Music Notation – Hamza Castro

When listening to Arab or Turkish music, one of the first things you may notice is that the pitches of some of the notes do not correspond to those in Western music. The Ney and the Oud is the perfect instrument for playing such notes as the musician is not constrained by fixed frets as on the guitar, for example. However, this leads to further complications as not all musicians may agree on the exact pitch at which a note should be played. When attempting to write the music down on paper, questions of notation are bound to arise.

 In Western music a system known as equal temperament is used, which means that an F sharp has the same pitch as a G flat, for example – the octave is therefore divided into 12 notes a semitone apart. In Middle Eastern music, however, notes may be sharpened or flattened by varying degrees, which often do not correpsond to multiples of a semitone. A simplification which is often used is the idea of the ‘quarter-tone’, or half a semitone, but this is just an approximation to what is actually heard. The situation is very complicated and several solutions have been proposed in order to write down such music – these are outlined below.

The first method, which is often seen in Arab oud books, involves dividing the octave into 24 quarter-tones mentioned above (click here for a table showing the names of the notes in Arabic). Although not all of these notes are actually used in practice, it does enable the music to be notated. The following symbols are used to indicate the sharpening and flattening of notes by multiples of quarter-tones, and I have used them in my section on Arabic maqamat:

For both systems you should bear in mind that the notation is only ever a guide to the actual notes you would hear played: the symbols really only ‘represent’ the notes rather than fix an specific pitch for them. As mentioned above, the fretless nature of the oud allows the musician considerable choice in the pitch of each note, but even fretted instruments such as the tanbur have moveable frets to facilitate this choice. The only way to ensure that you are hitting the ‘correct’ notes is to listen to recordings or seek the advice of a good teacher.