Ottoman Music, Cultural Evolution, and the Problems of Musical Mythmaking

by Peter Tracy


Ataturk holding a Panama hat in 1925 shortly after making the Western style hat cumpulsory for civil servants

In 1928, Mustafa Kemal, president of the Republic of Turkey, sat down to hear a concert. Kemal, who would later be better known by the name Atatürk, or “father of the Turks”, had by this point been the Turkish head of state for only five years, the entire existence of the modern Turkish nation. Yet the impact of his vision for the country was already being felt everywhere, from the countryside to the concert hall. Indeed, as scholar Orhan Tekelioğlu notes, these first years of Turkish nationhood were largely defined by a rapid and top-down attempt to break with the Ottoman past in all spheres of life, including culture and the arts:

“The founding years of the Turkish Republic were marked by a series of fundamental changes within the cultural sphere. Referred to as “revolutions” (devrimler or inkllaplar in the plural) by the young republic’s ruling elite, the changes were designed to bring about the transformation of social structures along the lines of a developing, but as yet immature, notion of ‘national identity.’”[1]

In the wake of World War I, Atatürk was among those in the Turkish National Movement who rebelled against the Allied forces that partitioned and occupied parts of the defeated Ottoman Empire[2]. Yet despite his ardent Turkish patriotism, Atatürk’s response, at this 1928 concert, to what many now refer to as “Turkish classical music” was far from positive. This concert, which pitted Western classical musicians and musicians playing in the urban tradition of the Ottoman empire explicitly against each other, resulted in a now infamous public statement from Atatürk on the merits of what was, ostensibly, his native musical tradition:

“This unsophisticated music, cannot feed the needs of the innovative Turkish soul, the Turkish sensibility in all its urge to explore new paths. We have just heard music of the civilized world, and the people, who gave a rather anemic reaction to the murmurings known as Eastern music, immediately came to life… Turks are, indeed, naturally vivacious and high-spirited, and if these admirable characteristics were for a time not perceived, it was not their fault.”[3]

For Atatürk, Western classical music represented the new and modern direction towards which he wanted to turn the country, while the Ottoman musical tradition represented the recently abolished empire and all its supposed backwardness. What we consider Ottoman music today is largely the music of the Ottoman court and the urban Ottoman elite, a music that began as part of the broader musical ecosystem of the eastern Mediterranean which included, among others, Persian, Byzantine, and Arabic musical traditions. Thus, by Atatürk’s time, Ottoman music was interpreted by Turkish nationalists as an eastern, unrefined, and ultimately “uncivilized” music standing in opposition to their dreams of a modernized Turkey.

Yet it was in present-day Turkey that the Ottoman empire began out of a small principality bordering the Byzantine empire in the 14th century, part of a web of small states fighting for control of Anatolia and the Balkans.[4]While we can be relatively sure that the music played in the early years of Osman I’s empire was similar to that played in the courts of the broader eastern Mediterranean, the history of the development of this music into a unique tradition as the empire came to encompass the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Eastern Europe is far from clear. Yet that hasn’t stopped many from tracing a grand lineage for Ottoman music: it may be most useful, in fact, to follow scholar Walter Feldman’s lead by describing many current histories of the origins of Ottoman music as “mythologies”. That is, as an oral tradition that nevertheless features some written notation and theory, Ottoman music occupies a somewhat unique place in musicology as a practice that straddles the line between what we could, in his view, properly be called “music history” (which relies on written sources) and the practice of nationalist mythmaking. As Feldman explains:

“There exist two current mythologies of the history of Ottoman music, an Ottoman one and a republican one. Both mythologies emphasize continuity over a very longue durée, with little meaningful historical change. The Ottoman myth had posited unbroken continuity from medieval Greater Iran (i.e. Herat to Istanbul) and from still earlier Baghdad. The republican myth (or rather myths) connected historically Turkic musical figures of the medieval Islamic civilization, such as al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Sina (d. 1037), and Maraghi (d. 1435) with the Ottomans, thus giving an unbroken “history” of one thousand years. Or else, by including a putative inheritance from pre-Turkic and pre-Islamic Anatolia and/or Mesopotamia, “Turkish” music has a “history” of three or four thousand years!”[5]

