This study addresses the perception of Arabic improvised music. The modal musical system (maqām) as well as the model par excellence of instantaneous musical exposition and composition—instrumental improvisation (taqsīm)—are presented. The classical Arabic maqām (plural maqāmāt) is defined in terms of other fundamental interactive elements. The role of modal perception in the mental organization of a taqsīm performed on the `ūd was explored with tasks involving the identification of musical elements, the segmentation of the musical work, and verbal descriptions and performed melodic “reductions” of the segments. Strong differences in identifications and segmentations are found between listeners of European and Arabic cultural origins. Both groups make segmentations on the basis of salient surface features such as pauses and register changes, but Arab listeners make segmentations that are defined by subtle modal changes that often go unnoticed by the Europeans. However, not all of the Arab listeners agree on where such changes take place or even sometimes on which maqāmāt are being played. One major ambiguity in maqām identification in the taqsīm studied is discussed in detail. The melodic reductions of segments in a given maqām reveal the nature of Arabic modes as involving not just a tuning system, but also essential melodico-rhythmic configurations that are emblematic of the maqām. A music-analytic approach to the deployment of the maqāmāt within the form of the taqsīm that is informed by the perceptual results is developed. This approach involves the factors that lead to implicit recognition of maqāmāt, including ambiguities in identification, and those that inform the hierarchical organization of the form on the basis of larger-scale movements among maqāmāt.

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