Music theory of another culture

Edited: January 24, 2019, 7:38 PM · I have just contributed a post to another thread, about "advance music theory". That is, "our" music theory. We need remember we have our conversations within cultural contexts.

Music theory, to most of us, centres on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, form, and compositional devices, all largely launched by brilliant musicians from about 1500 AD.

I am not dismissing the modal music which these techniques "departed from and extended". But the ancient modes sounded different, even though they had the same names.

What I want to do here, though, is to advise people who are interested, that a new text on theory of another culture is about to be published (May 2019, I believe). Oxford University Press is publishing a text on the Maqam.

Maqam is an ancient Arabic modal system.

You can get a sense of what I am referring to here:,1500004,15700023,15700124,15700186,15700191,15700201,15700237,15700242,15700248

I will buy and read the book with interest.

We think of music inside our own bubble: but there are other ways, which we know little about, and often forget about.

Here is a little taste of the vast range of material unfolded on the MaqamWorld site:,1500004,15700023,15700124,15700186,15700191,15700201,15700237,15700242,15700248

Replies (9)

Edited: January 25, 2019, 9:58 AM · I'm potentially very interested (and I have an Arabist friend who plays the oud), but books like this are often impossibly expensive. Keep us posted with the details so I can inform him, assuming he doesn't hear through his usual channels.

I have played Manuel Ponce's D minor prelude (actually in the Phrygian Dominant mode of D minor) on the guitar. It is interesting because the harmonies seem to involve simple semitone hand shifts that are impossibly complex to explain using Western theory, and that's basically because they aren't theory-motivated (least of all Western theory), just accidental effects of the string tuning and fingerboard geometry. Otoh, genuine Eastern music theory may turn out to be too esoteric for us to use. I didn't get a lot out of Martin West's Ancient Greek Music except for the suspicions that, a) the Pythagoreans were idiots, and b) all we have left of the musical side of their drama is a few lines of utterly dull recitative, whereas it is the popular music that we really should be interested in, but, the usual story, the high culture remains, albeit fragmentarily, and the low culture is all lost.

January 25, 2019, 11:54 AM · Something to remember about the various "modal" improvisation traditions, if you want to learn about them...Books are interesting but you learn by being shown/listening/playing. You don't actually need a book to do this. But be prepared to thoroughly retrain yourself and especially your ears, though.
January 27, 2019, 2:42 AM · Hi Paul, Golly gee, why are we always "not quite understanding each other"?

I wasn't writing about "modal improvisation". There are thousands of tunes notated for instruments that were tuned to play modes: pipes, harps, flutes, rebecs, etc, etc. And those modes preceded our current system of diatonic scales, and chromatic (colour!!) developments, and they sound different.

If you wrote a book, Paul, I would understand it to be a sincere, in-depth discussion of the topic at hand, fully evidenced, and illustrated with a DVD or CD (for the music), and supported in other ways. Of course, it is not the full story, because your mate down the road has an equally interesting book, and I will read that too (and listen to the accompanying CD). A book is a valuable discussion, as close to a personal conversation and demonstration as we can have with a stranger expert.

And the cow hand who shows me how he plays zippy-dah on the fiddle is just one local have-a-go. Good enough to listen to, pr'haps, but not the final word.

January 27, 2019, 12:18 PM · Arabic/ Moslem music theory is "captured" from the Greeks. Many ancient Greek texts survive only through Arabic translations. At the risk of offending someone; The Turks don't like to admit that their music comes from Greece, the Greeks don't like to admit that their cuisine comes from Turkey. This is not to imply that ancient Greek music sounded like later Moslem music. We have no idea how it actually sounded; recordings are absent and the notation is inadequate.
Edited: January 27, 2019, 1:00 PM · Purchases from the 1970's:

Hindustani Music its Physics and Esthetic, by Ganesh Hari Ranade
Popular Prakashan, Bombay
A reference!

Discovering Indian Music, by Raghara Menon
Abacus Press, Kent, UK
Teacher/student relationship.

The Ragas of North Indian Music, by Alain Danièlou (In English)
Barie & Rockliff, London
Very semiotic

The Music of Hindustan, by A.H. fox-Strangeways
Oxford, UK
Very thorough

January 27, 2019, 2:58 PM · Joel Quivey rightly said "We have no idea how it actually sounded; recordings are absent and the notation is inadequate."

Although FWIW interesting and determined efforts are being made to dig deeper into what is known:

January 28, 2019, 6:21 AM · Indian Classical Music is something very rich, majority of which is under mystery. I feel it comprises of a lot of elements, comprising of Taals (Rhythms, with infinite number of improvisations) and Ragas (melodic structure, invoking different moods and expressions). Unfortunately, many of it's secrets are becoming extinct slowly (due to the "Sruti" system of Indian Classical Music, i.e, it cannot be totally documented directly.
January 28, 2019, 6:30 AM · That reminds me, I have two books on Indian music, but I only bought them for the accompanying CDs. I should read them.

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