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160 – Learning Music 1



The Arab Music Archiving and Research foundation (AMAR), in collaboration with the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), presents “Niẓāmunā al-Mūsīqī”.

Dear listeners,

Welcome to a new episode of “Niẓāmunā al-Mūsīqī”.

Today, we will be discussing the subject of Learning Music with Mr. Mustafa Said.

There are many important subjects we must discuss, including Learning Music –different to teaching music– that we will be discussing with an expert on the subject, a self-made man whom we will ask a number of questions for the benefit of our listeners.

Mr. Mustafa, will you tell us about Learning Music in general?

Learning is the opposite of teaching: learning is in relation to the disciple who wishes to learn music. The learner, or the one seeking to learn, is led by his wish: what he wishes to learn, the type of music he wishes to learn, who he is, what he knows about himself, what he knows about his own culture…

Unfortunately, because of the propaganda, teaching, and media rush –i.e. one starts kindergarten at age 4, enters the Petit Jardin before that–, one builds an idea of what he will learn later, and this will starts to be corrupted. Thus, most musicians nowadays are very good on the technical level and are very talented. Yet their will goes against their unconscious, the existing elements, their culture, who they are: ūdists in fact play the mandolin, the guitar, or something else on their ūd; qānūnists in fact play the harp or even the flamenco on their qānūn; the violin playing ṭarīqa –and you are an expert on the subject– people spent hundreds of years building is today almost forgotten, because one’s will to learn is redirected from a young age –since we live in a defeated nation, and as Ibn Khaldūn said “the conquered is eager to imitate the conqueror” –, and he starts learning following different principles relatively to the international music tradition, then adds an Arabic “flavour”. Whether in music institutes, media, or in music history, everything is taught in books, while in fact one’s heritage is the music that was composed in the second half of the 20th century… If one wishes to listen to something old, one will first think of Sayyid Darwīsh, for example… Anyway, this corrupts the will of the learner / the one seeking to learn, who thus becomes part of this system because of this re-directing. Seldom does one go outside this system… it only happens if an outside influence pulls him away from it. The will of learners is what produces results. We have reached this situation today because those seeking to learn music are driven towards what they will be interpreting after twenty years of learning music.

So, numerous issues make people follow one movement or system, or a group of mixed movements through the influence of media, of schools, and as well as the defeat mentioned earlier, and define the nature of those interested or working in music relatively to the cited aspects.

What would guarantee awareness? We said that an outside influence may attract a lucky person towards another system that could be either better or worse… let us say a better one since this is what we care about. Is there something that would guarantee one’s awareness besides simply attracting one or an outside source pulling one away?

Simply attracting one is easy: one feels something attracting him towards another system, for example through research that has made information easily accessible nowadays, and starts discovering, through personal effort. Yet this only happens through an outside influence that pulls one away from this system when he finds out it is re-directed. Unfortunately, this does not happen to everybody. The solution may come from the activity of an alternative academy that does not abide by the existing teaching system… until the public music academy does something about this. Because, truly, and without any flattery, there are persons in the public academy, i.e. the governmental academy and the private academy, who truly have good suggestions and orientations in teaching music. Unfortunately, they choose to preserve the existing academic system and not to bring any changes to it –as this may affect their position within it– instead of educating musicians who belong, who have an identity, and who are capable of creating.

How do you imagine the alternative academy, Mr. Mustafa?

This question would be better answered by an educator who has discovered these problems and has a suggestion for an alternative academy. I, on the other hand, have not enough knowledge in the educational field and have, moreover, left teaching years before this interview. Thus, I can’t build a clear idea of an alternative academy… This show’s episodes published online by AMAR may in fact constitute a type of alternative academy… or maybe the Soundcloud and Youtube recordings and publications… I truly am not qualified enough to discuss this from an educational angle.

It is a simple question on how you see things. You have already discussed an aspect… Do you have other ideas? Maybe, for example, about an actual learning gathering between musicians? How do you see such gatherings v/s the Internet?

From a non-professional aspect, I would be considered as an infinitely reactionary person: I prefer spontaneous teaching, i.e. sitting together not necessarily with a purpose to learn or to teach, playing music for one day, or two, or three, for one year, or two, or three… and thus becoming a musician. I do not believe in methods and studying …etc.

