Traditional Music of Turkey

     This is a brief collection of notes on Turkish ethnic music collated from various books, websites and CD booklets and based on listening to dozens of archival recordings.  I found that knowing a little bit of the context of the music (classical, religious, popular, folk, etc...) helped me to appreciate the music a bit more.

Part 1 - Basic Concepts in Melody and Rhythm
Part 2 - Classical Music
Part 3 - Folk Music
Part 4 - Religious and Modern Music

Part 1 - Basic Concepts in Melody and Rhythm

Turkish Melodic Structures - The Makam
     Before describing the types of Turkish traditional music it may be helpful (but not required) to know a little bit about the unique melodic and rhythmic elements of the music.

     Turkish music is largely heterophonic (single line melodies played by 1 or more instruments with expressive variation) and uses melodic structures called makams.  There are over 600 makams defined, but only 20 are in large use. A makam is similar to a mode in western music except that scale notes are microtonal and based on just intonation. In western music there are 7 modes (Ionian, Aeolian, Phrygian, etc...) which are basically versions of that diatonic major/minor scale, except that they emphasize certain pitches.  The emphasis of these pitches gives each mode a certain character.  Turkish makam also emphasize certain notes, but the basic scale notes are not limited to the same 7 scale intervals.  In fact each whole tone step is divided into 9 microtone intervals, and a makam pitch can be one of these "in-between" notes.  When makam scales are extended beyond the basic octave range, the notes sometimes do not coincide with the first octave, since the scales are in just intonation.  Makams (makamlar) are only transposed to a few different tonics. Sometimes a transposed makam gets its own name.

     Makams are categorized as being built from 1 of 6 tetrachords (4-note chord) stacked on 1 of 6 pentachords (5-note chord). Each half is called an ajna (Arabic - jins).  There are 7 kinds of intervals between the notes, from 1/9 of a whole step to 13/9 of a whole step (9/9 is 1 whole step).  Western modes have only 2 kinds of intervals, half steps and whole steps.

     The melodic progression (ie - tendencies) of a makam is called seyir.  Each makam has a specific seyir which have these characteristics:
  • Opening tone (entry note)
  • Final tone (durak, tonic)
  • Imperfect cadence (dominant) tone – also start of 2nd ajna and pivot tone for modulation
  • Tone for suspended cadence
  • Note before final note (can be leading tone/subtonic, but not always)
  • Special intonations and accidentals when ascending or descending (shrinking large intervals by sharpening the starting note or flattening the ending note)
  • Path from Opening to Dominant tone
  • Path from Dominant tone to Final tone
  • Mood (light/dark, spiritual/funky)
  • Asymmetrical octave extensions (due to just intonation)
  • Emphasized notes, order of emphasized notes and frequency (a kind of tone row)
  • Melodic dynamic - rising, falling, rising/falling determined by the relative position of starting and ending notes – descent/ascent can be as long as a minute
  • 1-note ornamentations

     Many pieces modulate from the original makam to another, but only certain modulations are allowed.  Sometimes a part of another makam will be used (usually 3-5 notes, forming a triad/tetrachord/pentachord) – these partials are called genera. Due to the oral tradition of teaching makam, makamlar become modified through history, such as through adding genera.

Makams can be categorized in 3 ways:
  • Basit (simple)
  • Sed (transposed)
  • Birlesik (compound, made from 2 makam ajna)
     Some basic makams: Çargah, Buselik, Basit Sehnaz, Beyati Basit Isfahan, Hicaz, Humayun, Uzzal, Zirgüleli Hicaz, Hüseyni, Muhayyer, Gülizar, Neva, Tahir, Karcigar, Basit Süznak.
Ussak makam is ascending, and melodic material hovers in the lower notes first.
In Bayati makam, melodic material hovers in the middle notes first, then descends to the tonic.


