My theory on the origin
of quarter-tones in Egypt

Before reading on, please be warned that my views are not backed by any of our academicians. I am not an academic researcher, and thus I never could show my views to academic bodies to have their blessings. That said, I still believe I have every right to claim my reasoning as at least an enlightened guesswork or an educated conjecture.

     Unlike music historians, I believe that our Egyptian music took shape only with the advent of the Naï, our Egyptian local flute variety. Those historians believe that humans first discovered/invented singing, then endeavoured to shape their instruments in such a way so as to enable them to play the same tunes they already could sing. If that were true, then I firmly believe our music should be considered the exception to the rule.

     Although I intend to provide a detailed view on the possible phases of development of the Naï in another dedicated document, I shall share with you the physical characteristics of this instrument in the hope that you will be able to appreciate my doubts as to whether it could be constructed after the conception of scales.

Men playing two different sizes of the Nai     The Naï is made of a local variety of bamboo that grows by the banks of the river Nile. Its reeds have a diameter that ranges between 1 and 2 centimetres, and have varying segment lengths, which makes it possible to build different sizes of the instrument. All segments of the chosen length of reed must be of the same size (some resourceful makers would even glue together separately cut segments, end to end, just to meet this condition). The Naï's most frequently used size is the one whose lowest pitch is middle C (concert pitch, though notated one octave too low). It is essentially the same size depicted on our ancestors' temple walls; even with the selfsame manner of holding the instrument and blowing into it.

     This should normally have sufficed to assure us of the ancient Egyptian origin of the Naï. But... Unfortunately, our neighbours, the Syrians and the Lebanese in particular, have always found delight in telling everyone who would listen that there was nothing Egyptian in the music heard in Egypt! And that the Naï, whose modern name happens to be a shortened form of a Turkish word (Sernaï = whistle), is in fact a Turkish instrument. Which goes in direct contrast to two historical (unbeatable) facts:

     Now, the Naï comprises seven whole segments (sounds familiar?), but its two ends are made of two extra segments cut at their two-thirds, each. In the rest of this description, I shall be numbering those segments from up downwards, starting from the first whole one. The Naï has six holes on its front side, and only one on the back. The six frontal holes are arranged is as follows:      As for the back hole, it is roughly at the middle of segment 4, and is used to provide the lower Bb, and lower A (by half-closing it), as well as the lower Bb (by exaggeratingly slanting the instrument away from the vertical position). [The only fingering left is when all holes are covered, which produces C, C', G', C'' and E'' (note, this one is natural), though the third and fourth tones are more usually produced using the above-mentioned respective fingerings.]

     I wonder how it could have been possible for anyone to come up with such a perfect symmetry if he/she started off with a song in his/her head and then wanted to invent a wind instrument able to reproduce his/her singing!! Too highly improbable a coincidence, in my book. Especially if we consider that musicologists have always believed that wind instruments historically preceded all other types of musical instruments, themselves preceded only by drums; i.e. they are the first instruments with definite pitch.

     It is thus my firm belief that it was the Naï, with its straightforward fingering technique, that brought forth both the quarter-tone phenomenon and the multiplicity of scales in our Egyptian music (which later spread to our neighbours all around).

Contents Next

This page is hosted by 
Get your own Free Home Page
Mail Me 
Write Me
My Home 
My Home Page