Thus, while the origins and early development of Ottoman, or as it is sometimes called today, Turkish classical music, can at times seem hopelessly obscure, the ways in which this musical tradition have historically been perceived and practiced are nevertheless important because they continue to shape this constantly evolving sphere of music-making.

Miniature of dancers and musicians from the early Ottoman Empire 1530

As for the way Ottoman music sounds and has sounded, two fundamental elements stand out in Ottoman musical discourse and practice: the concepts of makam and usul. The arguably more discussed of the two, makam, is a musical idea which has many things in common with the Arabic maqam and is often thought of alongside its somewhat similar early contemporaries, the Byzantine echos and the modes of the early Catholic church. Yet a makam is more than a mode, scale, or a collection of pitches: it also encompasses certain characteristic routes through these notes called seyir, as well as other melodic and harmonic ideas that have evolved through centuries of performance practice. Scholar Adem Merter Birson, for instance, highlights the role of çeşni, or smaller building blocks of melodic ideas and patterns that shape a given composition, thus highlighting the crucial role of ornamentation and improvisation in the Ottoman repertoire.[6]

Usul, on the other hand, is often thought of as the rhythmic partner of makam: a certain characteristic set of rhythms or a rhythmic pattern that underlies a given composition that can vary greatly in length and complexity. Yet it is important to note that these terms have a rather fluid history, one that has changed over the course of a multi-century history. Musicologist Bülent Aksoy, for instance, writes that:

“The music theory which dominates the musical life of today is based on compositions from the orally transmitted repertoire. In theory books makams are generally defined as frozen in the forms that they took at the end of their journey. Even a custom of giving a notation sample for each makam took shape (although exemplifying a makam with only one notation sample is methodologically faulty). Therefore, in the definition of makam, its historical dimension was neglected. Moreover, the musical concept called makam has changed as times and tastes changed. Makam does not have a finalized or isolated structure, but rather an open

Just as makam and usul have historically been rather ambiguous categories, so too have the form and instrumentation of Ottoman music been rather fluid while adhering to a certain basic formula. What we consider Ottoman music almost always consists of a singer accompanied by an ensemble of instruments such as the ney (a type of end-blown flute), kudüm drums, and a variety of plucked and bowed string instruments such as the tambur and the oud. Thus the recurring charge that Ottoman music is a “monophonic” music as opposed to the staunchly polyphonic music of the West. The most often cited example of form, the fasıl, is regularly compared to a suite in the sense that it is a longer form encompassing a series of many smaller “movements” which are unique forms in themselves.

Description and illustration of a tanbur from Kitab i ‘Ilmul-Musiki ala Vechil Hurufat written-by-Dimitrie-Cantemir.

The concept of a composition in the Ottoman musical tradition, though, is fundamentally different from that of Western Classical music. That is, compositions in the Western sense – static, notated instructions for the performance of a finished work of art – are almost entirely absent from Ottoman music history. Rather, the historical composers which most define current mythologies of Ottoman music – Cantemir, Ali Ufki, etc. – notated and/or created certain, perhaps original, derivations of existing makams and melodies. Yet because notation of any sort was almost never used in the performance or pedagogy of Ottoman music until the 20th century, these historical figures are not what we might consider composers in the stricter, Western sense of the term. As Ottoman music scholar Ralf Martin Jäger explains:

“A “composer” in the Ottoman context is not an “original genius”, who by himself creates anew. He is rather a person experienced in the musical tradition, who – within certain rules – through the combination of basic elements of form, rhythm and melodic models, creates a new derivation. This derivation passes on to the transmitting community who continue to compose and revise coequally with the composer and adjusts his original “derivation” to ever-changing aesthetic standards.”[8]