Turkish Rhythmic Structures - The Usul
     Turkish music also differs from western music in that it takes advantage of many more complex meters than duple and triplet forms.  Turkish rhythmic structure is called usul (usulu) and these can be from 2 to 128 beats long (2/8 to 128/8).  They can be considered almost like rhythmic makam in that a usul's beat accents are "tendencies" rather than explicitly played (just as a makam scale is not played straight). Usula with 2-16 beats are called minor usula and usula with 16-124 beats are called major usuls.  Most composed forms have a preferred usul, but taksim (improvisations) have no usul, since they are in free rhythm.  Usul beats are short or long and can be thought of as having time values of 2 or 3 units (ex. 3-2-2-3), tho not all beat units are necessarily equal.  Again, usula are not played verbatim, rather, they are the meter (rhythmic swing feel).

2-beat usul:
  • Turk Aksagi – 1 short, 1 long beat (2/3 = 5 units), 5/8, most basic usul
3-beats usula:
  • Devr-I Turan (3/2/2) – Alevi semah dance
  • Devr-I Hindi (2/2/3) – Black Sea horon dance pattern, (2/3/2) is a variant
  • Nim Sofyan (3/3/2) – halay and misket dances
4-beats usula:
  • Aksak semai (3/2/2/3) - slower, syncopated
  • Curcuna (3/2/2/3) - same as aksak semai but faster, with an obvious beat
  • Aksak usul (2/2/2/3) - karşılama dance, Roman oyun havası, şarkı, other folk/urban music
  • Agir aksak usul (3/2/2/2) - slow variant of aksak usul found in Zeybek dances
     Combination usula are used in Ottoman compositions and a few slow rural songs such as in destan turkusu (epic poetry) and Alevi deyiş (poetic religious hymns).  Raksan usulu (3/3/2/2/3/2) is a combination usul considered to be nim sofyan usul plus a devr-I hindi usul variant.  Additionally, ritimli taksim is a rhythmic ostinato accompanying an instrumental improvisation.

Aksak semai usul rhythm (3/2/2/3)

Part 2 - Classical Music

Turkish Classical music is sometimes divided into 2 categories:
Klaşık Turk Muzigi (Classical Turkish Music)– "court music" from 1299-1922 (Ottoman Empire)
Turk Sanat Muzigi (Turkish Art Music) - music after 1922 (intersecting with post-50s Modern Music)

     Ottoman court music is heterophonic.  A chamber instrumental ensemble with vocalist(s) performs suites called fasıl, typically 4 instrumental and 2-3 vocal forms.  All of the movements in a particular fasıl are in the same makam (mode).  A fasıl's vocal selections sometimes begin with slower works and end with faster, more well-known songs (şarkı).

Basic Fasıl movements:

Peṣrev - an instrumental prelude with a major usul stretching over many measures.  It is structured as 4 hane (movements) each followed by a teslim (refrain).  The first and last hane (as well as the teslim) use the named makam, but the other hanes can modulate to other makamlar.  There is a semi-cadence pause (yarım karar) at the end of each hane. 

Taksim (instrumental improvisation) - 1st few measures stay on lower ajna of the makam (1st tetrachord), and afterwards move around (development and resolution), then modulating to other makamlar (meyan), and ending with the original makam.

Oyun havası - instr. dance tune, sometimes with elements of belly dance motifs, usually minor usula

Vocal fasıl forms:
  • Kâr –long, rich melodic/rhythmic material, has different changing usula, usually beginning with a terennüm (motif), follows peṣrev
  • Beste –comes after Kâr, four hanes, each with one line of poetry and a terennüm
  • Agir Semai ("slow, heavy") - follows Beste, minor usul
  • Gazel - vocal composition/improvisation in free rhythm with rhythmic accompaniment with set lyrics (vocal taksim). 
  • Şarkı - light classical song, four hanes, no terenüm, in a minor usul
  • Yürük Semai (“fleet, active”) - follows şarkı, more lively and upbeat than Agir semai, precedes saz semai
  • Türk aksağı
Saz semaisi - slower instrumental postlude, uses minor usul Aksak Semai.  It is structured as 4 hane (movements) each followed by a teslim (refrain).  The first 3 hane (as well as the teslim) are in 10/8.  The 4th hane is in 6/4. Melody/usula may also be free.

