Middle Eastern Maqams: Scales Lesson

A simple lesson for people who are interested in playing Arabic Maqams (scales) on their western instrument.

Ultimate Guitar
Middle Eastern Maqams: Scales Lesson
It is very difficult to find resources for learning Arabic Maqams in English. That's why, I decided to make a simple lesson of the scales from where I came from.

First, Maqams in the Arab Region are mainly used for 2 things:

1. Religious Islamic hymns
2. Old Arabic songs from the 60s until 90s, and also used until now.

Arabic Maqams are usually played with middle eastern / Turkish instruments such as: oud, buzuk etc... Those instruments have quarter-tone fret system. Of course additionally to the known half-tone and full-tone system. Fortunately, a not bad number of Maqams don't use quarter-tones.

Even though you can establish a quarter-tone sound on guitar by bending the string up, It still doesn't sound good as it sounds on typical Middle Eastern instruments. In this lesson, I am gonna put only Maqams that don't have a quarter-tone.

It worth mentioning that a good number of free quarter-tone Maqams can be equivalent to known scales/modes.


1. Hijaz Kar Maqam

Hijaz Kar Maqam has these intervals from the major scale: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7.
  • It is usually played in C: C Db E F G Ab B C.
  • When the Maqam is played in G, it is called Shadd Araban.
    Shadd Araban Maqam: G Ab B C D Eb F# G.
In other words, Shadd Araban is a transposed version of Hijaz Kar, starting on G.
  • When the Maqam is played in D, it is called Shahnaz.
    Shahnaz Maqam: D Eb F# G A Bb C# D.
  • When it is played in A, it is called Suzidil.
    Suzidil Maqam: A Bb C# D E F G# A.

2. Ajam Maqam (Major Scale)

The Ajam Maqam has the same intervals of the major scale (Ionian Mode).
  • Bb is the most common Ajam Maqam in the Middle Eastern music.
    Bb Ajam Maqam: Bb C D Eb F G A Bb.
The Ajam Maqam sounds western to the ear. That's why, it is called Ajam, which means someone who can't understand Arabic (foreigner).
  • Shawq Faza is a Maqam from the Ajam Maqam family.
    Shawq Faza has these intervals: 1 2 3 4 5 b6 7.
    It is usually played in Bb: Bb C D Eb F Gb A Bb.

3. Nahawand Maqam

One of the main middle eastern Maqams that is usually played in C.

Nahawand Maqam has two types:
  • The first one is called Nahawand Hijaz which is equivalent to the harmonic minor scale.

    Nahawand Hijaz has these intervals from the major scale: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7.
    Nahawand Hijaz in C: C D Eb F G Ab B C.
  • The second one is called Nahawand Kurd Which is equivalent to the natural minor scale.

    Nahwand Kurd has these intervals: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7.
    Nahwand Kurd in C: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C.

    When the Nahawand Hijaz is played in G, it is called Sultani Yakah.
  • Sultani Yakah Maqam: G A Bb C D Eb F# G.

    When Nahwand Kurd is played in G, it is called Farah Faza.
    Farah Faza Maqam: G A Bb C D Eb F G.
  • Another Maqam from the Nahawand family is the Nahawand Murassah Maqam or Sunbulah.
    Nahawand Murassah Maqam has these intervals: 1 2 b3 4 b5 6 b7.
    Standard Nahwand Murassah in C: C D Eb F Gb A Bb C.

4. Nawa Athar Maqam

This Maqam has the intervals of: 1 2 b3 #4 5 b6 7.
  • Usually played in C: C D Eb F# G Ab B C.
  • This Maqam is called Hisar when played in D.
    Hisar Maqam: D E F G# A Bb C# D .
  • Another Maqam from Nawa Athar Maqam family is Nakriz Maqam.
    Intervals of Nakriz Maqam are: 1 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7.
    Nakriz Maqam in C: C D Eb F# G A Bb C.
  • Another Maqam is Athar Kurd Which has the intervals of: 1 b2 b3 #4 5 b6 7.
    Athar Kurd Maqam in C: C Db Eb F# G Ab B C.

5. Kurd Maqam (Phrygian Mode)

Kurd Maqam has the intervals of: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7.
  • C Kurd: C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C.
  • D Kurd: D Eb F G A Bb C D.
  • G Kurd: G Ab Bb C D Eb F G.