Those practitioners of Ottoman music who created original derivations, therefore, and those who, beginning in the 17th century, wrote the very few treatises and pieces of notation which survive in this tradition, were often the very same people who engaged in the traditional method of pedagogy within Ottoman music known as meşk. Essentially, meşk was a style of teaching in which aspiring musician would study with an acknowledged master of this musical style, who they would be encouraged to imitate in both their musical practice and their lives. Training was done entirely by ear, with the teacher playing first and the student imitating in order to learn makams and melodies as well as the details of articulation, phrasing, improvisation, ornamentation, and rhythm.[9] Although different notational systems, including Byzantine notation and Hamparsum notation, were theoretically available to them for much of Ottoman musical history, Ottoman musicians seem to have preferred the use of meşk and the oral tradition which it allowed throughout the centuries.

It will hopefully be clear by this point that the attempt to systematically study Ottoman music and to write its history is a practice fraught with a wide variety of problems, not least of which is the prevalence of alternate histories propagated by those, like Atatürk, who would retrospectively attempt to assign a certain ideological significance to a musical practice that well predated the existence of a Turkish nation. We should therefore be wary when we see scholars attempting to, for instance, categorize Ottoman music history into “Classical” or “Romantic” periods, knowing that this is largely a reaction to the system of periodization common to Western Classical music. We should also be wary of the practice of ascribing certain compositions or makams to Ottoman rulers such as Selim III (who is reportedly the originator of the makam known as sûzidilârâ), knowing that, in a musical ecosystem lacking copyright law or often even written sources, these attributions may have more to do with power than with musical ability or authorship.[10]

Aksoy, who’s diagnosis of the problems endemic to studying Ottoman music is particularly gloomy, summarizes the problem as follows:

“We know that the renowned music repertoire performed and listened to in Turkey today reached us through 19th century styles and tastes… the emergence of this music repertoire, however, can be traced back to the end of the 16th century. In this repertoire, old compositions mixed with new styles and renewed tastes, and dissolved in the same melting pot. This transformation can also be seen in musical notations. For instance, a melody that Cantemir put into notation in the late 17th century can differ from Rauf Yekta’s 20th century notation to an extent that it seems to be a completely different piece. While the taste of every new period overlays the previous one, the development within the flow of history enriched music, evolving from simple to increasingly complex musical structures. This process made it increasingly difficult to observe the evolution of the music. Therefore, it is impossible to write a convincing history of music just by looking at this repertoire. If we examine the history of music only in this context, there is nothing we could say.”[11]

Is it any surprise, then, that 20th century proponents and opponents of Ottoman music alike have looked at the complex and fragmented oral and written histories of Ottoman music and attempted to draw their own conclusions as to its content, form, and value? In the early 20th century in particular, these types of evaluations often took place through the lens of Turkish nationalism and, more often than not, entailed comparing the Ottoman musical tradition with that of Western classical music. For instance, prominent writer and politician Ziya Gökalp, in his 1923 book Principles of Turkism, argued that Ottoman music’s use of microtones, or tones between those of the equal-temperament tuning system we find in use on most pianos, was evidence of a fundamental error at the heart of the music. As Tekelioğlu writes:

