Arab Music and Musical Notation

I read a review of a book titled “Arab Music and Musical Notation” (Markaz ʻUmān lil-Mūsīqá al-Taqlīdīyah) by Issam El-Mallah last night. The review was written by Kathleen Hood.

The description of chapter 3 gives one of the primary reasons that so many non-Western musics’ notation traditions are double edged swords. As she states:

In chapter 3, “Arab Musicians’ Use of European Notation,” El-Mallah examines the history of music notation in the Arab world and argues that the unquestioned use of notation has had a negative effect on the structure and performance of Arab music. The tyranny of notation tends to limit improvisation and ornamentation, characteristics that previously were the hallmarks of Arab musical style. This chapter also presents a bleak picture of the state of commercial Arab music, which is increasingly dominated by the Egyptian recording industry and in which regional diversity is sacrificed in an appeal to the broadest audience.

I fear most Western classically trained musicians would far too easily agree with the latter without really understanding how there can be a ‘complex’ art music without having notation and so might not understand the implications of the former. But it is an argument used worldwide (many of the pieces about my native Thai classical music traditions also bemoan the fact that Western notation has crept into an academic setting for teaching Classical Thai music–for exactly the same reasons El-Mallah gives above.