Confirming, delaying, and deceptive elements

in Turkish improvisations


Münir Beken and Karl Signell


Originally published in

Maqām Traditions of Turkic Peoples

 Berlin: trafo

Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.





Direct analysis of performance data provides a way of resolving the perennial conflict between theory and practice in Classical Turkish Music makam theory. The empirical method avoids fixed definitions and accounts for the great variety of makam interpretations in performance. Identification of confirming, delaying, and deceptive elements reveals how a performer creatively balances these elements to establish makam identity. Scholars of modal theory may find this methodology and these concepts useful for other genres.




Nineteenth-century ornithologist James Audubon shot, wired, and posed each bird before painting it. Audubon's paintings thus captured forever one dead bird in one pose, using one specimen to represent the "typical" of a species. But bird-watchers know that, within a species, variety abounds.


A recorded improvisation from a great artist such as Tanburi Cemil Bey (1871–1916) can be breathtaking:


Mahur taksim


Cemil Bey's taksim draws its power from the individuality of his personality, his milieu, and his spontaneous choices at the moment of realizing a makam seyir in live performance.


In Classical Turkish Music, a makam lives only in performance/composition, and each performer/composer creates a different interpretation. The makam system is an open system but any fixed definition of a makam is a closed system. A scholar who looks at a fixed scale which purports to define a makam may find discrepancies between the abstract scale and performed music in that makam. Looking at a fixed seyir which purports to define the melodic path of a makam, the scholar may find difficulty in reconciling that specific seyir with varying performances one hears in that makam. Similar problems arise with fixed definitions of stereotyped motives, cadences, and other traditional theoretical concepts. These problems represent the perennial conflict between nazariyat (theory) and ameliyat (practice).


We propose to resolve this theory-practice conflict with a transparent method (see also Signell 1997) which offers other researchers the opportunity to replicate our results. We suggest a new understanding of the makam system based on an empirical method of goals, methodology, data, analysis, and conclusion. We propose not another definition, but a terminology and a methodology for understanding a complex process and resolving inherent theory‑practice conflicts. Author Beken conceived this approach and analyzed the performances; together with Beken, author Signell edited the article.


In Classical Turkish Music, a solo instrumental improvisation (taksim) establishes a makam, usually preparing the way for a pre‑composed vocal or instrumental piece. A solo vocal improvisation (gazel) can also establish a makam. Performers can realize the same makam in many different ways, somehow constructing a rendition which listeners recognize as the intended makam.




Every instrumentalist chooses from among confirming, delaying, and deceptive elements to create a taksim in a given makam. These elements may include general melodic direction, certain intervalic relationships (cins), modulations, and most importantly, cadential points, often coming after stereotyped motives.


An analysis of the data can account for differences in these choices of elements. Conclusions can be more reliable, more persuasive, and more detailed than pre‑conceived theories and descriptions of a makam, including the scholar's or performer's own notions. Analysis will show how each set of choices by the artist gradually creates a critical mass of confirming elements to allow the listener to be certain of the intended makam.



1. We limited this study to one makam, Mahur. We chose Mahur for its relatively limited repertoire, thus limited interpretation possibilities; also, one might confuse the seyir of Mahur with other makams.

2. We first analyzed one recorded taksim, and then compared that analysis with five other improvisations in Mahur. Assuming choice of recordings to be less important than methodology, we simply analyzed six improvisations of Mahur recordings from our personal collections.

3. We limited analysis to that portion of the taksim which clearly establishes the makam, the Exposition. A full‑length taksim has three sections: a) Exposition, establishing the nominal makam of the taksim; b) Meyan, exploring other makams; and c) Return, re-stating the nominal makam.


Notation conventions

Pitch names show the octave upward from middle C as
– b', the octave above that as c''– b''. Notation uses moveable‑do, i.e., makam Mahur always begins on g'' and ends on g' (as written), regardless of absolute pitch played/sung. Turkish music is notated a fifth higher than Arab.


