Middle Eastern Music Blog

Is it Sikah…? or Segâh…? Exploring Modal Music Systems

First off, please know we are not about to launch into debate about video games for Sega Genesis. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

When initiating TAQS.IM, we were inspired by the improvisational tradition of musical creativity and artistic innovation that lies at the very foundation of this concept.  Makams (transliteration “makam” from Turkish and “maqam” from Arabic, we will just use “makam” moving forward here) – essentially modes with interpretive guidelines outlining melodic development and phrases – lie at the very heart of TAQS.IM. One of the most beautiful attributes of makam is that there are a diverse array of unique and distinct systems of microtonality based on country, and even region or village of origin. In a recent live video TAQS.IM hosted Peter Deneff (piano) and Vik Momjian (bass) to discuss their approaches when it comes to accompaniment of microtonal music – which is part of a new series TAQS.IM is hosting featuring conversations with contemporary musicians to discuss their performance styles and philosophy of playing this music. As experienced practitioners, they offered insightful techniques and tips for accommodating microtonal melodies.

During the live broadcast, a rather poignant question emerged from the audience, asking the participants about the notes used in the “Sikah” mode and how to provide any rhythmic or harmonic accompaniment. This is a simple question with a rather complex answer – let’s get right to it below so we can share a few nuggets that the TAQS.IM team has picked up over the years (note that this could go on forever given the nature and complexity of makams).

First one must analyze what the word “Sikah” represents in Middle Eastern modal music – and one will quickly come to observe that the general idea of this mode has two main “branches” in the Middle Eastern makam tree (like most all other modes):

1 – Arab system: which folds in a massive amount of regional and geographically sprawling traditions brought together by the Cairo Congress of Arab Music in 1932 where the 24 quarter tone octave system was adopted to provide uniformity, consistency and a sense of standardization. The Arab system can be viewed as consisting of fixed pitches, deliberately by design (although substantial ethnomusicological research may be found on how within the sprawling and diverse Arab canon, finer gradations than rigid “quarter tones” survive in some forms of local folk music), and

2 – Ottoman, or as its widely known today “Turkish” system, which by its nature is composed of Turkish traditions, and along with considerable influences from Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and various other cultures, is comparatively more fluid, and is understood to be a more flexible system of intonation, based on “komas” (either 9 or 8 in a whole tone, and either 5 or 4 in a half tone, depending on the makam itself). In other words, intonation is “floating” so to speak, and up to the player(s) to determine, despite what may be inscribed on sheet music.

Of course there are other modal systems from the region such as Persian, Israeli, Greek and many others too, but for now we will limit this discussion to the two systems mentioned above so as to avoid going too far down the makam rabbit hole.

In the Arab understanding, Sikah actually refers to a whole family of modes, the most popular of which is the sub-mode Huzam, which many casually refer to as Sikah (even though Sikah is also the name of an actual sub-mode within the broader Sikah family) – this leads to a bit of uncertainty sometimes as you might expect as musicians may say Huzam for the mode they will play, but actually are playing Sikah. Confused yet? (Shout out to Maqam World for their very informative site!)

The actual sub-mode of Sikah in the Sikah modal family is generally considered to be:

E1/4b – F – G – A – B1/4b – C – D – E1/4b

As our talented and knowledgeable guests discussed during the live session, there is admittedly an implied 3rd down “root” feeling which may emerge for Western ears (which would be the C extended down below the E1/4b). Disclaimer that must be mentioned here is that this mode, and Arab makams generally, definitely do not employ such harmonization in their original intended form. A gentle reminder that this is traditionally thought to be originally monophonic music (no accompanying harmony or chords), played at times with ensembles in a heterophonic method (many instruments playing the same monophonic melodic line, albeit slightly differently given individualized ornamentations and subtle interpretational differences).

The Arab Sikah family consists of a variety of member modes, one of which is Huzam – which is the mode that many at times confuse with Sikah (the Sikah mode) – the Huzam Arab makam constituent notes are generally considered to be:

E1/4b – F – G – Ab – B – C – D – E1/4b

And there are other variations of this. Aside from various resources on line and musical writings covering these topics, it also depends on the musician and what they know, where they are from, what they prefer, etc. As our friends at Maqam World point out, the Sikah family consists of 7 sub-modes – of which Huzam is arguably the most common (if you disagree, let us know in the comments!).

