Middle Eastern Music: Music Introduction

Foreword from Suhaila

Middle Eastern music has been played in my household from the time I was born, and it has surrounded me my entire life. I can track all the important moments in my life by remembering the Middle Eastern music I was listening to at that time. Whether improvised or choreographed, my inspiration for dancing comes directly from the music. And I strongly believe that a responsible belly dancer must study Middle Eastern history, culture, and music. 

A Needed Resource for Middle Eastern Music

I knew I needed a music reference of some type for my students.  The story of this music book begins several years ago. Vonda Totten, my creative and curriculum partner, developed the idea for the Salimpour Compendium. Our original plan was to include music studies in the Compendium, but we quickly realized that Middle Eastern music needed its own volume.

Finding Writers

Vonda and I developed the outline of what we wanted covered.  But we needed to find the right person who understood both Middle Eastern and Western music and who had the ability to write about it. We immediately thought of Tim Rayborn, an accomplished musician in his own right. As he has been performing for over 25 years, we know he knows music. He has a PhD and is a published author, so we know he can write. But Tim brings more than just an understanding of musical structure, history, context, and technique.  He recognizes sentiment and subtlety.

Tim and Abigail Keyes (who wrote Parts 2-4 of the Salimpour Compendium) formed a writing partnership. Vonda and I met with them to discuss the book parameters. We gave Tim the challenge of writing a Middle Eastern music book for Western dancers, many of whom know little about Western music either. Abigail wrote about the Great Four and evaluated Tim’s work keeping in mind the perspective of the intended reader. 

The Result

The final result is this resource volume. We recommend this as a starting place to research and understand Middle Eastern music. Tim dives right into the material and provides you the basics of what you need to know. Each page is content-rich, providing you a solid foundation on which to begin and continue your own research.


Others contributed to this work. As she has done with Jamila’s Article Book, the Salimpour Compendium, and the New Danse Orientale, Vonda guided this project from start to finish. Our wonderful graphic designer, Janet Daghri, created a modern layout.  As always, her work has an organic and artistic quality. Rachel Duff took instrument photos, including the beautiful cover and title page images. Tim generously allowed us to photograph his collection of instruments.

I also want to thank Fathi al Jarrah and Ahmad Doughan for reviewing the material in this book. Both strongly approve this volume and understand the strategy of using “the right someone” from outside the culture to build a bridge into the culture. As a first learning step for the Western dancer, this is an excellent introduction. Their endorsement of this project and its approach is invaluable. 

My inspiration for dancing, whether improvised or choreographed,
comes directly from the music.

– Suhaila Salimpour

Introduction by Abigail Keyes

  • Music is the foundation of the dance form known in the English language as “belly dance,” and without it, the dance would be incomplete. Music drives both casual displays of this dance form, as well as professional and staged presentations. The professional dancer’s ultimate aim is to physicalize the instrumentation and sentiment of the music to which they perform, acting as a conduit between the musicians, whether they be live or recorded, and the audience. 

So it follows that a student of belly dance must have a thorough understanding of both Western and Arabic music theory. While we do not expect students to have a conservatory’s worth of musical knowledge, we believe that well-trained belly dancers must be able to physicalize Arabic music with great knowledge and background. 

The Salimpour School focus on Middle Eastern Music

For us at the Salimpour School, that means having a working understanding of Arabic and other Middle Eastern instruments, rhythms, tuning systems (known as maqām), history, regional styles, and the great singers and composers who have shaped the face of Middle Eastern music and dance. We believe that it is our responsibility, particularly for dancers who are not from the Middle East or who have not grown up in the cultures there, to have a great respect and understanding of the music to which we perform. 

Evaluatin Resources

For years, the Salimpour School required students to read and complete the exercises in Rhythmic Training for Dancers (Kaplan 2002). While this book provides a relatively solid ground for dancers to understand Western rhythm theory, it is incomplete for students of Middle Eastern dance and music. In addition, it is now out of print, making it difficult for students to find the book in the first place. There are other books on Western music theory meant for dancers, but, again, we feel that they are incomplete for the kind of work that we do here at the Salimpour School, in training dancers how to work with Arab musicians and music from the Middle East. 

Creating Our Own Resource

On the flip side, books on Middle Eastern music often do not have enough background on Western musical notation for our students’ needs, or go so much in depth on the subject that it might be daunting for students new to music theory (of any origin). So, as with the Salimpour Compendium, we decided we had to create our own textbook on music for our students and their unique needs. 

