This book consists of translated anecdotes on musicological and socio-cultural topics from Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī’s Kitāb al-Aghānī l-kabīr (The Grand Book of Songs)1 with annotations and commentaries. The Book of Songs, in ten thousand pages of medieval Arabic, is a gold mine of information about poets and musicians from the early Islamic era down to the beginning of the fourth/tenth century in cultural centers such as Medina, Mecca, Damascus, and Baghdad. In the anecdotes, musicians talked about their craft, including discussions that ranged from compositions, to education and oral transmission, to performance, to musical change and improvisations, to the effect of music on people, and also about their social status. Their discourse about their art, and the evaluations thereof, is extremely rich, precise, and makes abundant use of colorful metaphors. Imagine a composer telling his audience about his craft and the techniques he used to compose a song. Imagine the details a singer could share about vocal production, e.g., chest voice, head voice, etc. Imagine the details of his knowledge about the process of oral transmission. To give the reader an idea about the wealth of the Book of Songs, consider that there are thirty-four terms to denote the idea of “composing,” sixty-seven words to describe music education and oral transmission, and twenty-three that mean “to perform” vocal or instrumental music.
The anecdotes are divided into eleven chapters.
Chapter 1 deals with the theory of music: the definitions and transcriptions of the rhythmic and melodic modes, as well as their shorter, incomplete, and older names; al-Iṣfahānī’s commentary on Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī’s and Ibrāhīm b. al-Mahdī’s systems and debates; rare songs containing eight or ten notes and the nature of these notes; early Arabic music and caravan songs; technical terms, arranged in alphabetical order; and theoretical treatises, biographies, and song collections.
Chapter 2 deals with the instruments, their tuning, description and construction; instrument storage and workshops for their manufacture; and improvised instruments. This chapter and the previous one are crucial for understanding the technical details that appear in the anecdotes in the succeeding chapters.
Chapter 3 deals with composition, and naturally follows the previous two chapters, which offer a preliminary introduction and background to composition. This is the longest chapter and is divided into twenty-three sections; these concern topics such as, why set music to poetry; the origins of Arabic music and fusion of foreign elements; technique and process; dreams and jinns as sources; contrafacta; style; talent versus intellect; specialization; analysis; authorship; setting a poem to multiple tunes; the number of lines set to music; altering and mixing lines of poetry; the names of melodies; output; quality versus quantity; poems conducive to being set to music; the best composers and best compositions; comparisons; weak compositions; women’s compositions; folk songs; and poem monopolies.
Chapter 4 concerns education and transmission; this is the next logical step following the completion of a composition. Anecdotes reveal the process of learning; the difficulties encountered there; slow and fast learners; good and bad transmitters; the prevention of transmission; memory erosion; and the great role of women as memorizers and teachers.
Chapter 5 is the next logical chapter, since, after a song has been composed and then learned, it is performed. This chapter deals with vocal and instrumental performances: voice production; the attributes of beautiful and powerful voices as opposed to poor and weak ones and the metaphors used therein; good and bad performances; the importance of the size and variety of the repertoire; the importance of the proper choice of songs; the dichotomy of intellect and talent; the importance of posture; the essence of difficult songs; comparisons between musicians’ skills; the order of the performance; the effects of fear on performance; and instrumental performances, style, and virtuosity.
Chapter 6 deals with solo performances as well as accompaniment and ensemble music.
Chapter 7 addresses the process of change; its inevitability; pros and cons about it; wine and its effect; and change as a tool to embarrass an enemy.
Chapter 8 deals with musical and textual improvisations, their nature, and the reasons behind them.
Chapter 9 concerns ṭarab, that is, the acute emotion of joy or grief, and its effect on people and animals: on the physical and emotional states, the imagination, and on its therapeutic uses.
Chapter 10 outlines the various types of dances.
Chapter 11 deals with the physiognomy, attire, character, social status of the musician, and the permissibility of making music.
The book concludes with the death dates of singers and patrons, an Arabic-English glossary, a bibliography, and indices of people, places, terms, and subjects.
From here on it is mentioned by its translated, shorter title: Book of Songs.