The Violin in Arabic Music

Developing Expressivity

by Eva Eilenberg

Though I’ve attended conservatory, explored various fiddle and folk styles, performed with numerous rock ’n’ roll bands, and dabbled with blues and jazz idioms, I’ve rarely been as captivated by a field of study as I am now with my exploration of violin stylization in Arabic music. Granted, I always get excited about learning unfamiliar dialects of violin music; but this is like learning a foreign language, and it’s opening new doors for me. I have discovered a wonderfully rich tradition, with myriad unfamiliar modes and meters, an unwritten lexicon of exotic embellishments and phrasings, and a strong emphasis on personal expressivity, interpretation, and soloing. And, as an added bonus, I’m finding that the skills one must hone in order to play Arabic violin are improving my overall musicianship in a profound way.

I first tried to learn Arabic violin parts by ear, playing along with cassettes. But I couldn’t figure out how to count out phrases, and though I could sing the melody line, I was unable to decipher series of notes in terms I was familiar with. For instance, I’d end up thinking about a melodic fragment something like this: “Okay, hold an F for a while, slide around some kind of weird out-of-time E-ish note for a little longer, and then end on a short D.” I almost went bonkers trying to memorize a complex tune in this fashion. Unable to find any books or teachers to help me sort out the theoretical problems I was facing at the time, I abandoned my efforts for awhile.

Georges Lammam

Then I had the good fortune of finding a teacher to help guide me through this unfamiliar terrain. Violin virtuoso Georges Lammam, a Palestinian (born in Lebanon), who grew up and learned his art in the United Arab Emirates, has put together an aural and written method called Studies for Arabic Music. This book is a compilation of scales and scale studies that acquaint the player with Arabic modes and typical note patterns within the modes. The cassette portion of the Studies provides slow, unaccompanied performances of the scales of the most popularly used modes, so you can listen to get the mode in your ear or play along to match your intonation to a master’s. Each scale is then followed by Lammam’s impeccable performances of excerpts of songs and solos that typify the mode. These musical examples are recorded with only minimal accompaniment. Naturally, it is much easier to decipher melodies and ornaments when they are isolated in this way than it is to pick the violin out from a recording of a full ensemble. However, what the Studies for Arabic Music do not include is what I’ve gained by studying privately with Lammam, listening to a lot of Arabic music, and learning a bit of background about the theory and practice of Arabic music.

To put Arabic music in perspective, it is important to note that there is a long history of cross-pollination between Western and Arabic musical traditions. Although scholars have found it impossible to trace the exact lineage of the violin family, many credit the Islamic and Byzantine empires with the invention of the art of bowing and cite the rabab (which is the Arabic name for bowed strings instruments found in Islamic countries) as one of the violin’s principle ancestors. Bowed lutes like the rebec — also called rabeca, rabec, ribibe, and other similar names — were introduced into Spain by the Moors during the 9th or 10th century and became widely used throughout Europe over the next few centuries. In fact, the earliest conventional violins are generally thought to be an amalgam of the features of a few well-known instruments popular in the 16th century, including the rebec, and the rebec was still played by street fiddlers in France as late as the 18th century.

Similarly, the standardized Western violin migrated back eastward. Although various indigenous bowed chordophones are still played in the Middle East, the violin is the most widely used bowed string instrument in the Arab world. Countless Arab players have been schooled in the classical Western tradition and have been influenced by European violin techniques. Yet the differences in European and Arabic repertoire and playing styles are so elemental that violin students in conservatories in the Middle East choose between specializing in Western and Arabic music.

The most important distinction of Arabic music is that it is melodic, rather than harmonic. Chords, counterpoint, and harmony all have virtually no place in traditional Arabic music. A typical ensemble is comprised of various groupings of percussion instruments and melodic instruments — including but not limited to a single violin or a violin section, oud (a lute-like plucked instrument), nay (a vertical flute), and kanun (a member of the zither family) — and a vocalist. And in any given ensemble, including those accompanying a singer, all the musicians perform the same melody line to a rhythmic accompaniment. There is some call-and-answer interplay and lots of soloing, but when instrumentalists are playing at the same time, they are generally playing the same notes.

If you are inclined to believe the notion that melody without harmony is like painting without perspective (and is consequently primitive or bland), then consider that the palette in Arabic music is comprised of shades that scarcely exist in Western music. While the bulk of Western note series include only whole tones and half tones, the Arabic maqam (scale) system makes abundant use of quarter tones. It is this additional subdivision within an octave that affords the music a seemingly infinite range of melodic possibilities. There is also a broad array of meters in Arabic music, which injects another variable into melodic composition. Popular Arabic music relies primarily on easily accessible time signatures, such as 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8. Classical pieces, on the other hand, require musicians to be comfortable playing not only in these common meters, but also in more complex ones, like 10/8, 11/8, 13/8, 16/8, and even 24/8.

Furthermore, there is a great emphasis on personal interpretation of a line, which contributes to the rich textures of what are essentially unison melodies. Whether they are performing folk, popular, or classical pieces, musicians are expected to ornament notes without having the particular turns, trills, slides, and so on spelled out for them. Variations in rhythmic phrasing are similarly left to the artist’s discretion; rubatos are widely employed to enhance individual expressiveness. Even when playing in a string section, embellishments, fingerings, bowings, phrasing and articulation are typically not predetermined. Additionally, a composition is never performed exactly the same way twice because extended solos and brief improvisatory flourishes are an integral part of the tradition.