About this Book

In this book you will find a short history of Arabic music and the kinds of musical ensembles found throughout the region; a basic introduction to Western music theory, including rhythmic notation and scales; descriptions of Arabic and other Middle Eastern, North African, and Central Asian instruments; musical breakdown of essential Arabic rhythms; an overview of the maqām tonal system and its importance to Arabic music; brief biographies of the Arab world’s greatest and most-loved singers. 

This book is meant to be an introduction and a kind of handbook, giving greater context to your work in the studio and on the stage. No reading can replace the experience of actually working with a live band, improvising, and listening to Arabic and Middle Eastern music. What it can do is better prepare you for those opportunities you do have to perform with live musicians. 

A Roadmap

What we hope is that this book will provide you with a kind of “roadmap” for both listening and dancing.  When you take the stage, you will have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the rich musical traditions to which you perform. We also hope that this book will introduce you to ideas and concepts that you will further explore.

A note on transliteration:

If you are familiar with the Arabic language and its transliterations into Roman script, we have taken care to be consistent with our own, but we have taken some liberties. For names that are more popular, such as Umm Kulthum, we stick to more familiar spellings. Instruments from the Middle East are not italicized and are often spelled in more familiar ways than strict academic transliterations. Other terms such as maqām and ṭarab are italicized, indicating their Arabic origin. We have kept the transliterations of words consistent, however, so you won’t see the same word spelled several different ways unless noted.

Middle Eastern Music Chapters

This chapter delves into the intricate history of Middle Eastern music.  The range spans from antiquity to the development of modern Arabic music in the 20th century. Cultural shifts, influences, and debates surrounding music are explored. 

This chapter overviews the diverse Middle Eastern music genres.  The focus is primarily on the Arab world with some North African and Turkish influences.  Context is included for the oral tradition of learning and the significance of improvisation.

Umm Kulthum, Mohammad Abdel Wahhab, Farid al-Atrash, and Abdel Halim Hafez are the Arab world’s “Great Four”.  Each left an indelible mark on the region’s music scene between the 1930s and 1970s. Their contributions ranged from iconic classical Arabic music to powerful performances.  Their work resonated, influencing Arab audiences across the globe.

Explore the essence of music.  Learn the fundamental elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color shared by both Western and Middle Eastern traditions.  Musical scales and tmaqām in Middle Eastern music are also introduced.

Dive into some of the most important aspects of Western Notation.  These include common rhythmic patterns, note divisions and durations, and time signatures. While some are initially complex, they can be understood with practice. 

Learn the various Middle Eastern rhythms.  The rhythms are categorized and explained to provide historical and cultural context for dancers and enthusiasts. 

Learn more about the various musical instruments from the Middle East and North Africa. These encompass a wide range of percussion, string, wind, and Western instruments.  Discover their historical and cultural significance, revealing the rich diversity of musical traditions in the region.

About the Authors

Tim Rayborn

An internationally acclaimed musician, Tim has been active in the fields of early and world music since the early 1990s. He plays dozens of musical instruments and has appeared on more than 40 recordings.  Additionally, he has toured and performed throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia, as well as Morocco and Turkey. 

Tim has a PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Leeds in England, and is the author and editor of numerous books on history, music, theater, and popular culture. Furthermore, he has written dozens of articles for various journals and magazines in both the US and UK.  Visit Tim’s website at www.timrayborn.com

Abigail Keyes

Abigail Keyes is a dance instructor, performer, and writer, specializing in dances of the Middle East. She holds a 500-level certification from the Salimpour School of Belly Dance.  Also, she is a staff instructor at the Suhaila Salimpour Institute of Online Education. 

Abigail holds an MA in Dance Studies from Mills College and a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. She is also the author of The Salimpour School of Dance Compendium, Vol. 1, a survey of Middle Eastern dance history. Visit her website and read her blog at www.akeyesdance.com.

The content from this post is excerpted from Middle Eastern Music: History & Study Guide. A Salimpour School Learning Tool published by Suhaila International in 2018. This Music Book is an introduction to the music theory and main music exponents in the history of belly dance.

If you would like to make a citation for this article, we suggest the following format: Keyes, A. and Rayborn, T. (2023). Foreword, Introduction, and Contents. Salimpour School. Retrieved insert retrieval date, from https://suhaila.com/