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Applications for Contemporary Harp Composition

3.1 African/Classical world Techniques — 3.2 Middle Eastern Techniques

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Investigating world harp techniques highlights the intense musical cross-fertilization happening since ancient times.

For example:

• close musical connections between North African, Near Eastern, and Hellenic worlds have already been described

• the Silk Road was a direct conduit for Persian musical techniques to enter India, and from there, onward to Asia

• there is speculation that India was additionally populated via Africa, directly connecting all these regions

•Muslim influence from North Africa became an integral part of Spanish musical practice, culminating in, amongst other styles, flamenco

• from there, Renaissance techniques which clearly show evidence of Middle Eastern flair were imported to Latin America and are still heard today.

...the list goes on!

This paper will divide harp techniques into geographical regions for ease of comprehension. In reality, there is much overlap between these devices. A technique may have a regional flavor, yet it is often possible to find a similar technique performed on harps literally on the other side of the world. Conversely, a single region can exhibit extremely varied influences, for example in the remote steppes:

Georgia has a rich and vibrant musical tradition…each region has its own traditional music with Persian influenced drones and ostinato-like soloists in the East, complex improvised harmonies in the West, and solid moving chords in North-Western province of Svanetie. 95

━ Kurosh Ali Khan

In compiling these techniques, it has become apparent that while there is some extensive research available regarding world harp techniques, these results have mostly been confined to ethnomusicology. It is often difficult to access this research physically and/or intellectually unless one is a member of academia, and the method of presenting these techniques is extremely different from how they would be taught in their real-life musical context. 

This paper attempts to bridge this gap by sharing information from both the academic world and primary sources, including interviews and lessons with harp practitioners, live performance attendance, reviews of recordings, pamphlets/booklets, websites, and videos. The focus is practical in nature, bearing in mind John Napier’s comment:

…the use and limits of western terminology in naming and describing the musical procedures of other cultural contexts always should be contentious. The obvious problem is that any term carries a set of implications that may or may not be appropriate… 96

━ John Napier

The following techniques are presented as creative tools for interested harpists, composers, and music appreciators with the understanding that grasping all the nuances of a particular culture’s music can only be achieved after long and deep study. 

I have chosen to use soprano/alto/tenor/bass (SATB) notation because it is the most common musical notation used worldwide. However, many of the techniques I will be documenting have never been notated this way. For example, with the kora SATB notation can interfere with the spirit of the music. In kora music the concept of meter is different from our Western notions, and capturing it in SATB notation gives the impression of a more rigid tempo or time signature than exists in practice.

Variations in guzheng and çeng note-bending also present tricky situations regarding accurately reflecting their many and precise gestures. To aid in cases such as these, I will be providing written descriptions as well as recording and video sources, in addition to presenting alternative notion systems such as those created for the kora by Roderic Knight and Harald Loquenz.

On a tangential note, it is interesting to speculate on how SATB notation has affected Western composers’ creativity.  Harpist-composer Marcel Tournier was aware of this problem, and among his novel methods of getting around these restrictions was to dispense of standard key signatures, replacing them instead with whichever accidentals are actually needed.97 This innovation stuck, as we see in Bernard Andres’ Absidioles (1974):

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Example 3.1

There is a school of thought which holds one cannot truly understand a culture’s music unless one speaks the language, referring to the “musilinguistic spectrum”. 98 This model proposes there is great overlap between language and music:

…Study of Burmese classical music must be informed by careful examination of Burmese linguistic practices…the tones of spoken Burmese shape the contours of song melodies…such that composition is, in several respects, linguistically shaped…some syllable combinations represent not just a single melody, but polyphony. 99

━ Robert Garfias

Reverend R. Henebry (1863-1916, Ireland) was an early proponent of this concept, a position he gained notoriety for in his self-published booklet Irish Music, The Old Style 100Today we increasingly find Celtic music students also choosing to learn various forms of the Gaelic language.

The sound patterns of familiar spoken phrases inspire playing that also comprises a language.101

━ David Racanelli

Addressing this concern briefly regarding this paper, if one's intention is to recreate a specific genre of music without a 'foreign accent' as a representation of that culture’s music, then yes, learning the language could be of prime importance.

However, is it true that for music to be interpreted meaningfully one needs to speak its native tongue? If so, what about all the wonderful interpreters of Chopin worldwide? Do all these performers speak Polish and French? (Rhetorical question!) Additionally, language changes over time; consider the many dialects, historical variations, and accents of English, some of which are unintelligible to other native English speakers. Which is the 'correct' version of the English language?

Not to be cavalier about a sensitive topic, but just to note the chilling effect a theory can have on such a vast and changeable creature as creativity. Perhaps we might see language as another powerful aspect of interpretation to add to our color palette rather than something which closes certain people out.

Finally, as mentioned above further evidenced below, there is vast regional and cultural overlap between physical harps and their techniques, so most likely we have more in common with each other than we realize!

Note: the following techniques are not an exhaustive listing of all possible techniques available on these harps, but rather a glossary of devices that this author believes are the most effective and versatile for harpists and harps today.


African/Classical world Techniques

Many of the techniques in this section have been gathered via interviews with Temesgen Hussein (krar and begena master), Michael Levy (ancient lyre scholar and performer), and Michalis Georgiou (ancient Greek instrument reconstructor and performer), unless otherwise noted.

