History of Music and Musical Instruments – Middle Eastern Background

music arabesque-600

Wafaa’ Salman

THE word “Music” comes from the Greek word “Mousiki” which means the science of the composing of melodies. ‘ilm al-musiqa was the name given by the Arabs to the Greek theory of music to distinguish it from ‘ilm al-ghinaa’ which was the Arabian practical theory.

The source of the Arabian theory of music was an older Semitic one which had an impact on, if it had not been the foundation of Greek theory. “Of course, the Arabs and Persians possessed a theory of music long before they became influenced by the translations made from the Greek at the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th century.”



By the Middle of 9th Century, the effects of the musical theories of ancient Greeks on music began to be felt. Among these treatises were Aristotle’s Problems and De anima, the comentaries of Themistius and Alexander
Aphrodisiensis on the latter, two works by Aristoxenus, the two books on music of Euclid, a tretise by Nicomachus and the Harmonics of Ptolemy, all of which had been translated into Arabic as we know from Al-Farabi.



The science of music now became one of the courses of the quadrivium, and was studied by most students at this period. The first to deal with the newly-found treasures of the “Ancients” was Al-Kindi (d.874). Seven treatises on music theory appear under his name. Four of them survived: three of them are at Berlin and the fourth is in the British Musuem.

After Al-Kindi, we have a gap of about a century in documentation. Following Al-Kindi was the great theorist Al-Farabi. His book Alkitab Alkabeer included immense and detailed information on music and musical instruments.

Al-Farabi was a good mathematician and physist, and that enabled him to do justice to what the Arabs called speculative theory, even to not repeating the errors of the Greeks. Yet he was something more. He was a practical musician and could appreciate the art as well as the science, which was more than Themistius could do, as Al-Farabi himself mentions. As a performer with a reputation, he could bring the practical art to bear upon the discussions. So whilst he was more thorough than the Greeks in handling the physical bases of sound, he could also make valuable contributions to physiological accoustics, i.e. the sensations of tone, a question which the Greeks left practically untouched.”

Al-Farabi (d.950) describes a musical instrument called Al-Tunboor Al-Baghdadi which was used in his time. The instrument’s frets (dasateen, a Persian word) gave a “pre-Islamic scale.” It was a quarter-tone scale which was developed by dividing a string into forty equal parts. Al-Farabi also describes the scale of the Tunboor Al-Khurasani which was prompted by al-Kindi’s speculations. “It became the parent of the later theory of the Systematist School.”

Henry George Farmer

Henry George Farmer

Henry George Farmer in his book Historical Facts for the Arabian Musical Influence, notes that “the influence due to the Arabian culture contact in respect to musical instruments was far wider than has been generally acknowledged. The origin of the words lute, rebec, guitar and naker from the Arabic Al-‘ud, rabab, qithara and naqqara, is a well-known fact [see the Oxford Dictionary]”

Other words such as adufe, albogon, anafil, exabeba, atabal, and atambal are originally Arabic as well. They are from Ad-Duff, Al-Booq, An-Nafeer, Al-Shabbabe, At-Tabl and At-Tinbal. The adufe is a square tambourine. Another kind of tambourine mentioned in Farmer’s book is a round type called panderete. “The word equates with the Arabic bendair.” The Bendair resembles the Taar, but without jingling metal discs. Instead, there are “snares” stretched across the inside of the head, which give the instrument a tone like the Western side drum.

The Taar is another type of tambourine with jingling plates in the rim. The albogon, resembles the Arabian al-booq, was in one case a horn, and in another a sort of saxophone improved by the Andalusian Sultan Al-Hakim II. Al-Shalahi (13th century) informs us that the Christians borrowed the instrument from the Arabs.

music_stringsThe anafil was a long straight trumpet. Farmer mentions that “it has been generally admitted by our musical antiquaries that the straight cylindrical bore trumpet came from the Arabs. Could this have been the particular feature of the nafir and anafil? We read in “Alf Laila wa Laila” (Thousand and One Nights) that a horn-player “blew” (nafakha) the booq, but that a trumpter “blasted” (SaHe, lit. “Split”) the nafir. It is possible that these terms convey the distinction between the tones of the conical bore horn and the cylindrical bore trumpet.”

