Crossing cultures

Three quick notes about things I learned in Tunis. 

First: Composers in Guatemala incorporated Afro-Caribbean music into their compositions — in the 18th century! I learned this from Dieter Lehnhoff, an Austrian violinist and conductor who’s been living in Guatemala for many years, and has studied, published, and recorded Guatemalan compositions from past centuries. There are recordings of some of these pieces with the Afro-Caribbean influence, but they’re not (I gather) available outside Guatemala. Dieter says the composers used pizzicato strings to mimic the sound of the local marimbas, which played a large role in the local music. 

Of course, most of us think this kind of fusion has happened only in our own time. But apparently not!

Second. I learned about one kind of Australian aboriginal music, in which there are separate rhythmic and melodic cycles that fit together very freely. (I don’t claim to be an expert on world music, and I’m only repeating here what I was told. If I’ve gotten it wrong, I’m sure it’s my own fault.)

What this means: there would, in this style of music, be cycles of note-lengths. Maybe a note four pulses long, then a note one pulse long, then two pulses, then three pulses. I’m making this up, just to give an example of how it might work. 

And then meanwhile there would be independent melodic cycles, little repeated melodies. Or rather repeated collections of pitches, because the pitches don’t become a melody until they’re joined with a rhythm.

How does that happen? Like this, I gather: Someone starts singing. And then everyone else says, without having to think about it very hard, “Oh, OK,  he started the rhythmic cycle on the fourth note, and the melodic cycle on the third note. And then everyone joins in, continuing what the first singer did, easily fitting the melodic and rhythmic cycles together. Something I can’t believe a western-trained musician would be able to do at all. (There’s a similarity here, in the western tradition to procedures in serial music, and also in medieval music.)

Third: I learned to hear microtones in Tunisian music. For some people, that wouldn’t have been an achievement. I know people in the new music world (the contemporary branch of classical music) who live and breathe microtones. But I never got them. 

Here’s how I learned. A Tunisian speaker mentioned, in an offhand way, that in former times Tunisian music had over 100 modes. That seemed impossible to many of us. How many arrangements can there be of the standard tones of the scale? Which is how we understand modes, in the western tradition. They’re scales, different from our familiar major and minor scales, but still drawn from the same notes. 

The answer turned out to be simple. Tunisian modes use microtones. The Tunisians had set up a display table, with books and CDs for sale. I browsed through a thick book on Tunisian music, and found descriptions of traditional Tunisian modes. They used microtones. There seemed to be four inflections for each note — the natural version (a white key on our pianos), and a version of the note that’s half a tone lower (this would be one of our black keys). And then notes that fall into the cracks between our piano keys, notes either a quarter tone or three quarters of a tone lower than the note on the white key.

These microtones change the game. I had my netbook with me, and Sibelius, the notation software I use, installed on it. Sibelius can play these Tunisian microtones. So I got it to play one the Tunisian modes, a scale that goes like this: D, E quarter flat, F sharp, G, A, B quarter flat, C, D. 

Up to that point, I would have thought that these quarter tones were inflections of western pitches. That, in other words, the scale might just as well be written D, E flat, F sharp, G, A, B flat, C, D, with the understanding that E flat and B flat would be sung and played just a little higher than we’d sing and play them. 

But that’s not right at all, as I found out when I listened to Sibelius play the mode first as I’ve just given it in western pitches, and then in its proper Tunisian form. The Tunisian notes aren’t just inflections of the western ones. They’re an entirely different pitch system. The interval between E quarter flat and F sharp, especially, is something rich and individual, not at all familiar to western ears. I’ve put what Sibelius played online, so you can hear it yourself. First the Tunisian mode in standard western pitches, and then with the proper Tunisian ones. 

This opened my ears, and I began hearing the microtones that Tunisian musicians were singing and playing. Maybe not as many as they would have used generations ago (one study of music in the Congo showed that recent Congo recordings have more western pitches than recordings made decades ago). But the microtones are certainly there. 