“Gökalp divided existing music in the main Turkish lands into three classes: Eastern, Western, and folk. He argued that the music of the elite during the pre-Republican era, although the peak of Ottoman cultural achievement in terms of music, was essentially Byzantine which he called ‘Eastern.’ To reinforce his point, he referred to ancient Greek music which, because it was based on quarter tones and tended to repeat ‘the same melody over and over,’ he found ‘artificial’ and ‘depressingly monotonous.’ However, claimed Gökalp, musical reforms during the Middle Ages in Europe had gone far to overcome the mistakes of Greek music, with opera going even further and giving rise to the ‘civilized’ Western music known today. On the other hand, the Eastern music that emerged from ancient Greek models and had been played for centuries in the Ottoman lands continued in its ‘ill’ state. He concluded that the only ‘healthy’ music in Anatolia was folk music, enjoyed by the Turkish people as a whole. Only if ‘our national culture’ welds with ‘our new civilization’ (the West), emphasized Gökalp, can one speak of a ‘national music.’ In other words, to create a new national music for the Turks, Ottoman (Eastern) music was to be discarded; folk music was to be the primary source; and musical reform was to be based on Western music and its harmony.”[12]

Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order in 1887. Sufi lodges were an important site of Ottoman musical practice until their banning in 1925

The result of such views, which gained significant traction among Turkey’s elites during this period, was a series of reforms which amounted to censorship of both sacred[13] and secular forms of Ottoman music making. For instance, music schools teaching Ottoman-style music and carrying on the pedagogical tradition of mesk were closed down and a complete ban on the education of Ottoman music, in public and private, was enacted in 1927. The resulting gap in music education was to be filled by conservatories modeled on Western schools, including extensive coverage of Western musical history and its composers.[14] Following another public statement on music by Atatürk, a complete broadcasting ban on Ottoman music was put in place in 1934. As Tekelioğlu writes:

“Even though this ban was lifted after 20 months, it was replaced by a systematic form of censorship that described the type of Turkish music that could be played on the radio and, later, on television. The monopoly of Turkish Radio and Television in broadcasting was not abolished until the early 1990s.”[15]

In this way, mythologizing the musical past led to censorship of a long-lasting and unique musical tradition from the very capital, Istanbul, in which it developed over centuries. Tekelioğlu summarizes the situation thus:

“The intellectuals and rulers of the new republic wholeheartedly believed in the existence of universal truths, such as the developed and civilized state of Western music in relation to the backwardness of Turkish music. As a result, they came up with an unmediated, naively positivistic solution: folk tunes were to be harmonized, using the methods of Western music, and made polyphonic.”[16]

Despite these challenges, Ottoman music, much like other musical traditions that developed during a similar time period, has seen a resurgence of interest and a revival of sorts in concerts, recording, and scholarship following the reembrace of its Ottoman history by the regime which emerged from the 1980’s Turkish coup d’état[17]. Although it may never approach the vision of an idealized Turkish or Ottoman music which some may have for it, the music deserves to be played and allowed to continue its tradition of constant evolution. The theoretical difficulties in trying to assess and write histories of different forms of music should never stop us from attempting to understand them, but more importantly, the confusing legacies that our messy and continually evolving musical practices leave us should never prevent us from listening to and performing these musics. While all forms of music, including “revived” forms of older musical traditions, have their detractors and while everyone, from government ministers to Youtube commentors, seems to have their opinion on what makes a composition or performance authentic or valuable, we would do well to recognize the complex and constantly evolving aspects of even our most deeply entrenched musical traditions, and to accept this constant change as part of the fun.

A playlist encompassing the centuries-old tradition known as Ottoman music or Turkish classical music and its modern revival.
Early Music Seattle: Ottoman Music


Works Cited/Further Reading

Aksoy, Bülent. “Preliminary Notes on the Possibility (or Impossibility) of Writing Ottoman Musical History.” Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016.

Badertscher, Eric. Ottoman Empire. Great Neck Publishing, 2009.

Beşiroğlu, Şehvar, “Demetrius Cantemir and the Music of his Time: The Concept of Authenticity and Types of Performance.” Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016.

Birson, Adem Merter. “Issues of Musical Identity during the Foundation of the Turkish Republic (1923-1950).” Rast Müzikoloji Dergisi, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1100–1110.

Birson, Adem Merter, and Ahmet Erdoğdular. “Understanding Turkish Classical Makam: Identifying Modes Through Characteristic Melodies.” The Society for Music Theory Videocast Journal, vol. 7, no. 5, 2021.

