Melody and Rhythm

     This is a brief collection of notes on Turkish ethnic music collated from various books, websites and CD booklets and based on listening to dozens of archival recordings.  I found that knowing a little bit of the context of the music (classical, religious, popular, folk, etc...) helped me to appreciate the music a bit more. I divide traditional Turkish music into 4 broad categories, but they actually intersect, since a folk tune may easily become a modern tune, and a classical movement can become the basis for a folk tune, etc...

     Before describing the types of Turkish traditional music it may be helpful (but not required) to know a little bit about the unique melodic and rhythmic elements of the music.

Turkish Melodic Structures - The Makam
     Turkish music is largely heterophonic (single line melodies played by 1 or more instruments with expressive variation) and uses melodic structures called makams.  There are over 600 makams defined, but only 20 are in large use. A makam is similar to a mode in western music except that scale notes are microtonal and based on just intonation. In western music there are 7 modes (Ionian, Aeolian, Phrygian, etc...) which are basically versions of that diatonic major/minor scale, except that they emphasize certain pitches.  The emphasis of these pitches gives each mode a certain character.  Turkish makam also emphasize certain notes, but the basic scale notes are not limited to the same 7 scale intervals.  In fact each whole tone step is divided into 9 microtone intervals, and a makam pitch can be one of these "in-between" notes.  When makam scales are extended beyond the basic octave range, the notes sometimes do not coincide with the first octave, since the scales are in just intonation.  Makams (makamlar) are only transposed to a few different tonics. Sometimes a transposed makam gets its own name.

     Makams are categorized as being built from 1 of 6 tetrachords (4-note chord) stacked on 1 of 6 pentachords (5-note chord). Each half is called an ajna (Arabic - jins).  There are 7 kinds of intervals between the notes, from 1/9 of a whole step to 13/9 of a whole step (9/9 is 1 whole step).  Western modes have only 2 kinds of intervals, half steps and whole steps.

     The melodic progression (ie - tendencies) of a makam is called seyir.  Each makam has a specific seyir which have these characteristics:
  • Opening tone (entry note)
  • Final tone (durak, tonic)
  • Imperfect cadence (dominant) tone – also start of 2nd ajna and pivot tone for modulation
  • Tone for suspended cadence
  • Note before final note (can be leading tone/subtonic, but not always)
  • Special intonations and accidentals when ascending or descending (shrinking large intervals by sharpening the starting note or flattening the ending note)
  • Path from Opening to Dominant tone
  • Path from Dominant tone to Final tone
  • Mood (light/dark, spiritual/funky)
  • Asymmetrical octave extensions (due to just intonation)
  • Emphasized notes, order of emphasized notes and frequency (a kind of tone row)
  • Melodic dynamic - rising, falling, rising/falling determined by the relative position of starting and ending notes – descent/ascent can be as long as a minute
  • 1-note ornamentations

     Many pieces modulate from the original makam to another, but only certain modulations are allowed.  Sometimes a part of another makam will be used (usually 3-5 notes, forming a triad/tetrachord/pentachord) – these partials are called genera. Due to the oral tradition of teaching makam, makamlar become modified through history, such as through adding genera.

Makams can be categorized in 3 ways:
  • Basit (simple)
  • Sed (transposed)
  • Birlesik (compound, made from 2 makam ajna)
     Some basic makams: Çargah, Buselik, Basit Sehnaz, Beyati Basit Isfahan, Hicaz, Humayun, Uzzal, Zirgüleli Hicaz, Hüseyni, Muhayyer, Gülizar, Neva, Tahir, Karcigar, Basit Süznak.
Ussak makam is ascending, and melodic material hovers in the lower notes first.
In Bayati makam, melodic material hovers in the middle notes first, then descends to the tonic.


Turkish Rhythmic Structures - The Usul
     Turkish music also differs from western music in that it takes advantage of many more complex meters than duple and triplet forms.  Turkish rhythmic structure is called usul (usulu) and these can be from 2 to 128 beats long (2/8 to 128/8).  They can be considered almost like rhythmic makam in that a usul's beat accents are "tendencies" rather than explicitly played (just as a makam scale is not played straight). Usula with 2-16 beats are called minor usula and usula with 16-124 beats are called major usuls.  Most composed forms have a preferred usul, but taksim (improvisations) have no usul, since they are in free rhythm.  Usul beats are short or long and can be thought of as having time values of 2 or 3 units (ex. 3-2-2-3), tho not all beat units are necessarily equal.  Again, usula are not played verbatim, rather, they are the meter (rhythmic swing feel).

2-beat usul:
  • Turk Aksagi – 1 short, 1 long beat (2/3 = 5 units), 5/8, most basic usul
3-beats usula:
  • Devr-I Turan (3/2/2) – Alevi semah dance
  • Devr-I Hindi (2/2/3) – Black Sea horon dance pattern, (2/3/2) is a variant
  • Nim Sofyan (3/3/2) – halay and misket dances
4-beats usula:
  • Aksak semai (3/2/2/3) - slower, syncopated
  • Curcuna (3/2/2/3) - same as aksak semai but faster, with an obvious beat
  • Aksak usul (2/2/2/3) - karşılama dance, Roman oyun havası, şarkı, other folk/urban music
  • Agir aksak usul (3/2/2/2) - slow variant of aksak usul found in Zeybek dances
     Combination usula are used in Ottoman compositions and a few slow rural songs such as in destan turkusu (epic poetry) and Alevi deyiş (poetic religious hymns).  Raksan usulu (3/3/2/2/3/2) is a combination usul considered to be nim sofyan usul plus a devr-I hindi usul variant.  Additionally, ritimli taksim is a rhythmic ostinato accompanying an instrumental improvisation.

Aksak semai usul rhythm (3/2/2/3)

Part 2 - Classical Music
Part 3 - Folk Music
Part 4 - Religious and Modern Music