Instruments of Exchange: The Impact of the Middle East on Western Music


Throughout history, the Middle East has had a substantial—if sometimes unappreciated—impact on the Western world. In certain areas, especially chemistry, astronomy, philosophy and medicine, this contribution has been well documented. However, one particular area remains largely ignored: the many contributions of the Middle East to the music of the West. rough the preservation, innovation, and reintroduction of music theory, the Middle East has continually helped to shape Western music, from antiquity to the present. A er the fall of the Roman Empire, the achievements of Western music theory were in great danger of being lost. However, scholars living under the Byzantine Empire and Abbasid Caliphate showed a great appreciation for the West’s work and sought to preserve it by translating vast amounts of Greek and Latin text into Arabic. It is because of their exports that we still have access today to the musically relevant works of great Greek thinkers such as Pythagoras, Euclid, and Ptolemy. Yet the thinkers of the Middle East did not simply seek to preserve these groundbreaking studies; they also sought to expand upon them. Many famous Muslim philosophers—most notably al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and even the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun—made considerable innovations to the field of music theory, using the Greek treatises as their basis. Al-Kindi, for example, added a detailed fret board to the oud (an Arab precursor to the guitar). He also proposed the idea of a one-eighth time signature; that is to say, one that uses eighth notes rather than the standard quarter notes.

Al-Farabi continued the development of music theory, incorporating Ptolemaic ideas to create a new way of tuning the oud using microtonal intervals to create a diatonic scale. And in the thirteenth century, the renowned Turkish musician Safiuddin al-Armawi added subdivisions amongst the intervals of the Pythagorean scale in order to create new melodic modes. He also created an early form of musical tablature in which he represented various positions on the fretboard with the first ten letters of the Arabic alphabet. These are only three of the many philosophers of the Middle East who contributed greatly to the development of the music of the West by expanding on some of the earliest studies of music theory.

While the musicians of the Middle East greatly expanded on the theory behind the music, they also began to produce new musical instruments that served as predecessors to many contemporary Western instruments. While it is nearly impossible to pinpoint an exact date and location for the creation of many of these instruments, early records show that they began spreading around the world from the Middle East at various points in antiquity. For example, the oud—a form of the lute that originated in Persia—served as the foundation for the modern- day guitar and mandolin. Indeed, the word “guitar” itself may come from the Arabic word “qitara,” the precursor of the Spanish word “guitar.” e violin also has ties to the Middle East, as its early construction was based o the rebab, an instrument that originated somewhere in the Middle East and North Africa in the 8th century and spread along trading routes. Other Middle Eastern instruments with Western counterparts include the qanun and the harp/auto- harp, the santour and the hammered dulcimer/piano, the nay and the ute, and the zurna and the trumpet/ horn. As these instruments began reaching Europe, largely through Sicily or Spain, they quickly gained popularity, even winning over the Frankish kings Pepin and Charlemagne. Both of these great kings began to incorporate various Arab instruments into Christian church music, and by the 11th century, many of these instruments were in use by the church, which helped spread them across Europe.

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