Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays, Inside Arabic Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Johnny Farraj (JF): When I started learning Arabic music around twenty years ago, I wasn’t able to find a good introductory book in English that was aimed at musicians. As such, my training was by and large oral; I learned the tradition from teachers and fellow musicians, as well as through extensive listening. My first attempt at filling the resource gap was in creating, a website that documents Arabic music theory and performance using simple language, musical scales, and hundreds of audio samples.

Having seen the wide appeal that MaqamWorld had among musicians, I decided to turn it into an introductory book that covers Arabic music theory and performance in much more detail, from the perspective of a practitioner. I set out to write a general readership book that could become the definitive Arabic music primer for musicians and listeners alike— in short, the book that I wish had existed when I started learning Arabic music.

Sami Abu Shumays (SAS): I collaborated with my friend Johnny on his initial development of the MaqamWorld website, and later developed my own website called In 2013 I published an article in Music Theory Spectrum challenging the dominant theories about Arabic maqam, largely based on Greek tetrachord theory. Having discussed my new ideas with Johnny for several years, he invited me to join him on the book project, initially as a music theory consultant. In that process, I saw the potential the book had to reach a wider, more general audience, and realized that if I could present my ideas in the accessible tone Johnny envisioned for the book, it would be a win-win. We had a lot of debates about content and style, and somehow that pulled me in further – the dialogue was enormously productive, even when it was occasionally contentious, and helped me to think through my ideas more clearly. I’m enormously grateful that he invited me to be a collaborator!

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JF and SAS: The book covers twentieth-century music from Egypt and Greater Syria, especially the mid-century period often referred to as “The Golden Age” of Arabic music. Within that frame, the book addresses a broad range of topics, from instruments used, ensemble designs, rhythm, arrangement strategies, ornamentation, vocal and instrumental musical forms, improvisation, the tuning system, and the melodic system underpinning Arabic music, known as maqam. In that sense, it is suitable as an introductory textbook for all those interested in learning about that music.

The book goes beyond the introductory approach in discussing maqam – presenting what we feel to be the most cutting-edge theory and analysis on this widely misunderstood practice, in a way that is nonetheless very readable to both beginners and those unfamiliar with Arabic Music. Our approach to maqam theory is designed to make it more rather than less comprehensible.

Finally, aesthetics, oral tradition, and the importance of practice are major themes throughout the book. We celebrate the richness of orally-transmitted knowledge, and we discuss the aesthetics of traditional listening, as well as how that aesthetic evolved during the twentieth century due to increasing influence from the West.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JF and SAS: The book is definitely an extension from our previous work – both as practitioners and as teachers. We are both long-time performers of the music, and our practice is rooted in oral tradition and aural learning. At the same time, we have sought to communicate the music to a wide range of students, both through classes and through our websites. Our insights about music have come directly from our practice – insights which we have used to critique existing theory and descriptions of the music. Our pedagogical work has been aimed at spreading knowledge that isn’t broadly available, and maqam in particular is widely misunderstood. Thus, in many ways, Inside Arabic Music is a culmination of the work we have been doing for decades.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JF and SAS: We hope everyone interested in any kind of music, and everyone interested in Arab culture, will read the book: we think its themes have an interest and appeal beyond its specific subject matter. And we hope it inspires people to listen to and participate in the music.

Because it is rooted in the oral knowledge we have accumulated, and communicates practical insights, the primary target audience was initially fellow musicians, music students, belly dancers, and any reader wishing to learn more about Arabic music. When Oxford University Press agreed to publish it, we decided to achieve a secondary goal, which is to contribute to scholarly discussions on music and music theory. We hope researchers and students in ethnomusicology, anthropology, and music theory will engage with the book, and we invite discussion on its themes. Because we have clearly thought-out connections to linguistics, cognitive science, and network theories, we believe the book has merit for a broader academic audience interested in multi-disciplinary approaches to culture and music.

In terms of impact, we believe it has the potential to become the primary textbook on Arabic music in the English-speaking world, and beyond, if translated. We hope it will impact the field of music theory through its focus on culturally acquired knowledge. We also hope it will have an impact on Arab readers, encouraging them to develope a greater appreciation for the richness and depth of our own culture, which we Arabs often overlook in attempts to Westernize.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JF: I am in the process of completing an overhaul of the website, with grant funding from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC, which also supported the book). It has a new look and feel, suitable for smart devices, with English, Arabic, French, and German languages released. With these languages, the readership is about 400 users a day. I’m now working on integrating the Italian and Spanish translations, and possibly Greek.

