Middle Eastern music spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Iran. The various nations of the region include the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the Iranian traditions of Persia, the Hebrew music of Israel, Armenian music, the varied traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkey, traditional Assyrian music, Berbers of North Africa, and Coptic Christians in Egypt all maintain their own traditions. It is widely regarded that some Middle Eastern musical styles have influenced India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, and the Balkans.
Throughout the region, religion has been a common factor in uniting peoples of different languages, cultures and nations. The predominance of Islam allowed a great deal of Arabic and Byzantine influence to spread through the region rapidly from the 7th century onward. The Arabic scale is strongly melodic, based on various maqamat (sing. maqam) or modes (also known as makam in Turkish music). Arabs translated and developed Greek texts and works of music and mastered the musical theory of the music of ancient Greece (i.e. Systema ametabolon, enharmonium, chromatikon, diatonon). This is similar to the dastgah of Persian music. While this originates with classical music, the modal system has filtered down into folk, liturgical and even popular music, with influence from the West. Unlike much western music, Arabic music includes quarter tones halfway between notes, often through the use of stringed instruments (like the oud) or the human voice. Further distinguishing characteristics of Middle Eastern and North African music include very complex rhythmic structures, generally tense vocal tone, and a monophonic texture.
Often, more traditional Middle-Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length, building up to anxiously awaited, and much applauded climaxes, or tarab, derived from the Arabic term طرب tarraba.
Many instruments originate in the Middle East region. Most popular of the stringed instruments is the oud, a pear-shaped lute that traditionally had four strings, although current instruments have up to six courses consisting of one or two strings each. Legend has it that the oud was invented by Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. This is stated by Farabi, and it is part of the Iraqi folklore relating to the instrument. Legend goes on to suggest that the first oud was inspired by the shape of his son's bleached skeleton.
Historically, the oldest pictorial record of the oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. It is on a cylinder seal currently housed at the British Museum and acquired by Dr. Dominique Collon, Editor of Iraq at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.
The widespread use of the oud led to many variations on the instrument, including the saz, a Turkish long-necked lute that remains very popular in Turkey.
Another popular string instrument is the qanoun, developed by Farabi during the Abbasids era. Legend has it that Farabi played qanoun in court and alternately made people laugh, cry, or fall asleep. The qanoun developed out of string instruments described in inscriptions that date to the Assyrian period. It has about 26 triple-string courses, plucked with a piece of horn. The musician has the freedom to alter the pitch of individual courses from a quarter to a whole step by adjusting metal levers.
Middle Eastern music also makes use of the violin, which is European in origin. The violin was adopted into Middle Eastern music in the 19th century, and it is able to produce non-Western scales that include quarter-tones because it is fretless.
Percussion instruments play a very important role in Middle Eastern music. The complex rhythms of this music are often played on many simple percussion instruments. The riq الرق (a type of tambourine) and finger cymbals add a higher rhythmic line to rhythm laid down with sticks, clappers, and other drums. An instrument native to Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon, the doumbek (or tombak), is a drum made of ceramic clay, with a goatskin head glued to the body.
The last section of instruments is the woodwinds. The Armenian Duduk is a very popular double reeded, oboe-like instrument made out of Apricot tree wood. The Moroccan oboe, also called the rhaita, has a double-reed mouthpiece that echoes sound down its long and narrow body. A similar instrument is called the sorna. Equivalent to the mizmar and zurna, it is used more for festivals and loud celebrations. A Turkish influence comes from the mey, which has a large double reed. Bamboo reed pipes are the most common background to belly dancing and music from Egypt. Flutes are also a common woodwind instrument in ensembles. A kaval is a three-part flute that is blown in one end, whereas the ney is a long cane flute, played by blowing across the sharp edge while pursing the lips.
The influence of Abrahamic religions have had a great impact on the musical culture of the Middle East. Religion forms a major background to many traditional styles of music and dance, ranging from classical to more modern. All over the Middle East, you hear songs of praise and prayer. What is conducted by a muezzin, or prayer caller, for example, are the five daily calls to prayer. Only since the nineteenth century have individual reciters started singing the Qur'an while still strictly abiding by the laws and rules. This, however is grossly inaccurate. This form of Quran recital is called Tajwid, تجويد, which is the Arabic word for elocution.
Music pervades Middle Eastern societies. While traditional music remains popular in the Middle East, modern music reconciling Western and traditional Arabic styles, pop, and fusion are rapidly advancing in popularity. Lebanese musical pioneer Lydia Canaan is listed in the catalog of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio, USA as the first rock star of the Middle East. Canaan fused Middle Eastern quarter notes and microtones with anglophone rock, innovating a unique style of world music.