Turkish Makam



Deniz Atalay’s masterclass, Turkish Makam for Fretless Guitar.

Deniz Atalay

Deniz Atalay


1 – Introduction
2 – Makam
3 – Brief theoretical information
4 – How to play taksim
5 – Ussak Makam, taksim and some makam licks
6 – The usage of makams in mental illnesses
7 – Rhythm
8 – Turkish instruments and the fretless guitar
9 – Information and Further Advice
10 – Conclusion and author’s notes.


When I was young I have always wanted to play piano. But it was easier to find a guitar and a teacher those days so I started with guitar. After listening to Erkan Ogur’s “Fretless” album, I realised that I am lucky to start with the guitar. It is possible to play makams with fretless guitar and imitate the playing styles of Turkish instruments. Even wind instruments with the help of e-bow…

Turkish Music has thousands years of history and still keeps the tradition. Makam, special rhythms, different song forms, improvisation and its own groove can be the main characteristics of this modal music. I will try to give brief information about Turkish Music, makams and their relation with fretless guitar. I hope you will enjoy the journey.


What is Makam? It is possible to describe it as “composition rules”. A good knowledge of makam, rhythm, musical forms will help us to create senior level of Turkish Music.

I will try to explain you this music in the simplest way because too many written details may confuse your minds. The best is, book information supported with a good teacher. Probably your best teachers will be recordings. While giving information about makam I also gave the Turkish meanings of them in parenthesis.

If you are interested in makams and made a research on the internet, it is possible to find some examples of makam scales. If you try to play these scales up and down or build phrases like in jazz music it will be wrong approach to makam music.

In Turkish Music, a makam scale is composed of a tetrachord (dörtlü) over a pentachord (besli) or a pentachord over a tetrachord. The last note of the pentachord and the first note of the tetrachord (or vice versa) is the same; therefore there are 8 notes in a scale.

In the makam scale there are certain notes that we should always consider while playing a taksim (art of makam improvisation). Each makam has its own particular progression which governs its performance. Similarly to a composition, it has a beginning, development and end.

The most important notes are tonic/final (karar/durak), dominant (güçlü), suspended cadence (asma karar), temporary stopping points (muvakkat kalislar) and the leading tone (yeden).

The course (direction) of the melody is also very important. The path or way (seyir) determines if the makam is ascending (çikici), descending (inici) or combination of the two ascending/descending (inici/çikici).

It is obvious that 8 notes are not enough to make an interesting taksim. We may extend the scale above and below the octave. This is called range or extension (genisleme).

If we emphasize these important notes, obey other taksim rules and create nice melodies, we can say that we are playing a makam. As a result, “Scale is static and makam is active”


Makam scales are constructed by microtones. As we know, there is C# or Db between C and D (in tempered system) but in Turkish Music (T.M.) system there are 9 microtones (comma). (Figure 1) Between E and F there are 4 comas. So there are 53 commas in an octave. Certainly we don’t play all these commas in makam. If we played it, it would be a torture to listen to.


Fig 1


Fig 3

The figure 2 shows the commas and their symbols which are used in the construction of makams.


Fig 2

The system was so complicated that Arel-Ezgi system was accepted to make it more convenient for the performer. There are many accidental markings which are used to show the commas. If you have noticed in figure 1, some commas don’t have accidental markings. Although these tones are used while playing compositions, special accidentals are not shown on the score. There are many intervals in T.M. system and it would be very difficult to make accidentals for each interval. Therefore it was decided not to use many accidentals and try to find a convenient way of presenting the melody.


Fig 4

Here is an example of Çargah makam scale. This scale is similar to C Ionian scale and it doesn’t have accidentals. In T.M., every note has its own name and while explaining taksim we will use these names to point the important notes in the makam. Usually these names are also the names of some makam scales.

