Musical and Socio-Cultural Anecdotes from Kitāb al-Aghānī al-Kabīr

Annotated Translations and Commentaries


The present volume consists of translated anecdotes, on musicological and socio-cultural topics, from al-Iṣbahānī’s Kitāb al-Aghānī al-Kabīr ( The Grand Book of Songs) with annotations and commentaries. It deals with musical rhythmic and melodic modes, technical terms and treatises; music instruments; composition techniques and processes; education and oral/written transmissions; vocal and instrumental performances and their aesthetics; solo and ensemble music; change and its inevitability; musical and textual improvisations; ṭarab and the acute emotions of joy or grief; medieval dances; social status. Though extracts from The Grand Book of Songs have been translated in European languages since 1816, this work presents a much larger and more comprehensive scope that will benefit musicologists, medievalist and Middle Eastern scholars as well as the general reader.

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Biographical Note

George Dimitri Sawa is an independent scholar with a PhD in Music and Middle East Studies, from the University of Toronto. He taught Middle Eastern Music History: medieval, modern and sacred music,
at the University of Toronto (1987-1995) and York University (1982-1986, 1994, 2006-2007).

Table of contents

Preface Acknowledgments Abbreviations Editorial Notes
Introduction: Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī and His Book of Songs
1 TheoryThe Modes  A  The Eight Rhythmic Modes  B  The Eight Melodic Modes  C  The Three Passages on Rhythmic and Melodic Modes in the Book of Songs  D  Jins and Ṭarīqa  E  Rare Songs Containing Eight or Ten Notes  F  Early Singing: Ḥudāʾ, Naṣb, and Rukbān  G  Technical Terms  H  Theoretical Treatises, Anecdotes, Biographies, Song Collections, Authorship, Modes
2 Instruments  A  Aerophones: Mizmār, Nāy, and Surnāy  B  Idiophones: ʿAṣāt, Dawāt, Jaras, Juljul, Khashaba, Miqraʿa, Nāqūs, Qaḍīb, Qarbūs, Raḥl, Ṣaffāqa, Ṣanj  C  Membranophones: ʿArṭaba, Duff, Murabbaʿ, Ṭabl  D  Chordophones: Barbaṭ, Kankala, Miʿzafa, Mizhar, Ṣanj, Ṭunbūr, ʿūd  E  Storage and Workshop for Instrument Making  F  Improvised Instruments
3 Composition  A  The Use of Music to Embellish and Spread Poetry  B  The Origins of Arabic Music  C  Technique and Process of Composition  D  Dreams and Jinns as Sources for Compositions  E  Contrafacta  F  Style and the Imitation of Style  G  Composition: Talent Versus Intellect, Head Versus Heart  H  Specialization  I  Analysis  J  Authorship  K  Poems, Composers, and Modes  L  The Number of Lines of Poems Set to Music  M  Choosing and Altering the Order of the Verses and Mixing Poems  N  Names of Melodies  O  Output  P  Quality Versus Quantity  Q  Poems Conducive to Be Set to Music  R  The Best Composers and Compositions  S  Comparisons  T  Weak Compositions  U  Women’s Compositions and Softness  V  Folklore Songs: Sailors, Masons, and Water Carriers  W  Monopolies on Poems
4 Education and Transmission  A  General Education  B  Pedigree  C  Music Education  D  The Important Role of Women as Teachers, Transmitters, and Memorizers  E  Memory Loss  F  Learning and Repetitions, Slow Learners and Fast Learners  G  Problems of Difficulty and Transmission  H  Prevention of Transmission and Stinginess  I  Good and Bad Transmitters  J  Unconventional Transmissions  K  Miscellaneous
5 Performance  A  Singers and Songstresses  B  To Sing: Qāla, Qaraʾa, Ḥaddatha  C  Voice Production  D  Beautiful Voice  E  Powerful Voice  F  Poor Voices  G  Stratagem for Poor Voices  H  Excellence in Performance  I  Poor Performance and Weaknesses  J  Postures  K  Difficult Songs  L  Comparisons  M  The Limitations of Descriptions  O  Size of Repertoire  P  Lute Playing in the Persian Style  Q  Lute Virtuosity  R  Inheriting a Family Business  S  Performance Order  T  The Composition of the Majlis and Its Effect on Performance  U  Songs without Words
6 Solos, Accompaniment, and Ensemble Music  A  Murtajil: A Cappella  B  Instrumental Solos  C  Unaccompanied Duet Singing  D  Unison Ensemble Singing  E  Unison Ensemble Singing with Lute Accompaniment  F  A Soloist and Her Chorus  G  Hand Clapping, Castanets, and Dancing  H  Tambourines  I  Ṭabl  J  Lute  K  Ṭunbūr  L  Voice and Nāy  M  Murtajil and Irtijāl
7 Musical Stability and Change  A  On the Inevitability of Change  B  Change Is Permissible  C  Change Is Frowned Upon  D  Wine and Its Positive and Negative Effects on Singing  E  The Truth about the Singer Mālik Not Composing but Altering and Beautifying the Songs of Others  F  Change as a Tool to Embarrass an Enemy
8 Musical and Textual Improvisations
9 Ṭarab and the Effects of Singing on People and Animals  A  Preliminary Definitions  B  Physical Effects on People and Animals  C  Emotional Effects  D  Effects on the Imagination  E  Therapeutic Effects  F  Ṭarab and Effects of Music: Miscellaneous Topics
10 Dance  A  Zafn and Raqṣ  B  Early Arabic Music and Dance According to Ibn Khaldūn  C  Dastband and Īlāʾ  D  Kurraj  E  Raqṣ and the Completion of Musical Arts  F  The Required Qualities of Dancers According to the Oration of an Anonymous Singer/Boon Companion of the Caliph Al-Muʿtamid, as Reported in the Meadows of Gold of Al-Masʿūdī
11 Physiognomy, Attire, Character, Social Status, and Permissibility of Music  A  The Importance of a Beautiful Face, Body, and Attire  B  Character and Knowledge  C  Slaves, Freed Slaves, Mawlās, and Freeman  D  Is It a Sin to Sing?  E  It Is Not a Sin to Sing If the Singer Is Pious and Endowed with Good Character, or If the Songs Are Not Erotic  F  The Contradictory and Ambiguous Roles of Noblemen, Theologians, and Administrators Toward Music and Musicians  G  The Shame of Being an Instrumentalist  H  Words of Wisdom in Support of Music
Arabic English Glossary Bibliography Index of People and Places Index of Terms and Subjects Charts


Scholars, students and general readers of medieval music and socio-cultural history of the early Islamic, Umayyad and Abbasid era.