Traditional Middle Eastern Music

As described in the book Serpent of the Nile, by Wendy Buonaventura, "Arabic dance is shaped by its accompanying music. This music is never simply background, it is composed around the dance. Musicians follow a dancer, giving her the particular rhythms and moods she requires. Meanwhile, it is her task to express the emotions called for by the music and, during improvisations around a solo instrument, to bring out the instruments essential quality."

Belly dance grew out of the rhythmic influences of traditional Eastern music. This music is fundamentally different from music in the West. Western music depends upon a regular rhythm and melodies which build upon a progression of chords and relies on changes in tempo for variety. In contrast, Eastern music, has the following characteristics:

It relies on the rhythms which lead the melody and lend variety to the patterns.

There is a near absence of standard tempos of music.

Songs typically begin with an arrhythmic, or a free rhythm introduction known as "taqassim" (or division).

Vocal music is allowed complete freedom from standard tempo or rhythm when not accompanied by a rhythm instrument.

Eastern rhythms are additive, whereas western rhythms are multiplicative. This means that western rhythms break down evenly. For example a 4/4 is twice as long as a 2/4. By contrast, Eastern rhythms are a series of smaller patterns strung together and cannot be evenly divided as in the following examples: 3+2+2=7, 2+2+2+3=9, 4+3+3=10. The rhythms can be highly complex, with patterns sometimes consisting of as many as 48 beats. The basic components of a rhythm are two kinds of beat and silences (rests). The downbeat (dumm) is a deep sound made by hitting the drum near the center. The upbeat (takk) is a crisper, high-pitched sound made by tapping the rim of the drum.

Melody in Arab music also incorporates microtonality, namely intervals that do not conform to the half-step and whole-step divisions of traditional Western music.

The traditional music ensemble, known as the takht, was comprised of the following instruments: the 'ud, the qanun, the nay, the riqq, and the kamanjah (a spike fiddle). In the late nineteenth century the kamanjah was replaced with the Western violin, that remained as a folk instrument under the name rababah. After World War I, the takht was gradually expanded into an orchestra that combined these Arab instruments and other instruments borrowed from the West, especially instruments of the violin family. (Additional information about the history of Arabic Musical Instruments can be found at the web site:     History of Music and Musical Instruments.    Information regarding early Arab music recording in Cairo, and a really great picture, can be found at the web site:    Cairo Practice.)

An instrument frequently used by belly dancers to accompany their dance is finger cymbals. Known as Zills in Turkey and Sagat in Arabic, finger cymbals have held a long tradition in middle eastern dance. The earliest  finger cymbals made of metal were found in the area of Thebes (c.200 BC) with a large central boss and upturned rim, measuring 2-7/16" in diameter.