The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

The Structure of Sound Cultures in the Arab World

Joint Research Coordinator HORIUCHI Masaki

Reserch Theme List


Arab political ethnic consciousness in the Mideast arose in the 19th century, and has grown amidst various problems in the sociocultural sphere arising from colonial experiences in the 20th century. What today is known as Arab music had a nationalistic character shaped in the 20th century in response to chance encounters and later responses with the West.

The aim of this research is, through a detailed consideration of the diversity and commonality of the development of Arab music in diverse contemporary Arab areas and peripheral areas, to examine the following questions: (1) How has Arab musical nationalism developed? (2) How, regardless of this factor, has Arab music experienced continuity for well over a millennium, while developing multifarious artistic and intellectual networks, and what is the evidence of these networks? (3) What impact have modern Western concepts of music had in the development of the structure of the intimate relations between poetry, preaching, prayer, academic/religious narrative, folklore, rites, dance, medicine, and other related items and music?

Research Results

The Conference on Arabic Music held in Cairo in 1932 under the influence of Europeans was the inception of the concept of so-called “Arab music,” which was later confirmed through comparisons of music development in a number of places. Concerning this impact of Europe, our research group discovered three important special characteristics. The first is that with the identification of the people of Turkey, Iran and Arabs as three distinct ethnic groups, what had originally been an indivisible broad human network was divided up. That is, this represented the genesis of ethnic groups. Second, under the European-style title of performing art, the concept of music which until then had been a fertile world of sounds born of daily life, became circumscribed. Third, sight was given priority among the senses, which gave birth to the inverse phenomenon of more attention being given to the notation or musical score than the music itself. The result in turn produced a very unnatural attention to individuality and originality. These three special characteristics became uniform, and developed in the guise of musical nationalism. However, this musical nationalism later evoked nation-specific nationalism which gave birth to national music with different missions. This kind of music nationalism was also reflected in the political conditions in the Middle East, where ethnic groups connoted multiple nations. That is, the demographic distribution of ethnic groups transcended national borders.

We ascertained that what made possible this compatibility between commonality and diversity in the sphere of music was flexibility in terms of vocabulary and concepts. We learned that even though a large number of musical terms were shared across a broad region, their specific meanings were legion. The key to understanding this phenomenon is embodiment. Local flexibility regarding music's inherent power to create reality (embodiment) was guaranteed by the flexibility of the vocabulary employed. Alternatively, through commonality in vocabulary, diverse embodiments could be mutually joined. Our study showed that although no centralized authority for integrating vocabulary existed, this local, flexible non-existence of centralized authority supported the continued existence of the art and knowledge network. We also verified that as before the music phenomena continued to be inseparable from events such as ceremonies, dance and reading/chanting from sacred texts—also being expressions of embodiment. Such styles of communication are probably hallmarks of the more than 1,000 years of original globalization. The conclusion of our joint research was that European influences were digested and absorbed by that tradition. Characterizing this process as a prototype for the mechanisms of globalism seems appropriate.