Physical Techniques:

• Strumming by blocking particular strings with one hand and performing a glissando with the other hand, forming a chord (Fig. 3.1)

This can be performed rhythmically with additional attention to strumming direction (exactly as flamenco guitarists do), or arrhythmically. Later we will note the Latin American technique of blocking strings completely and then strumming against them, creating an entirely unpitched, percussive effect. 

Holding the instrument horizontally allows different angle approaches to aggressive strumming or muting (very much as Latin American and ancient Indian/current Burmese arched harpists do). It is much easier to strum and mute in this stance than with the vertical strings featured on lever and pedal harps. This technique is easily executed on small lever harps, and can be approximated on pedal harps by leaning the harp back further than usual.

• Plectrum use, and combination plectrum/finger plucking use for contrast in tone (Fig.s 3.2 & 3.3) 

Plectra can be made from a variety of sources, including guitar picks, oud picks, or actual fingernails. Later we shall see developed use of this technique in Asian harps such as the guzheng, which employ 8 plectra, 4 on each hand.

• Baton use on the strings and the body of the instrument is seen on bas reliefs of musicians in the Palace of Nineveh c.700 BCE (Fig. 3.4) 

This technique can also be heard on Richard Dumbrill's transcription of “Hurrian Hymn Text H6”, one of the very oldest discovered scores, on Michael Levy’s recording Musical Adventures in Time Travel (2013), and is similar to psaltry/dulcimer practice, reconnecting these historically conjoined instruments.

• Leather toggles (adjustable, Fig. 3.5) can be affixed between string and bridge on the begena, creating a buzzing sound. Perhaps these are ancestors to the bray harps of medieval and Renaissance Europe, with their signature buzzing? 

• Actual bending of the instrument, specifically the arms, can create vibrato and pitch alterations (Fig. 3.6)

•A hand stance with fingers straight up, allowing multiple new possibilities, including creating different tones, differently shaped finger patterns/motifs, and different types of muting (Fig. 3.7). A key component of current medieval music performance practice on small harps and Latin American harps in general, we will explore this technique in greater depth in sections 3.5 and 3.6. 

• Creating different colors by playing on different lengths of the string (for example, as we understand pres de la table on pedal harps or the slap bass technique on Latin American harps) is a developed aspect of lyre technique.

• String stopping/fretting to create chromatics and microtones (also used in Latin American harp and Burmese harp music today), offers intriguing possibilities for lever and pedal harps.

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Scales, Modes & Tuning:

Use of multiple scales/modes is common, along with developed deployment of these; for example the krar and begena’s scales (kignits) have more common with raga modes than Western linear scales in terms of certain motifs defining them: 102

Ethiopian modes:
Example 3.2

Example 3.2

Greek modes

(different from the “Church Modes” we are familiar with today, the latter being erroneously named during the Middle Ages. Pythagorean tuning was the standard temperament): B-B Mixolydian , E-E Dorian, A-A Hypodorian, D-D Phrygian, G-G Hypophrygian, C-C Lydian, F-F Hypolydian, D E F G# A B C D Chromatic Phrygian

Hebrew modes

(based on the Jewish Chazzanut [Cantorial] Modes and just intonation 103):

Example 3.2

Example 3.3

Egyptian modes

(from historian John Wheeler 104):

Lise Manniche (Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, Dover Publications, 1992) concludes that the Egyptians also knew of and used scales with chromatic or even smaller intervals. This would seem to be confirmed by recent work by others with reconstructions of ancient Egyptian reed pipes or nays tuned to various scales…Mesopotamian texts in particular document a system of tuning a lyre in the seven diatonic modes, complete with technical terms for the modes and even a description of the tritone as the "unclear" interval of a given mode. (Apparently only the tritone was considered "dissonant" by the ancient Mesopotamians - which fact alone has implications both for melodic and harmonic practice.) The various modes were derived by a tuning cycle called a "cycle of fifths" - the very same cycle used to tune a folk harp "by ear" today.

The use of different temperaments such as just intonation, Pythagorean tuning, various krar and begena temperaments, create purer intervals as well as more biting ones.  Evidence of microtonal use is convincing, and as we shall see below, eventually became highly developed in the Middle East and India.  A side effect of these different temperaments is that harmonics ring more clearly due to purer overtones.

Tuning strings in a non-linear fashion, such as having large intervals between adjacent strings or, conversely, tuning adjacent strings to the same pitch (also evident in the Celtic practice of “sister strings” 105), allows for interesting melodic contours, ornaments and harmonic possibilities.  The krar has its highest and lowest pitches as strings 6 and 5 respectively, with strings 1, 2, 3, and 4 rising in pitch between these.

Musical Devices:

With lyre music we find:



trills, tremolos, filigree, glissandi, variations of melody

Melodic shapes

Melodic shapes

similar to raga shapes in terms of contour defining the mode/meaning of piece

Motifs/stock pattern

Motifs/stock patterns

which are repeated, sometimes very rapidly with slight note variations



Like Berliner and Duràn, I do not make any theoretical distinctions between the concepts of variation and improvisation. For some scholars, including Arom, only non-metric music can be improvised, while others distinguish between levels of variation (i.e. mono-modular and multi-modular) in metered music.106

━ David Racanelli

Racanelli’s perspective is perhaps most common among practitioners of music from Africa, the Middle East, and India, as we shall explore further below.  The freedom of his approach has many implications for composition and performance, and takes us away from the tyranny of the score.

