Middle Eastern Rhythms FAQ
(rhythms for middle eastern dance for dumbek, dumbec, doumbec, doumbek, Arabic tabla, darabuka, tombak, zarb ...)

Here are some traditional rhythms (mizan, iqa, vazn, darb, dawr, adwar) that are played as Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dance rhythms or as accompaniment to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean melodies. I would appreciate any comments, corrections, or additional rhythms or variations.
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Q: Where can I find out more about tapes, videos and other instructional resources?

Short answer; look here: " Mary Mark's Guide to Middle Eastern Percussion Resources Page".

Please don't e-mail me asking me to send you tapes or instructional resources -- what I have is here in these web pages -- at the moment I don't have instructional tapes or videos of my own. Please do e-mail me if you think something needs clarification or you'd like to give me feedback on these pages.

Q: Where do I get a drum?

In the past it had been hard to find good imported Middle Eastern drums, but these days there are many places to order inexpensive, quality drums. If you are an inexperienced buyer, you may want to check for drum shops or import stores locally so you can actually put your hands on the drum and see what style of drum you prefer.

See also What Kind of Drum Should I Get?

I suggest the following online stores --

[François, one of my intrepid translators suggests these for you Canadians:]

Q: What's in a name? ( A note on naming conventions )

I use names for these rhythms which tend to be accepted among the community of drummers that I have known and the sparse documentation that exists on this (extremely folk) tradition. I have tried to note variations of name. Also note that many of the names are transliterated from some language that doesn't use roman letters so spelling may vary. Please let me know if you know of other names or local traditions.

For Arabic names I've tried to use a consistent transliteration that uses capital consonants for emphatic sounds and double vowels for long vowels. If you are aware of misspellings of the Arabic, please do let me know.

For Greek and Balkan names I've tried to use commonly accepted transliterations and spellings.

In many cases the names that are used in practice are inconsistent. Folk musicians in many of the cultures of these areas often do not even name rhythms -- they simply know what rhythm goes with what song and play it.

Q: What's the deal with 4/4, 6/8? ( Time Signatures, Music Theory )

For a modern western percussionist (or musician considering rhythm) the most important thing is how many beats there are to a measure. That is: modern musicians break music down into repeating segments of the same length called "measures". The measures are then broken down into a fixed number of possible divisions. When you see that some song is in "6/8" -- that means that it is divided into measures that contain six "eighth" notes. The whole modern world doesn't use this method (Balkan folk musicians, for instance, have a pulse-length based system) and it was certainly not used when much Middle Eastern music was formulated (more on this subject below). I've tried to use time notations that would be familiar to western musicians with some notation to show variations such as shortened segments.

Q: Wait! I can't read music! ( Notation )

Please check out another version of this page that does not use modern western musical notation.

I assume you know how to hit the drum -- if not I will have a section on that when I get time -- I do suggest, however, that if you are interested in playing in the traditional style you find a teacher or a good player and get them to give you a first lesson. This will hopefully save you from developing bad habits early.

In "traditional" Arabic Tabla/Darabuka, TEK and KA may be played with either hand and represent different sounds: TEK indicates either the accented strike or possibly the resonant (as opposed to damped) high-pitched sound -- depending on your methodology. However many people find it easier to learn (and teach) by using the traditional names to indicate the preferred hand to strike with.

Note that it almost doesn't matter which hand you strike with as long as you are making the right sound -- however by putting the accents on the dominant hand and following the notation for suggested hands you will probably wind up with a more "traditional sound" to your playing.

There are many forms of rhythm notation -- the most popular is standard western musical notation. I find that difficult to read, if you do please check out the more compact text version of this page.

Accents are noted above the note and suggested hand below the bar. Low notes (DUM) are the lower bar and high notes (TEK, KA) the upper. Unaccented strikes are open. Normally accented strikes are usually increased in volume and may be a different tone-style (deadened or closed). The special accent (a little X) indicates a particularly accented strike -- usually a closed, stopped, or deadened tone.

Q: What difference does a "rest" make anyway?

To a drummer, I guess the answer could be "not much".

A "rest" in music is a space for a note that is not played.

On many other instruments a note can be sustained, and there is a significant difference in playing "a note, a rest, and another note" and "a long note and then another note". On a drum you don't have much choice about how long the sustain on your "note" is, but the combinations of rests versus sustained notes may give some indications about how the rhythm should be ornamented or filled. Therefore there are a few rhythms that seem very different to melodists but somewhat the same for the drummer.

Q: Where did all of this tradition come from? ( A Grossly Over-simplified Bit of Percussion History )

(If you would like a deeper look into this: stay tuned -- I'm trying to get time to write a better essay -- or start by reading any Arabic music book by Henry George Farmer. And don't say I didn't warn you -- he's hard to read -- not because he is a bad writer, but because his books are academic and full of facts and rather complex arguments attempting to reconstruct a lot of Arabic musical history and theory.)

The earliest recorded history of music and rhythm we get from ancient Greece. Greek writers on the subject were fairly technical, but it seems that not much about rhythmic structure was formalized. We do know that they tended to use a system that had two values for time (long and short) where the "long" was from one and a half to two times longer than the short. Musical phrases were built of patterns of long and short -- sometimes these patterns repeated.

We only know as much as we do about early Greek music because Middle Eastern (arabic speaking) scholars studied and preserved (translated) early Greek writings. The Arabic music/rhythm tradition begins in the caravan song -- the vocal music of the nomad. Often a simple percussion instrument (for instance a stick) was used to beat out accents. As the nomadic life was exchanged for urban life new instruments were developed, poetic form matured and scholars studied earlier Greek works, a rhythmic method developed with a basis in long and short syllables(durations) and accent patterns based on poetic meter. As poems tended to repeat the notion of a larger repeating rhythmic cycle emerged.