Notice that Farmer’s transliteration of the Arabic version of the word anafil is “nafir” while my transliteration is “nafeer”. Both words are pronounced the same and are for the same instrument. “The origin of the words atabal and atambal from the Arabic at-Tabl and the Persian at-Tinbal, is I believe, clear enough philologically”, says Farmer; “It would follow in consequence that the former is the older word, and that the latter was adopted at the time of the Crusades.”

music tablaAt-Tabl is a big drum. At-Tumboor seems to be identical to the Tabl. It belongs to the military and processional music. It was adopted by Western armies for their military bands at the time of the Crusades. These bands before such adoption had only been served by trumpets and hornes.

In addition to the previous instruments, there are many others whose Arabic name or origin have not been well noticed. “Practically, the entire drum family came into Western Europe through the Arabian contact, or was popularised by this medium.” For example, the Kittledrum (naker, timbale) which was called “le
tambour de Perses.”

The naker (originally naqqara) or the kittledrum is a timpanic instrument with a dual hemispheric body played with wooden drumsticks. It is one of the essential instruments used with Maqam and goes as far back as the Abbasid era (prior to the 12th century) when Baghdad became the capital of the Muslim World. Dirbakka, dunbug and Tabla are various names of one kind of a drum. Tabla is an Arabic word while dunbug, a term used in Iraq and other Gulf countries, is a Persian word. The word dirbakka (or dirbakki) is a slang used in the Laventine (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.)

The Tabla is about 15 inches long and being played either loose on either legs or while being suspended by a cord over the left shoulder and carried under the left arm. It is beaten with both hands and yields different sounds when beaten near the edge and near the middle. The Iraqi Tabla or dunbug which is only used in Iraq today is about 3 inches in diameter and specifically used for country and gypsy style music.

music arabThe Kaithaar is an interesting instrument as to the origin of the flat-chested guitar in Europe. It has been argued that the Spanish word guitarra (with t) was derived from the Arabic qitara, rather than from the Greek ki0apa (with th). It seems that the Arabic words qitara or qithara, were only used when dealing with the Greek or Byzantine instrument, while kaithaar was given to the Arabic insrtument. Henry George Farmer says that “even Al-ShalaHi says that the word Kaithaar is post-classical. He quotes a short definition of it by Abu Bakr Al-Turtushi (d. 1126), who merely says that it is a “stringed instrument.” More important, however, is a verse by Ibn Abd Rabbihi (d.940) in its praise.”

musicians-playing-music-on-traditional-arabic-instrumentsAmong stringed instruments, is the Arabian qanoon, which became the European Kanon, Canon and Canale at the same time. Al-qanoon is a trapezoidal instrument with a range of three octaves which is played by plucking with a plectrum on the tip and index fingers of each hand. The total number of strings may vary between 64 and 82.

Four theories are available to us by Arab and European scholars on the origin of al-qanoon: One states that al-qanoon is originally Greek, the other indicates that it has originated in ancient Egypt, the third says it has originated from a rectangular musical instrument used in ancient Assyria which had parallel strings on top of a sound box, and the fourth theory states that qanoon is originally Indian.

There has been various theories in regard to the origin of the word qanoon as well. However, the oldest recorded usage of the word qanoon as a chrodophone instrument was during the Abbasid era around the 10th century. It was mentioned in the stories of One Thousand and one Nights.

Music.spainAl-‘ud is a half pear-shaped with stripes of inlaid wood, the ‘ud has 10 to 12 strings, is unfretted and is played with a small plectrum. However, a detailed chapter in a book titled “Studies in Oriental Musical Instruments” by George Henry Farmer indicates that the Arabian and Persian lute was Fretted. Mr. Farmer in The Legacy of Islam (1931) wrote: “The Islamic legagacy to Western Europe in musical instruments was of the greatest impor tance. There were many distinctly novel Arabian types introduced. With these instruments came several materal benefits. European minstrels, prior to the Arabian contact, only had the cithara and harp among stringed instruments, and they only had their ears to guide them when tuning. The Arabs brought to Europe their lutes, pandores, and guitars, with the places of the notes fixed on the fingerboard by means of frets which were determined by measurement. This alone was a noteworthy advance.”

