Traditional Turkish Music


Traditional folk music is the main source of folklore. It is a product of thoughts and feelings of the people reflecting the momentous changes in history of the nation composed by individual singers. Traditional music is stored in people’s memory and greatly shows history of the nation. Traditional Turkish music is not an exception. It vividly depicts Turkish history and development of the modern state. For a long time of its existence, Turkey absorbed traditions and customs of numerous countries. It is largely connected with the fact that the Turkish music was born and developed in time of the Ottoman Empire, when people of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds lived together. To study the music of a particular nation is highly important. Thus, many different sources are used in the current paper. They help examine the role of music in Turkish art and trace its development during the history of the state.

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Turkish culture was derived from the merger of European, Middle Eastern, Caucasian, and Asian traditions. With this connection, culture of Turkey is considered multifaceted and unique. The traditions and customs of Turkey are old. Despite this fact, there are still certain modern currents that make these traditions even more unique. The same can be applied to music. Turkish music is a musical art of the Turkish people that has long history. It is based on national folk music and in parallel on professionally developed traditional and classical music. Every culture has a deep influence on the person. As music is part of culture, its impact on the person is also incontestable. It is highly important to examine traditional Turkish music as it is possible to depict the history of the people. In such a way, the purpose of the paper is to study history and development of Turkish music and examine its main ethnomusicological themes.

History of Traditional Turkish Music

Traditional music of Turkey absorbed the most characteristic features inherent in art of many ethnic groups. Music of Turkey, as well as of the other Middle Eastern countries, evolved in highly complex historical conditions. The peoples of ancient times, the Byzantines, and the Arabs brought to this land their musical traditions. In the book The Unity of Music and Dance in World Cultures, it is stated that “music was influenced lyrically by the Persian and Byzantine vocal traditions”. Seljuk Turks that inhabited the territory of Asia Minor and then the European part of the country assimilated in their folklore many elements from different peoples. Turkish folk songs supported by wandering singers are sometimes surprisingly similar with the songs of Crimean Tatars and Turkmen. The origins of Turkish folklore can be viewed on the examples of song genres prevailing in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia. In addition, Turkish music has certain common features with music of Iran and Arab countries. It can be seen that Turkish traditional music is an interaction of numerous different cultures.

The development of any civilization begins with the appearance of folk art. It is impossible to say exactly when the first national motives originated. In the book The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, it is stated that “there is little information about the earliest Turkish classical music because it was transmitted only orally and because its composers (unlike composers of Western music) were anonymous or have been forgotten”. It is evident that in the X-XIII centuries in times of Seljuk Sultan, folk musicians actively created their works on the territory of modern Turkey. Enlightened Seljuk rulers provided them special attention and attracted to the court. These musicians invented melodies and rhythms of Asia Minor into intricate oriental tunes.

In close cooperation with folk art, professional classical music was also formed. In the XIII-XIV centuries, national storytellers were especially popular in the Seljuk capital. Later, ashiks became their successors, whose creativity combined poetry and music. They sang their songs accompanying with the ancient musical instrument that is called a saz. It is a stringed instrument similar to a lute. A saz has an oval almond-shaped body and a long neck. A singer usually chooses a saz that is appropriate to the tone of the voice. The ability to play the saz has an unusually high value. Ashiks’ songs differed with melodiousness and diversity. In the rhythmic relation, the vocal part frequently represented a free improvisation. However, the instrumental accompaniment was couched in a definite and clear rhythm. Ashiks were surrounded by universal love. Their art was an expression of the thoughts and aspirations of the Turkish people. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Ashiks became the main characters of epic tales and legends. Professional skills passed orally from generation to generation while maintaining the original features.It should be noted that Ashiks’ traditions are alive these days. The method of studying this craft consists in learning old songs and copying techniques of the mentor. Until now, an old technique of singing with a pin between lips is used. The singer holds a needle in the mouth standing vertically between the upper and lower lip. The mouth cannot be opened wider but it also cannot be closed. With this technique, many sounds are unpronounceable. Thus, a word containing them is not pronounceable as well. The number of words that can be used by the poet is sharply reduced. Ashiks have a peculiar way of singing. It is characterized by strength, seriousness, and solemnity. There is no pretense, affectation, and levity in their there. Ornaments, decorations, the pursuit of vocal effects, and complex rhythms are strictly prohibited. Melodies should be clear and simple and music – lively and energetic. Ashiks’ traditions have played an important role in the formation of the Turkish culture in general. It suggests that Ashiks’ creativity was one of the sources of origin of Turkish classical music.

