April 18, 2014

Arabian Nights… And Arabic Scales

In the world of Western music, it’s often so hard to wrap our heads around music that is almost entirely melodic in nature.  We are so used to chords and the structures western music provides that it’s really difficult to understand the complex melodic, musical and spatial nature of an Arabic scale.

Let’s try it out anyway.

We are used to a “three-dimensional” music: Melody, Rhythm and Harmony and the improvisational nature of Arabic music is based primarily on Melody.  Rhythmic aspects are not nearly as neatly defined or recurring as they are in Western music.

Arabic music is based heavily on improvisation on an equal temperament 24-tone scale.  What the heck does that all mean?

Well, I’m pretty sure you understand the “improvisation” part, so let’s focus on the rest of the gibberish.

An equal temperament scale is one that is broken into a certain number of equal parts.  We use one in Western music that uses twelve tones – all the notes in the chromatic scale.

Arabic music uses a micro-tonal twenty-four note equal temperament scale.  Instead of “F, F#/Gb, G” an Arabic scale might go “F, Fµ (half-sharp), F#/Gb, GB (half-flat), G.”

These microtonal notes are extremely hard to intonate (play in tune) and their interpretation is handed down through the generations.  So a half-sharp may be slightly higher or lower than a three-quarter flat.

What do we have in common?  Modes.  Most Arabic scales can be divided up into modes just like our western scales.  There are some key differences, however.  Most of the modes are facets of the same scale. Arabic Modes don’t start on any and all notes like our modes. The best analogy would be a Dorian Mode that always started on a D and never any other note.

On a fretless instrument, this isn’t as much a problem because it’s much easier to reach the microtonal notes without the restrictions of frets.

But what about the guitar?  There are definitely frets on my guitars.  I have seen people add frets on their guitar to play some of these 24 tone arabic scales but I highly doubt anyone is willing to try that out.

In the interest of making the scales more accessible to everyone, I’ll stick to the ones that translate better to our half-step system.

I know I normally stick some graphics in my posts, however, since there are so many scales, I figured I would just add a download for you to have, hold and call your very own.

There are 2 parts to the download.  One is the actual one-octave scale starting on C.  The second page is a spreadsheet for quick reference on what notes go into what scales.  The bottom row is a run of the frets you could play if you wanted to practice playing up an octave on one string. I’ve also given you a column on suggested triads so you can actually use the scales.

Hope you enjoy!

Arabic Scales PDF

Arabic Scale Notes PDF

About Suzanne

Suzanne is a music fanatic with over 24 years of experience on the guitar. She is most comfortable playing rock, jazz, and classical style guitar.


  1. I've been trying to find something in your Emails showing me how to play the Lead Guitar part in the song 'My Sweet Lord' by George Harrison. Can you please share with me for my guitar lessons? Need the Help.Thanks.

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