Rhythm is an essential element in Arab music in general and in Omani music in particular. It plays a most important and essential role in Oman's traditional music as it participates in most of the Sultanate's genres. It is as diverse as the Sultanate's regions and reflects the rich history of Oman as well. African and Asian rhythms can be found side by side with genuine Arab rhythms and there are different types of rhythm with names such as the 'simple; 'lame'; 'complex'; 'overlapping' and 'embellished'.

The dominant role of the rhythm, when scrutinizing Omani genres, is obvious in many respects and confirmed by the large number of rhythmic instruments (28) against only seven melodic ones.

The definition of rhythm

Rhythm in Arabic is known by the following names: (wazn pl. auzan), darb (pl. durub) and asl (pl. usul). Rhythm is considered the organizational part of music, as opposed to the melody, which represents the musical content in the strictest sense of the word.

Since the start of civilization, rhythm has been considered an important element in musical formation. This can be seen in the traces of ancient civilizations. Ancient manuscripts paid great attention to dealing with rhythm: the Arab philosopher al-Farabi (d. 339H / 950 AD) devoted special works to this subject. He allocated certain parts of his most important musical work, Kitab al-Musiqi al-kabir, to the subject of rhythm. Of particular importance is his description of the rhythm of the beats (naqarat) whose different quality of sound is essential for the formation of rhythm. He described it as follows: "We suppose that the beats are in three ranks: strong beat; soft beat; and medium beat."

The strong beat (an-naqra al-qawiya)

The strong beat is one of the main elements of rhythm. It is the heavy or deep sound produced by the rhythmic instrument. Strong beats, as it were, represent the corner-stone of rhythmic structure within a cycle. To describe these beats certain onomatopoeic syllables such as 'dum' are used.

For example, in the sama or the tar instrument, this deep sound is produced by beating the skin strongly with the palm of the hand, while on the musundu instrument, the beat is made in the middle of the skin instead of on the edge. On the rahmani it is made by beating the skin strongly with the palm of the hand. If a stick is used, the player takes care to differentiate among the various kinds of beats by controlling the intensity of beating the skin, or by muting the skin after beating it, or by the degree of a stick's inclination while beating.

The soft beat (an-naqra al-laiyina)

The soft beat is considered the other main element in the formation of rhythm and a complete rhythm cannot be produced without it. In the scientific and practical description, it is represented by the word, 'tak'. Thus any rhythm can be demonstrated by these two elements:

 1     2     1      2
dum   tak   dum   tak

Ternary rhythm can be described thus:

 1     2     3
dum   tak   tak

The soft beat is made on the edge of the sama or the tar. It is also made on the edge of the rahmani or by beating the skin with the fingers only instead of using the palm, and so on. The player should make a clear difference between the soft and strong beats.

The medium beat (an-naqra al-mutawassita)

The medium beat takes on the task of 'embellishing' or 'filling in' the rhythm. So it is responsible for the aesthetic aspect of the rhythm. The strong and the soft beats define the rhythm, but without embellishment or colouring through some additional medium beats, it would normally not be complete. Musical reality proves that many rhythms can only show their character through embellishment. However, there are Omani rhythms that adhere to their specific framework, without embellishment, due to the type of musical form and function.

The medium beat has several forms that depend on the skill of the player, the function of the instrument, and the function of the form as well.

How rhythm is formed

The basic task of rhythm is to organize the melody in equal time groups, even if the number of beats in these groups differs. The most important part of rhythm is the 'internal rhythm' or what is known as the 'rhythmic pulse'. The 'rhythmic pulse' should be felt even without any kind of beat and can be compared the seconds of a clock.

The emergence of a group of different beats on this metric fundament of the rhythmic pulse forms the rhythm. Within a unit of the metre, the pattern of the beats of the particular rhythm repeats itself during the entire length of the piece. Such a pattern is called the 'rhythmic cycle'. This name refers to the fact that it returns and is repeated throughout the musical piece. Some scholars such as Safi ad-Din al-Urmawi (d. 1294) used the term 'cycle' in their description of rhythm. In transcriptions such as cycle is usually illustrated by a bar or measure.

