Leave Your Knowledge At the Door, Part I

“Leave your ego at the door.” This is phrase we often hear when starting something new, especially something with the particular expectation of “earning your way” just like everyone else before you.

issaWhat about this one – “leave your knowledge at the door.”

How often is this expected, and from a college professor, no less? This was the first bit of advice out of guest lecturer and master Oud player Issa Bolous’ mouth at the beginning of his first of four weeks of guest lectures with our class. If you haven’t studied anything like Middle Eastern music before, this may seem crazy, but after two weeks of guest lectures with Issa, I’d recommend doing exactly that before even continuing to read this post.

Now with that said, if you have absolutely no musical background, you may get a little lost, but in all honesty you may be in a better starting place than those of us with music degrees. Why? Middle Eastern music goes against many of the skills musicians take years, sometimes even lifetimes, trying to master. As a result, melodies in Middle Eastern music are often very difficult to sing for those trained in the Western classical traditions.

Where the difficulty is shared with those without training is listening. To most Western ears, this music, which can be heard below, sounds “unrefined” or even out of tune.

This sound is not what it seems – in fact, this music is quite refined and almost impeccably in tune, but based on a quarter tone scale, which includes notes between each note we are accustomed to on, say, a standard 88-key piano.

This particular audio example is a maqam bayati – a particular Middle Eastern form that is characterized by its form as well as its Phrygian mode (minor key with a lowered 2nd scale degree, i.e. playing E to E on a piano playing only white keys).

As I mentioned before, this scale in this context includes quarter tones. More specifically, this particular maqam is in diwan, which means it begins and ends on D. A typical D Phrygian scale would look as follows:

D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C – D
*listen here

Bayati, however, would look as follows, including the half flats (denoted by “hb”):

D – Ehb – F – G – A – Bhb – C – D
*listen here

Similarly, there is another maqam known as “hijaz” that is similar to what we know as the Phrygian Dominant scale. In Western music, the Phrygian Dominant scale is mostly used in jazz and includes a major 3rd scale degree. In this case, the Phrygian Dominant scale is the same as hijaz and spells out as follows:

D – Eb – F# – G – A – Bb – C – D
*listen here

Though we don’t see the half flats in hijaz, they do tend to be difficult for our Western earns to hear as anything but out of tune. While I have started to become accustomed to listening to this, being able to sing it is still, by far, one of the most difficult adjustments I have had to make.

There is significantly more to learn with Issa over his next two weeks with us, but there is a lifetime worth of understanding before I could ever claim any amount of mastery.


To check out more examples of Middle Eastern scales, there is a great list of midi audio samples on this Wikipedia page.

To learn more about Issa Bolous, make sure to visit his website here.