Music blog

29 June 2020

Innovations in music notation in late medieval Syria: British Library manuscript Or. 13019

The Qatar Digital Library (QDL) is a collaboration between the British Library and the Qatar National Library, in which historical records from the former India Office are being catalogued and digitised, along with Arabic manuscripts on scientific topics from the British Library’s collection. Music theory has always been considered a scientific pursuit by Arabic scholars – as it had been by Plato and Pythagoras – on account of the mathematical nature of topics such as intervals, modes, rhythm, transposition, and tonal relationships.

Musical manuscripts digitised for the QDL so far include a copy of a commentary on an influential theoretical treatise, the Book of Cycles (Kitāb al-adwār) by Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Urmawī (d. 1294) (Add MS 7471, ff. 41v-92r), a work on the construction of musical instruments (Or. 9649), a cosmological treatise on music (Add MS 23494), and a recently-catalogued copy of the Kitāb al-inʻām bi-maʻrifat al-anghām (Book of Generosity on the Understanding of Melodies; Or. 13019) by the 16th-century music theorist Shams al-Dīn al-Ṣaydāwī. [Note that although this manuscript has been digitised it is not yet available to view on the Qatar Digital Library.]

The Kitāb al-inʻām is a short text in verse, remarkable for its presentation of an innovative and apparently unique system of music notation. It is also a feast for the eyes: both its text and its many diagrams are copied using a range of brightly-coloured inks which are not merely decorative, but rather an inherent aspect of this notation system. While several other copies of this text are known, the QDL’s high resolution, full-colour digitisation is a first, allowing its fundamental aesthetic and graphic features to be appreciated on an accessible digital platform for the first time.

Opening page of the treatise Or 13019 in Arabic script
Figure 1: Or 13019, f. 1v, opening of the treatise

Little is known about the author, although his name indicates origins in Ṣaydā (Sidon) in today’s Lebanon. His dates are uncertain, but he may have died in Damascus in 1506, which would mean that Or. 13019 – dated to 906 in the Islamic hijrī calendar (equivalent to 1501 CE) – was produced within his lifetime, as well as being the earliest known surviving copy. Ownership marks recorded on folio 1r indicate predominantly Syrian owners over the centuries. It was bought by the British Museum in 1966.

Following an introduction [fig. 1], al-Ṣaydāwī opens the treatise by outlining the four fundamental musical modes (called ‘uṣūl’) used in his time: Rāst, ʻIrāq, Zīrāfkand and Iṣfahān. Modes are constructed of sets of tetrachords which may be present within more than one of them, establishing complex familial relationships between them. From each of these four basic modes, two further ‘branch’ modes (furūʻ) are derived, which maintain a musical relationship with their ‘parents’. In addition to these groups of four and eight, al-Ṣaydāwī also enumerates six secondary modes called awāzāt, each of which is likewise related to two of the twelve fundamental and branch modes already outlined.

Or 13019, f. 9v, depicting the fundamental mode Rāst, and its branch modes Zankulā and `Ushshāq using a stave-like diagram of eight labelled parallel horizontal lines enclosed within a circular frame
Figure 2: Or 13019, f. 9v, depicting the fundamental mode Rāst, and its branch modes Zankulā and `Ushshāq

To present these modes and describe further aspects of their performance, al-Ṣaydāwī uses a stave-like diagram [fig. 2] of eight labelled parallel horizontal lines enclosed within a circular frame, representing the degrees of the scale (buḥūr). The lowest pitch is indicated on the bottom line, and the highest (an octave above) on the second-highest line (the uppermost line in each diagram is a framing device and not indicative of a note).

Or 13019, f. 7r, description of colours used in the stave diagram
Figure 3: Or 13019, f. 7r, description of colours used in the stave diagram

Al-Ṣaydāwī follows established convention in using Persian terms to describe these notes as yekgāh (first position), dūgāh (second position), etc. However, he innovates in additionally colour-coding each line, with the eighth line from the bottom the same colour as the lowest, as the notes represented are an octave apart (the uppermost line in the diagrams is only a frame). The specific colours are described in the introduction to the text [fig. 3].

Al-Ṣaydāwī goes on to outline a system for representing notes above and below the basic octave, independently of this graphic stave. To do this, a table [fig. 4] presents colour-coded Arabic alphanumeric abjad letters indicating microtonal intervals. These notes are paired with a ‘question’ and ‘response’ concept indicating further notes, at fixed intervals of separation totalling an octave, and allowing the total range of notation to be expanded.

Or 13019_f.13v, table of notation beyond the basic octave
Figure 4: Or 13019, f. 13v, table of notation beyond the basic octave

The second unique aspect of al-Ṣaydāwī’s work is a notational system applied to the stave diagram which, in combination with instructions in the text, indicates aspects of the performance of the mode [fig. 5]. The letter mīm (م), standing for ma’khadh (مأخذ, meaning ‘place from which one takes something’) is written on the starting note/line of the mode and in the same colour, on the left of the diagram. The mode’s final note – often also its tonal centre – is indicated with the word rakz (with the sense of ‘setting, fixing’), written on the corresponding line, to the right.

Or 13019, 10v, instructions for playing Zīrāfkand
Figure 5: Or 13019, 10v, instructions for playing Zīrāfkand

The instruction iṣʻad (اصعد, ‘ascend’) in red, denotes a transition to a higher pitch. Conversely, a yellow letter hāʼ (ھ, from the root هبط, ‘descent’) indicates a transition to a lower pitch. These ascents or descents must be performed note-by-note (bi-al-tartīb) if the letter ‘tā’’ (ت, in red) is written next to the note towards which the pitch ascends or descends, whereas the player should jump directly to that pitch if iṣʻad or hāʼ is written with a long ‘tail’. Other abbreviations indicate additional aspects of performance such as prolongation, staccato articulation, and trill-like ornamentation.

This work presents difficulties of interpretation due to the poetic text and some ambiguity in terminology. For example, yekgāh, meaning the first note of the scale, also indicates the particular mode which starts on that note, i.e. rāst, while buḥūr also has variant meanings. Similarly, while the word maqām these days means ‘mode’ in general, in al-Ṣaydāwī’s time it still retained a more literal meaning of ‘placement’. Furthermore, the meaning of some of the notational abbreviations is unclear; some of the diagrams in the extant copies appear unlabelled and unfinished; and Or. 13019 lacks at least one folio (between the present folios 11v and 12r).

Al-Ṣaydāwī’s musical notation remains a fascinating and enigmatic theoretical experiment, unique of its time. While it permitted a wide range of notes to be succinctly conveyed, their relationships to each other expressed, and an unprecedented level of codified performance detail to be indicated, no later texts are known to have developed this system further.

Jenny Norton-Wright

Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Project


Antar, Thérèse B. (translation and commentary), Exploitation de la couleur en musique: Livre de la connaissance des tons et leur explication. Mouhammad Chams al-Din al-Saydawi al-Dimachqi (Beirut: Presse Chemaly and Chemaly, 2001).

Ghrab, Anas, 'Livre de la générosite dans la connaisance des modes: Edition et traduction (Unpublished thesis submitted for the Diplôme d'études approfondies, Université Lumiere-Lyon, 2002).

Shiloah, A. and A. Berthier, 'A propos d’un "petit livre arabe de musique"', in Revue de musicologie, 71.1 (1985), pp. 164-77.



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