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.


  • 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.
  • 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.