By Mark D.
Arabic music, like much of the world’s music, owes much to poetic tradition.
While little is known with certainty about the music of the pre-Islamic period (that is, before about 1,500 years ago), it is generally accepted that it developed from poetry that was recited with deliberate rhythmic meter, and with certain syllables and phrases emphasized by the pitch of the voice. These earliest songs were most likely stories adapted from the local oral traditions.
Origins of Arabic Music
By the ninth century, the Arabic world had entered what has come to be known as a cultural golden age. Political, economic and philosophical thought flourished, and the relatively stable peace helped to foster many important innovations in the arts as well. Much of the most important Arabic musical thought can be traced back to this period, and it was in this golden age that many of the stylistic qualities that still define Arabic music today were first described.
Despite the surging enlightenment of the times, singing was considered to be too undignified for the great intellectual poets of the era, and so it fell to slave girls to interpret their works in a musical way. Often playing simple instrumental accompaniments, these girls would entertain the wealthy, perform at wedding celebrations and motivate troops on the battlefield.
Although singing was deemed to be beneath the poets, music was highly valued in this time. Musically talented slaves are known to have fetched far higher prices than their less gifted peers, and professional musicians could earn a great deal of money during this period.
Exposure to Western Music
From about the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, sadly, written history about Arabic music in general, and singing in particular, is scarce. The main structures and forms had already been established, and the refinements made since then were been relatively minor. It was not until exposure to the Western world became more common, in the last 200 years, that the styles and techniques of Arabic song underwent any more drastic changes.
From classical through to jazz and, more recently, popular musics including rock and hip hop, the impact of Western vocal styles on Arabic music has been striking. The more mathematically consistent tuning system used in the west made harmonies possible.
As pioneering Arabic musicians began to absorb – and transform – more and more of these new ideas, the musical output of the Arabic world experienced a great groundswell of new and hybridized vocal styles – which continue to develop (and, increasingly, feed back into the West) to this day.