Detail from an illustration by Levni, showing the Festival Chronicle of Vehbi (Surna-me-i Vehbi). Unesco World Art Series: Turkey, Ancient Miniatures. Paris 1961
Detail from an illustration by Levni, showing the Festival Chronicle of Vehbi (Surna-me-i Vehbi). Unesco World Art Series: Turkey, Ancient Miniatures. Paris 1961

When listening to a “new” type of music for the first time, it is sometimes difficult to be able to hear the context of the different musical sounds. Sometimes it is helpful to know something about the rules from which the music is made and how it is used in order to experience and listen to the music as something meaningful. It is always difficult to describe music in words, but here is an attempt to distinguish some thoughts and styles behind traditional Turkish music.

You could try to “hear what you read about” here when you listen to Turkish music.

The traditional Turkish music, both art- and folk-music, is in many ways similar to much other music in Asia. It is often performed by soloists, by only one singer or instrumentalist, or by small ensembles with 5–8 members. The voice sound is somewhat tense, but not as tense and nasal as in East Asia. A tone is not often set at a distinct pitch but is rather an intonation in a soft, glissading way, both on instruments and in singing.

Turkish music is an unison. Traditionally there is not harmonics or chords as in the European music. If more than one voice and/or more than one instrument perform a piece of music they all play the same melodic line, in unison or in octaves. In recent years, however, folk and popular music have been influenced by Western music and it has become increasingly common to hear elements of functional harmony and harmony and multi-part music making.

Another typical thing in Turkish music is improvisation which leads to different interpretations of a melodic line from different singers/musicians. The tone is intonated different, with different ornaments. In this way, an exciting play with small differences in pitch and sound develops. Sometimes, the differences in pitch become larger – the preceding tone on a string instrument can continue sounding when the next tone is played. A kind of “unorganized” polyphony will then appear momentarily, but the central thing is the common melody line.

Thus the melodic line is the main thing to listen to in Turkish music, which is not the same as the meaning of melody in western music. A specific sequence of notes, a specific time-set and rhythm are properties that we often think of in a melody. All of those properties are present in most of the music we hear and we do not often think of them as separate items. In Turkish music, chords, tempo and a regular pulse are not always present. Some music consist of a melodic line solely.

It is customary to distinguish between two types of Turkish and, for that matter, all Arabic or Islamic music.

Music in free rhythm, i.e. music with a melodic line only and with neither tempo nor beat. The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, who did research into Turkish folk music, called this style parlando-rubato. The melodic line is improvised according to a system of rules called makam.

In art music, music in free rhythm is usually termed taksim or açış/ashir (pro­nounced as atchis and meaning opening). A long piece of music, e.g. a suite, will often start with a taksim. The first and second stages in the ceremony of the Mevlevi confraternity – nait and taksim – are in free rhythm.

In folk music, this style is called uzun hava. Roughly translated this means “long melody”, alluding to the very ornate and prolonged tonal sequences. In vocal music, long tonal ornaments are sung on every vowel. Azan – the calling of the faithful to prayer – is music in free rhythm.

Thus the free rhythm style is the only type of music which Islam has indirectly sanctioned, and this is part of the reason why musical forms in free rhythm are generally superior in status to other forms.

Music in free rhythm is nearly always solo music, or else it is performed by a vocalist accompanying himself on an instrument. The obvious reason for this is the extreme difficulty involved in co-ordinating the performance of several musicians without the fixed points of reference provided by a steady tempo and beat.

Music in regular rhythm, i.e. music with a fixed tempo and rhythmic pattern. Bartók called this style tempo giusto. The rhythmic patterns below the melodic line are called usul.

In the art music context, music in regular rhythm is usually called beste, which is more or less the equivalent of what we Europeans call melody. Of course there are also any number of other names denoting different types of music in regular rhythm, e.g. peshrev, ayin and yürük semai in the ceremony of the Mevlevi Dervishes.

In folk music, this style is referred to as kırık hava. This can be approximately translated as “chopped up melody”, thus hinting that the Turks experienced regular rhythm as a fragmentation of the melodic line. The kırık hava style is above all used in dance music. Many of the characteristics of vocal and instrumental music in regular rhythm make more sense if one can trace their antecedents back to music in free rhythm.

