• Mesopotamian tuning •



‘I once met a mysterious musician from Mesopotamia, who would only play guitar in his local tuning…’

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


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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 most populous (likely between around 800 and 1250 AD). It has produced countless musical masters over the years – including virtuosi of the oud (fretless lute), joza (4-string fiddle), and santur (hammered dulcimer: also see the North Indian santoor, which arrived to the Subcontinent via the mountains of Kashmir).


Baghdad’s traditional music draws heavily from the microtonal maqam systems of Islamic music – as explained by scholar Sami Abu Shumays, each maqam contains “habitual melodic phrases, modulation possibilities, ornamentation techniques, and aesthetic conventions, that together form a rich melodic framework and artistic tradition” (n.b. maqam is like a ‘distant cousin’ of North Indian raga: both share a Persian influence). Check out vocal legend Nazem al-Ghazali (Maqam Hakimi), modern oud master Ahmed Mukhtar (Raqsat Albedoi), folk-fusion guitarist Ilham al-Madfai (Khuttar), and The Iraqi Maqam Ensemble (Maqam Dash). Also see the 2015 documentary On the Banks of the Tigris.


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

“In those ancient days, when the good destinies had been decreed…Enki, lord of broad wisdom and master of destinies…laid side-by-side the Tigris and the Euphrates, and caused them to bring water from the mountains. He scoured out the smaller streams, and positioned the other watercourses…Enki made spacious sheep-folds and cattle-pens, provided shepherds and herdsmen, and founded cities and settlements throughout the earth…” (from Debate Between Bird and Fish: an cuneiform essay written on clay tablets circa 2,000 BC)

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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‘ (“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‘ circa 9-10th century, and Tower of Skulls, an LRB feature by Malise Ruthven (“A famous Sumerian writer described the scene here in 2000 BC, saying that people are looting and killing, and nobody knows who the king is. So you see, nothing is new…”) – also see more of the ‘Sumerian Disputations‘ from above (a stacked card featuring matchups such as ‘sheep vs. grain‘, ‘silver & copper‘, and ‘hoe vs. plough‘)

Header image: The Fall of Baghdad (14th-century, Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh)

George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!

“An intrepid guitar researcher…”

(Guitar World interview)

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