As the Arabic speaking empire expanded, matured and moved through the greater Middle East and through North Africa into modern Spain and Portugal, it brought an academic attitude toward music. Local traditions were integrated and new forms and instruments developed. The music traditions of North Africa are still today heavily influenced by Arabic empire roots rather than by the rest of mainland Africa. That is the music is primarily monotonal and of simple rhythm. Polyrhythm and harmony are almost non-existent in Middle Eastern music. That does not mean by any measure that the music is simple. The "interesting" and unique aspects of each performance come from the "ornamentation" of the tune by each instrument rather than from the "merging" of various tones and times that is formed by harmony and polyrhythm. The Arabic (and Mediterranean) music tradition tends to be based on the soloist or small ensemble -- a natural outgrowth of folk groups and a nomadic bard tradition.

An interesting side note: Islamic tradition holds the musical arts in an odd dichotomy. Many Islamic fundamentalists have held that music for pleasure (rather than to worship or to declare the glory of Allah) is a sinful distraction -- however throughout history Islamic rulers (and no doubt the general populace) tended to patronize the musical arts.

Khalifates with courts in the Maghreb developed forms of stylized concerts that formalized many new musical as well as rhythmic structures including a complex style of concert called the "nuba". This presence in Europe, along with the cultural interaction during the crusades, was responsible for many Middle Eastern instruments and musical forms finding their way into Europe. For instance I've heard people argue that the frame drum (extremely popular in North Africa throughout history) found it's way into Ireland as the bodhran this way -- this is probably apocryphal I'm not aware of anything but speculation to support the theory.

There are numerous problems for modern students attempting to study early Middle Eastern music: Arabic writers tend to describe such things and music and dance rather poetically (in terms of impressions and feelings and effect on audience) rather than give much technical detail of form or technique. Apparently there was no standardized musical notation -- though Middle Eastern scholars were impressed by western notational methods (probably "discovered" by the Middle East around the time of the crusades), these methods did not lend themselves well to representing the more varied (in terms of tone and rhythm) music of the Middle East. Studying rhythmic modes is even more difficult -- very little rhythmic notation exists, even for songs that are otherwise quite well documented. Apparently either (as in many oral traditions) the rhythmic modes were so well known scholars did not bother to document them or they could find no good method for doing so.

Attempts were made by a number of Middle Eastern scholars to document their highly oral musical traditions; unfortunately most of these documents are not available today -- although there are many references to them in historical works. The Mongul invasions of the 'Abbasid empire and sacking of such academic centers as Baghdad in 1258 destroyed most of the relevant academic documents (not to mention the scholars!). Safi-al-Din, the author of two of the oldest surviving technical texts on music was one of the few who barely escaped the purge and wound up working in the Mongul court.

Additionally there is a long standing division between folk and academic (classical) music in Arabic tradition -- I think most scholars found it beneath them to study (or at least write about) folk music.

As the Turkish/Ottoman empire rose out of the remains of the Arabic Khalifates they adopted the court music forms of the Arabs and also further developed the "marching military band" that the Arabs had found useful in intimidating their enemies. These were loud affairs consisting of many percussion instruments, horns, and loud reeds. In this context loud outdoor instruments and music were developed, while the complex court musical scene fostered more complex musical and rhythmic forms.

Modern Middle Eastern music is mishmash of local folk traditions, the remains of ancient classical forms, and aspects of western popular and sometimes classical music. As the Ottoman empire's influence gave way to western influence during the first part of the 20th century, Egyptian composers developed a lot of music that is a fusion of western classical form with middle eastern music. This movement was responsible for bringing orchestra style ensembles and harmonic music to the middle eastern mix. In terms of rhythmic elements it seems that a lot of diversity has been lost, odd or complex rhythmic forms have been discarded or lost, in favor of more westernized, even-counted measures. Modern (traditional) Persian music, for instance rarely has rhythms that are not cycles of 2, 4, or 6 beats while historical records seem to indicate that much longer cycles were common in the past.

Recently, during the rise of the oil economies (late 20th century), cheap labor brought from Africa has brought a bit of central African polyrhythmic tradition to the Middle East -- especially to areas in the Persian Gulf.

See below for more technical analysis of historical sources.

Q: So I want to learn some rhythms. Where do we start?

Let's start with a rhythm called "maqsuum". This rhythm is common and widespread -- you will find it in music throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean.

The simple Maqsum is the basis of many rhythms and is especially important in modern and folk Egyptian rhythm. If you listen to Middle Eastern percussion accompanying music you will often hear the distinctive [DT-TD-T-] of the Maqsum. I've heard Hossam Ramzy exaggerate that maqsum is the basis of all Egyptian rhythm. The simple maqsum and all the ways in which it can be embellished really demonstrates the Middle Eastern percussion tradition. The Middle Eastern percussion instruments are responsible for laying out the meter of a song but there is also room for plenty of expression by each individual instrument. In parts of the Mahgreb (e.g. Tunisia) this family of rhythms may be called "Duyek".

maqsuum 4/4

basic form



"baladii", which is a more folksy version of the basic Middle Eastern "maqsuum", is characterized by the familiar two DUMs that lead the phrase. It is probably more properly called "maSmuudii saghiir" ("small maSmuudii") since it has the "maSmuudii" accent and phrase but is played in 4 beats rather than 8. Some say that to play it with the traditional "feel" the accents (after the first) should lag slightly. The rhythm is generally known as "baladii" (beledi, baladi, balady) among the American belly dance community. The word "baladii" means "of the country" or "old fashion" and, I've heard, implies (in Egypt) a bit of a "hick-ness" or folk-ness. This rhythm is very typical (to the point of overuse) for modern belly dance, but the double-DUMs tend to drown out melodic accompaniment -- therefore when playing with a subtle melodic instrument that cannot easily be heard, a simpler version of "maqsuum" is usually preferred. "baladii" is usually played more slowly that a 4/4 "maqsuum".

baladii 4/4

basic form


"Egyptian Classical"

An evenly filled version of a rhythm (such as the last baladii variation above) is often called a "walking" rhythm due to its even stride.

walking maqsuum:es=maqsuum móvil:fr=maqsoum marchant 4/4

with the bridge

The couple of beats you are finding near the end of some of these variations are known as a "bridge" or "chain" -- they are not basic to the rhythm, but are often played as a pick up into the next measure.