The West African kora is a relatively newer instrument compared to the ancient lyres, probably emerging in the 18th century from earlier instruments and bearing some resemblance to smaller, older, bridge-harps such as the kontingo, as mentioned in Chapter 1.107 Being a more recent arrival and still very much in current use (possibly even rising in popularity), there is far greater documentation of kora techniques than those of the lyre.

Continuing our journey of peripatetic harps, Roderic Knight observes:


…kora music has been influenced by frequent contact with both the Arabic world and the West through trade for centuries, and various traits that Western listeners recognize as familiar permeate the music and enhance its essentially African character…The music of the kora in particular reminds Western listeners of such musics as Caribbean calypso, Andalusian guitar, American blues piano, and Medieval European dance music. Of course it must be recognized that some of the similarities we hear are a result from Africa to those places...or similar reactions to a common influence from Arabic music. (Ibid.)


The great saxophonist John Coltrane agrees with these findings:


There's a lot of modal music that is played everyday throughout the world. It's particularly evident in Africa, but if you look at Spain or Scotland, India or China, you'll discover this again in each case… 108

━ Lewis Porter

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Kora and modern day African harps

Robert Labaree of the New England Conservatory of Music notes that kora music appears to be a bridge between monophonic and SATB textures due to its quasi-chordal movements.109 Playing with only 4 fingers (as opposed to harpists’ use of 8 fingers, sometimes even 10, Fig. 3.8), striking multidimensional textures are created. Polyphonic and polyrhythmic in nature, up to 4 autonomous, interlocked melodic patterns, chords and arpeggios are played on 21 strings ranging just over 3 octaves. Indeed, with kora music it can be difficult to decide what to categorize as polyrhythm or polyphony. As Knight notes, it can be misleading to impose Western musical concepts on African music: the presence of polyrhythms in kora music is more the idiomatic combination of even and uneven rhythms than a conscious effort to create cross-rhythms as in the Western practice.110

The great economy of movement in kora composition offers us many inventive and effective devices.  Broadly speaking, rhythm and the percussive nature of the kora are more important than melody and pitch - very similar to the approach in Venezuelan harp music, as we shall see later in 3.6.  In fact, kora apprentices often start learning on relatively untuned instruments in order to internalize the kinesthetics of playing first rather than focus on tuning and individual pitches (Ibid., p. 236).  This kineticism/physicality will be discussed again later as a key component and novel alternative to lyricism for Western harpists to explore.

Regarding tuning, as with lyres we find possibilities beyond the Western canon. F is the current fundamental tonic, although it was lower in pitch in the past, when strings were made of gut. The currently popular nylon strings can accommodate much higher tension and therefore we find koras today tuned at much higher pitch.111 All kora tunings are heptatonic:

Tomora ba, (“Silaba” meaning “great road”, “main way”, Ibid.) possibly the earliest kora tuning, is just intonation built on two identical tetrachords

Hardino features the 3rd and 7th degrees as major or slightly higher, and the 2nd and 6th degrees slightly lower

Tomora mesengo features the 3rd and 7th degrees lowered to minor intervals, and the 2nd and 6th degrees slightly higher (it is also a contender for being the oldest scale, since many ancient pieces are in this key p.347); it resembles Dorian Mode somewhat

Sauta is the same as Tomora mesengo with an augmented 4th (making it Lydian, we find it less often used)

Knight’s diagram112 offers a more detailed exploration of kora modes:

Example 3.2

Example 3.4

The tuning method of sharing the scale across string ranks, as seen in Chapter 1, offers new options for shapes on harp, particularly useful in fast filigree. What would it be like to retune lever and pedal harps in non-linear fashion? It would certainly alter the contours of our usual harp melodic shapes and no doubt impact harmonies as well.

In practice, Knight mentions the common device of playing the same melody kinetically in different keys, which would be like playing a song in C major on piano, then moving up to D and playing the same shapes staying on the white keys, thus changing the mode to Dorian.  Knight states “the basic profile of the song is the most important consideration” (Ibid.) as opposed to exact replications of pieces note for note.  With this approach, playing the same shape in many modes become possible; Harald Loquenz states the most commonly used modes are major (Ionian), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian (natural minor).113

In addressing specific techniques on the kora, we find both Mande and French terminology:


In most cases, French substitutes such as “l’accompagnment” for kumbengo and “solo” for birimintingo are used and are sufficient. The Mande terminology, however, has been used to teach griots and non-griots in African music schools and conservatories. 114

━ David Racanelli


Therefore, we will also use Mande terminology for the primary kora music concepts:

Kumbengo (instrumental ostinato)


Kumbengo (meaning “head meeting” 115) is probably the technique most epitomizing the kora sound. The basic foundation of kora music, it is an ostinato made up of mostly duplets and triplets which intertwines with the melody/vocal line (donkilo, meaning “dance call”, Ibid.), improvisations (sataro, “related/reciting”, Ibid.) and tapping rhythms (konkon, onomatapoeic for "knock-knock" 116) to weave a multidimensional texture. Knight notes the kumbengo is usually divided into 12-24 pulses, single or more commonly bipartite in form, and each has a specific konkon (marked by “x” in the following scores) associated with it:117

Example 3.2

Example 3.5

A brush/strum technique is commonly featured in kumbengos, performed as a glissando against the non-linearly tuned strings, which would be analogous to the block and strum lyre technique mentioned above: (Ibid.)