Ashiks are highly popular in Turkey even today. Their tradition lives in different part of the country such as Erzurum, Anatolia, and Kars. Every autumn, Ashik Festival is organized in Turkey. Romance and love are the main themes of their songs and ballads. A sad song is called Kara Sevda that means hopeless love. However, there are many other themes in their repertoire in addition to love. These free people come into the city, sing about what they like, and criticize the governor or the police. Ashiks despise people who want to emulate Western Europe not knowing their homeland. Nonetheless, Ashik’s ballads always return to the story of love, which is considered mystical, sad, and hopeless, because the word Ashik means love. It is highly important that Ashiks’ musical tradition is still alive and popular not only in Turkey but also abroad.

Cult music was another important branch of professional musical art. In ancient times, the pantheistic conception of gods, as well as the elements of the pagan and shamanic interpretation, found their expression in Sufi poetry and religious motet of brotherhoods and dervish orders. Music in conjunction with poetic creativity and ritual dances was part of religious ceremonies. Sufi spiritual hymns were extremely widespread. They were called Ilahi that were performed in Tekie, the monastery of dervishes. Mystical Hymns of the Mevlevi Order had a profound emotional impact on the audience. Many of these hymns are sung to these days.

In the XVI century, Turkish aristocracy was acquainted with European music for the first time. It occurred when the French king Francis I sent a court orchestra to the Sultan Suleiman in gratitude for the assistance that Turkey provided to France that waged war with Austria. The orchestra gave several concerts in the Topkapi palace. Subsequently, European artists, musicians, architects, and actors arrived in Turkey at the invitation of the court. It helped increase interest in music among Turkish privileged classes. Therefore, they began to join to the Western culture. Musical and dramatic performances, as well as ballet pantomimes on mythological themes were given in the palace of the sultan. This period marked the beginning of the European influence on Turkish art. Nonetheless, there were no serious borrowings of European musical traditions and Turkish music continued its path of development.

Janissaries also played a significant role in the development of Turkish music. In 1330, Sultan Orhan created the first regiment of Janissaries. They included specially selected men, whose whole life was devoted to the war. The Ottoman Empire took away children from the conquered peoples. The regiments of Janissaries quickly became a privileged part of the troops and got their orchestra. This orchestra was called mehter. Due to the fact that the Janissaries were composed of soldiers of different nationalities, their music contained Turkish motives and motives of other nationalities. During their conquests, music and musical instrument of Janissary troops attracted the attention of European countries as they were rather unusual for Europe. Much later, when the troops were forced to retreat, they started throwing their instruments on the road and some of the soldiers preferred to get lost in the European countryside. Thus, Turkish music penetrated into Europe.

Gradually, traditional Turkish music became increasingly important. A significant contribution to the development of Turkish music in the second half of the XVII century was made by Mustafa Itri. It should be stated that his works still retain a great artistic value. The musician was famous for the original style of performance of melodically expressive lyrical songs. He had a great numbed of followers that also enriched traditional Turkish music. At the end of the XVII- beginning of the XVII century, an important mark in the musical culture of Turkey was left by Dimitrie Cantemir, who lived in Turkey until 1710. He became the major composer who created works of Turkish traditional music. Besides, he also became famous as a music theorist. He created a system of alphabetic musical notation, with the help of which a number of works of the period preserved. The popularity and interest to traditional Turkish music grew in the middle of the XVIII-beginning of XIX centuries during the rule of Sultan Mahmud I and Selim II. These rulers composed music and played national instruments. They patronized the military orchestra Janissary – the regular infantry of the Ottoman Empire that existed for several centuries.

By the time when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has founded the Republic of Turkey, the Turks were already familiar with many genres. At this time, popularity of operettas and tango decreased in Istanbul and in the 1930s, they were replaced by the fashion for symphonic works. In Ankara, the state conservatory and the opera house were opened. In the1950s, cabaret performances began to gain popularity in the country. In the 1970s, the country actively adopted the Western traditions of rock and pop culture. In the book The Rough Guide to Turkey, it is noted that “Turkish music has managed to maintain both its creativity and popularity – even with the younger generation – though this has not prevent the rise of a lively, Western-influenced rock, pop, and even hip-hop scene”. Currently, Turkish music has many styles, among which there are both apparent imitations of the west traditions and exact compliance with all the canons of classical Turkish folk music. It is important that folk music is still popular in Turkey. In the Interview with Murat Ertel of Baba Zula, the leader of the band states that his grandparents and parents listened to Ashiks’ music and it had a great impact on him and his musical work. In modern Turkey, traditional folk music is played not only in villages but also in the world-renowned festivals. The Music Festival in Istanbul is considered one of the most popular. Various festivals help preserve traditional Turkish music and foreigners can also learn more about Turkish culture.

