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General introduction to makam/maqam systems

Makamlar (Turkish, plural for makam), or maqamat (Arabic, plural for maqam) are the modal structures that make up the melodic rules for most styles of music in the Middle Eastern. The distribution of the makam system is wide, covering all the North African countries, the whole Arab world, Sudan, parts of Kenya, Turkey, Greece, and east through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Makam is one of the oldest modal theories in the world, dating at least as far back as al-Farabi (c. 950), but some concepts in makam theory extend all the way back to Sumerian music systems that are over 2500 years old. Central to the makam system is an understanding of tuning, both of instruments and intervals.

Makam-based music is notated currently on the western 5-line staff, using the treble clef, a manner that has been sporadically in use for about 300 years. There have been other notational systems, notably the Hamparsam system, and the Khorzemian tanbur notational systems, both in use in the 18th century. However, makams contain more than 12 notes to the octave, meaning that contemporary makam notation uses a number of special symbols for flats and for sharps that aid the notation of these so-called "microtones."

The makam system of Turkey names at least 270 distinct makamlar, which are grouped into families (makam ailesi). Likewise, Arabic maqam theory names 90-110 maqamat, grouped into fasilah. Fasilah/aile groupings are often based on modes that share the first 4 primary pitches in common.

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