"sayyidii" (saidii, saiidii) is another rhythm of the maqsuum family. A sayyidii is made by doubling the middle DUM. It has a different flavor of fill and accent, is popular in upper Egypt (remember "upper" Egypt is in the south). It is similar to baladii, usually played fast, upbeat and powerfully. It is traditionally used for the Tahtib (a man's ritual "stick dance") as well as belly dance (especially the cane dance -- which is partially a parody of the man's version). I've also heard this rhythm called "Ghawazee" since these dance forms, and a particular style of belly dance using this form of rhythm, are popular among the Egyptian Ghawazee. This form may also be called "baladii maqluub".

Note that, although the rhythm theoretically has a DUM at the beginning, after the initial cycle of the rhythm that beat it is often alternatively played as a TEK. This tends to drag the second TEK of the rhythm earlier and emphasize the double-DUM part.

sayyidii 4/4

after 1st measure

syncopated at the beginning

syncopated with 3 DUMs

Yet another variation of a maqsum with different accent, Sombati is used during taaqasiim or for vocal accompaniment.

sombati 4/4

like double-time cifitelli

used to have this version here from someplace but I think the syncopation is wrong

I've heard some Egyptians refer to the simple maqsuum as "waaHida wa niSf". Or possibly "waaHida wa noSS" (half wahida) -- possibly because it (at least theoretically) derives from the simple form of the first half of "waaHida".

"waaHid" means "one" in Arabic. These rhythms are so called because they have a single accent (DUM) at the beginning. A particular, "waaHida sayyAra" is also called "Libi" by Egyptians due to its apparent modern popularity in Libya. "waaHida" is often used during the vocal/legatto parts of songs -- the single accent makes it easy for the drum to follow the long, sometimes stretched syllables of this part of the song where the vocallist or instrumental soloist is improvising. The rhythm part accents the cycle/measure boundary and follows the melody as the measure is stretched or shortened.

The "waaHida", since it is primarily just an initial accent with varying fill, can be used to make transitions between rhythms of various counts and fills (i.e. can be used as a "break").

waaHida 4/4

sayyaara (slow)



khafiif (fast)

"bambii" is a modern rhythm similar to a waaHida that has a 3 DUM sequence either by finishing waaHida with 2 DUMs or rotating it so that the 3 are at the beginning.

bambii 4/4

Notice how the "saghiira" variation of "waaHida" leaves the 3rd beat empty. This seems a strange accent pattern -- more on this below.

If you take this "waaHida" and finish with another common 4 beat segment (making an 8),you have another rhythm, "ciftitelli", that is considered a Turkish or Greek rhythm. It is presumably named after the Turkish instrument that has strings tuned an octave apart.

It is, at its basis (if you cross your eyes a lot), similar to a maqsuum. It is usually filled as an 8-beat rhythm and has a much different feel. It is common in Turkish (and other) belly dance -- usually it is play moderately slowly and preferably (I think) with a lot of space (i.e. not all "filled in"). Drummers tend to have fun filling in the end of the rhythm in various, sometimes unexpected, ways. It is sometimes used to accompany a taaqasiim (melodic improvisation). Some drummers (confusingly) call the rhythm "taa-qa-siim". It is very confusing because a very similar Arabic word "taq-sim" means "split" or "divided" and can be used to refer generally to "maqsuum".

Egyptians tend to play simpler version of Ciftetelli than you might find in Turkey and call it "waaHida taaqasiim" or maybe "waaHida kabiir".

ciftitelli (shiftaatellii) 8/4

Often rhythms are combined like this, or have versions that are half or twice as long. The basic maqsuum played half as quickly is known as "maSmuudii".

The Masmoudi (I've reverted to the common transliteration) rhythm is characteristically a joining of two 4-beat phrases. Sometimes it is called "Masmoudi kabiir(big)" to differentiate it from a 4-beat rhythm (Masmoudi saghiir). Often the first phrase has 2 leading beats. One of these versions is sometimes called "warring masmoudi" -- supposedly it sounds like a man and woman arguing. A 3 leading beat version is called "walking masmoudi" -- the even stride making it particularly suited for marching. Masmoudi's are fairly common in belly dance music -- historically they are also used in muwashashat -- they are particularly percussion-intense and make a quite convenient and recognizable rhythm in which a dancer can accent a dance.

This, as I said, is at its core the same rhythm as maqsum but it is filled as an 8 rather than a four and played more slowly. Generally speaking Masmoudi's sound big (kabiir) and the maqsums quick and nimble (khafiif).

There is some evidence that the masmoudi rhythms were used in early muwashahat music and have a more art-music basis than the maqsum which is currently found in a lot of folk songs.