This applies, for example, to the frequently fluctuating intonation. In popular dance music it is common for two different melodies to be contrasted. The change of melody tells the dancers when to change partners or movements.


When listening to the examples mentioned above, it may seem like there is not only a melody line but also chords in the music. That is because many of the Turkish instruments have resonance strings, strings that continue sounding also when you don’t play on them. Moreover, it is common that the key note of the melody is allowed to continue sounding without dampening in a way that sometimes can resemble a bordun, which is a tone that is heard throughout a whole music performance, like for example in a Scottish bagpipe-song. All those things are ornaments of the music that is important but not intended to work in the same way as chords.

The concept of makam (pluralis makamlar) has been defined by a well-known expert in Arabic Music, Habib Hassan Touma, as a “technique of improvisation” – a system of rules that makes up an individual musicians way to form a piece of free rhythmic Arabic Art Music, the group of music in which Turkish traditional art music belongs.

It is built up of a set of rules about what group of notes that can be used, in which order tones are being presented, how the music is formed in different situations and places. Some of these rules have been written down in text while others are known just by word.

The word makam can also be used in a narrower meaning: solely as a name on the group of notes that can be used in an improvisation. These groups of notes can be described as a series of pitches, in which some tones are more important than others, this can be compared to the thing that in western music is called a “scale”.

With a general musical term, this is called a modus.

The intervals – the differences between notes – can be totally different from the ones that are found in the scales of European music. There are a number of different makamlar (modus, a group of notes) in Turkish art music. They have different names and have been introduced in the music at different times. The names of older makamlar are often names of geographical places, e.g. Hidjaz, The Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia or Iraq, while younger makamlar often have poetic names such as Sabah, morning wind, or Suzidil “burning heart”.

When a Turkish musician improvises, he uses a certain makam as a basis. The key notes should be presented in a certain ordering, but exactly when and how is free for the musician to choose. He plays ornaments, passages around the key note before it is finally presented. The skill of a musician is much about the tension he is able to build up before he plays the different key notes in a makam. Even if you are unfamiliar with the scale of a certain makam you will experience the tensions and releases through the melodic movements, when a ney player slowly and carefully reveals the central reference tones of a makam in an improvised taksim.

Also in folk music, improvisations and melodies are built based on makamlar, but a fewer number of makamlar are being used, mainly three different groups of notes, and the rules around the music making is not as strict as the ones in art music.

Improvisation over a certain group of notes, a modus, is called a “modal improv­isation”. This is a different type of improvisation than improvisation over a theme or a melodic theme, common in older European art music or improvisation over a certain sequence of chords, as in blues and older jazz music.


Similarly to the set of modus there is also a set of rhytmical patterns. Such rhythmic pattern or cycle is called usul. This is not the same thing as our time signature but can be compared to the things called “marsch-rhythm”, “valse-rhythm”, “polska-rhythm” etc. An usul is built up by one or several groups of 2 or 3 basic beats.

In traditional North European music we have only rhythm patterns built up of groups with the same number of beats in every group, e.g. In Turkish music there are in addition to those patterns also cycles built up of groups with different basic beats, e.g. Such uneven rhythms are also common in the whole South East Europe and are called aksak-rhythms. The meaning of the Turkish word aksak is halting and that is exactly what those rhythms are doing. As can be seen in the last example, beats are allowed to differ in length. The basic beats can be divided into several shorter beats or several basic beats can be merged to a longer beat. An usul can be very long and consist of many groups of beats.

Most common is that usul is played on a drum. Turkish musicians make a distinc­tion between heavy beats called düm and light beats called tek. The words düm and tek are onomatopoeic and are very useful when you want to pronounce a pattern of rhythms.

Similarly to the makamlar having different names, there are also different names for different usul. Sometimes, there is both an even usul and an aksak-rhythm with the same name, which can seem confusing. This is the case with the sofyan which is often used both in folk music and art music and which has the even form:

Both of these forms are used in the hymns on.