Example 3.2

Example 3.6

In agreement with Knight’s observations, Racanelli affirms:


A theme’s realization into specific patterns of pitch, however, is never fixed, and a Kumbengo is nothing more than a musical framework, whose parts vary from one performance to the next. 118

━ David Racanelli

Due to cross-tuned kora strings, the kumbengo is often in the same range (sometimes even containing unison notes in a multi-part kumbengo, as evidenced in ex. 30, 31 and 32 below) as all the other accompanying voices, creating a close, dense texture, in contrast to the typically wide range keyboard orientation of lever and pedal harp repertoire. 

SATB notation can make the rhythms of kora music appear more precise than they actually are; in reality there is a great deal of variation and lilt, and notating a phrase as being in compound meter, for example, quarter note/eighth note/quarter note/eighth note may be overstating simple swinging notes.  This variation in lilt provides further rhythmic texture and relieves the repetitiveness of the kumbengo while still maintaining its integrity.  The notion of “groove” is deeply felt in kora music, and one that perhaps could be utilized more in some harp composition.  As we shall see below, groove is key to creating ecstatic states (as in Middle Eastern, Indian and Latin American musics), beyond simply being danceable.

Kora music is intimately wedded to vocal music.  The kora player may sing while accompanying himself instrumentally with the kumbengo, or may accompany a separate vocalist.  In the past, vocals were of primary importance; now with the rise of virtuoso kora players such as Toumani Diabate there are many examples of instrumental pieces with no vocals attached.  On top of the kumbengo we may hear fast filigree improvisation breaks known as birimintingo, which can also include referencing the vocal melody if it is not already included in the kumbengo.  In addition, konkon provides yet more opportunity for rhythmic development, whether that be going along with the kumbengo’s rhythm or creating another texture of cross-rhythm.

The starting point for a kumbengo can be arbitrary, destabilizing theWestern notion of downbeat, even if the piece seems to settle into a particular meter.  Indeed, there is no obligation to decide when a kora piece “starts” exactly, and different performers favor commencing at different points of the kumbengo.  Deciding where the beat is can be debatable due to the offsetting of polyrhythms of duplets against triplets at the same time, as well as the fact the konkon can start at a different point than the “beat” (see ex. 17 below).  Further, within a kumbengo we can find polyrhythms:

Example 3.2

Example 3.7

Additionally, what may sound like syncopation to Western ears may actually be polyrhythm. 119Despite or perhaps because of all these variations, a strong sense of pulse prevails. A somewhat rare example of true syncopation:

Example 3.2

Example 3.8

Variations and ornamentation are derived in a number ways.  Knight demonstrates achieving 3rds by brushing adjacent strings (Ibid.) This kinetic approach involves lightly brushing over one or two adjacent strings after the highest note of the chord is plucked, rather like phantom notes.  This contrasts to the more vigorous strumming common in Latin American music, as we shall see below.  Variations/countermelodies can be achieved by employing the same contour as the melody but offsetting by a string or two, as mentioned above (Ibid.).  This is similar to the Western concept of creating a sequence, from a physical rather than analytical perspective.  This device can be extended to full-blown melodies that are “instrumental” in contour, as opposed to being vocally comfortable (Ibid.).  Even when improvised melodies are based on a recognizable, reproduceable vocal tune there is no fixed order regarding when the tune’s lines are presented, in contrast to the Western approach to variations, which normally would require the improvisation to follow the standard order of the tune’s lines (Ibid.)  Even phrase length is not set (Ibid.), and we find extensions to the donkilo achieved by adding exclamations, repeating motifs, and so on, again contrasting with Western music’s predominant use of 8 or 16 measure segments.



As kora performer Nyamo Suso once remarked, “good birimintingo depends on leaving and returning to the kumbengo smoothly.” 120

In its narrowest conception, birimintingo refers to rapid descending scalar passages, highly embellished, formulaic and idiomatic, employed as material to transition from one phrase/episode to the next. More generally, it refers to segment of kora performance without vocals. Kora kuta is often used during a birimintingo:


Kora kuta (“cut the kora") is…where the right index finger strikes with a sharp outer movement several strings at the bottom (FACE), which are then stopped with the thumb. 121

━ Kora Jaliya “The Art of the Kora”


This is similar to the brushed chord technique but much more forceful. Additional percussive/rhythmic effects include the stopped note/buzz (detero), again described by Harald Loquenz:

Often, two tonally adjacent strings (the distance of a second and thus played with the fingers of both hands) are simultaneously or in very rapid succession sharply struck, with either string muted forcefully. (Ibid.)


Bulukondingo podi (“finger throb”) is the technique of flicking the right hand forefinger on the wooden hand grip, executed by the kora player. This flicking, explosive technique is also common in Latin American music.