There also are long rhythmic cycles. I began to be aware of them, simply by listening. The singers and musicians would embark on one of their characteristic long and subtle unison melodies, which would curve upward, wonderfully ornamented, and then eventually sink back toward the keynote of the mode. I tried counting how many beats this took, and kept getting lost, though it was clear that more than 100 beats would pass till the keynote returned. Later I learned that Tunisian music routinely incorporates rhythmic cycles of more than 100 notes, cycles whose length is predetermined or otherwise agreed on (if I understand this correctly). 

Again that’s a concept we don’t have in the west. And most of us, I suspect — even if we can easily improvise over, let’s say, a blues progression, or something more complex from a standard pop song — would get lost following rhythmic cycles of more than 100 beats.

Again, please note: I’m not, not, not offering myself here as any kind of authority on world music. I’m recounting all this as a narrative of my very elementary but for me very striking world music education. If it helps others understand how different from ours other musics can be, then I’ll have done some good. 



  1. says

    Greg, interesting examples–I’ve actually been astonished at how far ranging the Western Art music tradition has been in some instances. Central and South America. you might be interested in a recording by a resident early music ensemble from my parts, Ars Femina.

    This group has been collecting, performing, recording compositions by women composers from all over the world but on one of their earlier recordings (from 1996) “Musica de la Puebla de Los Angeles” which include a few sacred works composed by nuns in Cuba and Mexico from the 1600s. Here’s a link to some audio samples: –track one is “Son de La Ma Teodora” from Cuba (ca. 1600) and track ten is “Lupe Ortiz” from Oaxaca, Mexico (ca. 1692).

    About the Tunisian music. That whole region has had so much influence and overlap with the Arabic Al-Andus region and then the Ottoman Empire that it was inevitable that it would be influenced more by both cultures’ music rather than by, say, European music.

    The issue with Maqamat/Makamlar (the plural Arabic/Turkish word for “modes” or “scales”) isn’t as straightforwardly translated into what our notion in the West of scales are. One of the reasons there are so many modes is because each and every mode has a specific melodic progression (Zahir/Seyir in Arabic/Turkish) to distinguish them.

    The actual sequence of pitches (the Western understanding of scales) is only a small fraction of what constitutes Maqams. For example–there may be several Maqams with the exact same set of pitches, but have a completely different set of rules for the melodic progrdession of those pitches.

    I think the late Cinuçen Tanrıkorur really demonstrated this idea well in one of his last lectures at New England Conservatory:–TE

    So it’s the combination of having extra tones to deal with–what we in the West usually refer to as “microtones”–as well as different rules for melodic progression of the series of pitches in particular modes that give such a variety of Maqams in that whole region.

    And though there are potentially hundreds of (if not hundreds of thousands) of Maqams, the actual Maqams in usage are much smaller. For example, this Turkish Ottoman score website resource lists about 100 Makams in standard usage: with links to compositions (now in PDF form) from each and every one of those Makam links.

    This site has links to about 60 Maqams in standard usage in Arabic countries: and is nice as it groups related Maqams together as well as a link to the Maqam in notated form and audio (via Sibelius Scorch plugin) of them.

    And before I completely write an introductory book about Pan-Islamic music in your blog here–just a brief note about rhythmic modes.

    yes, there are tons of rhythmic modes–especially in music from the Ottoman Empire, of which Tunisia was a part for some time–but they vary in length from being just a couple of beats to being, as you mention, over 100 beats in length. Sometimes what may actually seem like a long rhythmic mode may actually be shorter as usually the mode will follow the structure of the piece.

    A number of the strophic musical “movements” in the region follow a verse/chorus (khanat/teslim) structure where both verse and chorus will fit exactly into the rhythmic cycle–so while it may seem as if (especially for the longer cycles) that it takes a whole verse+chorus before a return of the rhythmic cycle, in all likely hood, the rhythmic cycle might have been ornamented just a bit differently during the chorus as opposed to how it was ornamented in the verse, thus making it seem like a cycle twice as long as it actually was.

