Development of Arabic Musical Notation

From the outset, Arab scholars and philosophers took a profound interest in musical studies and wrote profusely on the subjects of instruments, genres, scales, rhythm and melody.

However, despite their knowledge and capability, the musical works were not passed on in full notation to the succeeding generations. Al-Kindi, the renowned Arab philosopher, who died in 874 AD, used a type of notation based on the alphabet to support his musical explanations, as did al Farabi (d. 950 AD). Their alphabet-based notation used, for example, the letters a, b, g, d, h, w, z, h, t and I to express the musical letters for striking the ud strings named (from low to high-pitched) bamm, mathlath, mathna, zir and hadd. Moreover, scholars of music named the finger positions after the fingers of the human hand: index, middle, ring and small fingers. Therefore, they were able to identify each tone either by means of the finger positions on the string or by the alphabetical letters.

Of all the scholarly musical examples handed down through the centuries, two examples by Safi ad Din al-Urmawi (d. 1294 AD) are most interesting. He managed to use numbers underlying the alphabetical letters to signify the intended rhythmic time of each letter: i.e. the tone.

The purpose of such examples and use of alphabetical letters to denote the intended tones was predominantly didactic rather than practical - i.e. they were not written as a basis for musical performance. Even the musical encyclopaedic work from the 10th century, Kitab al-Aghani al-Kabir (The Major Book of Songs) by Abu al Farag al Isfahani limited itself to giving the text, the name of the intended rhythm, and the name of the melodic mode of the sot. Arabic composers, being unwilling to place any restrictions on performers of their musical pieces, chose not to write their music in notation, but instructed their pupils of performers orally. Thus, it would appear that they preferred to see the same melody given different expressions by different players or performers rather than having musically homogeneous results in every performance. Consequently, every musician enjoyed the freedom to form and embellish the basic melody according to his own individual taste and technical abilities without being forced to repeat a rigid set of instructions.

This entirely opposes the intentions of a composer of, say, a Western symphony. Since Arab composers had no desire to create unchanging pieces of music, and their main concern was to provide works which lent themselves to a wide range of individual musical performances, a rigid notation in a generally valid form was not an important fact for them. As for transmitting music to posterity, the Arabs of those days depended on the oral method of transmission, a method with neither absolutely positive nor absolutely negative effects.

Methods of transmitting Arabic traditional music have not changed much even today, as oral transmission through performance is still in use, although there are also sometimes certain structures which are very complex and incomprehensible to a musical outsider.

Some Omani genres, for instance, reveal at a closer look, a high degree of complexity and a multilayered rhythmical structure, which becomes evident to a western observer only after a written analysis. These rhythms were handed down from generation to generation solely by live performance.

The first Arab country to be involved in the systematic introduction of Western musical patterns was Egypt, under Muhammad Ali al-Kabir. Between 1824 and 1834 this ruler decreed the establishment of many military-music schools for which several European teachers and instructors were brought in from France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Primarily concerned with military brass music and the best instructional methodology for their Egyptian students, these teachers' choice was for, of course, Western musical notation.

After its first encounter with an Arab culture, western musical notation spread widely and gradually became a standard element in the curriculum of each emerging musical institute, not only in Egypt, but in the whole Arab world, even if such an institute offered predominantly eastern music studies.

For example, at the planning stage for the establishment of the 'Eastern Music Institute in Cairo', the Egyptian government hired, as an advisor, Curt Sachs, the noted German scholar, in 1930. Thus, European notation was included in the standard curriculum at this institute.

Thanks to an Egyptian scholar named Mahmoud Ahmed El-Hefni, who had studied musicology in Germany, music became established as a set subject in state schools for the first time in 1931/32. Graduates of the Higher Institute for Women Music Teachers which had been opened in 1935, soon spread their acquired knowledge of western notation throughout the schools to which they were appointed. Consequently, European musical notation spread very quickly from this pioneer institute to other schools nationwide.

More and more musical instruments emerged in Egypt and many other Arab countries with European musical notation as a standard feature of their curricula, whether they specialized mainly in eastern or western music. This European feature took root in the musical system so deeply that even many specialists tend to forget its origins and misunderstand it as 'international notation', meaning that everyone, of whatever culture, is entitled to employ it.

This view is oblivious to the important fact that in both art and science, borrowing or taking over has its pros and cons, both of which are not always balanced.

European musical notation is currently used by Arab scholars for the following purposes:
*To teach musical instruments (in schools, higher institutes and private tutoring)
*To teach chants and group songs (in schools)
*To conserve musical works of the Arabic national heritage (in both schools and state musical heritage groups)
*To address the outside world and present to foreign audiences the Arabic folk songs in books.
*To produce an advance copy for performance. This recent development occurred primarily in connection with recording studios, which produce so-called 'commercial music' and have to be regarded as alien to Arabic norms of musical performance.
*To assume an air of 'modernity' in imitation of the cultured elite.

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