Ottoman lady playing the tambour


by Çetin Körükçü

Turkish music history, which examines the relationship of Turks with music from the time when the Turks first emerged onto the world scene to the present day, is not a science that one can undertake in detail. If history is considered to begin with writing, the interval during which the Turks have expressed themselves in writing covers only the last 1,500 years. Unfortunately, we do not have any sources relating to Turkish civilization of earlier periods. Consequently, both Turkish history, as well as our data on Turkish culture and arts, is extremely limited. Even if we disregard for a moment the difficulty of writing about Turkish music with no written records on the subject, as well as the dearth of sources, it behooves us to state here some other issues that are equally important.

The Turks are a huge group of people living over a very wide geographical area, who have founded or lived within many and diverse states, with widely varying ways of life. When we speak of Turkish musical history, it an especially important that we know which Turkish tribe's music we are talking about, and from which period. Trying to understand the last eight hundred years based on the written sources on Turkish music, it is quite difficult to shed light on earlier periods.

But despite all these difficulties, the first information from some Chinese sources on the music of the old Uygurs and the Hatay (Hitay, Kutay) Turks - limited as it may be - has become available to us. Along with this, findings obtained in some archaeological digs in Central Asia give the evidence of a well-developed musical culture among the Huns, Göktürks and Uygurs. These musical cultures are known to have included a variety of instruments, a unique notation system and a broad musical repertoire. As research of Turkish history is improved, our knowledge of Turkish music will improve in turn. Though one can say much about the roots of musical traditions alive in Turkey today, it is necessary to consider these together with their Asian roots, and take into account the interactions with other peoples in Anatolia. Consequently, when we speak of Turkish music, the unique musical cultures of Turkish societies spread over various regions of the world come to mind, and the fact that these are musical traditions that exhibit different characteristics from one another. It is believed that in those ancient eras when there was no distinction between those who made and those who applied music; when the traditional sounds were reproduced within daily life, music was a sacred element. Believing that the whole of these sounds, occurring when the sounds of nature were arranged one after the other, were magical, they imbued these sounds with special significance; and the performance of this music was the domain of certain special people. Serving their societies as religious figures, leaders, or magicians, these people, known by names such as Kam, Baksi, or Ozan, were musicians as well. These people carried out a religious as well as social function of music, and thus the whole of religion and social life were illustrated by music; similar voices brought forth the music of this life.

Because they had a migratory lifestyle until their arrival in western Asia, the instruments they used were always easily transportable. The tonal system of their music was designed parallel to this, with completely natural tones. In the early periods, tones in these systems were not arranged deliberately, there was no formal theory. But it certain features come to mind at the mention of Turkish music. One of these is that the vast majority of Turkish music is lyrical. Some musicologists qualify Turkish music as a lyrical music. This is related to the lyrics' mission of uniting literature and music. Even when the Turks had no writing system, they had developed a great oral literature, the traces of which can be followed up until the present day in the epic tradition. This literature, containing traces of all aspects of social life, as well as philosophical, pastoral and didactic examples, is the result of the mission as well as the importance the Turks assigned to words. Such a collection of lyrics, in order to achieve unity in society, and establish a tie between the generations of the tradition, brought with it an astounding repertoire. Music was used to accompany the words, in order to make them more moving, and more understandable. The instrumental repertoire comprises an extremely important but rather small section within this music.

The second important feature of Turkish music is that within all historically known periods, it has been a modal form of music. This system of modes, or makams, is known to have changed from time to time in relation to the makam system in use today. For example in Asia, a pentatonic musical system is still in use today. In western Asia, the closer one approaches Anatolia and the Balkans, the more the music is replaced by the familiar makam system. Though it is insufficient to summarize Turkish music's journey through history in such a short summary, information on the development of the genres and their positions in Turkish music is included in other articles (Genres in Turkish Music).

The general periods listed below will be examined in more detail in the section on genres, and thus provide a panoramic view of Turkish music as a whole.

In general terms, Turkish music shows three main periods over its history: