West Asia and the Middle East–Genres of Music

Whatever genre of West Asian or Middle Eastern music you end up enjoying, you may be surprised, if you’re not already in-the-kjnow, with how many songs from the region are love songs, and in many cases quite passionate ones. Sometimes the “love songs” are religious in nature–primarily Islamic–with the expression being one of deep faith, sometimes the object of desire is human; sometimes a song expresses devotion to both. Also, most West Asian/Middle Eastern music is lavishly orchestrated, with cascading strings and arrangements that could start a song 50 minute with a dramatic introduction lasting 20 minutes before the vocalist even starts to sing. In such cases the performances are operatic, almost epic in scope, transporting audiences to a musical world of remarkable depth. (The electrifying performances of legendary Egyptian vocalist Oum Kalthoum are a prime example.)

Western Asian and Middle Eastern music, especially Arab music, also takes advantage of sounds within the musical scale that don’t always appear in other music. A “quarter tone” appears between two notes that traditionally appear directly next to each other in other scales, such as between “G” and G#”, if you’re familiar with that kind of musical notation, or between “do” and “re” if that makes sense to you; picture, for example, another key existing between any two keys on the piano. Middle Eastern instrumentalists and vocalists slide in and out of quarter notes with ease, a fact that sometimes tricks the unfamiliar “Western” ear into thinking their music is “out of tune.” It’s not out of tune, just out of the primary Western musical experience.

More information
Middle Eastern music: a primer
— Persian Sufi music: about Persian Sufi music | watch the Avinar Ensemble perform it
— Arabic classical music: the development of Arabic classical music | watch classical Arabic musician Yasser Moawad and his many-man choir
— Arabesque: about Arabesque | enjoy an intimate performance by debonair Arabesque best-seller Orhan Gencebay
— Al-jil: about “jeel” | watch jeel star Hamid Al Shaeri

Explore these genres of music from West Asia and the Middle East:

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