The problem of pigeon-holing learning and specialisation pertains to music as well as to other fields and is not limited to the orient: people’s knowledge ends up being limited to small parts, to a specific specialisation subject out of a large spectrum they remain ignorant about… all this for a practical purpose: their job.

Today, the idea of a system and a movement that you have mentioned earlier is included in western methods: people are producing more progressive books, methods, master classes, ṭarīqa-s, and workshops, yet their pupils do not become the type of musicians who existed 200 years ago. It is a problem with different degrees.

Now, since we have discussed the physical gathering that is a type of model…


What about the image of the disciple that you have tackled at the beginning of our discussion?

These gatherings include a disciple who requires a mentor… During the jalsa between the mentor and the other persons, the subject matter is being taught and learned through the practice that benefits the disciple who is there for this purpose, i.e. learning from the mentor. Whereas, teaching a music lesson for an exam, then another for a following exam …etc., is difficult, especially in Arab music.

This is called tacit knowledge, i.e. knowledge that can’t be documented precisely/in detail, such as teaching cooking or anything that requires skill. This is why books are not enough… practice is necessary. Yet how to regulate this? Can we set a specific time/period or a specific subject matter for a learner to complete his learning?

To me, when someone can produce full phrases, interpret (play or sing) a piece following different ṭarīqa-s, and add novelty, then he is a full-fledged musician. He must not absorb what the mentor teaches him as is, but learn from the latter and continue what was started by him. It is unacceptable for teachers to tell their pupils they will never reach their level, and that they will give them a diploma if they reach a tenth only of their level. I would want my pupil to learn from me, then to succeed and continue. As al-Jāḥiẓ said: only an ignorant would state that no one will ever reach the level of the ancient ones.

Da Vinci said that a learner who does not surpass his teacher is of no use.

Now, can we visualise all that is taught in the disciple system?

Before this, let me add that, in my opinion, it is not about surpassing one’s teacher or mentor, but about completing the latter’s work or path: it is about a journey to be relayed from a generation to another. I think that each person must continue what was started by the one before him.

Is it possible to determine the period or the content of a disciple system, or is it left to its natural course?

The content includes general points that must be reached: someone learning how to play the ūd must know how to hold the pick and move it correctly, where to position his left hand on the “‘afq ruler”, how to tune the instrument, know the notes’ positions, the maqām system… etc. How this general content reaches the disciple depends on the latter. As for the period, one may require little time to learn, while another may need twice, three, or four times as long. Neither case is shameful. Furthermore, the one who requires a longer period is not necessarily more creative than the one who requires less time. There is no relation whatsoever.

Alright. What about having numerous mentors? What do you think of this within a disciple system? Is it good, bad, or does it depend on the situation?

It depends on the situation. In principle, it is preferable to have one mentor in the beginning. Then, when the disciple has a strong basis to support him, it is preferable for him to have as many mentors as possible, and to learn from as many different cultures as possible.

Even if it is from different regions.

Even if it is from different regions.

Even if it is in different skills, such as a Sheikh’s skill or a ūdist’s skill.

Of course… A zither player’s skill, or the skill of a balabān player.

…Or ‘arū or poetry…

Alright. What about when there is neither a disciple nor a mentor? What is the solution? This system is beneficial, yet there are systems without a mentor and a disciple. What is to be done in such cases?

I do not know… and we can’t ask one to go through hell and high waters. They used to before, but it has become more difficult today. I think it requires a complete system that starts from scratch in order to cancel the existence of the missing links.

I.e. nations and governments must take an interest in orders as well as in the role of models and teaching, and the significantly promising alternative academies.

Some nations did, but the concept was misunderstood and these became free studying institutes yet with an academic approach. One must understand that a concept that succeeded in the west will not necessarily work here, even though today and relatively to the first, second, and third years, the teaching tools and systems/methods are being revised. Unfortunately, the idea of an alternative academy is misunderstood as a free teaching system, an open university or an open school.

Imagination is limited by previous experiments.

Yes. We need something brand new.

Alright. Is it possible to transpose the disciple / mentor concept onto the Internet?

All I can say is: Try! I do not know.

Whether it is live or recorded… it will be worse if it is recorded.