Ethnomusicological Themes in Turkish Traditional Music

In the process of its formation, Turkish music has gained many different styles, which, on one hand, are different from each other and on the other – have common roots. There are several themes in Turkish traditional songs. They are wedding, lamentations, military-predatory, and lyrical. In wedding songs, there are three typical moments. The first one includes the ritual of dressing the bride. Another moment is the complaint of girls who are separated from their friends. The second point is of the interest to determine the position of the bride in the house of the father-in-law. The song does not go into a detailed analysis of family relationships. It explains the sad destiny of women married for unloved. The third moment is barely charted but concludes bride crying. In the wedding ritual, crying of the bride and her friends is connected with old Turkish ritual corresponding to the hen party. These songs are particularly important among traditional songs of Turkey and are also sung these days.

Lamentations, as well as wedding songs, are preserved and transmitted mainly by women. Usually, in the lamentations, mother figuratively mourns the death of her son complaining of a tyrant death. She also praises her son and the song sometimes strays into a military song extolling the hero. Nevertheless, the characteristic feature of the lamentations is an appeal of the mother to the deceased’s son, whom she called by different tender names.

In military-predatory songs, the singer mainly focuses the attention on the description of the horse. Singers also describe the duration and outcome of the battle. Both the duration of the battle and the number of fallen soldiers or prisoners are expressed by the epic number forty, which plays a great importance in the national life of the Turks.

As for lyrical songs, this kind of songs is considered the most abundant. These songs are usually sung by men. Contemplation of beauty of a different kind and especially feminine beauty awakens hitherto dormant feelings in the poet and he sings of a maiden, under whose influence, a new world has opened to his soul. However, it should be admitted that the moral side is in the background for the poet-singer and he is occupied mainly by the appearance of the maiden. In the assessment of her nature, the poet juts out only insofar as she does not respond to his courting, and he calls her nazli which is a coquette. In the songs, unsuccessful love is expressed in such features: the poet thinking about the past time when he was a welcome guest claims that he must now have to look at his lover from somewhere around the corner. It is necessary to affirm that all these themes are rather important in Turkish traditional music as all of them show the life of the Turkish people, their experiences, aspirations, and dreams.

In melodies of Turkish traditional music, there are two stylistic groups – short melody and long melody. A short melody is characterized by the melody of a small range in a uniform rhythm. A long melody is characterized by tunes of a wide range. It is rhythmically free and does not fit into a clear musical scheme. A style of the short melody is typical for dance tunes and instrumental tunes of Ashiks. Long melodies include lyrical songs and lamentations.

Speaking of Turkish traditional music, it is also necessary to consider such a genre as dance. With all the originality, Turkish dances have much in common with the art of dance of the peoples, with whom the Turkish people were in contact over the centuries of historical development. To a greater extent, a dance is connected with ceremonies, labor processes, and a religious cult. There are dances with instrumental and vocal-instrumental accompaniment. There are also dances without musical accompaniment, for example, men’s dances, in which a special rhythm accompaniment creates blows of the sword and dagger on the shield and bellicose cries of performers. Dances with vocal and instrumental accompaniment are of the particular interest by combination of the original folk dance, national specificity of the order of songs, and original sounds of national instruments. Folk dances and songs are accompanied by playing a balaban and a zurna that are reed wind instruments, a kaval – longitudinal shepherd’s flute, a kemanche and a saz – stringed bowed and plucked instruments. These instruments usually include percussion, among which a davul is the most popular. In such a way, there are diverse themes in Turkish traditional music.


Over numerous centuries, both folk and professional Turkish music absorbed the related elements of culture of other Turkic peoples. Songs and musical genres that are similar to Turkish ones existed in the countries of Central Asia. Traditional Turkish music is also inextricably linked with the Arab and Iranian culture. In the Middle Ages, Turkish musical art assimilated the characteristics inherent in the culture of the peoples who inhabited Asia Minor. Turkish traditional music evolved for many centuries. Every period of its development brought certain new features that distinguished it from musical traditions of other countries. From the X to XIII centuries, during the period of the Seljuk Sultanate, the best musicians and poets created their works that marked the beginning of the formation of traditional Turkish music. Later, such musicians known as Ashiks became extremely popular both in Turkey and abroad. It is believed that they became the first musicians who developed Turkish traditional music. According to my opinion, being a form of art, music has a great emotional influence on people. Music depicts people’s feelings and emotions during different historical periods. Turkish songs have various themes but the majority of them include lyrical, wedding, lamentations, and military-predatory.

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