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Music production: Middle Eastern tuning systems in electronica

February 23, 2013


Here in the Secret Archives we have long loved music from the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia, the Middle East, the Near East and North Africa. One of the aspects we like is that often musical genres from these places use tuning systems that are different from our Western tempered tuning.

When we hear these forms for the first time, some notes can sound out of tune – but later we learn that in many cases they are technically more in tune that our music and we have simply been trained from birth to hear Western music with its compromised intonation as being in tune. When choirs are unaccompanied by instrumentalists, they will often instinctively default to singing in a Just Intonation, or properly in tune, and people often comment on how beautiful the harmonies are. That’s because they’re actually in tune! However, even in some Western music, microtonal notes are played. For example, a blues guitarist bends notes to “inbetween” pitches all the time and we’ve become accustomed to that.

When our ears have adjusted to other tunings, we find that they are amazing and can be very evocative. Our particular interest at the moment is in Middle Eastern tunings, Arabic and Turkish. They are both based on a similar concept, the maqam (Arabic, plural maqamat), makam (Turkish, plural makamlar).

A maqam is a series of notes, or a scale, that may have certain notes detuned up or down from standard Western tuned notes. These notes may be different if the musician is playing up or down the series. There will be certain melodic expectations and patterns too but this is outside the scope of this article.

Sometimes an “inbetween” note is referred to as a “quarter tone” or “quarter note” but this is a lazy invention by Western classical musicians attempting to describe notes that can’t be adequately described in the Western standard notation system. The notes are almost never exactly a quarter tone detuned. Some theoretical interpretations use the Pythagorean system of commas (where one comma is equal to 23.46 cents). In reality, no musician can play to that degree of accuracy, and each musician will detune by slightly different amounts or musicians from different parts of the Middle East might tend to detune a particular note by more or less. A musician might detune differently depending on their mood or when ascending or descending the row of notes. A musician might have their own style, where they’re known for being someone who detunes more or less.

Secret Archives of the Vatican have been experimenting with Turkish makamlar and Arabic maqamat. I admit we don’t know enough to follow the compositional traditions but, as we love the tunings, we’re writing music tuned accordingly.

Our main sources of information are:

  • Maqamworld – Arabic maqamat and rhythms transcribed. There are audio examples on various instruments as well as examples of recordings featuring the maqamat.
  • Oud Eclipse – Turkish makamlar and rhythms transcribed. This is slightly more detailed as it expresses the detuned notes in terms of commas.

The challenge for us, who are without the necessary skills to accurately play these notes on real instruments, is to convince our sythesisers and samplers to do so. There are various ways to achieve this, each with its pros and cons. Adding a pitchbend message to each note in a MIDI part is time consuming and tricky. With samplers it’s much easier. One can detune the relevant note’s sample by the appropriate amount. In maqamat where a note is tuned differently on the way down than on the way up this can be tricky. The third way is to record the parts as audio and then edit and detune each individual note within the DAW. This is time consuming and fiddly but can yield good results. In practice, we use a variety of hardware and software synths and samplers so we use a combination of these methods, whichever is the easiest with each device. We love the results, though. A well tuned piece of music is very evocative and hopefully helps us avoid the “Holywood Arabic” scales used by classical orchestras in films set in the Middle East.


For some years we have also been interested in the rhythms of the aforementioned parts of the world. Getting away from 4/4 time is a revelation! Many other rhythms are also very dance-able and have been used so for thousands of years. The websites above also have section dedicated to rhythms and most transcription systems work with referring to bass/low notes as “dum” and treble/high notes as “tak”. So, if you have access to frame drums or goblet drums you can play the rhythms yourself or, if not, you can programme them from samples. If you want to use a drum kit, use the kick drum for “dum” and snare for “tak”. We also chop up breakbeats and rearrange them so the “dum” and “tak” notes are in the right place. Once the core groove is there, you can do any amount of filling in beats around it that you like. A tambourine or riq works very well to run alongside drum kits and fill in the gaps.

For a truly amazing resource see Jas’s Middle Eastern Rhythms. Lots of rhythm transcriptions and a MIDI player that can play them at any tempo so you hear what they’d sound like.

If you’re a producer of electronica or dance music of any kind, we’d encourage you to experiment with microtonal tunings and other rhythms. The websites above are a good kicking off point for having a go.

Finally, here’s an example. This is one of our tunes, Cardamom Storm by Secret Archives of the Vatican. It’s in 9/4 time, Afr-Mawlawii rhythm. The makam is a Turkish Hicaz Zirgule. The notes are A B C# D F G# A. The B is flattened by four commas or 94 cents and the F is sharpened by one comma or 24 cents.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2013 8:06 am

    Dear Vince and team

    I have discovered the Secret Archives over the last year 18 months, and been greatly moved, inspired and entertained by the podcasts. I often find Vince’s comments pertinent and amusing, not any easy trick to pull off.

    As a believing Muslim with a background in the King James Bible, and some insight into the use of its language by Jamaican musicians recently, and English dissenters in the past; I was struck by the phrase “Babylon Halt” and the image of the hand of Fatimah.

    I would like to use the phrase “Babylon Halt” and the image for a Facebook page. I would like to call it ;-

    *Babylon Halt; Images, sounds and words of resistance. *

    I shall say.

    *I borrowed the name and image for “Babylon Halt” from a brilliant album of that name by the innovative band Secret Archives of the Vatican[2008].*

    *All the content on this page is solely the responsibility of Nasser Mashadi, and nobody else. *

    The facebook page will be somewhere to put material I find inspiring, be it images, written passages, or music. I am hoping the proposed “Babylon Halt” page will act as a personal encouragement, as most of my facebook stuff tends to be critical of the horrors the present system, and perhaps a little downbeat. I wanted to provide some balance by showing resistance art, music and images.

    I may cross post pieces from “Babylon Halt “ on to others facebook pages, etc.

    Please let me know if you are happy with me doing this. If there are problems, perhaps with copyright, or contractual matters, I shall of course abide by your wishes.

    Peace be with you


  2. February 24, 2013 9:53 am

    Hi Nasser,
    Thanks for getting in touch. No problem – go ahead! I look forward to seeing how your project develops.

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