Transcription conventions


Whole note = solid cadence (g' in Fig. 1)

Half note = shorter cadence (d'' in Fig. 1)

Quarter note = implied cadence or a prominent note determined from the direction of the melody or repetition (b', a' in Fig. 1)

Stemless note = none of the above


 Figure 1. Transcription conventions: Whole, half, quarter, and stemless notes





Cluster of stemless notes surrounding a cadence = pitch array of phrase. Analysis re-arranges pitches as performed (Fig. 2) into a hierarchical array of pitches related to cadential tone (Fig. 3).


Cemil: first phrase only

 Figure 2. Transcription of phrase, as performed





Figure 3. Pitch array of Fig. 2 phrase, clustered around cadential tone





Accidentals in parentheses do not indicate a chromatic melody; they show a less important diatonic alternative used in the melody (Fig. 4).

 Figure 4. Parenthetical accidentals





Brackets mark a significant intervallic relationship between the two notes at the horns of the bracket. In Figure 5, the interval b'' to e'' is significant. Ignore other notes between the brackets.


Figure 5. Bracket emphasizing significant interval





In the comparative score, we adjusted the horizontal layout of each transcription to line up cadences or semi-cadences on the same note, and drew a vertical line (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Alignment of cadences across performances







A. First taksim: Tanburi Cemil Bey kemençe taksim recording (c. 1910)



We looked for three types of elements:

1. confirming (strengthens the listener's identification of a specific makam, e.g., Mahur)

2. delaying (suspends makam identification)

3. deceptive (steers the identification away from the nominal makam)

Cemil: complete taksim

Figure 7. Analytical transcription of Tanburi Cemil Bey's kemençe taksim

Analysis of Cemil Bey's kemençe taksim (Fig. 7)

Cemil Bey's initial cadence on g'' establishes a strong possibility of makam Mahur, although his use of e''# and b''‑flat could be considered deceptive elements. His next cluster of notes creates a minor cadence on d'', again using the delaying pitch b'#, parallel to the previous use of e''#. But his next phrase supports Mahur by cadencing on g'' without previous chromaticism. The following two phrases are confirming, cadencing first on a'', then e'', a typical Mahur sequence of cadences. To keep things lively, his next cadence on g'' uses the delaying e''# and b''‑flat of the initial cadence, a pause after the cadence on g'' indicating the end of the upper exposition. After the pause, Cemil cadences on a'' and e'' again, then d'' and g'' and d'', before his final descent into the lower register with a confirming cadence of Mahur on g'. Note the f''‑natural in the final descent.


B. Comparison of all six improvisations using same type of analysis

(complete comparative score in appendix, Figure 13)




Common overall structure


All end on g', an octave below where they began, on g'' (Figs. 8, 9).


All have an opening phrase, a middle section, a confirming phrase, and a coda. 



We insert the label "Initial cadence" at the beginning of the score, shown by a vertical dotted line across all six improvisations (Fig. 8).


Figure 8. Initial cadence



We insert the label "Confirming Cadence" at the cadential point near the end of the exposition, shown by a vertical line, the point at which the listener can be certain of the identity of the makam (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. Alignment of confirming cadences across all improvisations





All other material between the Initial cadence and the Confirming Cadence we consider the Middle Section. In these six examples, most of the delaying and deceptive elements of Mahur appear after the initial cadence. We find confirming elements in all three sections.


Opening Phrase (OP)


*All performers use stereotyped melodic motives in this part of the exposition, especially three‑note descending melodic motives such as b'' (long), a'' (short) g'' (long),

Figure 10. First stereotyped motive in opening phrases




and g'' (long), f''# (short), e'' (long)

Figure 11. Second stereotyped motive in opening phrases


Though these melodic fragments are not exclusive to Mahur, using them limits the makam possibilities.

* Pitch material in the OPs of Cemil Bey, Hafız Yaşar, and Tanrıkorur differs from the pitch material of the OPs of Aşan, Orhon, and Necdet Yaşar. For example, while Cemil Bey insists on e''#, f''#, g'', a'', and b‑flat", Aşan uses d'', e'', f''#, g'', a'', b'', and c'', but all six improvisations cadence on g''.

* Of the six performers, only Cemil Bey uses c''# and b'# to emphasize d''.

* As in Cemil Bey's taksim, Hafız Yaşar's gazel cadences on d'' and returns to g''.

