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Middle Eastern Music

Middle Eastern Music is an overarching music typology which spans across the extremely vast region of the Middle East. This genre of music includes all the music from various regions ranging from Egypt to Iran and incorporates a myriad of cultural influences from other countries and states. These external cultural influences are derived from the traditions and musical practices in countries such as Greece, India, Spain, Southern Italy, the Caucasus, the Balkans, the Byzantine empire and Chalga.

Nations which comprise the Middle East and contribute to the musical traditions of this region include the various Arabic-speaking countries of the region and North Africa. Since the 7th century onwards, the region has had predominant religion, Islam, which has been a uniting factor and allowed different cultural influences to spread throughout the region in an uncomplicated and rapid manner.

Arabs translated and developed many ancient Greek texts, compositions and works of music. Very early on in history, Arabs had already mastered the musical styles and theory of ancient Greece and began incorporating such influences into their own music genre.

Arabic music is very different from most Western music as it often incorporates quarter tones halfway between notes using stringed instruments or human vocals. More traditional Middle Eastern music tracks can last for up to 3 hours. Popular instruments used in Middle Eastern music along with the more popular genres are discussed below.

Instrument Types

Stringed Instruments

Many popular string instruments used in musical traditions all over the world have their origins in the Middle Eastern region. The Oud is a pear-shaped lute instrument. Traditional Iraqi folklore states that the instrument was invented by Lamech, the sixth grandson of the biblical figure Adam.  The harp is another instrument which has its origins in the Sumer region approximately around 3500 B.C. The harp predominantly features in the court music of the royals and aristocracy.

Percussion Instruments

The Riq is a popular type of tambourine utilized almost exclusively in Arabic music. It plays an important role in both folk and classical music throughout the Arabic region. The Riq’s frame was traditionally made out of wood, though in modern times it is more commonly made out of metal. It contains jingles along with a translucent skin made out of animal leather which is stretched over the entire frame.


Wind Instruments

The Mizmar is a single or double reed wind instrument. Mizmars are traditionally very popular in Egypt and are generally used to accompany a musical band at weddings or belly dance performances. Besides belly dancing, the Mizmar also accompanies the Dabke , an Arabic a type of group line dance which is performed at special occasions.

Genres of the Middle East

Algerian Rai

Rai is a folk music tradition originating in Algeria roughly around the 1930s. It was developed amongst the nomadic shepherd communities of the region who blended musical traditions with Spanish, French, African and Arabic music forms in order to form this revolutionary new genre. Singers of Rai are called ‘Cheb’ and whilst the genre traditionally involved male singers exclusively, as of the 20th century, female singers are now widely accepted. The genre had massive appeal especially amongst younger members of the population who had a great desire to modernize Islamic values and practices. The lyrics of Rai concern social issues such as politics, illness, famine amongst other things which affected the native population. Rai has always been a somewhat controversial genre due to its content and its links to religious doctrine and teachings. It has, during various points in Algeria’s history, been subject to censorship and bans. Cheb Khaled was one of the first Rai musicians who achieved international success with his album Kutche in 1988. The genre received further international attention when famous English artist Sting collaborated the Rai artist Cheb Mami on his 1999 track Desert Rose.


Otherwise known as Arabesk, the term was created to refer to an Arabic style of music created in Turkey. The genre was popular in Turkey especially from the 1960s to 1990s. The melodies and rhythms have been heavily influenced by the Byzantine empire, however it also draws inspiration from certain aspects of Middle Eastern culture including Baglama and Ottoman Oriental music. The genre’s heyday is considered to lie in the past as today’s younger generation tend to prefer Turkish pop and Western dance music. Over the years, the genre has also morphed and evolved into other genres and has formed many sub-genres.  Arabesk music is generally centered around sung vocals and very few tracks are purely instrumental.


Berber Music

The Berber people is an indigenous ethnic group residing in North Africa and past of West Africa. Berbers like to be known as “Imazighen” which means ‘Free People’ in Berber. Berber culture dates back more than 5000 years and Berbers were in North African long before the arrival of the Arabic people. Berber music is stylistically diverse and combines African rhythms with a variety of ancient oral literature. Berber music is well known for its use of folk oral traditions. The vocal styles consist mainly of two types. The first is Ahwash and the second is Raiss. Ahwash is exclusively rural village music with the common theme being the submission of the individual to the rules and norms of the larger community. Raiss is generally performed by small groups of professional musicians who incorporate dance, comedy and poetry into their musical routines.


Coptic Music

Coptic music is that which is composed and performed by the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egpyt. This type of music consists mainly of devotional hymn which are chanted to the tune created by instruments such as cymbals and the triangle. Coptic music is purely religious in nature and is thus generally utilized within a prayer or church setting. Coptic chanting, which features predominantly in this genre of music, is an artform which has been around for many years. This artform is often thought to have links to ancient liturgical practices of Jerusalem and Syria whilst others believe that the influences derive from Ancient Egyptian ceremonial rituals.


Sufi Music

This genre is the devotional music of the devotees to Sufism a belief system and practices which are based on the inner, mystical dimensions of Islam. Sufi music is inspired heavily by the works and preaching of various Sufi poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, Khwaja Ghulam Farid and Bulleh Shah. The most popular type of Sufi music is Qawwali which is especially predominant in Pakistan and India. Sufi music also forms the musical accompaniment used by the Whirling Dervishes of the Middle East. Turkish classical instruments such as the reed flute Ney feature prominently in this type of music.