    Most of the really long rhythmic modes are used rarely, but the nature of how the modes are used make it difficult for those unfamiliar (even those familiar for that matter) to follow which can give the impression of either no set rhythmic structure, or if a chorus is noticed, then the impression of a much longer rhythmic mode structure.

    Of course, these are all generalizations, Greg–and as they say, all generalizations are wrong (just meaning that there are always exceptions, eh?)!

    I think more Western trained musicians need to be required to take a course in non-Western Art music so that they can appreciate that there are other ways of creating complex music!

    Well, thanks so much for starting to write a book on my blog! I’m going to follow the links you gave. I’m so very happy to learn more. And if you’re crazy enough to want to add more in an e-mail to me, feel free. Not that I’d presume to take your time with such a request. I suspect, by the way, that some readers here might be interested in further details you could add. And if they’re not, they can just skip over your comments.

    There’s one way, as I noticed, that Tunisian music has been obviously influenced by the west. Every Tunisian ensemble I heard, apart from some Sufis, had a violin and double bass in it. Obviously not Tunisian instruments, but they seemed omnipresent, and the music they played seemed wholly Tunisian.

    Plus — maybe improbably, or improperly, or on the other hand perfectly naturally (I’m in no position to judge) — I saw a large (40+) ensemble of Sufi singers and drummers lead by a western-style conductor who sometimes played a violin.

  2. says

    Wonderful comment!

    I just want to add that the “normal” piano tuning that Greg refers to is itself a modification of earlier tunings that were based on overtones. That “normal” piano scale is really a bunch of microtones! We regard it as normal because we’re used to it, and because it serves its purpose of allowing us to shift key centers. But it’s a cultural artifact–no more “normal” than other tunings.

  3. says

    Thanks, Greg and John

    I might take you up on that offer, Greg–I understand how much of a chore it is to learn about a completely new genre of Art music and though the net is wonderful with the abundance of freely available resources–that’s still a ton of material to wade through. I’ll email you some more focused resources and bibliographic resources in case you’re in the mood for new reading material!

    As for the Western influence–if I made it seem that there is none, I apologize. I just wanted to emphasize the non-Western influence. But yes–very definitely there is that influence. Double bass but especially the violin have been adopted by most of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor region. The violin has all but supplanted all the native spike fiddles and upright fiddles from that whole region.

    Some of that is just that the violin is a good substitute for those instruments as far as range and being non-fretted (which makes playing those microtones possible). But I think it’s also an issue of prestige–in a different way than how having an [Western] Orchestra brings prestige. I think it’s more like the prestige issue that linguists talk about with e.g. British(-like) English being the dialect of English that demonstrates (wither erroneously or not) schooling and background.

    One prominent popular media example being how “appropriate” and yet odd it is to have brad Pitt attempting a [terrible] faux Brit Accent in his role as Achilles in the Troy movie. Why an modern cinematic depiction of an ancient Attic Greek hero needs to speak that way is one of those interesting modern anachronisms that we don’t really challenge in this age of cinematic adaptations of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

    But while we may not challenge the prestige of a particular dialect or even, for that matter, the prestige of having European Symphonic ensembles (for the most part) the Middle Eastern countries did question and challenge it at the Cairo Congress of Arab Music. This is probably too big a subject to outline here, but imagine what it would be like if all the European countries held a music congress with one of its express purposes to deal with the encroaching (and possibly imperialistic) influence of, say, Chinese musical values, styles and ensembles on European music.

    Granted, that wasn’t the only focus of the congress, but it was an issue that all the middle eastern countries that participated had to address. This Kayhan Kalhor interview gives a bit of the perspective from that time period through his experiences trying to find a teacher of the Iranian kemenche ( ).

