The Rich Land of the Nile

By Amr Selim

After moving from Egypt to the United States, I realized that the majority of Western musicians have had little or no exposure to the Arab music style despite some Western string and wind instruments, with the exception of the horn, being used in the Arab music tradition. After researching several ways to interpret this style of music on the horn, I have created a Book of Etudes that presents techniques to practice the Arab vocal characteristics on the horn.

Although many Western composers have written for the horn as a solo or part of an ensemble using the microtonal technique, it is hard to perform a piece of music in the traditional Arabic style with the same technique you would perform György Ligeti’s horn concerto. Using the microtonal technique in Western compositions is usually more technical than musical. Examples of questions regarding technique that one would likely ask when learning Ligeti’s concerto are: How far is this partial from the other?

Questions usually asked when on the subject of performing traditional Arabic music are: What maqam (melodic mode) is this piece in? And how is this microtone related to the following pitch in the maqam?

The East and the West have developed different styles of music. The West has evolved a harmonic polyphonic system that was, until recently, quite alien to the East, while the East has explored subtleties of melody and rhythm unknown to the West. Yet the musical culture of Egypt has achieved something like a synthesis of these two aspects.

Besides the quarter tone, which is perhaps the most distinct feature of Arabic music, Arabic music values the emotional interpretation the musician brings to an established piece, and the individuality of interpretation. Not that Western music does not value individuality, but in Arabic music (as well as other folkloric music), improvisation is a big part of the tradition, whereas in Western music, typically (with the exception of cadenzas which still enhance and not take over the original composition meaning) improvisation is absent.

Similar to Western music history, in the Arab world, early poetry, and music, including song, were passed down by oral communication through generations. However, the emphasis on personal expression makes this music different from the fixed precision and dense polyphony found in European textures.Traditional Middle Eastern music is heterophonic, and values a performer’s emotional interpretation of an established piece and the individuality of the musician’s interpretation versus showing an interpretation of a score based on a composer’s intentions.

This article was published in Cornucopia Magazine, November 2016 issue. A monthly magazine for horn playing for the Northeast region of the US and under the umbrella of the International Horn Society.


Dr. Amr Selim, a graduate of Cairo Conservatory and SUNY Stony Brook, is an Assistant Professor of Music in the Department of Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University.