The Masmouda are one of the three main groups of Berbers in Morocco. They live west of the Rif and Grand and Middle Atlas in Morocco. "Masmouda" may also be used to refer to the region.

maSmuudii 8/4

A maqsuum played as a 2 beat rhythm is called "falaahii". It is usually very fast and often evenly filled. It is a common folk version used for dance ("falaah" is another word for country-folk or peasant). It is common in upper Egypt. It is usually played about twice as fast as a maqsum and therefore is often considered a 2 beat rhythm -- played more slowly (as a 4) it is the "walking maqsuum" discussed above.

falaahii 2/4

Ayyuub is similar. It is a common and fairly simple 2/4 rhythm. It is played in areas of the Middle East from Turkey through to Egypt. It is used in a slow form for a tribal north African (Egyptian) trance dance known as the Zar (the rhythm is sometimes called "Zar") -- toward the west (Morocco) these same sorts of trance dances are generally done to a 6 beat rhythm. Ayyuub is also quite common at a faster (or much faster) pace in belly dance music and music for folk line dances. Some say that Ayyuub is supposed to sound like a camel walking. Bayou is a rhythm with the same time pattern but has a double DUM and is usually played more slowly -- it is often used in belly dance drum solos.

ayyuub 2/4

bayou 2/4

If you exchange the fundamental DUMs and TEKs in ayyuub you have another rhythm: karAtshi (Karatchi). Karatchi is a fast 2/4. Note that the second DUM somehow comes out less accented than the other accented beats. It is used in modern Egyptian music and sometimes alternated with similar rhythms as a part of a song. Hossam Ramzy says of Karatchi: "From the word 'Karatchi' you can tell that the next rhythm is not Egyptian. it's also very unusual because it starts with a TAK, which is the treble beat rather than the DOM, which is the bass beat. However it is widely used in Egyptian music and North African music."

karAtshi 2/4

Here are a couple of other simple 2 and 4 beat rhythms. "vox" or "foks" (could it be "fox", and named after the "foxtrot"?) is very simple 2 (essentially a march -- probably inspired by western music) often accented in sets of 4 or 8. Used in modern Egyptian compositions. Used by Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

foks/vox 2/4

"Jerk" is a Modern Nubian rhythm inspired by a dance of the same name. (Similar to Samba?) In Egyptian songs (e.g. Fi Yom Wi Leyla) I've heard the double-Dums very close together -- although someone told me that Souhail Kaspar (a Lebonese teacher in California) taught them the less syncopated (second) version below.

jerk/jaark/sherk 4/4

Conga Masri is another simple rhythm that seems particularly popular among the South American belly dance crowd:

conga masri/congo masri 4/4

Bolero and a very similar rhythm, Rhumba, are used in many places in the Middle East. Bolero is usually played more slowly and often with a sort of triplet near the beginning -- it is used to accompany songs like "Erev Shel Shoshanim" and "Miserlu". Rhumba is often played almost twice as fast (Rihlat El Ghawzia by Hossam Shaker). Although fundamentally these are 3-3-2 rhythms (like malfuf/waaHida saghiira) -- the feeling is rather different. This family of rhythms (it's ancestors) and variations were probably brought to Spain by Middle Eastern musicians (and gypsies?), adopted into Latin music and probably re-introduced in various ways into modern Middle Eastern tunes.

bolero 4/4

rumbaa/rhumba 2/4

"zaffah" is a rhythm used in the Egyptian wedding processional. Its basic nature is that of a march. It is used in the wedding processional itself and also sometimes for belly dances that are reminiscent of these events. (Note that the related "candelabra dance" is usually done to a more up-beat 2 or 4 beat rhythm -- e.g. Saidi). It may also be called "Murrabba Jaza'ira".

zaffah 4/4 (or 8/4)

Hossam Ramzy's "Big Zaffa"

Q: OK, I've got that. What's next? ( Middle Eastern rhythm theory and more rhythms )

Now that we've discussed a few rhythms, let's back up a bit.

So far I presented these rhythms in a very western way -- as evenly divided "measures" of notes. Historically and traditionally (even now in some folk music traditions) this sense of meter or measure is much less important. As I mentioned the ancient Greeks, for instance, had only a sense of stringing numbers of longer or shorter beats together. Repeating cycles were because of the song, not because there was a particular standard length of measure. The Arabic tradition follows to some extent, as does the modern Balkan music.

Sometimes interpreting a folk rhythm in our modern western musical context is a challenge...

Modern Middle Eastern and Greek musicians tend to approximate the western method of breaking down rhythms down by measures. The number of beats per measure (whether played or not) is important. Measures are made up of groups of 2 or 3 beats (or more) -- usually the first beat of these groups is the important one (that is the one accented or played more fundamentally than the others). Historically the repeating pattern was probably stressed and the sense of a fixed measure was probably weaker. Certainly it is still true in much modern music that the western notation does not capture the subtle timing and syncopation that might be important in a rhythm.

Recall the version of waaHida that has what we thought was a strange accent pattern -- leaving out the accent right in the middle of the cycle.

waaHida saghiira 4/4

More traditionally this rhythm would be broken into segments of 2s and 3s. It would be 3+3+2 in this case:

1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2 |
  3  +  3  + 2
You might see it written indicating the segment breaks:
There are a number of rhythms of this form where 8 beats are divided 3+3+2 to be found in the music of the Middle East and Mediterranean. The Macedonian gypsy (Romany) version is called "cocek" (CHO-CHEK) and has a spacey swing to it. In other areas of Greece these rhythms are used to accompany many songs and line dances and tend to be known as "syrto" (which is the name of a particular line dance, and also is used to describe the style of music). Syrto's tend to rock back-and-forth on alternating measures changing accent slightly (or dramatically) and sometimes are far from "straight" -- being pulled back sometimes to almost a 7-beat.

