How to Listen to Middle Eastern Music

This applies to music that’s created without drum machines 

Some Qualities of Middle Eastern Music:

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.

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.