A Guide to Middle Eastern Music for Dancers and Choreographers

  Ideas for Listening to Music
This applies to music that’s created without drum machines

Some Qualities of Middle Eastern Music:
Rhythm:

  • There are many many classical Middle Eastern rhythms, but only a handful is commonly used in Belly Dance music.  The beats can be counted in groups of 4 or 8, and sometimes the rhythm cycle is 16 beats.  It’s how they are syncopated, or where they fall within the count (ie 1-2-3-4), which makes the rhythm so exotic and spicy.  Although the main accent, (the deeper sound) usually falls on the 1 and 3, they can sometimes come just before or just after the beat.  The secondary accent beats (the higher tones) are likely to be found at any point within the count.

Melody:

  • Many of the traditional Middle Eastern stringed instruments (oud, violin etc), don’t have frets on their necks like the guitar.  When playing the guitar, it’s only possible to play the note that is made when the finger is placed inside the fret.  So, for example a guitarist can only play the notes that fall directly on the scale like C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.  However without frets, the musician can play a large variety of tones, the notes between the notes.  This affects the whole feel of the melody as it takes so many subtle notes/steps to go from one note such as C to the next note of D.

Features of Middle Eastern Music:

  • Harmony is a western concept which is now being incorporated in the newer pieces from the Middle East.  More traditional and common is that the instruments and singer all sing/play in unison.  Rich textures are created by the amount and kind of instruments used in the band.
  • One feature of Middle Eastern music is the conversation between different musicians and is known as “Call and Response.”  It’s like a question and answer between the band members, or between the band and the singer.  For example, a particular musical passage is “called” by an instrument or group of instruments, and is “answered” by different instrument(s).  Sometimes the “call” is repeated a number of times, but the “answer” comes from different instruments, or a different melodic passage.
  • The solo, sometimes improvised is also common.  This can be identified by hearing a number of musicians holding the beat while one musician does a solo.  That solo might be answered by another musician taking their own solo.

Tips for listening to Middle Eastern music as a choreographer:

Rhythm: the heartbeat of the music

  • What is the rhythm(s) of the piece?
  • Is it the same rhythm or does are there changes?  In some Middle-Eastern music a fragment of a rhythm, or a different rhythm makes a brief appearance within a musical passage.
  • Know the rhythms!  Sometimes a rhythm is heavily ornamented with lots of extra sounding beats which can make it seem like a different rhythm, but it’s not.  Listen for the main strong beat (doum).  Count how many there are and their placement within 4 or 8 counts.  (The higher sound is called a tek).   (i.e. a basic saidi rhythm is:     doum tek        doum/doum  tek whereas a basic maqsoum rhythm is doum tek     tek  doum  tek).  When these rhythms are heavily ornamented, it’s quite possible to confuse them.
  • Listen for variety of percussion instruments such as bass drum (daholla), frame drum (def), and tambourine (riq) as they add layers to the rhythm, and gives you something else to play with.

Melody:

  • What mood do you feel when you hear the melody?
  • Does it change within the piece or remain the same throughout?
  • Where does it change and what movements can you use to match or to show the change in mood?
  • Does the melody tell you a story; remind you of a color, shape, etc?
  • If there’s singing, what do the words mean?  What story are the words telling and how can you embody it?
  • Is the melody playful, sensual, gentle, smooth, strong, frenzied etc?
  • Listen for conversations within the music between instruments.  Middle Eastern musically typically features a “call and response” between one or more instruments and one or more other instruments.  Sometimes a passage gets “called” or repeated a number of times while the “response” from the other instrument(s) may differ.  What movements do these conversations evoke in you?
  • Listen for instrumental “improvisations.”  This is identified by hearing a number of musicians holding the beat while one musician does a solo.  That solo might be answered by another musician taking their own solo.  How would you highlight the solo in movement?
  • What if any is the melodic interplay between the rhythm and the melody?
  • After you get to know the melody as a whole, listen to the melody that is played by individual instruments.  Listen to only the part that is played by the guitar, oud, violin, quanoun, accordion and various flutes (ney).  These instruments could give you ideas to incorporate in your choreography.
  • What are the dynamics of the piece?  Fast/slow, loud/soft etc, and when are they used in the music, and by which instruments.

Chorography Notes:

  • Listen to the music.  Then keep listening.  It will speak to you if you listen carefully.
  • Let the music be your guide, it will lead you, and your job is to follow it.
  • Have the lyrics translated so that you know what the song is about so that your movements match the intended meaning and spirit of the piece.
  • Know the rhythm(s), it’s the heartbeat of the music.  Dance steps are lead by the beat.  They are a delayed response to the beat not right on it, but behind it.
  • Create “rest” steps/sequences to follow an energetic section.  Incorporating gentle, subtle movements into the dance gives you a rest after a fast section and allows the audience to enjoy the music and let it do some magic too.
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2 thoughts on “A Guide to Middle Eastern Music for Dancers and Choreographers

  1. I was a flamenco dancer before I became a belly dancer, and I regarded Middle Eastern music a relief after the complex 12-beat rhythms of flamenco! I’m only now starting to understand that while the time signatures may be simpler, there’s still a lot of complexity in ME music – just of a different kind. This year I’m studying with a new teacher and she’s very good at choreographing to the rhythm OR the melody, and can create some lovely textures by switching between the two.

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