Saturday, 2 June 2007

Appreciating Turkish music

Most westerners have difficulty with classical Turkish music, as does Darcy. But instead of closing our ears to it, it might be worth considering why this is the case. Darcy is happy to share his first impressions with the readers of this blog.

First, Turkish music is heterophonic. Turkish choral pieces invariably move in unison. Indeed, composers often only write one voice line; individual voices will transpose up or down by an octave. This is highly unusual in Western music. Though older western music will often be homophonic, this differs from heterophonic in that the interval is not a full octave.

Second, Turkish music does not use equal temperament. Western musicians long ago decided to forgo just intonation in favour of a compromise which allowed quick key changes. Thus was born equal temperament. Whatever the key used, the notes on the chromatic scale will be the same. This means that dependent on the key, most of the notes played will actually be off very slightly. Every western ear is therefore subliminally aware of a slight oddness in Turkish music - though the oddness is actually in the western system.

Third, Turkish music is microtonal. The western scale is split into 12 (the chromatic scale): C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, F, F sharp, G, G sharp, A, A sharp, B. In western music, an example of a whole tone scale is: C, D, E, F sharp, G sharp, A sharp. At worst, the whole tones are divided into two, giving us the sharps and flats. In Turkish music by contrast a whole tone may be split into 9 "commas". (Fortunately, not all of the commas are used; Turkish music uses only 53 notes.) Not only does it mean that a C sharp for example does not exist in Turkish music (that would be 4.5 commas above C), but it creates huge problems for the western ear.

Not surprisingly, these three factors combine to create major problems in appreciating Turkish music. However, Turkish music also uses makam; "the concept used to codify phenomena of scale structure, interval structure, and melodic characteristics that underlie composition and improvisation". The makams give the piece part of its underlying structure. And the makam is accompanied by an usul, a formal melodic rhythmic cycle. While this makes Turkish music incredibly complicated, it adds to structural uniformity. And the human brain (hence ear) is appreciative of structure; hence, Turkish music is easier on the ear than the jagged dodecaphony of Schoenberg and his ilk.


While this may appear as a ray of hope for us, let us immediately remember that there are theoretically thousands of makams, though only about 100 - apparently - have been developed into musical settings. Which is the most popular, Darcy does not know. But a search of the net gives a great number in the Hicaz and Nihavend modes. Darcy is pleased to give a glimpse of the exotic key signature of the Hicaz (above) but also notes that the Nihavend (below) is essentially B flat major with microtones.



There is no moral to this story. Remembering an evening spent with a girlfriend listening to Korean classical music, by the end of which Darcy had developed a severe headache, he does not recommend that you listen to classical Turkish music in its hundred modes to develop a taste for it. But at least he hopes that the above will provide some understanding as to why you may not like it.

(Darcy is a poor musician; he welcomes informed comment.)

1 comment:

Nihat said...

Gee, this flies so over my head, I'm speechless. Poor musician, huh?