In the gulf region (Saudi Arabia) this type of rhythm is called "sa`udI" (Saudi) or "khaliijii" and is played more slowly and less filled with DUMs on both 1 and 3. It is sometimes played polyrhythmically with other 8-beat rhythms e.g. "karaatshii" (Karatshi) -- polyrhythm being an oddity in Middle Eastern music. Apparently this is a fairly modern musical trend influenced by workers imported from other countries (especially from continental Africa) to support the oil economy.

In Egypt and Lebanon this rhythm is called "malfuuf" or "laf" and is more filled and often accented -- most often with a DUM only on 1. "malfuuf" is used to accompany line dances and also used in more modern, popular music.

Western musicians would count many of these rhythms a 2, since the music tends to swing in and out finding accents on the first beat and then on "everything else".

cocek 4/4=3+3+2

malfuuf 2/4=3+3+2

sa`udI 2/4=3+3+2

syrto 4/4=3+3+2

"Muwashshat" is a form of spoken/sung Arabic poetry.

Ali Jihad Racy and Jack Logan, Ph.D. in Arab Music : "Moorish Spain also witnessed the development of a literary-musical form that utilized romantic subject matter and featured strophic texts with refrains, in contrast to the classical Arabic qasidah, which followed a continuous flow of lines or of couplets using a single poetical meter and a single rhyme ending. The muwashshah form, which was utilized by major poets, also emerged as a musical form and survived as such in North African cities and in the Levant, an area covering what is known historically as greater Syria and Palestine. In this area, the muwashshah genre became popular in Aleppo, Syria."

The rhythms below, dawr hindii, muHajjar, murabb`a, samaa'ii darij, samaa'ii thaqiil,as well as maSmuudii, are used in muwashshat.

The samaa'ii (from an Arabic root "sma", which means to listen -- particularly to music) is a Turkish form of classic music (some say "old aristocratic Turk music") that has a certain structure of 10 beat sections and usually ends with a faster set of 6 beat measures. I have also heard "dawr hindii" called "sheelto" (I don't know whether this is correct as I've also heard a similar 6 beat rhythm referred to as sheelto). These rhythms tend to be found more in art music rather than folk music of the Middle East. I've seen Egyptians refer to dawr hindii as "andalus" (e.g. Amar Andalus by Mokhtar Al Said).

muHajjar 14/4


al-maSrii 2+4+4+2+2
murabb`a 13/4=3+4+2+2+2

samaa`ii ath-thaqiil (or Aghr aqSaaq samaa`ii) 10/4

samaa`ii darij (or darj) 6/8 or 3/4

"darj" generally refers to a 6 beat rhythm -- it can have many forms depending on where you are. 6s tend to be a little straighter (non-syncopated) in Persia or can swing or syncopate heavily in places like the Mahgreb. Sometimes, though, it refers to a rhythm in an even multiple of 2 time (4 or 8) -- I think this is due to the fact that it is hard to distinguish a 6 beat rhythm from a 2 beat rhythm that is filled in a syncopated way.

darj 6/8

"Dawr" is used in Arab, Persian, and Turkish music lingo; it refers to a scale or rhythmic cycle that returns to its starting point. "Dawr Hindi" is first documented in "Ma'refat-e 'elm-e musiqi" an anonymous work from about the 17th century (probably Persian).

dawr hindii/"Andalus" 7/8



Rhythms that make use of segments(feet) of 3 are known as "aqsaaq" -- it means "broken" or "limping". This type of rhythm is still part of a lot of traditional Middle Eastern music. The term "aqsaaq" is used by Turkish musicians (and others) to describe a wide variety of rhythms counted in groups of 2s and 3s that are not even. Aqsaq rhythms do not necessarily well fit our western traditions of ratioed measures -- playing correctly is more about fitting the phrasing and timing of the song than some mathematical structure.

Several of the rhythms mentioned have been aqsaaq rhythms, including "samaa'ii thaqiil"; here are some more rhythms:

Karsilama means "face-to-face" in Turkish. This 9 beat rhythm is a popular belly dance beat, and is also used in Turkish and Greek folk songs (e.g. "Rompi Rompi", "Mastika") and modern Turkish "jazz". The rhythm is grouped as 2+2+2+3 or can be counted in two uneven groups of 3 (slow-then-fast) 1 2 3 123. This 9-beat aqsaaq rhythm is so popular it is sometimes simple called "aqsaaq".

karsilama 9/8=2+2+2+3

Some Turkish songs are grouped 2+2+3+2, (e.g. Dere Giliyor Dere) but a very similar pattern is used with only a slight change of emphasis. The 7th eighth-note in this case is a pickup/chain/bridge into the important accent on 8 (rather than on the 7). Usually this difference can be heard in the melody.

karsilama-variation 9/8=2+2+2+3

2+2+2+3 variation of above

2+2+3+2 compare!
Curcuna (JOOR-joon-nuh -- the Turkish "C" is a sound like an english "j" or "ch") is an Armenian rhythm (I've also heard it in Afgani tunes -- often times nearly straightened to a 6). It is a 10 rhythm being grouped 3+2+2+3. When played it can almost sound like ayyuub (a 2) with just a bit more space in it -- or like a 6 beat rhythm. It is not even -- it has a bit of syncopation which is hard to describe. If you think of it long-short-short-long you'll probably get it. Be careful not to "straighten it out" into a 2 or a 6. I have sometimes heard the rhythm called "Nubar" -- probably because it is used for the song "Nubar Nubar". Arabic speaking non-Armenians probably call it "jurjina" which if you are Egyptian probably comes out "gurgina".

curcuna 10/8


There are basically two ways used to form a simple 7-beat rhythm: either 2+2+3 or 3+2+2. I already mentioned "dawr hindii" which is a 3+2+2. In Greece and Turkey the 223's are generally known as "laz" or "laz bar" and the 322's as "kalamantiano" (Kalamata is a port in south Greece). Both forms are used for various folk line dances and songs.

laz 7/8=2+2+3

kalamantiano 7/8=3+2+2

Another Greek rhythm is called "zeybek" and is used in "zeymbekiko" music.

