While there have been recent recordings made that have featured music from that period re-interpreted for modern and Western instruments, they don't really prepare you for listening to the real thing. Although a recording like Siwan by contemporary musicians and singers is based on the same traditions — and is beautiful in its own right — in reality it has little in common with the original music. For while there might be some similarities in arrangements, there's not much else in the original for a Western listener to hold onto that's familiar.
Everything, from the strings to the vocals, are higher on the scale than what most of us are comfortable listening to. In fact, I have to admit that it initially set my teeth on edge. However I encourage you to persevere, for although it might be work to listen to for the first little while, once you become accustomed to the difference you begin to feel it's power. Granted, the lyrics are incomprehensible if you don't speak Arabic the music is not without it's power. Yet gradually what was once annoying becomes enthralling and you're swept up in the swirl of sounds and the hypnotic rhythm tapped out on the goblet drums and tambourine of the percussionists. Of course it's not too surprising that we find the music initially alien to out ears as the instruments used aren't ones we're liable to hear everyday, and the ones we are familiar with are tuned to different keys and played in ways we're not used to.
The lute, violin, and viola might all have been used at one time or another in Western music, and some of you might have heard a zither, but the rebab — a one to three stringed bowed instrument, one of the central instruments in the traditional orchestra — will be unknown to most. The music relies heavily on periods of improvisation on the part of the players called taksim or taqsim, which literally translates as division interspersed with vocals. Each taqsim is based on a complex system of modes or melodies and rhythms, with each melody being a combination of twenty-four different quarter notes and each combination having its own mood associated with particular feelings. There are one hundred and eleven distinct rhythmic patterns that a musician can use, the simplest being the rajaz, which is based on the rhythm a camel's hooves make on the sand. Obviously the taqsim chosen will reflect the mood of the vocals in order to provide the proper atmosphere for their theme.