Every country has music distinctive to their particular region and the Middle East is no different with its own melodies. With a practiced ear, it is possible to distinguish the individual music for each Gulf country, including Qatar, but it will remain the musical style of one people.

The historical origins of Arabic music are diverse. The word ‘music’ comes from the Greek mousiki which became in Arabic ‘ilm al musiqa (for the Greek theory of music) and ‘ilm al ghinaa (for the Arabian practical theory). The Arabs and Persians possessed a theory of music long before the Greek translations became available in the 8th and 9th centuries though. Most famous to deal with the study of music is Al Kindi, who wrote seven treatises on music theory in the 9th century, four of which survive in Berlin and the British Museum.

With the spread of Islam and the establishment of the Arab empire, Arab translations of the original Greek theories brought about a revival in music in the region. This revival found its way into Europe and in turn influenced music there.

Early Arab musicians drew heavily from the Egyptians, Assyrians and Sumerians, and many of today’s instruments are direct descendants of those seen in wall paintings and carvings from these earlier times.

Modern Arabic instruments originate from the 8th – 10th centuries, more often known as the classical Islamic civilisation and the Golden Age. The influence due to the Arabian culture at this time is now acknowledged as being hugely significant. For example, the origin of the words lute and guitar derive from their Arabic counterparts al’‑ud and qithara, and many more have entered into the English language.

Essential Arabian musical instruments

There are four main melodic instruments: oud, nay, qanun and violin; and one percussion instrument: riq. Sometimes the riq is substituted with a tabla or duff/daff (a drum frame). Older ensembles used a jawzah or kamanjah instead of the Western violin.

Melodic instruments are further divided into two families: sahb (stretching or pulling) for the violin and nay, and naqr (plucking or hammering), for the oud and qanun. These two families complement each other to create a richer, more complete sound.

Duets are a quick and easy informal combo to put together, and usually feature the oud with violin, or qanun with nay. For larger combos or songs using a more modern interpretation, Western instruments are increasingly being used, including the synthesiser, guitar, accordion, bass guitar, and electronic percussion.


The oud is the cornerstone of Arab music and part of the traditional ensemble takht. The name originates from the Arabic al-’ud, meaning ‘branch of wood’ and gives us the English word ‘lute’. The pear‑shaped oud has 11 strings and is plucked with a piece of horn. It is often called the ‘king of all instruments’.

Nay is a generic Arabic name for an open‑ended reed instrument, usually with six holes in the front for the fingers and one hole on the reverse for the thumb. Although simple in design, the nay is extremely versatile: mellow tones are produced by gently blowing into the tube, and the octave can be changed by blowing with more or less force. Tunes with different scales require nays of various lengths.


The qanun descends from the old Egyptian harp and has been used since the 10th century. It is a flat, trapezoid instrument with 26 triple courses of strings made from nylon and metal‑wound silk. Qanun means ‘rule’ or ‘law’, and the instrument is used to lay down the law of pitch for other instruments and singers to follow. It can be placed flat on the knees of the player or supported on a stand, and the strings are plucked by a plectrum in each hand. This traditional instrument is slowly being replaced by the less complex piano and synthesiser.

Riqq Arabian Music

The riq is the Arabic equivalent of the tambourine, and is also known as duff or daff. The round frame is traditionally made from wood, occasionally inlaid with mother of pearl, and covered with a translucent goat or fish skin membrane. There are five pairs of metal discs evenly spaced around the frame. The player will alternate between striking the membrane and shaking the instrument, both vertically and horizontally, above the head and below the knees – for this reason you will see the player standing up with a lot of room around him.


The tablah is a small goblet‑shaped single‑headed hand drum. They were traditionally made from clay, wood or metal, with the head made from goat or fish skin. It is placed under one arm or between the legs, from where the player will produce different sounds: the dum, a resonating lower tone, by striking the centre of the skin, or the tak, a high crisp tone, by striking the edge.

Music in Qatar

The music in Qatar is influenced by its neighbouring countries and strongly resembles music from elsewhere in the Arabian gulf. It originates from Bedouin music and Arabic poetry, song and dance. Qataris today still enjoy listening to khaliji (Gulf) music which is mostly played in the traditional style of the Bedouin music.

Traditional dances can still be found in Doha – one such dance is the ardah, performed by two rows of dancers accompanied by a ras (a large drum), tambourine, cymbals, drums, and perhaps an oud, rebaba (a stringed instrument) and flute. Another dance is the fann al tanbura, where both men and women dance, and is considered a spiritual music and dance ritual.

Traditional music can often be heard at Souq Waqif – watch out for men playing habaan (bagpipes) –  or at special events organised by the hotels.

The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, an initiative of Qatar Foundation, has more than 100 musicians delivering classical compositions. Their music is based on western and Arabic folk songs and rhythms, but written for standard orchestra musicians. This provides a unique modern slant on traditional arrangements. Visit Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra’s website for more information.

Qatar Music Academy at Katara Cultural Village has devised the ‘Music for All Programme’, with the intention of educating society about the importance of music education. The programme incorporates various activities, including lessons in takht, oud, nay, qanun and Arab percussion. Call 4454 8167 or visit Qatar Music Academy website  for details.


Author: Sarah Palmer

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