Zembekiko is a popular (traditional) Greek solo dance for men -- I have heard it described as "a guy dancing around a glass of ouzo on the floor looking like he's rolling dice" (this description is perhaps "tourist-ish").

Samra sent me a description from a Greek folk dance teacher: ...Zembekiko was born from Rembetika and came out of the war periods (20's - 40's). It was a way for people to express their pain - the songs then were all about hardship, poverty, loss, etc. (Now they are mostly songs about love songs - usually loss in love). The dance is traditionally done solo, usually with a hunched stance and often with a smoke in one hand and a drink in the other, representing the sorrow they feel and the fact that they're drowning it in drink.

It's an improvised dance. There are no set steps, it's a set style. Big leg kicks, lots of swaying, often low to the ground, arms outstretched and in a hunched stance, head bowed and eyes to the ground. Generally known as 'the drunk man's dance' among Greek people, but according to Mary this is erroneous. It comes from the history of Zembekiko (see above), but of course one does not need to be drunk to do it. ... It's not an ancient dance like other folk dances. It's like the blues of Greek dancing.

Apparently the Zeymbekiko is somewhat older than that -- Mantos Garlofis mentions more about it in his letter to me.

This is a 9-beat rhythm with a completely different feel than the Karsilama we discussed previously. It is grouped 4+4+1 and is usually much slower that the 9 of Karsilama -- perhaps it sounds more like 8 very spacey measures of 2 or 4 beats plus a half measure. As written here it is fundamentally two measures of a 4 beat phrase (similar to the basic waHiidaa) followed by a single beat -- however, in practice it is much more important that the beats match the music being played. The "extra beat" can be used by a good dancer to add particularly noticeable accents to a dance arrangement.

Examine the second variation below (which a Greek correspondent tells me is typical of the modern form), notice that it is similar to 2 repeats of a maqsum rhythm plus 1 extra beat.

zeymbekiko/zeybek 9/4=4+4+1

Another family of Greek rhythms is the Tsamikos. They are approximately a 3 or 6-beat rhythm and are not "even"; they feel "slow-quick-quick". It is important to match the rhythm of the music -- perhaps sometimes they sound like "long 2s" or "short 7s".

tsamiko 6/8 or 3/4

maybe this

or maybe like this
For more information about these rhythms and a bunch of other Greek rhythms look at a letter that Manthos Garlofis wrote me about Greek rhythms.

Further east, the music of the Mahgreb (Morocco, Tunisia) and Andalusia have been greatly affected by Arabic influences. Modern Spain still has remnants of Arabic influences despite a reaction to purge as much Moorish culture from the region as possible after the Moors were driven from the country. The flamenco rhythm tradition partially grew upon roots of Arabic tradition and the nuba is still considered primarily "Andalusian" although it is also a part of the traditional classical music of most of north Africa.

Here are some rhythms that are traditionally used in this form of Andalusian musical presentation known as "nubaat". Each section of a nuba contains some number of songs that share one of these rhythms and are played without break (or sometimes with a brief taaqasiim). BasiiT sort of has the feel of a bolero or rhumba, but in 6. I suspect that they are related somewhere in the distant past in the blending of Arabic tradition. Quddaam, although written as a 3 often comes out (at least in songs I've heard) sounding like a 2 or a 4 -- especially when it gets fast (and it does). This may be the effect of a "modernization" of Andalusian music.

basiiT 6/4 or 12/8

bTaa'iHii 8/4 or 8/8


qayIm wa niSf 8/4 or 8/8

3+2+3 Touma writes it this way (rotated?)
quddaam 3/4 or 6/8


inSiraaf 5/8

1st bar

2nd bar

khlaS or makhlaS 3/8


"sha'bia" is a Moroccan polyrhythm (unusual in Middle Eastern music -- and hardly a polyrhythm by the standards of continental African rhythm) played on at least two drums. The 6 beat rhythm is supposed to represent "heart" and the 12 "lung".

sha'bia 6/8x2 and 12/8

6 part (heart)

12 part (lung)
This is a bit "unnatural sounding" to the western ear since the most specific accent is not at the start of the measure. Although even some Moroccan music seems to rotate it so that the "one" is on a DUM.

Here is another version (according to Hassan Erraji and Salah Dawson-Miller):

sha'bia 6/8x2 and 12/8

6 part (darabuka - heart)

12 part (bendir - lung)


Apparently Persian music has lost a lot of the more varied rhythmic modes that are mentioned in historical works written during the height of the Persian and Arabic empires. Today most (fixed-rhythm) Persian rhythmic modes are fairly simple 2s, 4s, 6s, or 8s. In Persia there is still a (fading) classical tradition for music and song that has no western sense of fixed measure but is based on a loose poetic meter.

Modern (and probably much older) Persian music focuses a lot on melodic and rhythmic improvisation -- primarily on the stringed "tar". A tar is a skin covered string instrument similar to (and probably the ancestor of) the oud. The Persian version of the globet shaped drum is called a "Zarb", "Tombak", "Dombak" -- it is one of the most subtle and interesting Middle Eastern percussion instruments -- it is probably fairly modern as it starts to appear in artistic representations of musicians in the 19th century. Zarbists make a wide variety of sounds using complex finger technique on the head of the drum and also by tapping and scraping rings on the corrugated side of the drum -- playing along with the stringed instruments during fixed measure sections -- and also improvising drum solos.

