• Mesopotamian tuning •



‘I once met a mysterious guitarist from Mesopotamia, who would only teach in his local tuning…’


Pattern: 10>10>7>7>5
Harmony: D6(sus4) | 6-5-4-1-5-1




The actual music of Baghdad spans a rich variety of sonic and social influences, both ancient and modern. Long renowned as a cultural and intellectual hub, the city was for many centuries the world’s largest in population (likely between around 800 and 1250). It has produced countless great masters over the years – including virtuosi of the oud (fretless lute), santur (hammered dulcimer) and joza (4-string fiddle).


Baghdad’s traditional music makes use of the microtonal maqam system of melodic frameworks. Check out Ahmed Mukhtar, Nazem al-Ghazali, Ilham al-Madfai, and the acclaimed 2015 documentary On the Banks of the Tigris. And also this divine microtonalism by Hussein al-Adhami and Iraqi Maqam Ensemble… which I’ll leave untranslated for a change (it’s fun not to know…guess and check afterwards!):

  • Trailer: On the Banks of the Tigris – documentary (2015):


6str 5str 4str 3str 2str 1str
Note B A G D A D
Alteration -5 0 -7 -5 -2 -2
Tension (%) -44 0 -55 -44 -21 -21
Freq. (Hz) 62 110 98 147 220 294
Pattern (>) 10 10 7 7 5
Semitones 0 10 8 15 22 27
Intervals 6 5 4 1 5 1
  • See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!


—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…


—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…

  • More snapshots of Baghdad: a British Pathé clip with street views from the 1950s, a 2019 PBS cultural feature (“Baghdad is experiencing a phase of rare stability that is allowing the community to rebuild its art scene…”), and a historico-culinary guide by Nawal Nasrallah (“After acknowledging the emergence of the ‘art of cooking’ as a respectable field in this modern age, Queen Aliyya embarked…”)
  • Mesopotamian history: e.g. the city’s foundations in al-Mansur’s 8th-century ‘Round City‘ design (“I have never seen a city of greater height, more perfect circularity, more endowed with superior merits…”), and its role as a scientific epicentre in the ‘Islamic Golden Age‘ in the 9-10th century – and Tower of Skulls, an LRB review feature by Malise Ruthven (“A famous Sumerian writer described the scene here in 2000BC, saying that people are looting and killing and nobody knows who the king is. So you see, nothing is new…”)


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rāga: ‘that which colours the mind’

George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and other global improvised traditions. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them. Site above, follow below, & hit me up for…


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Dedicated to Nigel Tufnel – a true tuning connoisseur

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