* Two cadences on g'' in Aşan's taksim show significant intervallic relationships between d''‑b'', d''‑c'', a''‑c'', d''‑g'', and e''‑g'' through ascending jumps. We find similar significant jumps by other performers as confirming elements in determining makam Mahur.

* Some performers choose secondary cadences on a'' (TCB, YA, NY), e'' (TCB, YA, CO, CT), and d'' (TCB, HY, YA, CO).


Although the makam is not yet fully confirmed, all six Opening Phrases raise the suspicion of Mahur in the listener's mind.



Middle section

* Cemil Bey, after the initial cadences on g'', a'', and e'', delays the progression by returning to g'' and repeating a'' and e'' cadences (Figure 7, fourth staff).

* Necdet Yaşar and Tanrıkorur use sequences as a compositional technique to delay the progression.

* Orhon inserts a brief modulation to makam Segah in the upper register, a deceptive element:

 Figure 12. Deceptive element: modulation to Segah




Between these six performances, we also find various confirming elements shared by only two to four performers. For example, a cadence on a'' (Fig. 13, second page, first staff) is a typical stopping point in Mahur. A cadence on e'' is another confirming element. The cadence on e'' appears in a different context in Tanrıkorur's taksim; he modulates briefly to makam-Segah-on-e'' (Figure 13, third page, first staff) en route to his cadence on c'', possibly a delaying twist to a confirming element.


As a result of the creative impulse of the performers, we find many other delaying and deceptive elements of Mahur in the middle section, such as repetitions, sequences, and modulations.



Closing Phrase


* Cadence on g' by all performers (Fig. 9)

* Four of the six improvisations use f''‑natural in their descent to the final g'.

* Implied cadences and stressed notes also occur on d'', c'', b' (with a# as the leading tone), and a'' before the final cadence.

* Tanrıkorur's confirming cadence descends to d', a deceptive element, atypical of a final Mahur cadence and more typical of makam Rast.




* All six recapitulate octave descent to g'.

* Two performers (Aşan and Orhon) who do not use f'‑natural' in the closing statement reveal the f'‑natural' in the coda.

* Tanrıkorur's atypical descent to d' in the confirming cadence is neutralized in the coda by narrowing the range to e' and showing the special intervallic relationship between g' and e', typical of a Mahur cadence.


The coda summarizes the makam by recapitulating its elements briefly and concluding the exposition. The confirming cadence and coda together provide essential confirmation of Mahur.





Through creativity, inattention, or inexperience, the performer may insert delaying and deceptive elements in the course of the improvisation, preventing the listener from clearly identifying the makam. By the end of a successful improvisation though, confirming elements must on balance overcome the delaying and deceptive elements, so that the listener will have no doubt of the intended makam.


Researchers using these same recordings and same method may arrive at differing transcriptions, differing analyses, and differing interpretations. We suspect though, that other researchers will find that a performer must somehow balance confirming with non-confirming elements.


Comparative analytical score of all 6 taksims





We welcome criticism and comments. Send personal email to Signell at signell (at-sign), Beken at mbeken (at-sign)



Audio sources


*Tanburi Cemil Bey, kemençe taksim (1908). 3:40 duration. "Tanburi Cemil Bey: Volume 1." Crossroads CD 4264, remastered from Orfeon 10498 original 78 rpm record.

*Hafız Yaşar, gazel vocal improvisation with Cemil Bey on kemençe (1908). 3:18 duration. ibid., Orfeon 10532

*Yücel Aşan, keman taksim (published 1975). 3:11 duration. "Music of the Seraglio," Arion FARN LP 91026, recorded by Jean‑Claude Chabrier.

*Necdet Yaşar, tanbur taksim (1971). 1:32 duration. Unpublished live recording of Klasik Türk Müziği Korosu concert at Kenter Theater, Istanbul. Signell collection, Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (USA).

*Cüneyd Orhon, kemençe taksim (1971). 2:05 duration. ibid.

*Cinuçen Tanrıkorur, ud taksim (1995). 2:01 duration. "Saz Klasiklerimiz 1," Türk Musikisi Klasik Eserler Serisi 9 (cassette). Istanbul: Kubbealtı İktisadi İşletmesi.



Cited sources


Signell, Karl (1997). "Tales we tell: Disclosure problems in ethnomusicology," Ethnomusicology OnLine 3.


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