What instruments are commonly used in belly dance music? There are lots of them! In general, musical instruments can be divided into categories based on how they produce sound: percussion (striking by a hand or beater), winds (blowing air), and strings (bowing or plucking a string). Instruments belonging to each of these three types are found in Middle Eastern belly dance music. Most are instruments native to the Middle East, and some are Western instruments that have been adopted. In this post, I’ll give common Middle Eastern examples of each of the three types of instruments, along with a sample video clip so you can hear what it sounds like and see how it’s played. I’ll look at each group in turn, and then briefly how they combine into ensembles.
I like to know about the different musical instruments I hear in a belly dance song because it helps me more effectively interpret the music in my dance. Even at an unconscious level, different musical instruments have different sounds that might trigger different feelings and reactions in you, and thereby, in your dance. If you’re interested in learning more about belly dance music, including musical instruments, I recommend attending the JWAAD Understanding Belly Dance Music course – it inspired this post.
The duff is a frame drum, hit with the hands, and held either in the lap or upright. It is the heartbeat of the music and keeps the time as well as plays the basic underlying rhythm will little ornamentation. It is an instrument originating in and commonly found all over the Middle East across many styles of popular and folkloric music.
The tabla is a goblet drum, hit with the hands, and held in the lap. It plays the fancy rhythmic ornamentation that fills out the basic rhythm played by the duff. It is native to and ubiquitous all over the Middle East and is the most common percussion instrument in Middle Eastern popular music.
The riq is a small frame drum with cymbals along the side, held in and hit by the hands. The cymbals give it a distinctive sound as the drum head is being hit, but the cymbals can also be manipulated directly. It is another instrument originating in the Middle East, and it was the most popular classical percussion instrument.
The nay is a simple blown flute made out of a hollow reed with finger holes which has been played in the Middle East for thousands of years. It is typically found in folkloric, classical, religious, and to a lesser extent popular musical styles.
The saxophone is the first of our ‘adopted’ Western instruments which can play Arabic maqamat (melodic modes). Sound is produced by blowing through a single-reed mouthpiece attached to a metal body, with finger-operated keys to change pitch. It was first popularised in the orchestra of Umm Kulthum, and from there, is now associated mainly with the baladi musical style. You may occasionally hear a saxophone baladi taxim, though it is not as common as other baladi instruments.
Our next adopted Western instrument is the trumpet, again it can play maqamat, either through an extra valve or the built-in tuning slides. The musician blows through a metal cupped mouthpiece attached to a coiled metal body with three (or four) piston-valves to change pitch. The trumpet is relatively infrequently found in Arabic music, and nowadays is associated with the baladi and shaabi styles.
I’ve chosen to put the accordion among the wind instruments as its sound is produced through reeds vibrating in a tonal chamber as the musician expands and compresses a bellows. The pitch is controlled through depressing keys on a keyboard, which open the tonal chamber for the given pitch. The accordion is another adopted Western instrument. Over time, it has been modified to play quarter tones for maqamat. These days, it’s most commonly associated with baladi music, but is also found within the Arabic orchestra for classical music.
The violin, adopted from the West, replaced simpler indigenous Arabic fiddles, but has been fully Arabasized. The fretless strings mean a violinist can play maqamat with ease. It is now thought of as having a quintessential Arabic sound, and is found in many Middle Eastern musical styles, especially classical and popular music.
The kanoun is an Arabic instrument found in the Middle East as far back as Mespotanian times. It is a zither, laid on the lap, with many strings stretched across a flat body. The musician plucks the strings with picks or their fingernails to produce a twinkly, metallic sound. It’s most often found in classical Arabic music, either as a featured solo instrument or in an orchestra.
The oud is a short-necked lute indigenous to the Middle East for thousands of years. It has a pear-shaped body and a short neck, usually with 11 strings in groups of 6. The musician plucks the strings with a plectrum and adjusts the pitch by pressing the strings on the neck to change their length. It has a deep, resonant sound. Like the kanoun, it’s most often associated with classical Arabic music.
The Arabic keyboard is a fully electronic instrument – sound is produced not through acoustic means but instead is computer-generated when the musician presses the keys. Its origins are in the electronic organ from the 1960s and 1970s, and has now been fully adapted to Arabic music, having the ability to play quarter tones (and maqamat). It can emulate any instrument’s sound at a touch of a button, and can even provide a built-in rhythmic backing track. It’s associated today with all types of popular and folk music – either as a synthesiser sound in its own right, or as an emulation of another instrument.
Stylistically, melodic instruments are divided into two families: sahb (pulling or stretching) and naqr (plucking or hammering). The accordion, violin, and nay fall in the sahb family, and the oud, qanoun, and percussion instruments fall in the naqr family. In general, ensembles have a balance of these two types of instrument to have an appropriate amount of variety and contrast. For ensembles providing live music for dancers in the Middle East, they can range in sophistication anywhere from a minimum of keyboard (emulating many instruments), tabla, and singer, to a maximum of full orchestra and singer with all types of instruments. Usually they fall somewhere in between – with a more prestigious dancer having a larger band with a greater variety of instruments.
Next time you dance, see if you can identify each of the instruments in the music. How does each one make you feel? How does that feeling change your dance? Do you dance differently to a solo instrument or to an ensemble? With the music, practice moving from instrument to instrument in your ears and in your body.