The names of the notes in Çargah makam are: Kaba Çargah (C), Yegah (D), Hüseyni Asiran (E), Acem Asiran (F), Rast (G), Dügah (A), Buselik (B), Çargah (C-the octave) Please note that the octaves of these notes don’t have the same names. For example, the octave of Yegah (D) is called Neva (D-the octave).

How do we build the scale? Çargah Makam is a good example to explain because there are just 2 intervals used in the construction: Tanini (9 commas) and Bakiye (4 commas). (Please check figure 1 and 2) There are no accidentals in the scale.

The formula is:
Tanini(9)+Tanini(9)+Bakiye(4)+Tanini(9)+Tanini(9)+Tanini(9)+Bakiye(4) = 53


As I mentioned before, taksim is the art of makam improvisation. Taksims have several purposes. They can be played before the composition to warm up the listeners ears or they can be played in the middle of the tune like a jazz standard. Also there are various approaches to the taksim. There is too much information to tell but I will just try to tell in the simplest way of playing a taksim by using the terms I wrote above. I chose Ussak Makam as an example. Except one note (it is on B line on the staff) other notes are similar to the tempered system. Before telling Ussak taksim we should start by giving information about Ussak M.

5 – USSAK MAKAM, taksim and some makam licks


Fig 5


“I just played the Ussak tetrachord tones.Buselik pentachord tones can be played like in tempered system. You will notice that the only different note is Segah. The accidental of Segah tells us to play 1 comma flat. But in Uþþak makam, when we see this accidental, we play it 2-3 commas flat. The reason is explained in “Brief theorical information” and “Uþþak M.” sections.”

Ussak Makam:

A – Tonic note: Dügah

B – Path(or way): Ascending

C – Makam scale: First of all, we construct the tetrachord on Dügah (A) note. It is called Ussak tetrachord (Ussak dörtlüsü). Then on Neva (D) note, we construct Buselik pentachord (Buselik beslisi).

D – Dominant note: Neva note (D) is the dominant note where tetra and pentachord intersects.

E – Suspended cadence:
1 – The most important and characteristic note of this makam is Segah It is possible to play Segah and Ferahnak makams on Segah and create variety (flavour). Explaining these makams will just be confusing information at this step.
2 – It is possible to play Rast pentachord on the note Rast below Ussak makam.
(It is G,A, Segah, C, D) In this moment Segah should be played 1 comma flat.
Note: The accidental of Segah on the sheet of music tells us to play this note one comma flat, but while playing Ussak m. we play this note 2-3 commas flat. In fact, between Dügah (A) and Segah there are 8 commas (this interval is called Büyük Münecceb). So, this interval in Ussak m. consists of 6-7 commas. My precious Pole friend who plays blues harmonica calls this note ‘blue note’. This gives the groove to the makam. I think he found a good term.


Fig 6

3 – Emphasising the the Çargah note (C) will create a different suspended cadence.

F – The name of the notes in the scale:
Dügah (A), Segah, Çargah (C), Neva (D), Hüseyni (E), Acem (F), Gerdaniye (G), Muhayyer (A)

G – The leading tone:
The note Rast (G) is the leading tone. This note creates the feeling of resolution to Dügah (A).

H – Range of the makam: The range of the makam can be expanded below or above the scale.

Below the scale: It is possible to play a Rast pentachord which is transposed over the note Yegah (D). In this case we have an odd note named Irak (F#) in the scale. In fact, there is no F# in the scale in the main scale. So we have D, E, F#, G, A.


Fig 7

Above the scale: Although some musicians prefer not to make expansion over the scale in order to avoid the change in the serious and sober feeling of the makam, it is possible to make some expansions.

1-We can play the Ussak tetrachord on Muhayyer note (A) (An octave above the tonic)


Fig 8

2-It is also possible to play Kurdi tetrachord (A, Bb, C, D) over Muhayyer (A) note. Personally I don’t use this.


