Jul 222007

A type of Arabic musical instrument: an Egyptian tableh

The unique beats and rhythms of Arabic music

There’s no doubt that Arabic music has a very distinct sound, at least compared to Western music. I can hear a simple drumbeat, with no other musical or vocal accompaniment, and think, “That’s an Arabic music rhythm!” Or I could hear someone hum a tune, and without having heard the song before I could recognize it as a typically Arabic tune.

What is it about Arabic music that gives it such an exotic sound and makes it so different from Western music? Is it the instruments, the beat, the language?


It is difficult to describe the characteristics of Arabic music without sounding too technical, but I’ll try:

  1. Arabic music is driven by it’s rhythms. The rhythms lead the melody and are not constant, varying throughout.
  2. Standard tempos of Western music are absent in Arabic music.
  3. Arabic music songs often begin with an arrhythmic, or free rhythm introduction. This is called the taqassim, or division.
  4. In Arabic music, the vocalist is allowed total freedom from tempo or rhythm, particularly when not accompanied by a rhythmic instrument.
  5. Unlike Western music rhythms which break down evenly, Arabic music rhythms are additive. In other words, the Arabic music rhythms are a series of irregular smaller patterns with one following the next. They cannot be evenly divided, for example: 4+2+3+9, or 2+3+2+4=11. These patterns can be very complex, consisting at times of over 40 beats.
  6. The basic components of an Arabic music rhythm are two kinds of beat and silences (rests). The downbeat (dumm) is a deep sound made by hitting the drum near the center. The upbeat (takk) is a crisper, high-pitched sound made by tapping the rim of the drum.

If you’re a musician or a knowledgeable listener and you’d like to share your perspective on the differences between Western music and Arabic music (or Near Eastern, or Middle Eastern music if you like), please do so via our comment form, or submit a longer piece through our contact form.

 Posted by at 12:28 am

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