Erol, Merih. “Surveillance, Urban Governance and Legitimacy in Late Ottoman Istanbul: Spying on Music and Entertainment during the Hamidian Regime (1876–1909).” Urban History, vol. 40, no. 4, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 706–25.

Feldman, Walter. “Cultural Authority and Authenticity in the Turkish Repertoire.” Asian Music, vol. 22, no. 1, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 73–111.

Feldman, Walter. “The Emergence of Ottoman Music and Local Modernity.” Istanbul Research Institute, vol. 1, no. 1, 2019, pp. 173–179.

Feldman, Walter. “Ottoman Sources on the Development of the Taksîm.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, vol. 25, 1993, pp. 1–28., doi:10.2307/768680.

Gill, Denise. Melancholic Modalities. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Warner Books, 1991.

Jäger, Ralf Martin. “Concepts of Western and Ottoman Music History.” Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016.

Mango, Andrew. Atatürk. Overlook Press, 2000.

O’Connell, John Morgan. “Fine Art, Fine Music: Controlling Turkish Taste at the Fine Arts Academy in 1926.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, vol. 32, International Council for Traditional Music, 2000, pp. 117–42.

Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Signell, Karl. “Turkey’s Classical Music, a Class Symbol.” Asian Music, vol. 12, no. 1, University of Texas Press, 1980, pp. 164–69.

Tekelioğlu, Orhan. “Modernizing Reforms and Turkish Music in the 1930s.” Turkish Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2001, pp. 93–108.

Uğur Ekinci, Mehmet. “The Kevserî Mecmûası Unveiled: Exploring an Eighteenth-Century Collection of Ottoman Music.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 199–225.

Zürcher, Erik Jan., and Mazal Holocaust Collection. Turkey : a Modern History. I.B. Tauris, 1993.

[1] Orhan Tekelioğlu, “Modernizing Reforms and Turkish Music in the 1930s” (Turkish Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2001), pp. 94.

[2] For more on Atatürk and the Turkish National Movement, see Andrew Mango’s biography Atatürk (Overlook Press, 2000).

[3] See note 1, pp. 96.

[4] For a more general history of the Ottoman Empire and its expansion, see works such as Eric Badertscher’s Ottoman Empire (Great Neck Publishing, 2009).

[5] Walter Feldman, “The Emergence of Ottoman Music and Local Modernity.” (Istanbul Research Institute, vol. 1, no. 1, 2019), pp. 173.

[6] Adem Merter Birson and Ahmet Erdoğdular, “Understanding Turkish Classical Makam: Identifying Modes Through Characteristic Melodies.” (The Society for Music Theory Videocast Journal, vol. 7, no. 5, 2021).

[7] Bülent Aksoy, “Preliminary Notes on the Possibility (or Impossibility) of Writing Ottoman Musical History.” (Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016),

  1. 26.

[8] Ralf Martin Jäger, “Concepts of Western and Ottoman Music History.” (Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016), pp. 39.

[9] Şehvar Beşiroğlu, “Demetrius Cantemir and the Music of his Time: The Concept of Authenticity and Types of Performance”, (Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016), pp. 60.

[10] See note 7, pp. 25.

[11] See note 7, pp. 16.

[12] See note 1, pp. 94-95.

[13] A discussion of Sufi lodges, though it constitutes a sub-genre of Ottoman classical music, is outside the scope of this article. See, for instance, the discussion of this music in Karl Signell’s article “Turkey’s Classical Music, a Class Symbol.” (Asian Music, vol. 12, no. 1, University of Texas Press, 1980), pp. 164–69.

[14] See note 1, pp. 96.

[15] Ibid., pp. 105.

[16] Ibid., pp. 106.

[17] For more on this pivotal event in modern Turkish history, see Erik Jan Zürcher’s Turkey : a Modern History (I.B. Tauris, 1993).