Music in the Middle East: Attuned to a different


Many in the West equate Middle Eastern music with the folklore of “A Thousand and One Nights”. Tayfun Guttstadt demonstrates just how erroneous this is

From baking bread, practicing yoga, to discovering a foreign language – the range of virtual education opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic is overwhelming. Middle Eastern music has also benefitted from this appetite for the new in Germany. Acquaintance with this musical genre has already reached considerable levels here as a result of heightened immigration in recent years.

Western trained violinists and cellists have quickly learned Syrian folk songs and “Arabic scales”, while living room concerts with the short-necked oud or the kanun zither have been shared thousands of times on Facebook. The results are then called Oriental, Turkish, or Arabic music and almost always have folk connotations – or what one might imagine to be the sounds from A Thousand and One Nights.

Recognising something of the longing experienced by Goethe himself, such marketing strategies address two distinct poles: on the one hand, the cultivated, classical Occident and on the other, the romantic folk culture of the Orient. The latter is temperamental and monolithic, whereas the former tends to be rational and less emotive.

Consciously or not, these assertions display a continuation of Orientalist thinking and extol a razor-sharp boundary between the Orient and Occident. The fact that the world and, indeed, music is much more complex and diverse than such dichotomous images can possibly evoke is as deliberately suppressed and overlooked as the rich musical culture that has flourished between the Balkans and Central Asia.

Music for the trained ear

Classical culture exists in the Middle East as well. It represents the world of the court, the rulers, religious dignitaries, intellectuals and poets. It was an elite culture in which composers and musicians always sought to surpass themselves and in which the precise knowledge of musical rules was held in high esteem. Such music demands a trained ear.

The relationship between this classical music and Oriental folklore (performed by wedding bands and village bards) is no different than between that of Bach and Beethoven contrasted with Central European folk music. Here as there, the elites and the people resort to similar structures. Yet the two cases are treated very differently.


One would be hard pressed to find an evening of German music featuring both Brahms’ Violin Concerto and folksongs from Ludwig Erk’s Deutscher Liederhort. Although no less odd, comparably arbitrary combinations under the heading Turkish, Arabic, or World music are quite commonplace.

The banner of nationalism

The national states of the Middle East have been not completely innocent with respect to this simplification. When these young national states arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, they propagated a culture that at one and the same time attempted to preserve their specific folk character while attempting to rise to a European level.

This often resulted in a mixture of classical and folklore elements, as was the case with the music composed for the famed diva of Cairo, Umm Kulthum. It was simply classified, under the banner of nationalism, as Egyptian music.


A similar situation prevailed in Turkey. Here, reference to the music of the simple man served as a renunciation of the Ottoman Empire (which was viewed as backwards) and its culture. Nor did the generals and kings who came to power in the wake of the First World War have much regard for religious culture. It was seen as a obstacle to catching up with Europe.

Musically speaking, this idea is amusing. Johann Sebastian Bach, the giant of Western music, almost exclusively composed religious music. In the Middle East, certain Sufi orders also functioned for centuries as the elite training grounds for classical music.

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