6. Hijaz Maqam (Phrygian Dominant)

Hijaz Maqam has these intervals: 1 2b 3 4 5 b6 b7.
  • Standard Hijaz is in D: D Eb F# G A Bb C D.
  • When the b6 is played quarter-tone, it is considered Hijaz Rast.
  • When the b6 is played natural halftone, it is considered Hijaz Nahwand.
  • Zanjaran Maqam is a very popular modulation from Hijaz Maqam.
    Zanjaran Maqam has these intervals: 1 b2 3 4 5 6 b7.
  • Zanjaran in C: C Db E F G A Bb C.
  • Zanjaran in D: D Eb F# G A B C D.
I hope this humble lesson was helpful for those who are interested in Arabic scales.

74 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Mind=blown. I'll save this and study slowly over longer period of time. Too much info! Thanks.
    the Hijaz Kar Maqam sounds god over this starting on B for those of you jamming to this. Ive just been switching in and out of the E minor pentatonic
    These scales are not just used by Arabs right? They are also commonly used by jewish, greek, persian and indian people. And i think these scales have different names in different countries. But nice lesson anyway!
    true but non-Arabic musics and their theories do not use them in the same way as the Arabs use the maqamat
    Thankyou so much for uploading this ive been looking for something relevantto this for ages!
    Those tuning in, this is Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance' band. Spruance is fascinated by Maqams and eastern musical philosophies. Secret Chiefs 3 is a collection of him collaborating with different musos and get a metal/rock/jazz/eastern fusion happening. Their music is cool as hell, I'd recommend people check out the album "Book M".
    If you get dumb results from learning scales, you should probably stop approaching the subject in a dumb way.
    A very nice intro to Maqqams but Middle Eastern Music theory is significantly more rich than simply using "arabic" scales. The same notes using the western music system are ever so slightly different in different maqqams. Also a maqqam is technically one of the larger units of Arabic Musical Theory. The more fundamental subdivisions are the notes and the ajnas (jins sing.) As many of these scales are played on fretless instruments in a non equal tempered system the pitch of the notes themselves varies microtonally from region to region and even from player to player creating a rich melodic diversity to this genre. Aditionally, the ajnas are the fundamental groups of notes that compose the maqqams. Each Maqqam is composed of 2-3 ajnas. These can be varied nearly independently from each other for a very fluid transition and modulation between maqamat and each convey a different feel. Additionally, this system is much more of a modal system and can be considered to take modal theory a step further in terms of its fluidity. For example, Maqqam Ajjam sounds completely different from a C major scale when played properly due to both the microtonal variation and the fluidity of play provided by this theory system. The control and fluidity given to you by the fretless instruments and general theory is a very different experience to playing guitar that I'd definitely recommend for those that are interested in trying. I may write my own arabic music theory lesson for those interested.
    Definitely do it. I've been very interested in trying to learn about Middle Eastern styles, but have generally found resources generally over simplified, or unrelatable. So if you could that'd be great.
    Scales are only limiting to what you play, if you let them be. Use them as a guide, rather than a rule. Passing tones are awesome.
    It stuck this as a new comment rather than as a reply to @King Donkey >_> But yeah, cool lesson, will be bookmarked!
    I found this lesson very interesting, and different from the usual "how to shred really fast!!!" or "get out of using box patterns!!!" repetitiveness. Lately I've been messing around with all the harmonic minor modes, and I immediately noticed that the augmented second (as well as chromaticism) features heavily in these Middle Eastern scales. I don't think I'd have the guts to try and make any solos out of them, but they're certainly cool to have in the memory bank.
    Nice article-like you said, scales give you the connections for playing harmony and scales. for those of us who are visual, it might be nice to see this as a tab. It would be fantastic to start playing immediately rather figure it out...my music theory is limited.
    Marty Friedman uses a lot of these kind of scales. Which is really helpful since I've been listening to a lot of Cacophony and hope to add it to my playing.
    Even though i already knew this, this is a very good lesson. I always find it inspiring to learn new scales, you can write very unique riffs with exotic scales like these.
    Cool stuff, but I would have liked some Youtube videos with examples maybe (for future reference. Otherwise, it is awesome to see some stuff on non-Western music. There are a lot of great musical traditions that we just aren't aware of.
    Here are some links to the you tube videos Omar Khairat .. great musician wiz great plays
    nice article dude but just a problem, are they arabic at all ? i think your a bit mistaken, because maqams like shahnaz,isfahan,rast panjgah and some others completly are persian and belong to iran,even the words and their definition are persian. thanks
    Well you're correct .While most of the maqams here are Arab ,but I added some from the region for convenience. Also,the title of the article is "Middle Eastern maqams" ,not "Arab Maqams" Thank you for your comment
    Ah, I've always had a passion for Arabic sounds, especially when mixed with Egyptian scales.
    Man, I can't remember the friggin' typical rock scales and now I have to learn scales from the Middle East? I should have taken up the damn kazoo...