Konkon (sometimes called konkondiro, meaning “play the konkon” from “dire” [say/speak] in French 122) are specific rhythms tapped out on the kora body by a second performer with the long iron nail used for tuning (Fig. 3.9). It may cross the kumbengo and donkilo at either regular or irregular intervals.123 Frequently Konkon and Bulukondingo Podi are played in unison or are very similar. The rhythmic concept behind the konkon is important in understanding the full impact of kora music.

Roderic Knight further explains the impact of these cross-rhythms:

[A] song which displays quadruple pulse groups is Mamadu Bitiki. But…this may only be an aural illusion, for it is also possible to hear the groups as triple. When the pulse is heard in quadruple groups, the konkondiro crosses the beat; when heard in triple groups the konkondiro is with the beat. In the illustration below, it is shown in both quadruple and triple groups. It is this very ambiguity that gives these kumbengolu their characteristic sound: (Ibid.)

Example 3.2

Example 3.9

Konkon rhythms can also be varied upon repetition, (Ibid.)

Example 3.2

Example 3.10


Example 3.2

Example 3.11

Konkon is actually the most accurate representation of the “beat” in the sense of where the main accents lie. It maintains rhythmic direction (Ibid.), the aural focal point for the piece:

Example 3.2

Example 3.12


African and classical world harp techniques include strumming (rhythmic, arrhythmic, pitched and unpitched), holding the instrument horizontally, plectrum use, baton and other tool use, buzzing devices affixed to the instrument, bending the instrument to cause pitch variations, maintaining a fingers up stance, use of different placements of pluck all along the string, string stopping, alternative scales/modes/temperaments, non-linear tuning, characteristic ornamentation/use of motifs, particular approaches to variation/improvisation, working from a basic melodic profile as opposed to note-for-note reproductions, kinetic playing, use of groove, a particular approach to groove and musical development (using the tools of kumbengo, birimtingo, konkon in the case of kora).



Middle Eastern Techniques

As we saw in Chapter 1, the most ancient physically existent harps discovered thus far are from the Middle East.124 Harps enjoyed a long history in that region, and their musical techniques reflect this vast heritage:

Arab music has been called a dialect of Persian music, heavier than its Persian counterpart. The Arabs claim their music is based on a mixture of millennia-old substratum forms from pre-Islamic Hijaz, Yemen and Mesopotamia, added to Bedouin pastoral and tribal styles…post-Islamic Arabs built…on the substratum using newly acquired Persian modes, instruments and techniques.125

━ Kurosh Ali Khan

Due to this great age, with Middle Eastern harps we find the same ancient techniques as discussed above in 1.1, with the added influence of Persian art mixing with the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. An additional school of Arabic music developed when Muslim influence from North Africa traveled to Cordoba, Spain and made possible works such as the Cantigas de Santa Maria composed by Alfonso X (see Chapter 2), a hybrid of Near Eastern/North African/European art forms:

Most likely, the chang [Persian harp] would have played tunes similar to those in the Cantigas.126

━ Bo Lawergren

The Seljuk Turkish conquests of the 10th century led to co-mingling of Turkish, Asiatic and Persian cultures, with the Turks introducing their version of the triangular harp, the salbaq.127


At the height of its power the Seljuk Empire controlled a vast swath of the Middle East and Central Asia. Under Mongol rule…a sort of synthesis between Perso-Arab and Mongol styles occurred, the Mongol style of the steppes being an Eastern dialect of the Indo-Iranian language. (Ibid.)


Traveling further afield:


The influence of Turkish music in Greece and Eastern European countries…remains even today. The Turkish vibrato as a constant ornament could be attributed to the Mongol-Asiatic substratum since it is characteristic of styles from Korea to Lapland…Generally, Mongol Asiatic melodies are simple, sung with intense force and heavy vibrato using a few basic notes to build melodic sequences [pentatonic being the most common mode]…These cultures have in turn influenced current Turkish music, such as the borrowing of the Greek sirto and the Romanian Rom longa. (Ibid.)

Again we see the vast cosmopolitanism of music, the interchange of musical dialogue and influence.


The highly developed modal system in Arabic and Persian music devotes fine attention to microtones and melodic contours, similar to raga development, discussed next in 3.3.  Temperament is a controversial issue: more traditional Middle Eastern tuning derives from Pythagorean temperament but equal temperament has more recently made an impact on practice, which some feel diminishes the power of Middle Eastern music.128 Examples of harp microtones can be heard on the track Qawl from the CD Along the Silk Road (2010) by Tomoko Sugawara on kugo (ancient Asian angular harp), which features a scale tuned thusly: D, E, F†, G†, A, B, C† – where the sign † raises the pitch a quarter-tone.


Since 13th century scholar Safiy-yod-Din…the pure scale of 17 degrees in the octave…has been admitted by all musicologues in the Moslem world. 129

━ Kurosh Ali Khan

According to Johnny Farraj the most frequently used quarter tones are: E , A and B 130. Eliot Bates states in Turkish music [and other Middle Eastern musics] a whole step is divided into 9 commas.131 A sharp in Western music is 4 commas up, a flat is 4 commas down. In Turkish music there is great sensitivity to all 9 commas, revealing an entire color palette that harpists nowadays rarely make use of.