When playing violin in the Arabic style, western-trained musicians need to make a few adjustments and learn some new techniques. An elemental key to achieving an Arabic sound is adopting an alternate open-string tuning. The G and D strings stay the same, but the A string is tuned down to a G and the E string becomes a D. This G-D-G-D tuning enables you to jump octaves with ease because the fingering is the same in the most frequently used ranges. Arabic players commonly transpose a melody up or down an octave to provide a simple variation or leap into a different octave briefly to embellish a phrase.Perhaps more importantly, detuning alters the resonance of the violin, producing a more open and relaxed sound. The range of tone quality in a given piece can extend from highly dramatic and intense to very pure and transparent, and Arabic violinists frequently play open strings instead of fingering a note. So, to get the most authentic sound, you’ll want to have the same open strings vibrating and accessible. Though some players balk at a the idea of having to adjust to new fingering patterns — I certainly did — the results of detuning are well worth the effort.Another factor vital to playing in the Arabic style is learning to play in various scales, or maqamat. Like other “melody type” modes of non-western and early European music (such as the echos of Byzantine and Armenian church music, the Indian ragas and the ancient Greek nomos), the maqamat often imply more than just a series of notes in a scale. Full comprehension of a maqam involves an intricate understanding of the subtle motifs, ornamentations, melodic figures, and patterns characteristic of that maqam. The better your understanding of the interrelationships within the maqam system, the more sophisticated and coherent your solos will be.Though you don’t have to learn all the maqamat to play Arabic music — there are about 100 distinct combinations of tetra- and pentachords in this system — you do have to be able to distinguish quarter tones and become comfortable with at least a few of the principle maqamat. As an introduction to this system, 15 of the most frequently used maqamat, reprinted from Lammam’s Studies for Arabic Music, appear at right. You can conceive of a quarter tone in two ways: as the note exactly between two whole steps (for example, E half-flat is midway between E natural and E flat) or as the note equidistant from one pitch and the minor third above it (E half-flat is halfway between D and F natural).Once you become comfortable with the basics of playing quarter tones, you’ll want to explore some of the characteristic ornamentations of the style. No written explanation of the sound of these techniques can substitute for listening to Arabic music and getting a feel for the overall style on your own. (Was it Thelonius Monk who said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”?) But if you are unfamiliar with the style, the following descriptions may inspire you to listen to some Arabic violinists and help you start to analyze the features for yourself.

Vibrato is employed in a variety of ways and sometimes it is not used at all. It is common to hold a note for dramatic emphasis without adding any vibrato to it. There are often so many embellishments surrounding a critical note that playing it with a simple transparent tone puts it in striking contrast to the rest of the phrase. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a type of vibrato that is uncommon and even discouraged in the classical western tradition: it is an exaggeratedly slow, wide and obvious pitch fluctuation, which is executed in a discernible, undulating rhythm, often with a triplet feel. Between these two extremes is the array of vibratos found in conventional western styles.

Other ornamental devices common to western violinists are trills, turns and grace notes. But in Arabic music, these are used with much greater frequency and are the discretion of the artist — and here too, there are some unfamiliar techniques. For instance, violinists might embellish an individual long note by trilling in a clearly articulated, though varied rhythm, giving equal emphasis to each pitch; or they may employ a subtle, rapid trilling technique that involves barely touching the string with the finger that is a half step higher than the principle tone. Also, trills, turns, and grace notes are often used consecutively as flourishes in rapidly moving passages and in repetitive patterns. Turns are also frequently added as additional melodic components in a line; for example, the first note of a phrase might be embellished during a rest in the melody by jumping to the higher octave and executing a rapid turn before continuing with the melody line.

Another earmark of Arabic violin stylization is the abundant use of slides, which endow the music with a unique voluptuous quality. Unlike the slight portamento typically found in classical western music, which generally calls for sliding only in one direction — up to or down to a note — Arabic music utilizes various types of slides. There are slides to embellish a single note, which originate with the principal pitch, slide up to or down to an adjacent note, and then reverse direction to return to the original pitch. Dramatic yet delicate slides are often employed to gently punctuate the penultimate pitch of a phrase before releasing it into the last note. Slides are also typically applied to a succession of pitches, such as an ascending or descending scale fragment. All of these embellishments — slides, vibrato, turns, trills, and grace notes — are combined by the adept violinist to create highly emotive improvisatory solos and melodic variations.

For the western violinist, there are many benefits to be gained from studying Arabic music. Because the music is largely learned by rote, you have to develop an ability to pick up pieces by ear and to memorize even complex compositions solely by the way they sound, rather than how they look on a page. Also, the ear training required to play quarter tones is invaluable. Once you get used to differentiating between a natural note, a half-flat or half-sharp, and a regular flat or sharp tone, you inevitably sharpen your overall sense of pitch. Similarly, navigating your way through unfamiliar meters develops your rhythmic faculties. Playing Arabic embellishments necessitates that you acquire some entirely new left-hand techniques and increase your agility in order to string together a series of interwoven ornaments. Finally, because you are called upon to extemporize freely and to take melodic solos in Arabic music, you are compelled to develop your expressivity and your capacity to improvise.

Recordings of Arabic music can be difficult to locate. However, in the larger record stores, you may be able to find recordings such as Hakki Obadia’s Classical Music of the Middle East (Global Village Music C808) or Simon Shaheen’s The Music of Abdel Wahab (Axiom AX 539 865). Also look for any recordings of Egyptian vocalist Uum Kulthum (also spelled Oum Kalsoum). Georges Lammam’s Studies for Arabic Music and his recording Melodic Musings are available from Amorfia Productions,, email:

Reprinted with written permission from Strings, January/February, 1993, p. 27-33.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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