    Central Asian and Eastern Bloc countries had to respond to different pressures due to Soviet rule and I’ve found it fascinating how differently they preserved or modified their Art music traditions. For example, while Bulgaria never really embraced Western styled ensembles, it did take the Soviet model of socializing musical practice by institutionalizing its native folk musics. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, preserved the traditional mugam music by melding the classical mugam ensemble and music with Western style Orchestras to create a completely new hybrid style. One genre in that style is the Mugam Opera where the soloists are Mugam vocalists rather than Operatically trained singers. Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble toured a chamber version of Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s Mugam Opera Layla and Majnun in the states recently.

    I think that in the end there are as many responses to foreign influences as there are people in every genre whether Art music, folk music, or even pop music. So really, the appropriateness of a violinist/director of a ensemble of Sufi singers and drummer will depend as much on who you ask as it does on some general standard.

    As much as I may seem like I know what I’m talking about–I’m really just a neophyte in this huge world of music, going back to your comment of getting lost improvising over one of those ginormous [sic] rhythmic cycles–hell, I still sometimes get lost improvising over a samaii (10/8 rhythmic mode) and *gasp* ayub (a simple 2/4 folk meter). It’s not just about the complexity as much as it is about being fluent enough in the idiom to just whip out an improv in the appropriate maqam for the appropriate rhythmic mode!

    And John–yes! Western piano (and fretted instrument) tuning is a huge can of worms that we can spend a lifetime debating the merits of if we wanted!

    Jon, you’re an invaluable resource in this discussion .I’m drinking in what you write, like a thirsty man who’s found an oasis. Thanks.

    One of my troubles, trying to follow the long rhythmic cycles, is that I wanted to break them down into regular beat patterns. Like, maybe, repetitions of a 5/4 bar. I’d get lost looking for something like that. But also the rhythms are very fluid, and in any music with rhythmic duende (to mix in a literary thought), and which doesn’t have the simple rhythm of a march, or the steady drumbeats of rock, the beats may not be as plain and prominent as, let’s say, telephone poles along a roadway. You can miss a couple, even if you’re counting along as hard as you can. (I’m guessing performing musicians with a good sense of rhythm might have an easier time than I did.)

  4. says

    You’re very welcome, Greg.

    Yes–that is one of the biggest issues with trying to translate what is a mixed oral/improvisatory (though increasingly scored) Art music tradition. It comes down to just being a rote skill having to learn the rhythmic cycles (and improvisation rules).

    And we, in the West like to break things down into ‘countable’ portions whereas in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and Eastern Europe rhythms are taught will syllables (which, in a way become manageable thematic units).

    I’ve found, that after a couple years of doing music with a kind a rhythmic language it becomes far easier to think in the than it would be to try to count. I guess the language analogy is apt, as when speakers become proficient in a second, third, etc. language thinking in the language rather than translating in the head via the native language becomes easier (and quicker).

    And I’ve found that Western trained musicians (whether classical, pop, or folk) have a difficult, if not impossible time with alot of the longer cycles or even irregular rhythms from the above mentioned regions.

    Part of the issue is just being able to recognize rhythmic changes as this research article on cross-cultural rhythm perception demonstrates. It’s very much an early developmental issue–children that grow up with particular types of rhythms are more easily able to comprehend them. But i thought the asymmetry of the perceptual issues to be interesting and fascinating:

    The North American participants were able to recognize when simple rhythms were changed to more complex ones, but they could not tell when the reverse happened. The Eastern European immigrants, however, were able to tell the difference between structure-changing and structure-preserving meters in all the tunes, whether or not their rhythms were simple or complex.

    I’ve also found articles specifically targeting Classically trained musicians’ ability to comprehend complex non-Western rhythms which had similar results so it’s not just an issue of formal music training vs layperson understanding of music.

    It’s difficult to even count something if you can’t perceive certain structural changes in rhythms.

    Anyway–I should probably send you some more directed resources and maybe of contacts of people who have a more comprehensive understanding of some of these issues and have spent their careers ‘advocating’ them! ;)


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