Oct 192008

By Mark D.

If there is one figure who has been vital to the development of Arabic music, it is ninth century scholar Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad Farabi – better known as Alpharabius or Al-Farabi.

While Al-Farabi is best known as a philosopher (he is remembered as The Second Teacher; the first was Aristotle), as well as a logician and political scientist, his contribution to musical thought is unrivalled in Arabic history. From his extensions of early Greek musical cosmology to the pure Arabian tone system that has remained dominant for a thousand years, Al-Farabi’s perspectives and teachings have heralded some of the most important developments in the entire history of Arabic music.

Abu Nasr Al-Farabi depicted on Kazakhstan currency.

Abu Nasr Al-Farabi depicted on Kazakhstan currency. His image can be found on currency of several nations.

Book of Great Music

Born in Faral, in what is now known as Othrar in Turkistan, in 872, Al-Farabi’s most notable treatise on music, called Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir (Book of Great Music), explores ideas such as the effect of music on the soul.

The Book of Great Music also established a number of philosophical principles and technical details that have helped to shape the way Arabic music is understood, performed and engaged with, ever since. In fact, it’s not fair to call the Kitab a book on Arabic music, as it is often considered in the modern Western world; it was intended primarily as a study of contemporary Persian music, but its insight was so penetrating, and its scope so comprehensive, that it has come to be considered the seminal text on Arabic music to this day.

Inventor of Musical Instruments

Al-Farabi is credited, perhaps apocryphally, with the invention of a number of important musical instruments including the five-stringed oud, the qanun and the rebab, an ancestor of the modern violin.

He believed that “(only) the maker of a musical instrument is greater than music itself because his work is an art of a higher level.” He was a master performer himself, although few reliable records remain to testify to just what he played, much less how.

In his technical writings he explored such fundamental, though by no means obvious, concepts as tunings, modes, rhythms, tetrachords and octave species.

Contributions to Music Philosophy

Despite his immense impact on the nuts and bolts of music theory and practice, though, Al-Farabi’s most influential legacies may have been his contributions to music philosophy. He laid the foundations for music as a therapeutic tool, and he described music in emotional, and psychological, terms in ways that had never been attempted before.

Al-Farabi’s perspectives on the relationship between music and the intangible human spirit were revolutionary, and have continued to inform the way we think about music for a thousand years since his death.