Other classical forms:
Longa – instrumental form, fast dance style in 2/4 or 6/8 and can end a suite
Medhal - Short instrumental pieces performed by the entire ensemble, and generally before the beginning of the program and makam
Aranagme – instrumental “entrance music” (giris müzigi)

Some Classical Ottoman Composers:
Haci Arif Bey
Sufi Dede Efendi,
Prince Cantemir,
Baba Hamparsum,
Kemani Tatyos Efendi,
Sultan Selim III and
Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent

Typical Instruments:
Tanbur (lute)
Ney (flute)
KlAşık Kemençe (spike violin)
Oud (lute)
Kanun (zither)
Kudüm (drum)

Huseyni Peṣrev:



Part 3 - Folk Music

     A Turkish folk song, called Türkü, is microtonal, but does not always use a specific makam.  The scale is generally between 4 and 15 tones.  Rhythmically complex mixed meters are common. Türkü are played at weddings, funerals and special festivals. Tavir is a term to describe different regional instrumental styles, and Agiz describes different regional vocal styles.  Melodically, ayak is the folk analogue of the makam, except that they have less formal rules regarding melodic development. These folk modes include Kerem ayagi, Garip ayagi, Müstezat ayagi, Besiri ayagi etc.

Major forms of Turkish Folk Music (Türk Halk Müziği): 

Uzun Hava ("long air") – un-metered laments/ballads, no regular rhythm, based on traditional patterns
      - Hoyrat - quatrains often contain allusions and plays on words
      - Maya - very common, sung in free form after an instrumental introduction, which may be rhythmic.  Repeating instrumental break between verses
      - Bozlak - a musical crying out, often sung by Aşık bards
      - Divan - alternate instrumental and vocal sections, Alevi worship music
      - Gurbet havası - lyrics of these songs have to do mostly with exile and longing
      - Elezber, Müztezat, Tecnis, Baraka havası  , etc

Kirik Hava ("broken air") - rhythmic (metered) pieces, with and without vocals
      - Deyiş - Alevi-Bektasi song based on Aşık poetry
      - Nefes - Alevi Bektasi songs, musical ilahîs (hymns) with either mystical or social content.
      - Ilahî - Sufi songs/hymns (see Religious Music)

Oyun Havası   (“dance air”) – dances
      - Halay - instr. dance form from Southeast Turkey, sometimes with multiple sections increasing in tempo, usually w davul & zurna with perc.
      - Zeybek - instr. Aegean region slow dance tune, sometimes with lyrics, – 4-beat aksak usul with davul and zurna, also other strings & perc.
      - Horon (Horan, Horom) – instr. lively, fast Black Sea dance with prominent kemençe, etc
      - Horo, Hora - Thracian dance in a binary meter
      - Karşılama - instr. Thracian wedding dance - 9-meter, 4-beat aksak usul, uses saz, perc.
      - Çiftetelli - from Rumeli,  Anatolia and the Balkans with a rhythmic pattern of 2/4)
      - Eke Zorlatması  - lively and quick 9/8 dance tunes of the Teke region of southwestern Turkey
      - Semah - Alevi and Bektasi dances in 9/8, generally accompanied by bağlamas of varying dimensions, played and danced during the final sections of religious gatherings known as cems
      - Bar - instr. dance tunes of Northeastern Anatolia
      - Misket – dance tunes of Central Anatolia
      - Kaşık Oyunu - dance performed with clicking spoons
      - Kılıç Kalkan - The Sword and Shield Dance of Bursa (battle dance)
      - Kasap Havası

Horon dance:

Other mixed forms include:
      - Koşma (free-form folk songs about love or nature)
      - Semai (folk song in Semai poetic form)
      - Mani (a traditional Turkish quatrain form)
      - Destan (epic poetry)
     - Boğaz Havası (throat tune)
      - Ninni (lullaby)
      - Tekerleme (a playful form in folk narrative)
      - Bengi (instrumental)
      - Köçekçe - suite of vivacious and joyful şarkıs and türküs in the same makam etc.