On the other hand, Turkish Segâh is generally considered to be the following (big intro first that you have to understand – the * denotes 1 koma flat, which is about 1/8 to 1/9 of a whole tone or 1/4 or 1/5 of a half tone, depending on the mode – based on TAQS.IM’s calculations and analysis to convert to cents (100 cents in a half step for equal temperament), komas can vary in size from:

20 cents (100 cents for a half tone divided by 5 komas) to

21.51 cents (the Syntonic koma) to

22.22 cents (200 cents for a whole tone divided by 9 komas)

25 cents (200 cents for a whole tone divided by 8 komas or 100 cents for a half tone divided by 4 komas)

…now that you know that… formally the * denotes that this is just slightly flat as written in compositions, but in practice, depending on the player, the note can be sounded differently in our experience:

B* – C – D – E* – F# – G – A# – B* (note that Turkish notated music is heard a 4th lower than notated to Western ears, unusual yes we know, but in the Turkish system 440 Hz is D, not A – see Murat Aydemer’s “Turkish Music Makam Guide” for further details)

and Turkish Hüzzam is generally considered to be the following:

B* – C – D – Eb (but usually played as E*) – F# – G – A# – B*, but Hüzzam also has a different ending/top of the scale which sounds “minor” (i.e. the Buselik Pentachord takes over on G at times in modal/improvisational development). Pentachords and Tetrachords are a whole other discussion, and TAQS.IM hopes to cover that further in future blog posts, podcasts or live videos (or all of the above? :)).

We use the * because in Turkish makam music, this, on paper, technically denotes only 1 koma flat – however in practice players vary widely as to where they play this. Some play it as a quarter tone and thus, tonally, the music may sound identical in some ways to Arab makam music. However, many do not, going either above and even sometimes below by anywhere from +/- 1, 1.5 or even up to 3 komas. For example, some players sound Hüseyni’s 2nd degree flatter than a quarter tone, but not as flat as a flat second – which would “almost” sound like Kurdi, but not quite (Kurdi’s analogous scale in Western music is minor with a flat 2nd, also known as the “Phrygian” mode).

The main takeaway here is that there is no outright universal system in the Ottoman/Turkish classical tradition and definitely for the folk tradition too, which is differentiated from the more uniform Arab system. Ensembles of course may tune together and decide on intonation on an ad hoc or even wider basis as certain practices are adopted and made to be custom over time, or if playing with electronic or equal tempered instruments.

Further, another difference regarding Sikah aside from the “Arab-rigid quarter” versus the “Turkish not-so-rigid quarter” is that the Turkish system has the “closeness” of the root as being adjacent to its immediately preceding leading tone. In the Arab system, formally, below the E1/4b, Sikah typically does not have the D# right behind it as the leading tone and would go down to the D. However, there are surely some players which do interpret it with the “closer” D# “leading tone”, creating a cluster of close notes with the leading tone (D#), the tonic (E1/4b) and the F all situated in near proximity – which invariably produces a very distinct musical flavor.

An interesting idiosyncrasy of these modes is that in equal temperament systems, such as Greek Rebetiko, these modes are used quite frequently, with substantial modulation and virtuosity in bouzouki-friendly (i.e. fretted) form.

All that being said, in order to harmonically accompany Sikah as the original question posed (assuming use of incremental, equally tempered instruments such as a keyboard or fretted electric bass), the rhythm player would need to ascertain which mode the melody player is using, then determine if the leading tone/root dynamic is in play, and thus act accordingly.  As an example, if it’s the version of Sikah which employs the 3 close notes near the root, then the lower C note a 3rd below the E1/4b could work as an option, along with “power-chord”-style of 1-5 (C-G) harmonization, and the D could not be used in harmonic/walking bass lines (must use the D#, or alternatively avoid altogether). However, if the melody player uses the D instead of the D# in expressing the mode, the rhythm player could still maintain the 1-5 approach, and also slightly adjust and play C, D, and E1/4b and so on as the mode provides for based on the eligible notes outlined above.

Again – a reminder that this type of discussion is for experimental questions about using harmonic accompaniment for music that was never designed with that in mind. Other than that, have fun and may you not fumble into offending notes often!

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