The instrument has become popular in recent years due to a few revolutionary players in the middle part of the 20th century, including the esteemed Hosain Tehrani. For more information on the tombak, tombak players, and Iranian music check out The Tombak Network.

Awfar is one of the five fundamental patterns documented in a 17th century Persian work. I don't know if it describes the rhythm as modernly notated:

awfar 19/8=6+4+2+7

Mukhammas is a form of five line Persian verse. Presumably this rhythm accompanies a vocal or musical form of this poetry.

mukhammas 16/4=7+3+2+4

Persia / Sufi

Check out Peyman's comments on rhythms used on the daf(frame drum) in Persian Sufi music at this site http://rhythmweb.com/frame/sufi_daf.htm.

Of course the rhythms can also be played on other instruments. Many of these rhythms are rather syncopated in practice. It's very difficult to get the nuance or "feel" of the rhythm just by reading the musical notation or by listening to an perfectly counted MIDI sample (there are some live samples at the site above).

Daem 4

Garyan 14

Haddadi 8

HalGerten 16

HayAllah 8

HayAllahAllah 10

Maddahi 12

Saghghezi 12

ZekrEDovvom 16

The Balkans

Balkan musicians have a pulse-based system in which they will first categorize a rhythm based on the number of strong beats or pulses in the cycle. Then particular pulses that are accented and pulses that are longer or shorter than the rest are noted.

For instance a rhythm like "dajchovo", which is fundamentally the same as the 9 beat karsilama, might be counted as a "4 with a long 4th". The fill TEKs at the end (since they are not fundamental) are often syncopated.

dajchovo 9/4


1   2   3   4(long)

Another "nine" called "Grantchasko" (used in the song "Sto Me Je Mile Em Drago"), has a "long 2" (I think Grantchasko means "potter"):

grantchasko 9/4

1   2long 3   4
Or, a more complicated rhythm, "sandasko" is counted a "10 with a long 4 and long 8". A western musician would probably consider this a 22 beat rhythm with a very slightly shortened 9 and 11. A Bulgarian musician would probably break it into 2 phrases: 10=6+4 (or 22=13+9, if you are using a western system -- even so the rhythm sounds 22=9+9+4 to a western ear). Hard to explain, no?

sandasko 22/16

1 2 3 4+ 5 6 7 8+ 9 10
Here are a few more:

sedi donka 25/16=7+7+11

Break Sedi Donka down like this: two 7s=3+2+2 (like the Greek Kalamantiano) and then an 11 or "5 with a long 3". Notice how you could wrap the rhythm around the measure break and it would have 3 repeating segments followed by a bit of couple of beats "at the end".

    |<-real start            |<- real end

1----- 1----- 1----- ***

|<-but it might sound like it starts here

be careful though, the placement of the beginning of the rhythm cycle is important to fitting in to the music and ornamenting or accenting the rhythm. This type of pattern (where it sounds to the western ear like the end of the cycle seems to wrap into the beginning of the next) is common in Balkan rhythms.

The Balkan 7 that is phrased 2+2+3 (similar to the Greek "laz") is called Rachenitsa.

rachenitsa 7/8=2+2+3

The Balkan 7 that is phrased 3+2+2 (similar to the Greek "kalamentiano") may be called "lesnoto" -- which is usually used for the name of a dance (or family of dances) to a slow-quick-quick rhythm or "chetvorno".

lesnoto 7/8=3+2+2

However, just looking at the count will not give you a good indication of how to play these rhythms -- they really have to fit the style of the music.

Many tunes are in measures of 2 with a tendency to use triplets to fill the rhythm -- so they may sound or count more like 6s. We find this in a similar but probably unrelated way in music in the Mahgreb.

pravo 2/4

or in the same time as above but filled as if in 6 (i.e. sounds like a 6 but is really a 2).

pravo 6/8


Other 2s are relatively straight and non-syncopated, such as "triti puti" which is similar to "ayyuub":

triti puti 2/4

Neda Voda is a song that was brought from Macedonia by a musician who heard this song being played in a train station by the locals. This is the rhythm that goes with it. It is rather pleasant 11 beat rhythm. Here is some notation I found on the web for a dance: http://www.sacredcircles.com/THEDANCE/HTML/DANCEPAG/NEDAVODA.HTM

neda voda 11/8


Yemen has a strong academic music tradition. In a sort of cultural conservatism they have retained much of the early Arabic music influences based on poetic meter. Here are some rhythms from Yemen that are traditional.

das'a kabIr 11/8

das'a mutawassit/medium das'a:es=das'a mutawassit/medio das'a:fr=das'a mutawassit/das'a moyen 7/8

das'a saghIr/fast or split das'a:es=das'a saghIr/rápido o dividido:fr=das'a saghIr/rapide ou divisé 7/8

Darb al-wasta/medium wasta:es=Darb al-wasta/medio wasta:fr=Darb al-wasta/wasta moyen 4/4

Darb as-sarI'/fast wasta:es=Darb as-sarI'/rápido wasta:fr=Darb as-sarI'/wasta rapide 4/4

Adoni might be considered a wasta:

"adoni" 4/4

Q: So where are more rhythms? Rhythm Collection

I notice there is a tendency for beginning drummers to want to quickly "collect" as many rhythms as they can. (Hey, I did it too.) Let me point out that it is not the number of rhythms you can play, it's more about being able to communicate clearly with the vocabulary you have. Some of the "best" Middle Eastern drummers usually play only a couple of rhythms. Most songs are to basic rhythms of 2, 4, 6 or 8. The art of Middle Eastern drumming is in doing the most with what you have -- playing perfectly and precisely -- ornamenting the rhythm appropriately -- making all of the sounds that your instrument can make pleasingly.