Fig 9


1 – Start creating the melody with any of the note between Dügah (A) (tonic-karar) and Neva (D). We know that these notes are called ‘Ussak tetrachord’. It is also possible to begin by the range below Dügah. Be careful! Don’t emphasise these notes too much below Dügah. Just travel around the note shortly, otherwise you will be creating a different makam.

2 – After creating some phrases stop at the Neva (D) (dominant note-Güçlü)). Now it is time to create melodies in Buselik pentachord (D-E-F-G-A). It is possible to play these suspended cadences and show other properties.

3 – If you want, you may travel in all the scale and play below and above ranges (expansion notes)

4 – Finally come back to the Ussak tetrachord and create your last melodies. You may also play the leading tone (G) which will create the feeling of resolution.

USSAK TAKSIM and ILAHI (MP3 3,223Kb) performed by Aran Arslan

Well…I think it is a simple and sufficient explanation for the beginning. For a better taksim you should be able to know other makams very well. Kantemiroglu (1673-1723) tells that it is possible to play 38 other makams to create variety while performing Hüseyni makam taksim! But this is a senior level of taksim. Please don’t give up, because we don’t need to know many of them. Just try to create nice melodies: Other makam taksims fallow the same way. Emphasising the important notes and considering the rules.

I recorded some long licks by using fretless guitar and I hope they will be helpful.


I just used a fretless electric guitar and E-bow.

I played it freely.The blue note that I played in the middle has an explanation in T.M.

I used opened strings like in oud. But it is not played in traditional way.

I played seven notes using one string.Therefore it is reminiscent of tanbur.


If we are talking about makams also it will be interesting to talk about the makams and their usage in treatment of illnesses. This style of treatment has been used for many years. Sultan Bayezid II established a university hospital in Edirne in 1486. Psychiatric patients were treated by aromas of flowers and musical works. Each makam was prescribed according to the type of the illness.

Important Turkish scientist-philosopher Farabi (870-950) explains the effects of some makams as follows:

Rast: Gives happiness and tranquillity.

Zirguleli Hicaz: Gives sleepiness.

Saba: Gives strength and courage.

According to the information we have, makams are effective in some periods of the day. For example Rast is effective in midnight and Hüseyni in the morning. As far as I know Turkish music therapy is still being used in Turkey. And even in foreign countries. If anyone is interested it is worth to make a research about this subject.


There are various rhythms from 2/4 to 124/4. (Most of the long rhythms are not used today). Some of these rhythms are especially used in T. Classical M. and some of them are in folkloric and some in religious music. There are really interesting rhythms and these rhythms may give you inspiration while composing songs. One of my favourite rhythms is Aksak Semai which is 10/8. Also 5/8, 7/8, 8/8, 9/8, 15/8 are worth to try. Here is an example of Aksak Semai: The notes which show the rhythm on top should be played with right hand and the ones below by left hand (Right hand means strong beat and left hand weak beat). The word “düm” indicates strong and longer note and it is useful to say these words (düm, te, ka, ke etc…) while practising the rhythm. You may use your knees to practise.


Fig 10

This rhythm also can be played in this way:


Fig 11


As I mentioned in the beginning, fretless guitar provides many possibilities such as imitation of Turkish traditional instruments. Let’s start with Tanbur. Tanbur is a long necked instrument and you can see all the properties of Turkish intervals on it. By practicing with tanbur you can improve your skills in playing on one string only. Good guitarists usually advice to play the guitar in a horizontal way. Therefore it is better to learn tanbur with fretless guitar first. Unfortunately, I started with Oud to learn Turkish music and of course it affected my fretless playing style. But also oud taught me different techniques and makams as well. For example, playing in the first position of fretless and using open strings.



Another instrument to talk about is saz or baglama. There are types of these instruments but usually playing styles are the same. We can learn nimble hammer on and pull off techniques by listening to saz players. Also these instruments help in one string playing. It is obvious that the guitarists who connect horizontal and vertical playing usually can create more interesting ideas.