The next step for Inside Arabic Music is to have it translated into other languages, starting with Arabic and French, ideally more if there is demand.

I’ve also been sketching out ideas for a future book on the Arabic `ud.

SAS: I’m working on developing a video series to accompany the book, to bring to life the musical examples mentioned there. On other fronts, I am right now heavily immersed in deepening my knowledge of Maqam Sikah Baladi… I’m also working on a CD with my eight-year-old daughter, who is a very talented melody composer with a dark sense of humor!

J: What is this book’s added value compared to other books on the same subject?

JF and SAS: This book adds value on many fronts. First, it has the widest topical coverage of any book published on the subject of Arabic music in English, providing accessible and insightful information on every important subject area in performance as well as theory. Second, because the authors have been listening to the music, studying, performing, and teaching it for decades, the content is validated by personal experience, instead of simply research into other written sources or observation and analysis. Third, the book has an approach unlike most other textbooks, privileging performance practice and practicality over abstract theory – and developing new conceptions of music theory rooted in oral tradition.



From the Introduction:

Traditional Arabic music is improvisational and highly personalized… The abundance of improvisation keeps the music from sounding too rigid and makes it much more personal. The effect of improvisation is to constantly assert the presence of the performer and the essential relationship between him or her and the listener.

Because of its richness in ornamentation, Arabic music is not required to faith­fully follow a composition note for note and can therefore be highly personalized. Heterophony (when different musicians simultaneously ornament the same melody differently) is a dynamic exercise, one that cannot be composed or notated. It hap­pens in a live performance and needs a type of musician who devotes more energy to listening than to reading sheet music. Therefore, experienced Arabic musicians develop a resilient disposition that allows them to be attentive and quick to react to the other musicians’ playing.

In a well-oiled ensemble, a singer and an attentive audience feed off each other, and the musical tradition affords performers a fair amount of room to interpret pieces according to the mood of the performance. Singers in Arabic music are given a relatively wide license to repeat sections or to insert a short mawwal (traditional vocal improvisation) at convenient junctures in a long song. Although these additions may be planned, often they depend on the mood of the performer and that of the audience; therefore, they can be unpredictable and require the ensemble to be ready to act on short notice.

… To a Western observer, Arabic music may appear “informal” in many respects: musi­cians vary the composition with each performance, sometimes even simultaneously; audience members react vocallysometimes loudlyto things they like in the music; and music is transmitted orally, with variation in versions and the addition of individual or regional characteristics. While these aspects of Arabic music (and others discussed here) may appear to be informal compared with Western classical music, it is important to recognize that in reality, they reflect different standards of formality than Western music doesand Arabic music adheres as closely to its standards as Western music does to its own.

As an example, one very obvious area in which the standard in Arabic music is far stricter than in Western music is intonation. In Western music, numerous compromises exist in intonation because of the development of harmony, and as a result the intonation of performers tends to be fuzzier and less precise than it is in Arabic music, even among the ranks of the top professional classical musicians… In Arabic music, because the slightest difference in into­nation can suggest an entirely different maqam (there are so many different notes identified in between the notes of the Western equal-tempered scale), and because there is no harmony to confuse matters, the standard for intonation is much more stringent. Thus, we could say that Western music is more informal than Arabic music in terms of intonationor we could say that the two traditions have different stan­dards of formality.

Another example of apparently “greater formality” in Arabic music has to do with improvisation. In a traditional improvisation, the opening and closing phrases are more or less completely set by tradition for each maqam and are completely familiar to audiences, who expect to hear certain melodies (albeit with ornaments and var­iations) open an improvisation in a given maqam. There is room for a great deal of unique variation in the middle of the performance, but the ending is also standard. This type of formality doesn’t exist in Western improvisation today, and not enough is known about improvisation in the time of, for example, Mozart to know whether there was that level of formalism in the past.

There are also numerous ways in which Arabic music doesn’t adhere to Western standards of formality. The main priority of Arabic music is to create tarab and to please and entertain the audience. For this reason, the protocols governing the audi­ence’s behavior during a live concert are informal and more accommodating than in Western classical music. In live recordings with large orchestras and iconic singers such as Umm Kulthum, Warda, or Abdel Halim Hafez, the cheering of the audi­ence could stop a new section halfway and force the orchestra to restart the pre­vious section, which the audience enjoyed greatly and didn’t get enough of.