     Aşıks are religious Alevi bard-poets, also called ozan, accompanied by saz or bağlama. Aşıks sings deyiş (religious poems) about mystical revelations, invocations to Alevi saints and Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali.  They often use Uzun Hava and Kirik Hava forms. Aşık Veysel is probably the most famous modern Aşık.

Folk Instruments:
Bağlama/Saz (long neck lute)
Kemençe (a type of stave fiddle),
Percussion and wind, including the zurna (oboe), ney (flute) and davul (drum).
Saz orchestras

Part 4 - Religious and Modern Music

     The Mevlevi are a Sufi offshoot of Islam and their ritual music is known as Mevlevi Sufi Music.  It's most prominent feature are the Whirling Dervish dancers who spin during the Mevlevi sema ceremony.  The musical suite which accompanies a sema is called an ayin.  An ayin progresses as follows:
  • Holy Koran – chanted by the Hafiz
  • Rast Naat (Na’t-I Serif) - The Naathan itrî (solo singer of naats) chants the rast naat (praise for the Islamic prophet Muhammad, written by Sufi writer Rumi)
  • Baş Taksim - The Neyzenbasi (head ney (flute) player) plays a rather long taksim (improvisation) in the makam of the ayin
  • Peşrev
  • 1st selâm (greeting) - sung by the Ayinhans (singers)
  • 2nd selam, in the usul Agir Evfer (also known as the Mevlevî Evferi)
  • 3rd selâm, in the Devr-i Kebir, Aksak Semâi and Yürük Semâi usuls.
  • 4th selâm, in the Agir Evfer usul.
  • Last (son) peşrev and last yürük semâî.
  • Last taksim (son taksim)
  • Recitation from the Qu'ran and a prayer by the Sheikh (Gulbang)

A sema is often preceded and followed by songs with lyrics from founder and poet Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi.  The oldest ayins feature Pencgah, Hüseyni and Dügah makams. Beyati is a more recent makam in use.

Sema ceremony in Istanbul

Mosque music - Music forms which are part of the more general practice of Islam include Azan, Kur'an-ı Kerim, Mevlit, Ilahi, etc...

Vocal music forms:
Mevlevi Ayini forms (Whirling Dervish sema ritual)
Opening Sema song poem:
    Ilahî – mystic hymns from different Sufi brotherhoods in different makam
    Nefes - Bektasi hymns
    Kaside - praise songs/hymns with improvisation
    Zikr – invocation of God
Durak – improvised form
Tekbir, Temcid, Tesbih

Bendir (frame drum)
Kudüm drum

Modern Music
     Şarkı(lar) are versions of the classical form developed into its own genre of modern urban art-song.  They often use poetic folk forms and rhythmic meters with makam modes.  The concept of soru and cevap (question and answer phrases between vocal and instrumental parts) in these forms are very important.

Romani Music Influence:
Fasıl Şarkı - Romani ("gypsies") spread meyhana or taverna (popular tavern songs and şarkı”) in a new fasıl style (sentimental love songs, not the classical suite form).  Primary instruments include clarinet, violin, kanun, and darbuka. 

Belly Dancing (Oryantal) / Wedding Music –  harem music with finger cymbals (zils) in karşılama rhythm (9/8) - also became very popular in the later 20th century, with Mustafa Kandirali being a very well-known clarinetist.  A popular form is roman oyun havası  – a modern karşılama folk dance created by Rom gypsies in Istanbul, popular since the 60s.  Clarinet carries the main melody, with dense percussion in 9/8 on aski-davul & darbuka (drums).  These dances are also popular at weddings.

Clarinet Improvisation and roman oyun havası:

Arabesque/Arabesk – music brought from southeast Turkey, replacing modern fasıl.  Arabesk also includes subgenres of belly dancing music (fantazi) and rock.  Scales are based on classical makams, unlike folk music's looser scale rules.  Similar to the modern fasıl şarkı, but more percussive with an unmistakably strong string orchestra section.

Other forms
 - Kanto Music - Songs between acts of plays, as solos or duets using makams but played on Western instruments, popularized after 1920.
 - Karadinez – new pop/rock arrangements of Black Sea folk songs
 - Military Music - Janissary bands or Mehter Takımı, marches