There are some short necked instruments such as kemence and kabak kemani and examining these instruments may be helpful in playing upper positions. As you know when the distance between two frets are shorter (for example after 7th or 9th fret) intonation mistakes can be heard easily. Imagine the neck of violin. I always admire violin players when they are playing the exact treble sounds. Kemençe’s neck is so short that players use their nails to give the right note.



Now let’s talk about a different kind of instrument, ney. It is a kind of reed instrument and has a different importance in religious music. By using some special techniques it is possible to play these microtones with a ney. If you have a fretless electric guitar and an e-bow it is possible to imitate this instrument. Only thing you should do is listen to ney players and try to imitate them. (The E-bow is a device that vibrates the string continuously and creates long sound) But it is important to remember a ney player have lungs and you shouldn’t play endless sound and bother the listener! Give break like a trumpet player and inhale 🙂

Turkish Ney
Turkish Ney


* It will be useful to listen Erkan Ogur (Fretless guitar), Kudsi Ergüner (Ney), Yorgo Bacanos (Oud), Tanburi Cemil Bey (Tanbur). The group ‘Yansimalar’ has 2 good albums: Vuslat (Folkloric songs) and Mahur (T.Classical compositions)

* There types of Turkish M. such as T.Classical m., folkloric m., mosque m., sufi m. etc…So the songs that you may find coincidently on the internet may refer to any of them!

* I advice you to listen one type of makam improvisation all the day and it will help your ears to get use to makams. For example one day Ussak M. and other day Segah M.

* I would like to make a list of some makams which are commonly used:
Buselik, Kurdi, Rast, Ussak, Humayun, Hicaz, Uzzal, Hüseyni, Neva, Karcigar, Segah, Saba, Acem Kürdi, Hicazkar, Mahur, Nihavend, Kürdili Hicazkar, Sultani Yegah.

* Ottoman Empire sultans paid too much attention in music. Even some sultans were really good composers. They encouraged musicians to create new makams and improve the music.

* Makams are so important that the names of makams represented before the name of composition. In a concert, the songs composed in the same makam, performed sequentially and before changing the makam a special taksim is played to prepare the listeners ears for new compositions in new makam.

* Turn off the light and practise the fretless guitar in the dark. Check your intonation by the open strings.

* The rule doesn’t change. The best pianist is the dead pianist for a fretless guitarist. (From the point of intonation)

* If you hear the Segah note in Ussak Makam more flat or sharp in some recordings, don’t be surprised. Some people may play in this way.It is also related with the course of the melody. There is no constitution and this makes the music beautiful.”

10 – CONCLUSION & Author’s Notes

Although I tried to keep the information simple I know that it can be confusing, but I hope this will lead you to make more research. We should always remember that fretless guitar has its own style and philosophy. These techniques will help you to improve your playing. For sure knowing Turkish Music will expand your views over fretless guitar. The best way to learn this type of music is to go to the origin and find a teacher. One month in Istanbul or other cities for the lessons and one month for holiday near the seaside. We invite you! Take care!


1 – Bear in mind that there is not just one makam system in the world. While making research on the internet or in the library, I advise you to use the keywords “Turkish Music / System / Makam”

2 – Farabi wrote his book about makams in Persian language. Those days every Turkish scientist or writer knew Arabic and Persian language very well to express their ideas. It is like the usage of Latin and Greek in science and art in those days.

3 – The information imparted was using the Arel-Ezgi system as a basis.

4 – I would like to thank to Elzbieta Honko, Önder Özkoç, and Ahmet Polat who is the best T.M. teacher in Ankara, and thanks to Jeff for your patience!

*Ussak makam properties and other scale figures are taken from “Türk Musikisi Nazariyati ve Usulleri” by Ismail Hakki Özkan, Ötüken Press.

….ends Deniz



Contact: Deniz Atalay

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Makam – book review