Traveling past the north-west of Turkey to Georgia, we encounter the changi, a harp which still uses the unique and striking tuning of that ancient civilization’s polyphonic music. Stuart Gezler of the Kavkasia trio offers this introduction regarding tuning and texture:

In general, in music with true three-part polyphonic independence and a small melodic range, fifths will be more important than octaves…We can usefully speak of such music as being built around the "quintave" rather than the octave. In a scale based on the quintave, furthermore, the tendency will be to subdivide the fifth not into whole and half steps but into four intervals more nearly equal in size, blurring or erasing the sense of major and minor. Those intervals produce a lowered second, a near-neutral third, and a raised fourth -- which, when projected by a fifth, results in a raised eighth degree, a wide octave.132

━ Stuart Gezler

Here is a fairly good rough and ready Georgian tuning, built around 10/9. If the changi is pitched to accompany voices it is more likely to have a tonic at G or A than C, so let’s build a scale on G3: 133

━ Stuart Gezler

G = 1/1 = 196.000 Hz (i.e. MIDI pitch)

A = 10/9 of G = 217.778 Hz

B = 10/9 of A = 241.975 Hz

C = 9/10 of D = 264.600 Hz

D = 3/2 of G = 294.000 Hz

The minor scale would make a B-flat by whole step down from C:

B-flat = 9/10 of C = 238.140 Hz

The scale can be extended up or down by perfect fifths


Moving from tuning onward to scales and modes, Farraj states:

Another peculiarity of maqamat [roughly translated, Middle Eastern modes/scales, explored in more detail below] is that the same note is not always played with the same exact pitch. The pitch may vary slightly, depending on the melodic flow and what other notes are played before and after that note. The idea behind this effect is to round sharp corners in the melody by drawing the furthest notes nearer. This effect is sometimes called the law of attraction or gravity, and is common in other musical traditions (e.g. in Byzantine music). 134

━ Maqam World

Some methods by which this effect can be achieved on pedal and lever harps is stopping the string close to the soundboard or harmonic curve, or alternatively, vibrating the string with a strong push of the finger between the bridge pin and tuning pin.

Recognizing and employing these tonal variations is a key element of Middle Eastern music, imparting much of its character and artistic development possibilities.  Although the temptation to simplify these tonal variations to fit either Western harmony or equal temperament can be strong, it also diminishes the expressive power of this genre.  Mostly forgotten in harp composition today, these many modes, tunings and contours offer an infinite amount of creative material for artists. 

It is beyond the scope of this (or any other) paper to go into an exhaustive listing of all the Middle Eastern modes (maqamat (Arabic)/makamlar (Turkish), meaning literally “place” 135 which have been described by ethnomusicologist Dr. Robert Garfias as analogous to a voice -print; one recognizes the voice although it may say different things (Ibid.).  Again in common with ragas, maqamat can be described as having 4 fundamental elements (Ibid.):

  1. A basic note set
  2. A prevailing tendency of movement
  3. Important notes upon which the maqam tends toward, often referred to as dominants (although they are not always based on the 5thdegree of the scale, as in Western music)
  4. Characteristic modulations to other maqamat

Maqamat are thus conceptualized differently than Western scales and offer a new perspective on working with both:


The building blocks for maqamat are trichords, tetrachords and pentachords. The Arabic word for these sets is jins (plural ajnas)…In general each maqam is made up two main ajnas called lower and upper jins. These can be joined at the same note, at two adjacent notes, or can overlap each other. A maqam may also include other secondary ajnas, which are very useful for modulation. 136

━ Maqam World

Example 3.2

Example 3.13

Although there are many more maqamat, this score shares some of the most popular:

Example 3.2

Example 3.14

Examples of common Turkish modal scales: 137

Example 3.2

Example 3.15


A key feature of Middle Eastern music is modulation between maqamat, intimately wedded to musical form.  Farraj describes this process:

The simplest way to modulate is to develop the maqam's upper jins after having developed the lower jins. Another way is to develop one of the maqam's secondary ajnas…Such a secondary jins can be developed into the full scale of the new maqam, before going back to the original scale. Another common modulation technique is to replace the maqam's upper jins with another jins of the same size…The pivot note for such a transition would be the dominant, which is generally the starting note of the upper jins. The reciprocal modulation would be keeping the upper jins and replacing the lower jins with another one of the same size. This would modulate to a maqam in a new family, and can sound quite dramatic. Another modulation technique exploits similarities between ajnas, by going back and forth between an incomplete jins and its full version…Another modulation technique is replacing one jins with another one that differs by only one note…In a complex improvisation, the musician can modulate over half a dozen or more maqamat. 138

━ Maqam World



Middle Eastern rhythms are world recognized, imparting instant drive and atmosphere. Developing in complexity from 2/4 to uneven meters and long cycles of up to 48/4 or even greater (Ibid.), they present artists with many exciting rhythmic possibilities. In Arabic music, heavy marked rhythm is often employed on multiple percussion instruments, in contrast to the light intricate rhythms of Iran and India performed by a solo artist. 139 Following are some of the most common Arabic rhythms, compiled by Mimi Spencer:

Example 3.2

Example 3.16


More examples of Middle Eastern rhythms, from Kurosh Ali Khan:

Example 3.2

Example 3.17


Some “time signatures” in SATB notation are actually more like rhythmic cycles due to their length: 140

Example 3.2

Example 3.18


An example of a very basic Middle Eastern rhythmic development: 141

Example 3.2

Example 3.19



The many established forms in Middle Eastern music provide time-tested formats for successful development and proportionality of a work. One popular form is Samai:142

Intro: khana (theme) establishes the maqam

Teslim (chorus)

Khana variation, possibly modulate to 2nd maqam


3rd khana, possibly modulate to 3rd maqam


4th khana, possibly in a different rhythmic pattern, possibly modulate to 4th maqam


End with ritardando of last teslim or sudden climax, or finish on tonic note. 

