By Önder Özkoç and Erberk Eryılmaz
Understanding traditional Turkish music requires us to look at the cultures and states that existed in Anatolia, what is now Turkey, throughout history. That takes us to states such as the Ottoman Empire, Seljuk Empire, Omayyads, Persian Empire, Byzantine Empire, Roman Empire, Ancient Greek, Phryians, and Sumerians and peoples such as Turks, Armenians, Azeris, Persians, Kurds, Romani, and Greeks. Throughout history, we see these states and nations influencing each other and creating cultural evolution. Before the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, the Ottoman Empire existed for 623 years, having borders in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. In the large geographical area that the empire covered, many cultures lived forming Ottoman culture. Music in the Ottoman Empire evolved in the same way, and the cultures that lived within the borders formed a musical language that was unique to the empire. This musical language was established around two concepts: makam, modal pitch organization principles, and usul, rhythmic pattern concepts.
Makam is a microtonal concept that is constructed by scale, melodic progression, and melodic flavor principles. It is not a simple concept where there are eight set notes in a scale. In other words, it is not a stable structure. In Turkish music, each quarter tone is called a koma, although it was argued that there could be 17, 24, or even 41 komas in an octave, currently it is accepted that 24 komas are used in an octave. In the tradition, hundreds of makams existed, but currently there are 20 makams that are used.
Usul is a time concept in music which combines Western music’s meter and rhythm concepts. For example, the usul of a work may suggest a four-beat pattern; in some cases, meters as long as 120 beats may be formed. Throughout history, we see about 50 usuls being used, but in our time not many of them are used in practice.
Traditional Turkish music, with its complex makam and usul concepts, was performed and studied in and around the palace, but outside, people were producing their own music. This music is described as Turkish folk music and it was not strictly following the principles of the makam and usul. Instead, we see fragments of makams used with rhythmic patterns that are both irregular and regular in folk music.
Both the music of the palace and folk music were taught by meşk, an aural music education that exists between master and student. The term meşk originates by the word aşk, which means love in the Turkish language. Musical notation was seen as an enemy of music making and was believed to be limiting to one’s musicianship.
In our time, traditional Turkish music education continues both in conservatories and outside. Traditional music can be seen in every part of life in Turkey such as street weddings, family gatherings, or even in a call to prayer.