The origin of al-‘ud is a complex one to deal with. There are six theories on the origin of al-‘ud: One says it is originally Sumerian, the second is Persian, the third is Egyptian, the fourth is Arian, the fifth is Jewish and the sixth is Akkadian of ancient Iraq.

The word ‘Ud comes from the Arabic word for wood. Pictures of ‘Ud-like instruments have been discovered in the ruins of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Persians and Indians played it in ancient times. However, it was the Arabs (during the Abbasid Era), who perfected the ‘Ud, called it so and passed it on to the West.

music instrAnother stringed instrument is al-SanToor. The word as-SanToor belongs to the family of Semetic languages; Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Amharic. In the Tourah or the Old Testament, the word “p’samterion” was translated into Greek as “psalterim” and to Latin, it became “psalterium”. In the Arabic translation of Tourah, the word became “SanTeer”. As-SanToor belongs to the family of chrodophones and consists of 72 (to 100) strings. It is trapezoidal and played by two sticks. Its origin is said to be from ancient Babylonia.

Al-jawza is nowadays only common in Iraq. It is one of the main instruments used with the Maqaam. Al-jawza is called so because it is made of Jawz Al-Hind or the Indian Coconut. It has four strings and a round soundbox.

Arab musicologists are able to trace their own folk forms back to the Bedouin of ancient times, whose caravan song-the huda– cheered their desert voyages. The two famous instruments used in the Bedouin music are the naay and rababeh or rebec.

music InstruRababeh is a single string instrument with a square soundbox played with a single string bow. The rababeh was brought to Spain by the Arabs and spread from Spain to Europe under the name rebec. It is usually referred to Al-Farabi (10th century) as the first to have mentioned the rababeh. However, Ali of Isphahan mentioned that rababeh was used at the court of Baghdad two centuries and a half before that. “This instrument was counted as one of the precursors of the European violin.”

Among the “wood-wind” instruments, the Arabian influence is as noteworthy as that of the family of drums. The medieval xelami is actually the Arabian Zulami. An instrument invented at Baghdad at the beginning of the ninth century.

music Surname_17bThe exabeba was a small flute resembles the Arabian Shabbabe or Al-naay. Al-naay is a Persian term. The Arabic words for the same instrument may be QaSaba, Shabbabe or minjara. Al-naay is a vertical flute and one of the oldest instruments employed in Arabic music. It is simply an open tube made of sugar cane whereby the instrumentalist blows diagonally accross the open end.

The wind-pipe goes as far back as the stone ages and was found all over the Eastern hemisphere in ancient times.

music Arab_instrument(s)

1. Encyclopedia of Islam Volume III L-R, edited by M. Houtsma, A.J. Wensinck, E.Levi-Provencal, H.A.R. Gibb et W. Heffening.
2. A History of Arabian Music, by Henry George Farmer, published by Lowe & Brydone, Haverhill, Suffolk, England, 1929.
3. Ancient and Oriental Music by Egon Wellesz, published by Oxford University Press.
4. Studies in Oriental Musical Instruments by H.G. Farmer, London, 1931.
5. Article on “Arabic Music” by Halim Dabh, The Arab World Magazine Jan.-Feb. 1966 (Arab Information Center, New York)
6. Article on “Music in the Middle East” by Afif A. Boulos, Aramco World Magazine, Jan.-Feb 1966

Wafaa’ Salman is editor of Al-Wafaa News and the founder of the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS). A fuller biography is available on the INEAS site This article is reprinted with permission from Al-Wafaa News (The full article, including diagrams, is in “Previous Issues”, after clicking, it will be issue # 30, Fall, 1997, pages 4 through 7.)

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