    yeah, that's a kinda cool stuff, so it kan be ultimately kick-ass if you know how to use it! here is the perfect example of briliant using such scales in thrash metal by Artillery (do yo hear the oriental sounding intro and verse riffs?) So, enjoy! :
    While this interesting, it's basically just confirming that fact that most music uses currently established scales. Also, scales are dumb. Just saying.
    in what way are scales dumb, unless youre just trolling
    King Donkey
    By "scales are dumb" I'm sure he just means that it is preferable to play what you hear in your head rather than strictly following the tones of scale. I do agree with him somewhat. I wish I wasn't always limiting myself to the scales I currently know.
    Coda Guitar
    A lot of non-European music uses microtonal tuning in it's scales which is definitely different to what you're used to. We divide our octaves into equal semitones which makes it easier to create harmony (chords), where as music which is more melodic such as arabic or indian (single note melodies accompanied by a drone), can use intervals which are pushed and pulled microtonally in different directions to make the melodies flow more subtly. Just saying..
    pretty close. equal temperament means every key sounds the same, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. beethoven for one deliberately moved into various keys to convey a mood (e.g. because they sounded horribly out of tune). however, it also means music is perfectly fine to transpose, without changing the melodic and harmonic feel (for singers etc). our harmonies are actually mathematically wrong - in equal thirds are (i believe) 14 cents sharp and fifths are two cents flat. it isn't much, but it's enough to make me disagree with my tuner on what the B string should sound like XD good article - its a whole different system to grasp (i remember a while back reading about maqams and ajnas until my brain hurt) but you gave us the basics for exploring composition and improv!
    Yeah dude, scales are totally dumb. So are chords and notes and rhythms. It's all dumb, dood.
    Scales, rhythms, notes and chords are dumb? I suppose letters, words, language and communication are also dumb? What about numbers and formulas? Thankfully there are those who recorded written music on paper with rules and common symbols or you wouldn't ever been able to play anywhere near what you are capable of (of course if you embraced this constantly evovling language, you most likely would be a much better musician and less likely to come across as being so ignorant). Music theory is a valuable tool that enables a much deeper understanding of the magical miracle of music. By ignoring it, you are only limiting your own growth as an artist and musician..
    So many dislikes on something that's completely accurate. Scales are dumb. For the most part, scales are just tools to help you learn what different notes sound like in different contexts. The blues scale is just a tool to learn what a flat fifth sounds like. The harmonic minor scale is just a tool to learn what a major 7th sounds like in a minor scale. The point is, if you're actually thinking about scales while you're playing, and not the intervals, you've got a lot of learning to do.
    What I don't understand is that why should scales and intervals be mutually exclusive. Scales are just collections of intervals. It's easier to refer to a scale (E major) than to list out all of the intervals (root, major second, major third...), especially in a band situation. I can see why you say that intervals are the more important thing, but there's no reason why you wouldn't think of intervals while playing in a scale. Just stating that scales are dumb is dumb. It's not "completely accurate", it's one's deformed-by-MT opinion which may be valid in one context but not necessarily is fit in all occasions.
    I actually agree with this guy. You can't just be passively going through scale positions while playing any scale. Music is about listening to these tones while you play them not just going through the motions.
    while i do agree with you on that point that it is very helpful to recognize the tones i dont believe that was the way he meant it
    crazy sam you my friend are actually crazy being that scales are the basis for all popular and legendary music.
    could you please tell which maqam do these chords make ?! Em D G C Am B7 Thank you
    Very nice article! I'm gonna have to bookmark this cause there's no way i can memorize all of these. Just curious, do you know of a scale that has the notes of harmonic minor with a flat second and fourth? Or in notes, C Db Eb Fb G Ab B C My friend came up with a song using these notes and we were wondering if it was already an existing scale or not. Thanks
    look up Le Trio Joubran, they are an oud band i saw live, one of there awesome songs is called Masr
    the Hijaz Kar Maqam sounds nice over this starting on B if youre interested in jamming to this. switching in and out of Eminor pentatonic
    Your right, scales are just tool for a means to an end, and until you come up with a better system for describing collections of notes, chords, and intervals I'll keep using them to learn and acquaint my fingers and ears with new sounds and patterns and to communicate with my bandmates. It is a valid point that many musicians use scales as a shortcut to actually putting feeling and creativity into their playing (most jazz musicians, kirk hammet on his really fast solo's) it is wrong to say that a tool is stupid just because some people use it as a crutch.
    most of those scales are already in "Western Culture" Music" they are found in Major scales, Minor scales are their modes. well, most of them, i came across a few of them that were a mixture of half-tone and whole tone mixed together. But still, these appear to be modes of already known scales, just a different name. Like the Byzantine Scale.