Leave Your Knowledge At the Door, Part 3

Imagine you have two glass jars full of jelly.

Everything about them is as identical as you can possibly make it – how high you hold them, the angle you hold them, their size and weight, the amount of jelly in them, down to the last possible detail. Then you drop them. They fall to the ground, hitting the ground at nearly the exact same time. The second they hit the ground, though, they are no longer identical – they shatter in a million directions, neither of them breaking at all in the same way.

In his final venture with our class, Issa used this analogy to describe maqams and their individual development. The initial, nearly identical impact of the jars is diwan (the scale used starting on “D” – this is explained in Part 1 if you missed it), and everything after that is simply color. So while two maqams might both be in diwan, each melody provides unique color. In continuing the analogy, Issa went on to say that the next step would be the composer coming through and stepping in the jelly, representing the evolution of maqam over time.

We also spent some time talking about intonation and tuning again, this time without having to spend as much time working on getting Western scalar patterns out of our head (though I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have to review that a bit…old habits die hard).

This time, Issa focused more on the Equal Temperament System – or the lack thereof in the non-Western world. For those unfamiliar, the Equal Temperament System is essentially the standardized tuning system used in many areas of the world but namely for instruments in Western music so that, when tuned properly, different instruments can more easily produce identical pitches. While this is used widely, there are also many areas of the world it is not used. For example, gamelan, African log/tongue drums, and gyil are examples of non-Western instruments built simply to be in tune with themselves. In some cases, this is just how these instruments are traditionally made due to the lack of resources when they were initially created, but in the case of things like gamelan, the difference in tuning even between instruments within the same ensemble actually creates just enough harmonic tension to help these instruments carry outdoors. Examples of each can be heard below:

A more recent example of intentionally not following the Equal Temperament System is with hand pans. Though these are considered part of the steel pan family and steel pans are typically tuned using the Equal Temperament System, hand pans were initially built, tuned, and used specifically for the purpose of physical and spiritual healing, so they were intentionally tuned to themselves without using the Equal Temperament System so they could not be played with other instruments. If you haven’t heard hand pans before, I’ve included a clip below:


These last four weeks with Issa Bolous have been invaluable – I have learned more about Middle Eastern music than I likely could have ever figured out for myself, and what I have been able to reiterate through this blog is only the tip of the iceberg. I know I will be doing more research of my own with time, but now it is time to look forward to the next step in this analytical discourse – Hindustani music!