Now, concerning remote teaching or teaching through the Internet… I think that facing a person, or sitting with a Sheikh around the pillar of a mosque, have a stronger impact, even if the online sound and image are transmitted at the highest resolution and one can even see the joint of the finger playing the string…etc. … Something remains missing, I do not know what!

Live interaction.


Is it possible, from looking at the production of a mentor and his disciple, to know who they are? …Even if there are numerous mentors? …Is it possible to draw indications or signs as an expert?

Yes. One can even know easily if the concerned person followed the ordinary academic system or something different.

What about musical identity, in the case of someone who learned from one person, and the case of another who learned from numerous persons in different regions…

This is why, to me, one must start in one place, which will constitute the cornerstone for building one’s musical personality: one learns about who he is, his environment, his history, his musical system, his rhythmic system…etc., then decides to learn other languages or completely different systems. When someone has such a strong basis to support him, then he runs no risk of losing himself. Whereas, if you gather from different gardens like a bee from the start, your honey won’t be pure… In my opinion, a musician must get acquainted with as many world music traditions as he can, from east, to west, to north, and to south, added to his local music, the environing folkloric and literary/classical music, pop music… yet only after building a strong basis to support him.

As for priorities and time… To know music requires more than a lifetime, thus an individual may only take a quick glance at some unimportant elements…

Unimportant in the learner’s point of view…


Because nothing is unimportant…


In this case, one’s conscience, heart, and mind will lead him towards the types that fit him the most.

…Which will determine the nature of the musical body that will constitute the individual’s listening system.

True. Furthermore, listening constitutes more than 60% of the whole subject.

The subject of learning.

Yes… maybe even more than training, whether in playing an instrument or in singing.

Will you tell us now about the learner’s perspective on the subject of learning, whether there is or not a disciple/mentor system?

The information is stored then mixed within one’s memory, until forming one’s personality. The person thus goes from being an information storage space to being a source/generator of information that comes out at this point under a new form. What is sowed will be harvested.

But this takes time…

Of course…

There is a period to uncover/discover the information, followed by a period to get acquainted with it and knowing it, until trust is built, then shaken, then built again …etc. … including all the factors.

This is the law of life.

Tell me about the learning operation: the evolution from one thing to another for a ūdist for example, or a singer, or any other type of music professional.

The learner starts from scratch: he knows nothing about music at first. (Which instrument he will play or which other musical profession he will practice is another issue). He starts hearing music from the moment his hearing apparatus is complete, before he is born, if his parents listen to music. Later on, his environment imposes a type of music until he can choose what to listen to and also what to play.

Tell me about listening… the 60% issue…

What one produces is the result of what one has heard before: a person may grow up in Germany where he listens to the music existing in Europe (classical, pop, variety music, …etc.) then decides at forty to learn ūd. It is possible, yet his performance will always show that his culture is different.

Like learning languages?


Learning a language as a child or as an adult, and the difference between the effort made by a child and the effort made by an adult, added to dedication.


Passion and love…

Now, how can one direct an individual who wants to learn by himself outside the disciple/mentor system –that does not exist everywhere– with the tools available including books, the internet, and audio?

“Learn to play the ūd in one week without a teacher”? … I do not know.

Of course not…

I do not have a solution.

So you think there is no solution outside the mentor / disciple system? Can listening bring one closer?

It can. But upon deciding to go from listening to music to producing music, one needs to be accompanied step by step, whether on the direct technical level (right hand, left hand, pick, fingers…etc.), or on the mind orientation level (for example: no, the taqsīm is not simply copying what you hear; No, the hank in the dawr is not simply a dry dialogue between you playing a phrase and another one answering you. One may hear some things in a certain way, whereas their essence may be different (all these points will only be satisfied through uncovering and discovering, convincing, questioning and answering)… etc.

Dear listeners,

We have reached the end of today’s episode of “Niẓāmunā al-Mūsīqī” on Learning Music presented by myself Fadil al-Turki and Mr. Mustafa Said.

We will meet again soon.

“Niẓāmunā al-Mūsīqī” is brought to you by Mustafa Said.


  2016  /  Podcast  /  Last Updated April 21, 2016 by Amar  /  Tags:
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