Kurdish Music

This is only a very brief introduction to Kurdish Music, summarising our personal notes on studying the topic. For those who want to go deeper, we recommend this two sites:



As most oriental music, also Kurdish music is traditionally orally transmitted. Therefore, it is possible, that two artists perform the same song differently in melody and rhythm. Especially the flowers that are sung on the long note in the middle or at the end of a line can vary. Kurdish songs have a distinct rhythm that goes more with the stress of the words than being constant. It is very common that a two syllable word in one verse is sung long-short and in another verse the same position is sung short-long because the stress of the word requires it. Of course, it is not useful to write down all these small variations into the sheet music. It also often happened that the rhythm and sometimes the melody of a translated western song has been kurdisized. Consider the sheet music more as a tool than a rule. Best is to learn Kurdish music by listening to a good Kurdish singer...

Oriental music is usually not harmonic but melodic, especially when accompanied with traditional instruments as the oud or the saz, because they deliberately throw in strange notes that don’t fit any western harmony, but make the music sound more oriental. Still we have added guitar chords to the songs so that more people can play them. Also some Kurdish musicians playing a synthesizer have added chords and harmony to their music.

Kurdish music uses also major and minor scales but also many other scales like the Phrygian mode which is called Maqam Kurd in Arabic music. As much important as melody and rhythm is the key. Songs cannot unrestrictedly be transposed into other keys. First, this is because people are used to sing a song in a certain key, and secondly the oud must be playing the dominant note on an open string. Some maqam change even their name when they are played in a different key!

A problem that occurs with different modes than major and minor is to choose the key signature. The purpose of key signatures is to minimise accidentals. So Maqam Kurd on E uses not the key signature for E minor as first expected, but for A minor in order to avoid naturals on each F… Also Maqams often do not begin on their tonic note, but they must end on its tonic.

To describe the Kurdish music scales, we found the Arabic maqamat best to refer to. A maqam is not only a musical scale, but a whole music system. It's possible and often practical to view a maqam as a collection of sets, as well as a collection of notes. The Arabic word for these sets is jins, plural ajnas, which means the gender, type or nature of something. Each maqam is made up two main ajnas (sets) called lower and upper jins. The lower jins is used to group or classify the maqam in a family. In general the starting note of the upper jins is called the dominant note. A maqam also includes other ajnas (called secondary) which overlap the two main ajnas, and can be exploited during modulation. There are sets of 3 notes (trichords), sets of 4 notes (tetrachords) and sets of 5 notes (pentachords). These sets are the building blocks for the Arabic maqams. The following page gives a short overview of the most common maqams that we have found so far in Kurdish Christian worship songs.


The Maqam Ajam has the same intervals as the western major scale and is played on C, Bb or F.

Bb is the most common Ajam maqam in the Middle Eastern music and called Ajam Ushayran. The Ajam maqam sounds western to the ear. That's why, it is called Ajam, which means someone who can't understand Arabic (foreigner).


Maqam Nahawand has two forms and is usually played on C. When played on the lower G, the maqam is called Maqam Sultani Yakah.

The Maqam Nahawand-Hijaz is equivalent to the harmonic minor scale and is played on the way up.

The Maqam Nahawand-Kurd is equivalent to the natural minor scale and is used on the way down. When the Maqam Nahawand-Kurd is played on G, it‘s called Farah Faza

The Phrygian mode is so popular in Kurdish music that the Arabs called it Maqam Kurd.

It can be played in C, D, E, G & A

The Ajam trichord is often used for modulations.


Maqam Hijaz Kar on the ascending part is often combined with Maqam Kurd on the descending part. It is played on C.

When Hijaz Kar is played in G, it is called Shadd Araban. On D, it is called Shahnaz and on A, it is called Suzidil.


The Maqam Bayati is very close to the Maqam Kurd. But it‘s second note is a quarter step higher or an E half flat instead of an E flat. It is sometimes used in the Maqam Kurd for „excitement“.