Ensemble ends in unison

Many other forms exist, such as Tahmila, Bashraf, Longa, Maqtou’a, Taqsim and Doulab.  Generally, Semito-Hamitic music emphasizes choral or instrumental ensembles and solo melody answered by choral responses as opposed to the Indo-Iranian virtuoso solo performer. 143

Texture and Ornamentation:

In Middle Eastern music we find the emphasis on monophony and heterophony, the latter also called polyphonic stratification, rarely used in Western music until composers such as Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky were exposed to Asian genres, which also feature this texture.  Heterophonic variations on a melody might include:

Long notes doubled at the octave with tremolos at various tempi

Embellishing phrases by doubling or tripling the melody on significant notes/motifs

Filling in the space between long notes with echoes (“lazimah” 144) in different octaves

Ornamenting short repeating phrases with grace notes and passing tones

Note there is no use of chords, due to the heterophonic orientation plus the need to avoid microtonal clashing. 145

Below is a qanun taqsim from Kurosh Ali Khan, demonstrating much of the abovementioned characteristic embellishment:

Example 3.2

Example 3.20

Another example of kanun ornamentation from Kurosh Ali Khan:

Example 3.2

Example 3.21

Monophonic development on the ney (Middle Eastern end-blown flute), demonstrating a Turkish sensibility: 146

Example 3.2

Example 3.22

New developments:


Although the Turkish harp (çeng) disappeared from prominence in the 18th century, a recent revival has given new life to this instrument. Fikret Karakaya of Turkey built a çeng in 1995 based on iconographical sources from the 15th and 16th centuries, and performs Turkish classical music featuring many of the devices detailed above. In 1985, Robert Labaree of the New England Conservatory of Music in conjunction with Turkish instrument builder Feridun Özgören created a hybrid modern/ancient version of the çeng strongly influenced by the Japanese koto (itself an offshoot from Chinese guzheng construction) and the Middle Eastern/Turkish qanun/kanun:


The goal was to create a contemporary instrument which was capable of playing traditional Turkish music across a wide spectrum [classical, folk, and religious], thereby re-inserting the harp sound into monophonic Middle Eastern practice. 147

━ Robert Labaree

This new design allows Labaree to engage in extensive note bending of anywhere up to a half step, this practice being crucial to expression and rhythm in Turkish music. Influenced by kanun construction, Labaree fitted his çeng with mandals (latches) that allow up to 5 microtones. Mandals for microtones first appeared on kanuns around 1890. 148 Further, Labaree’s construction boasts greatly increased volume, making this çeng audible in large modern concert halls. Eliot Bates states:

I will say, however, that since there was such a "clean break" in the performance practice tradition of the instrument, whether Bob Labaree's technique or Fikret Karakaya’s has any remote relation to what music sounded like in the Osman Sarayı [Ottoman court] is pure speculation. So I would regard what both of them do as historically-inspired modernist art. 149

━ Eliot Bates

Natalia Mann, a New Zealand harpist now living in Istanbul by way of California, is another embodiment of the harp’s cosmopolitan nature.  Classically trained, Mann also focuses on Turkish music, Polynesian music and avant-garde free improvisation.  Mann is developing a harp capable of handling the microtones demanded by maqamat via slides, another example of a musician modifying their instrument to accept the gifts of cosmopolitanism. 

Regarding Turkish music, Mann cites the spiritual and mystical aspects of Turkish music, particularly Sufi-inspired arts, as the most compelling draw for her to this genre.  High-level concepts such as the vastness of space, groove and embodying music physically are cited as key attraction elements.  Also among the primary motivators for Western musicians, particularly jazz practitioners in exploring Indian music, this type of inspiration cannot be ignored as a crucial aspect of creativity.  Delving into Turkish music encouraged Mann to review solfege and thereby appreciate and understand her own music more deeply; contrasting genres also allow us to see our own music with fresh eyes.

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Including some elements from 3.1 that no doubt were known to Middle Eastern harp due to their great age such as use of plectra and hammers (batons), we also find extensive use of multiple maqamat (scales/modes) and their various contours, microtones, temperaments, and modulation between all of these.

We also find highly developed rhythmic forms, improvisation devices, monophony, heterophony, characteristic ornamentation, multiple forms, and an overarching spiritual orientation. Middle Eastern harpists are modifying their instruments to accommodate these possibilities even further.

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95  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

96 Napier, John “A “Failed Unison or Conscious Differentiation: The Notion of “Heterophony” in North Indian Vocal Performance,” School of Music and Music Education, University of New South Wales, 2006.

97 Houser, Kimberly Ann. “Five virtuoso harpists as composers: Their contributions to the technique and literature of the harp.” PhD diss., University of Arizona, 2005.

