In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section West Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Source Studies
  • Journals
  • Multimedia
  • Arabian Peninsula
  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Diasporas

Music West Asia
Eliot Bates
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0075


There is no single accepted way to define the boundaries of a region referred to alternatively as West Asia, the Middle East, the Near East, the Arab world, or the Eastern Mediterranean, in part because boundaries have been in constant flux, and in part because many locales within the region are profoundly connected to other places in the world. This article surveys the research on the music of the Turkish-, Armenian-, Azeri-, Hebrew-, and Kurdish-speaking world, as well as the Arab world east of the Maghreb—roughly synonymous with the territory within present-day Egypt, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, and Yemen. Also included are works on diasporas originating from this region. The West Asian region, paradoxically, can be characterized by both the extreme heterogeneity of local musical forms and instruments and the strong connections between the practices, instruments, and theoretical systems of the urban areas. Just within Turkey, the British zoologist/musicologist Laurence Picken discovered over one thousand unique folk instruments and repertoires that seemingly were performed solely in one locale (see Picken 1975, cited under Rural, Folk, and Traditional Musics). In contrast, Ottoman art music from Istanbul is central to Arab conservatory curricula, popular songs from Beirut and Cairo are regularly translated into Hebrew or Turkish, and instruments such as the oud, ney, zurna/mizmar, kanun, and bendir/daf are performed throughout the region. Several phenomena support the idea that there are significant cultural and musical interrelations within the region that distinguish West Asian musics from those of Central Asia and North Africa. Numerous manuscripts dating to the 10th century survived and were translated into local languages, contributing to an early widespread standardization of the conceptualization of modal theory. Centuries of Ottoman rule contributed to a circulation of musicians, instruments, and musics throughout West Asia. More recently, the region has continued to be actively connected via radio, TV, circulating sound recordings, and cross-cultural collaborations at festivals. Yet this has not resulted in a homogenization of musical practice. The formalized melodic modal systems in Turkey (makam), Egypt-Syria-Lebanon (maqām), and Azerbaijan (muqâm) share similar names but feature numerous differences regarding intonation, modulation, and the ontology of melodic modes; the rhythmic/metrical systems (iqaʾ in Arabic, usul in Turkish) feature even more divergences. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of nationalist movements were accompanied by strong upheavals in musical aesthetics, resulting in new genres (e.g., arranged folk music in Turkey, ughniyah in Egypt, Shirei Eretz Yisrael in Israel). Both local and foreign scholars have conducted considerable research in West Asia, with an overwhelming focus on music in Turkey (primarily on rural Anatolian folk musics and Ottoman urban art music), Egypt (focused on the development of the Cairo record industry and modern music institutions, and on the first generation of star performers), and Israel (focused on the oral transmission of religious music, and the post-1950s development of popular and ethnic music styles). Other scholars have created critical editions of important historical texts originally written in the Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish languages. However, much of the musical life in the region remains unstudied or understudied. With the exception of works about Yemen, few scholarly studies investigate the Arabian Peninsula, and only a handful of scholars have done work in Jordan, Iraq, and Azerbaijan, nor have many considered rural folk music in Egypt or Syria and non-Turkish-language musics in Turkey.

General Overviews

The Middle East volume of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (Danielson, et al. 2001) has become, since its publication, the de facto reference work on music in the region. Shiloah 1993 is one of the more referenced bibliographies, at least for English-language material. Poché, et al. 2000 is a comprehensive bibliography of French-language research, while Bohlman 1987 provides a useful survey of 19th-century European writings on music in West Asia. There are also several excellent collections of essays: Farmer 1997 consists of most of Henry George Farmer’s shorter essays; Nooshin 2009 contains essays exploring issues of power, gender, and nation; and Zuhur 1998 and Zuhur 2001 feature numerous articles about aesthetics in performing arts.

  • Bohlman, Philip V. Middle East. In Grove Music Online.

    A survey of major concepts concerning the music of North Africa and Central and West Asia. Available online by subscription.

  • Bohlman, Philip V. 1987. The European discovery of music in the Islamic world and the “non-Western” in 19th-century music history. Journal of Musicology 5.2: 147–163.

    DOI: 10.1525/jm.1987.5.2.03a00010

    A concise survey of European writings on music from North Africa and West Asia, starting with Villoteau and extending through Ambros.

  • Danielson, Virginia, Scott Lloyd Marcus, and Dwight Fletcher Reynolds. 2001. The Garland encyclopedia of world music. Vol. 1, The Middle East. New York: Routledge.

    Within these 1,100-plus pages are dozens of articles ranging from the general (S. Q. Hassan’s “Musical Instruments in the Arab World”) to the specific (Martin Stokes’s “Turkish Rock and Pop Music”), with a much stronger emphasis on Egypt, Turkey, and Iran than on other countries. The chapters by Irene Markoff, Scott Marcus, and Michael Frishkopf contain previously unpublished material and stand out as the best works in the collection. The index is indispensable.

  • Farmer, Henry George. 1997. Studies in Oriental music. 2 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Univ.

    Two-volume collection containing most of Farmer’s shorter writings on music in West Asia, including articles about particular textual sources; specific instruments, modes and musical genres; and Farmer’s account of the 1932 Cairo Congress.

  • Nooshin, Laudan. 2009. Music and the play of power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

    The articles in this edited collection pertaining to West Asia include Lohman’s analysis of Uum Kulthum’s “Concerts for Egypt;” Stokes’s article on microphones and the first Egyptian crooner, ʿAbd al-Halim Hafiz; Frishkopf’s work on the ideological debates transpiring in Egypt concerning mediated broadcast of Qurʾanic recitation; and Kay Shelemay’s “The Power of Silent Voices: Woman in the Syrian Jewish Musical Tradition.”

  • Poché, Christian, Jean Lambert, and Monique Brandily. 2000. Musiques du monde arabe et musulman: Bibliographie et discographie. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste P. Geuthner.

    Excellent bibliography of French-language publications on Arab music and, more broadly, music in the world of Islam.

  • Shiloah, Amnon. 1993. West Asia. In Ethnomusicology: Historical and regional studies. Edited by Helen Meyers, 260–273. New Grove Handbooks in Music. New York: Norton.

    Survey of academic research on musics in North Africa and West Asia, with a stronger focus on historical studies. A frequently referenced bibliography.

  • Zuhur, Sherifa, ed. 1998. Images of enchantment: Visual and performing arts of the Middle East. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press.

    Chapters of note within this edited collection: Kay Hardy Campbell’s article on folk music in Saudi Arabia (one of the only extant writings on music in Saudi Arabia); an article by Selim Sednaoui on Western classical music performance in Egypt; a brief interview with New York–based Palestinian oud artist Simon Shaheen; and several pieces on dance and film.

  • Zuhur, Sherifa, ed. 2001. Colors of enchantment: Theater, dance, music, and the visual arts of the Middle East. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press.

    There are several good chapters in this edited collection that aren’t found anywhere else: Michael Frishkopf’s article on tarab within Egyptian Sufi practices; Sherifa Zuhur’s chapter on the composer/oudist/singer Farid al-Atrash; Philip Schuyler’s writings on a contemporary Yemeni operetta; and Niel van der Linden’s work on classical Iraqi maqām.

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