The first hymn starts in the even form and then gradually goes into the aksak-form of the sofyan.

Different types of music and their uses

If trying to listen to the melodic line, the ornaments that the singer or instrumentalist makes around the key notes of the melodic line and to the underlying rhythm-pattern in Turkish music, one will soon get a hold on the foundation of the music and find out about a new rich music world. Although there are some basic common properties, of course there are many types of music in such a big country.

Art music is practised in religion and at court, which means that usually it is performed by the upper classes. It has a sophisticated theoretical background, and its exponents are professional, trained musicians. Thus it is as self-conscious and as deliberately formed as the “classical music” we are accustomed to in Europe. Traditional art music has above all been played in larger cities and at religious centres such as the quasi-monastic establishments – tekke – of certain orders of Dervishes.

Folk music on the other hand is established all over the country. It has no articulate theory, and the people who practise it are usually completely isolated from another by lofty mountain ranges and long distances. Consequently folk music incorporates a diversity of styles. Music on the coast of the Black Sea sounds different to the music to be heard beside the Mediterranean, in the highlands of Anatolia or in the South. Some scholars claim that the folk music of certain parts of Turkey has been so isolated that it still retains features which antedate the coming of Islam in the 7th century.

One such feature is supposed to be the abundance of polyphony in a great deal of folk music. But in folk music too, styles have spread from one part of the country to another. We have already seen the important part played by the wandering troubadours – ashiks – in spreading songs and dances.

In coastal areas, seamen brought home music from neighbouring countries, and innumerable military expeditions have also played their part in this process of exchange. Folk music has been handed down from one generation to another and has been transformed in the process. The ashiks are the only popular musicians in Turkey who can be regarded as professionals. They perpetuated the long traditional songs about the exploits of ancient popular heroes, and they also made up new songs of their own. To the common people, an ashiks is a story-teller and poet no less than a musician. It should be remembered that orthodox Moslems regard music as sinful. Even today an Anatolian peasant can be firmly convinced that this is so. But in most places music is nevertheless used on many social occasions, in which case it is played by ordinary people.

Mention has already been made of the two styles, uzun hava and kırık hava. The arrhythmic uzun hava which resembles the call to prayer, is often used as a vehicle of popular poetry – for example, laments over the dead, love songs, narrative songs and other things which people sing to each other when they get together in the village to celebrate, to mourn or simply for “pastime and good company”.

Kırık hava – rhythmic music – is mainly used, of course, for dancing. There are many number of folk dances in Turkey. The Turkish folk dance specialists Metin And and Vedat Nedim Tör have listed over a thousand from Anatolia alone. Folk dances are often in the irregular, “limping” aksak rhythm and can be very brisk. Many of them depict events which are also presented in narrative folk songs. Dances of this kind are often very warlike and are performed with sabres or imitation weapons. One or two such dances are included in this record, among them the zeybek, which has become something of a national dance in recent years, and Köroğlu bar, which is related to one of the most widely current songs, the story of the legendary popular hero, warrior and adventurer Köroğlu, who is supposed to have lived some time during the 16th century.

More and more Western music has come to be played in Turkey during our own century, but this has the effect of making certain groups of people more conscious of traditional music and more actively interested in it, so that they have started playing both art music and folk music as a hobby. For example, every year one of the leading banks in Istanbul arranges a big festival of folk dances from different parts of Turkey. This festival is attended by people who make a hobby of folk dancing and folk music. Some of them are very skilful indeed. The musicians performing on the first side of the record belong to this new category. Sometimes, perhaps, their versions of traditional music are more refined and polished than the authentic folk tradition, but they still provide an accurate representation of what art music and folk music can sound like today.

In recent years a genre has also arisen which might be termed Turkish popular music. The sophisticated instrumental music called ince saz which is played, for example, in the cafés of Istanbul is one aspect of this genre. The popular songs called türkü to be heard on the radio in Turkey are another. Türkü is a kind of hit parade, though the word is also traditionally used to denote a certain kind of popular vocal music.

There are many different kinds of music in Turkey today – native and foreign, old and new – just as in most other countries.