The Makam Music System

Ottoman Court Music

Makam Music

The makam music system is incredibly beautiful, rich, complex, and varied, having evolved over hundreds of years. There are entire books, dissertations, and websites that comprehensively detail both the Ottoman/Turkish and Arabic variants. I encourage you to explore them via the links on my resource page. This page will provide a relatively brief overview of makam music and how it works.


The makam system has been in use since at least the 15th Century. According to Walter Feldman in Music of the Ottoman Court, it was first written about in Turkish, in a treatise written by Hızır bin Abdullah for the Ottoman Sultan Murad II around 1440. The word makam means "place", and denotes a system in which various modes have a particular starting place or note along a base scale. Thus, a number of fundamental makams are each named after their starting note or tonic on the base scale. The base scale is the scale of the makam known as Rast in both Turkish and Arabic music. It appears that the Turkish makam system was adopted by Arabic musicians, and has evolved to be slightly different, although relatively similar.

What Is a Makam?

A makam (maqam in Arabic) is a series of trichords, tetrachords, and/or pentachords that make up a "scale", with a particular tonic, particular dominant notes, and a melodic progression (ascending, descending, or a combination of the two). The scale of a makam is not a scale in the Western sense, as it may not repeat above and below the primary octave, and notes may shift at certain points in the progression of the makam.

The trichords, tetrachords, and pentachords that are the building blocks of a makam are called cins (Turkish) or djins (Arabic). Each one has a particular sound or flavor based on the intervalic structure. These cins are combined to form the "scale" of a makam, joining at the dominant note of the scale. Unlike in Western music, the dominant note is not always a fifth from the tonic. It may be a fourth or even a third in some cases, depending on the length of the first cins.

The progression of an ascending makam for example, will generally start on the tonic (first note), emphasizing that note, and then moving up to the dominant note. Because the dominant note is at the juncture of the two primary cins, this progression will first emphasize the first cins. As the melodic progression continues from the dominant to the octave note for example, the second cins will be emphasized. In this way, the melodic progression of each makam helps to emphasize the various flavors that make it up. Different makams my have the same "scale", but a different progression or dominant note will change the order that the cins are emphasized in, or in some cases the component cins themselves, creating a different characteristic flavor.

The six cins considered basic cins in Turkish music have the following names and interval structures:

The 3/4 steps listed above are not exactly 3/4 and can be raised or lowered slightly depending on the makam and the location in a composition or improvisation. Notice that cins Cargah is the same as the first half of a Western major scale and cins Beselik is the same as the first half of a Western minor scale. Cins Kurdi is the same as the first half of the old Greek modes called Locrian and Phrygian. Cins Rast, Ussak, and Hicaz do not have Western equivalents.

There are more than 200 makams, more than 50 of which that are relatively well known and commonly practiced today. In Turkish music a greater distinction is often made regarding the melodic direction or path of a makam than in Arabic music. Among some Arabic musicians makams are treated more like scales, and therefore a smaller number of them are known and used. In my view, this somewhat decreases the value of the cins and an understanding of the flavors they create.


Modulation from one makam to another is an essential part of both Turkish and Arabic music. It exists in both composed music and in improvisation. Understanding how the cins combine to form each makam is extremely helpful if not necessary in order to understand how to modulate from one makam to another.

Modulations are most commonly made at either the tonic, dominant, or octave notes of a makam, which are either starting or ending notes of a particular cins. By modulating from one cins to another, and thus from one makam to another, the composer or musician can create different flavors in a composition or improvisation.