A rhythmic cycle usually consists of 8 pulses or units, thus:

 1      2     3     4       5     6     7     8
dum   rest   tak   rest   dum   rest   tak   tak

Methods of rhythm transmitted by tradition

Arab music in general and Omani music in particular did not use musical notation throughout the history of its ancient civilization. This does not signify any negligence of this musical aspect. Written documentation rather contradicts the customary practice of improvising Arabic rhythms and Arab musicians prefer to deal with musical practice rather than with musical theory.

a. Practical Transmission

As previously mentioned, the Omani musicians handed down their funun through musical performance only, which is called oral transmission i.e. the transmission of these funun took place without the use of any kind of notation, but through practice or instruction only.

This method has many advantages: it gives the individual freedom and the right to use his imagination. Therefore, there can be seen several versions of the same musical genre in the various regions of the Sultanate which enrich the Omani music. These funun are handed down from one generation to another, from the old to the young, and so on…Transmission is thus personal and not through inanimate objects such as paper etc.

The younger generation learns these funun with their standards, names, movements and occasions, firstly through observation and listening, then through practice. Thus, it is rare to find someone specializing in one part of a genre, since everybody knows the genre as a whole and with all its parts. Also, many young men can, for instance, alternate with each other in playing the rahmani or the kasir without being confined to the use of one instrument only.

All of this applies to a greater degree, to rhythm. Rhythm is handed down through practice and the Omani memorizes it in detail and links it to the different parts of the genre.

The Omani uses the names of musical forms to identify their rhythm as well because it constitutes an important part in the structure of the musical form. Genre and rhythm are inseparably linked; rhythm is an indispensable part of each genre. For example, when hearing the musical form of a razha, each Omani knows spontaneously what the rhythm of the razha must be.

In summary, in the Arab world in general, Omani rhythms are transmitted through practical performance and oral instruction without any use of notation and that the rhythm is linked with the genre itself. The continual participation in performing the traditional funun is the most important factor in transmitting the genuine and original forms in which rhythm constitutes one of their most essential musical components.

Theoretical transmission

Arab philosophers did not neglect speaking or writing about music in their theoretical works. A debt is owed to the ancient philosophers for much information about music in many respects. When they tried to describe rhythm, they didn't consider the lack of a method of musical notation an obstacle to conveying the information to other generations.

Philosopher Al-Kindi described rhythm in a very accurate manner in the 9th century AD. He used, in his description, the names of the metres that were available during his life time, mentioning the following:

1. thanqil al-auwal 2 thanqil ath-thani 3 makhuri 4 khafif ath-thaqil
5. raml 6 khafir ar-ramal 7 khafif al-khafif 5 hazag

He didn't stop at naming, but also used the letter 't' in Arabic to express the beats which were contained in these rhythms. As beats ranged from strong to soft - which are the bases of every rhythm - Al-Kindi added the letter 'n' to the letter 't') to become 'tan' to express the heavy, or what is called the 'strong' beat. For the light or soft beat, he used the open letter 'ta'. An example of a double rhythm, the first part of which is heavy and the second soft is as follows:

Tan ta / tan ta….

By mixing these letters, he managed to describe rhythms very accurately. His method was used by many ancient philosophers and scholars such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Zaila and al-Urmawi, who used circles in addition to letters in order to mark the extent of a complete cycle.

Thus the ancient theoretical transmission involved describing the rhythm with the help of letters which indicate the main divisions of the rhythmic cycle. As for the rhythms of the Omani funun there are no theoretical examples of an old transmission method: Omani funun were and still are, handed down orally.

Modern Methods of Rhythmic Notation

Theoretical textbooks in music schools and institutes mention and explain many Arab rhythms. This is done in a uniform way by the use of the Western method of musical notation and results from the fact that Arab states have been teaching European music through the use of European musical notation since the 19th Century.