* * *

From Chapter 5, “Ornamentation”:

… Instruments that were more recently added to the Arabic ensemble, such as the piano, accordion, and electric guitar, came from other musical traditions with their own established (foreign) ornamentation techniques and aesthetics. However, by incorporating them into the Arabic ensemble or orchestra, Arabic musicians intro­duced a new Arabic ornamentation tradition that transformed these instruments from Western to Arabic.

The accordion used in Egyptian raqs sharqi (belly dance) or baladi musical genres is stylistically a totally different instrument than the accordion used in Italian, French, or German folk music. The piano played by Abdallah Chahine or Ziad Rahbani is stylistically a totally different instrument than the European piano…. The violin is used in many musical traditions across the world, from European classical music, to Scandinavian, Irish, and American fiddle music, to musical tradi­tions of the Middle East, North Africa, and India. In every case, the same physical instrument is transformed by different techniques and styles of ornamentation.

The electric guitar used in Omar Khorshid’s taqasim and in Umm Kulthum’s recordings is stylistically an entirely different instrument than the one used in rock and roll music of the same era. Through his pioneering vision, Omar Khorshid al­most singlehandedly created the “Arabic electric guitar” style by establishing a tra­dition for ornamenting it. What’s more remarkable about Omar Khorshid is that he managed to achieve that without modifying the guitar to perform quartertones or changing the placement of the 12-tone equal-tempered frets. His guitar sounded Arabic by virtue of his ornamentation and phrasing, even though it was confined to the equal-tempered tuning system.

* * *

From Chapter 11, “Tuning System”:

… Intonation and musical scales are cultural products, not mathematical objects. That makes them easy to comprehend on a practical level but challenging on a theoretical level. On a practical level: we have personally found that even American children, with no prior hearing of Arabic music, can sing maqam scales in tune immediately when asked to imitate basic melodies in call- and- response fashion (the central tech­nique of oral transmission).

At the same time, on a theoretical level we have encountered so many misconcep­tions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations—stemming from both Western and Arabic sources, in historical scholarship as well as in internet discussions, and even from the mouths of master musicians themselves—that we find it necessary to examine and critique some of the underlying assumptions about scales and intona­tion before proceeding with a description of the system in use.

The most problematic assumption we wish to dispel is the idea that intonation and scales are determined by some kind of mathematical logic. We understand the roots of this misconception: the ancient Egyptian discovery of “rational” harmonic relationships (i.e., based on small- integer ratios) among strings of different lengths, resulting in “consonant” sounds— which Pythagoras learned on his travels to Egypt and developed into a rich tetrachord theory, influencing all subsequent music theory in the Arab world and Europe.

…we assert that musical intervals and scales are fundamentally arbitrary (following Saussure’s definition of the arbitrariness of the sign), by which we mean that they are the result of cultural choices and conventions—even in cases when there are mathematical relationships expressed in some of them. “Arbitrary,” in this technical sense, is very different than the colloquial understanding of the term, which people take to mean “random,” “unjustified,” or “capricious.” Instead, for us it means based on choices, which are then shared by com­munities and passed down.

Our understanding of Arabic intervals and scales shares one more feature with Saussure’s concept of the arbitrariness of the sign: these musical elements do not ap­pear arbitrary to practitioners immersed in their usage; instead they appear to be immutable, determined, and part of fundamental Truth. That is because the indi­vidual practitioner inherits them through tradition and cannot individually change them; they only change extremely gradually over time, and only by the unconscious activity of whole communities. It is only with a comparative approach (as in linguis­tics) that their arbitrariness becomes apparent.

We can state our objection to the underlying assumptions common in both Western and Arab music theory in another way: we do not find that there are rules governing music, but habits. The elements of music must be learned individually; they cannot be derived from other elements of music. Therefore, the function of music theory, from our perspective, is not to create rules that explain music. We have found that this activity always leads to contradictions and inconsistencies and imposes an overly restricted view of what really happens in practice. Instead, we hope to document the knowledge musicians embody and inherit. It amazes us that in the other arts, people fully recognize that one must learn each dance step, or each cooking technique, or each brushstroke, while in music so many people falsely assume that one can derive scales from mathematical principles and melodies from rules.