98 Savage, Patrick E., "Musical Evolution and Human Migration: Classification, Quantification, and Application" (2011). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5993.

99 Garfias, Robert. “Speech and Melodic Contour Interdependence in Burmese Music.” 1981.

100 Henebry, Richard. A Handbook of Irish Music. Cork University Press, 1928.

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102 Hussein, Temesgen. Personal interview. November 2012.

103 Levy, Michael. Musical Adventures in Time Travel. England: Michael Levy, 2013.

104 Wheeler, John, email to Michael Levy, November 2012.

105 Early Gaelic Harp. “Sister Strings, or na comhluige.” © 2010 Simon Chadwick.

106 Racanelli, David. “Formulaic Variation Procedures in Made Griot (Jeli) Guiltar Playing and Improvisation.” Analytical Approaches to World Music, vol 2, no. 1 (2012).

107 Knight, Roderic, “Mandinka Jaliya: The Professional Music of The Gambia vols. I & II.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

108 Porter, Lewis. ‪John Coltrane‬: ‪His Life and Music‬. ‪University of Michigan Press‬, 1999.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

109 Labaree, Robert. Personal interview. March 2013.

110 Knight, Roderic, “Mandinka Jaliya: The Professional Music of The Gambia vols. I & II.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

111 Knight, Roderic. Personal interview. August 2013.

112 Knight, Roderic, “Mandinka Jaliya: The Professional Music of The Gambia vols. I & II.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

113  Kora Jaliya. “The Art of the Kora.” © 2007 Harald Loquenz,

114  Racanelli, David. “Formulaic Variation Procedures in Made Griot (Jeli) Guiltar Playing and Improvisation.” Analytical Approaches to World Music, vol 2, no. 1 (2012).

115  Knight, Roderic, “Mandinka Jaliya: The Professional Music of The Gambia vols. I & II.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

116  Knight, Roderic. Personal interview. April 2013.

117  Knight, Roderic, “Mandinka Jaliya: The Professional Music of The Gambia vols. I & II.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

118  Racanelli, David. “Formulaic Variation Procedures in Made Griot (Jeli) Guiltar Playing and Improvisation.” Analytical Approaches to World Music, vol 2, no. 1 (2012).

119  Knight, Roderic, “Mandinka Jaliya: The Professional Music of The Gambia vols. I & II.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

120  Racanelli, David. “Formulaic Variation Procedures in Made Griot (Jeli) Guiltar Playing and Improvisation.” Analytical Approaches to World Music, vol 2, no. 1 (2012).

121  Kora Jaliya. “The Art of the Kora.” © 2007 Harald Loquenz,

122  Knight, Roderic. Personal interview. April 2013.

123  Knight, Roderic, “Mandinka Jaliya: The Professional Music of The Gambia vols. I & II.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

124  Lawergren, Bo. “The Rebirth of the Angular Harp,” Early Music America (Summer 2011).

125  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

126  Lawergren, Bo, CD liner notes for Along the Silk Road, Mot,ma Music, 2010.

127  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

128  Pohlit, Stefan. “Julien Jalâl Ed-Dine Weiss: A Novel Tuning System for the Middle-Eastern Qānūn.” PhD diss., Istanbul Technical University: Institute of Social Sciences, 2011.

129  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

130  Maqam World. “The Arabic Maqam.” © 2005 Maqam World (Johnny Farraj)

131  Bates, Eliot, class notes for Lark in the Morning Camp, Mendocino CA, 2006.

132  Gezler, Stuart. “Georgian Tuning.”

133  Stuart Gezler. Personal interview. January 2011.

134  Maqam World. “The Arabic Maqam.” © 2005 Maqam World (Johnny Farraj)

135  Mimi Spencer, A Near Eastern Primer, Menlo Park, CA: Near Eastern Music West, Inc., 1991.

136  Maqam World. “Modulation in Arabic Music.” © 2005 Maqam World (Johnny Farraj)

137  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

138  Maqam World. “Modulation in Arabic Music.” © 2005 Maqam World (Johnny Farraj)

139  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

140  Maqam World. “Muwashahat Rhythms Group 4: Khush Rank.” © 2005 Maqam World (Johnny Farraj)

141  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

142  Maqam World. “Arabic Musical Forms (Genres).” © 2005 Maqam World (Johnny Farraj)

143  Khan, Kurosh Ali. The Arab-Turkish Musical Tradition. Salt Lake City, UT: Eastern Arts, 1980.

144  Mimi Spencer, A Near Eastern Primer, Menlo Park, CA: Near Eastern Music West, Inc., 1991.

145  Maqam World. “The Arabic Maqam.” © 2005 Maqam World (Johnny Farraj)

146  Ney Manufacturing Center. “Improvisations: Ney Improvisations: Beyâtî-arabân Saz Semâî.” (PDF), courtesy Robert Labaree.

147  Labaree, Robert. Personal interview. March 2013.

148  Nasuhioğlu, Orhan. Türk Musikisi - Rauf Yekta Bey. Istanbul: Pan Yayıncılık, 1986.

149  Bates, Eliot, email to the author, March 2013.

Note: due to extensive use of multiple languages, there is great variation in spelling regarding instruments and terms.
The most common spellings will be used throughout, with note made of popular alternate spellings.


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