Some people, however, have tried to describe rhythm without using the familiar Western musical letters. For instance, Sheikh Ahmad al-Wafi from Tunisia used, in his description of rhythm, dots as a symbol for the rhythmic pulse or basic unit. The internal rhythm al-bataihi, for example, would thus consist of 12 dots. The actual beats were described by the syllables 'dum' and 'tak' for strong and soft beats respectively; 'dummah' and 'takkah' for the repetition of a beat. So the bataihi rhythm looks such:

dum. takkah dum. tak. dum.tak.tak.tak.
Role of Rhythm in Determining an Instrument's Name

In Omani funun the names of musical instruments are sometimes determined through their rhythmic functions. This means that, in different performances, the same instrument can be given different names according to the role of the instrument in the genre itself.

For instance, the name rahmani is usually given to an instrument that is larger in size than the kasir. However, this size is related to the musical function of the instrument in the genre and is not a characteristic of its own. The size of the instrument plays an important role in achieving specific tasks. The rahmani should be strong and heavy because it has to provide the basis of the rhythm. The size of the kasir can be smaller than this in order to produce the 'high' or 'thin' beats in relation to the rahmani's sound.

It is this rhythmical function which gives the instrument its name. According to the particular part of the rhythm which it contributes to the performance, it becomes either rahmani or kasir. So, if in a different performance, an even stronger instrument than the previous rahmani is used, it will take over this musical role of the rahmani , become the basis of the rhythm and therefore be called rahmani. The original rahmani will then assume the role of the kasir and become a kasir for that performance.

The naming of the instrument is thus linked to its rhythmic function, rather than its shape or size. The function also dictates the way of playing. The rahmani player in the midema genre, for example, beats his instrument with the palm of his hand to produce the 'dum' and 'tak' beats in a strong and heavy manner, while the kasir player produces its rhythm, which consists of 'tak' beats only, by beating it with a stick. Thus, the playing technique reflects the difference between both instruments and their tasks.

It can thus be concluded that the naming of the rahmani and the kasir is based on the function and specific role of each instrument within the rhythm of each genre. They can only be named according to their reciprocal relationship to each other.

Accordingly, it can be difficult to give an instrument its proper name in some genres that do not use the two types of drums together, as in the genre rauwah of Musandam. This genre uses several instruments for one and the same function. Therefore, all the instruments can be called either rahmani or kasir but due to the lack of difference in their musical contribution, some cannot be called rahmani while others are called kasir.

Another genre which reflects this musical function is performed for the ceremonies of traditional healing and can be found in the Batinah and Sharqiyah regions. Only rhythmic instruments are used in this genre: four musundu and one tanak. Although the four musundu are the same type of instrument, some of them have special names that are related to their functions in performing the genre. These names are related to ancient beliefs and traditions which link some rhythms with certain jinns or spirits who are believed to love the sound of these instruments. These beliefs, as well as the instruments, come from the coasts of East Africa.

The names of the four musundu instruments in the mikwara genre are: musundu; mukabwa; namutiya; musundu.

The functions of the four musundu differ according to their names. Thus, the original mikwara rhythm is given to the mukabwa and the namutiya. They complement each other - i.e. different parts of the rhythm are distributed between them. The musundu al-mukabwa rhythm is high-pitched compared to that of the namutiya. In order to control the pitch of the sound of the musundu the player uses as-suhha, a hot paste of dates, grease and ashes which is applied to the musundu skin. In this way, the player controls the tightening of the skin and determines the kind of sound. Some players claim that they can produce three or four different degrees of intensity of the musundu sound by the use of different quantities of as-suhha.

Musundu 1 and 4 take the role of embellishment in the mikwara genre. In this connection another peculiarity in the treatment of these instruments arises. Not only the naming but also the positioning of the instrument within the group takes the instrument's musical function into consideration. So, musundu al-mukabwa and musundu al-namutiya (2 & 3) are placed next to each other because they complement each other in their functions; musundu 1 and 4, in contrast, embellish the rhythm and by placing them far apart, do not affect each other.

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