By Mark D.
The word ‘maqam’ (the plural is ‘maqamat’) means place or location in Arabic, but the word is also used to describe a set of characteristics about how a piece of music should be played. Important notes, common musical phrases and the way a piece develops over time are all defined by the traditions embedded in the maqam chosen. Like the major and minor modes in Western classical music, for instance, each maqam tends to be associated with a certain mood or feeling.
Maqamat are built of smaller scale segments called ajnas (the singular, ‘jins,’ comes from the same Greek root as the English ‘genus,’ and has much the same meaning). Ajnas are recognisable sequences of three, four or five notes, and a maqam is built by combining a lower and an upper jins.
Maqamat are classified into families called fasilah according to the lower jins. As such, the most important note in a maqam will be the root note of the lower jins; the second most important, called the dominant note, is the root of the upper jins.
Sometimes the ajnas hinge at a common note, sometimes there is a small tonal gap, and sometimes they even overlap.
Modulation and Melody
As well as these two defining ajnas, a musician may also invoke one of several other compatible ajnas as the melody is developed. This process is called modulation, and it is a vital part of the improvisation that can make Arabic music so famously ecstatic to its audiences.
Melody is especially important in Arabic music, because the nuanced tonal system makes it difficult to utilise the kinds of pleasing harmonies so common in Western music.
Origin of the Maqamat
Maqamat have developed independently in various different parts of the Arabic world over many centuries. They are first mentioned in important fourteenth century writings by al-Sheikh al-Safadi and Abdulqadir al-Maraghi.
Because of this diverse heritage, and because individual notes in Arabic music may be made to sound subtly different depending on the context in which they are played, there is no agreed standard for understanding, or even defining, the maqamat.
As well as this, the challenges of notating pitches that don’t necessarily sound the same each time they are played, have helped ensure that, to this day, learning the intricacies of the maqamat means becoming familiar with a great body of traditional Arabic music.