Okay, that said: There is a list of rhythms here:


Q: What's the earliest documented rhythm?A Brief Analysis of Historical Sources

Here is a page with some historical artistic representations of various Middle Eastern drums.

Here is a page with notes for a class I taught on documenting rhythmic modes in pre-1600 Middle Eastern music.

One of the earliest surviving sources on Middle Eastern music theory is the "Kitab al-Aghani" (Book of Songs) by "Abu al-Faraj Ali of Esfahan"; it was written in the early 10th century -- unfortunately the technical sections on music and rhythm theory are completely in decipherable.

In the 13th century, SafI-al-DIn wrote two books, apparently about 50 years apart: the "Kitaab al-adwaar" and "Risaala al-sharafiyya". These texts contain a great deal of technical information on musical theory and are practically the only such sources available until much later in history. He is apparently the first to use the term "dawr" to refer to the rhythmic cycle and the first to discuss it in any depth.

In "Kitaab al-adwaar" chapter 13 is devoted to rhythmic modes. SafI-al-DIn lists eight rhythmic modes with variations. The "Risaala" also mentions seven of the same rhythms and adds another. The way he describes the rhythms is in terms of segments (feet) of long and short syllables. He notes that some beats may optionally be played, presumably at the discretion of the musician, and others are fixed. There is little or no evidence about how these rhythms were applied specifically to percussion instruments.

In "Kitaab" he gives a "basis" for each rhythm (al-aSl) but this was probably based on his own form of analysis rather than common practice since it seems of limited use and he later seems to deprecate the notion in "Risaala". Notice the variations mentioned between the two works have very different basic cycle lengths. For the cycles that are even-divisions or multiples of each other one might imagine that the short rhythm is simply stretched by a factor of two to fill the space. There are many cases where his rhythm notations for song examples don't add up. Part of this seems to be the habit of not specifically mentioning the length of a note when it is a repeated note of the same tone as the previous. This makes it nearly impossible to reconstruct his examples with any (rhythmic) accuracy and leads one to suspect we may not be able to interpret any of the modes with certainty.

Here are the rhythmic modes he mentions (pay no attention to the distribution of notes versus rests -- it was not Safi-al-Din's -- I've had to make it at least plausible to render in modern notation):

al-thaqiil al-awwal 16/8=3+3+4+2+4

al_aSl (the basis)

al-aSl (the basis)
al-thaqiil al-thaanii 16/8=3+3+2+3+3+2

al-aSl (the basis)
al-thaqiil al-thaanii 8/8

khafiif al-thaqiil 16/8=2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2

khafiif al-thaqiil 2/4=2+2

Risaala al-sharafiyya
thaqiil al-ramal 20/8=4+4+2+2+2+2+2+2+4

al-ramal 12/8

Safii al_Diin Kitaab al-adwaar;

Safii al-Diin; Kitaab al-adwaar; also Risaala al-sharafiyya

al-aSl; Safii al-Diin Kitaab al-adwaar;

Risaala al-sharafiyya

Risaala al-sharafiyya
khafiif al-ramal 10/8=2+3+2+3

khafiif al-ramal 12/8=2+4+2+4

Risaala al-sharafiyya version
khafiif al-ramal 6/8=2+4

muDaa`af al-ramal 24/8

al-hazaj 12/8=4+3+3+2

al-hazaj 6/8=4+2


Risaala al-sharafiyya version
al-faakhitii 20/8

Risaala al-sharafiyya version
al-faakhitii 28/8

Risaala al-sharafiyya variation in 28

Risaala al-sharafiyya variation in 28

Q: Where else can I read about Middle Eastern rhythm history? ( Bibliography )

Check the bibliography of my notes for a class I taught on documenting rhythmic modes in pre-1600 Middle Eastern music.

Here's a bibliography from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

If you primarily read English (like me), you are not going to find much on this subject. Henry George Farmer has a number of books on Arabic music history and theory (some of them in English). He does not present much about rhythm -- as I mentioned there is apparently not a lot to find.

Jean During (a modern westerner who studies traditional Persian music) has written about Persian music theory in both English and French. "The Art of Persian Music" is sort of a coffee table book but contains a bit of interest about Persian rhythm tradition as well as good overview of Persian music.

There is a book "The Music of the Arabs" by Habib Hassan Touma -- he includes some rhythmic mode definitions, although I'm leery about a few of his rhythmic notations. He also includes historical notes about music development.

The Modal System of Arab and Persian Music AD 1250-1300(O. Wright, 1978) has a brief analysis on what is to be found about rhythmic modes in historical works from 13th century. Also it has a mind-numbing amount of analysis of melodical modes, if you are into that sort of thing. Interesting note: I've seen references to Persian translations of this book referenced by Persian authors writing about Persian music.

Reading French may help in studying first sources as Rodolphe von Erlanger translated many parts of historical works in Arabic in his many volumed "La Musique Arabe".

Herman Rechberger is a Finn who studies Arabic music (speaks Arabic) and has apparently traveled a good deal in the Middle East has a web version of his book on Arabic rhythmic modes here -- it is very interesting, however I find the rhythmic notation on the web page almost impossible to read. This is corrected in the hard copy of the book (which I have finally managed to get) and he also adds fixed space textual notation (possibly inspired by this page and e-conversing with me), and a couple of short discussions of the rhythmic mode usage in a couple of classical musical families.

Here are a few web links:

If you do find any good sources, do let me know!