Turkish Music History

Turkish music history, which searches the relationship of Turks with the music since Turks emerged onto the word, shows three main period. All these periods were separated by important events such as acceptance of Islam and disappearance of Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, pre-Islamic period is really dark part of Turkish history. The reason of that the […]

, which searches the relationship of with the since emerged onto the word, shows three main period. All these periods were separated by important events such as acceptance of and disappearance of Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, pre-Islamic period is really dark part of . The reason of that the hadn’t expressed themselves in writing during the period. That’s why there’re really limited resources and no large knowledge about Turkish and arts before .

The pre-Islamic period covers the time between emergences of Turks onto stage till the acceptance of Islam. This period is very important for development of Turkish music because roots come from that period. The first information about Turkish music is from some Chinese sources about Turk’s music. More, some archaeological digs in Central Asia give the evidence of well-developed musical among , Huns and Gökturks. It’s known that many musician and instrument presented to Chinese princes from Turks princes. Another important tradition from the time was military marching band which later became Mehteran, Janissary music. We should also know that Turks had been under effect of Shamanism, Manichaeism and Buddhism in that times. Consequently, the music, singing as well as drumming and sometimes other instruments, had been used in rites. At that time, Turks also had migratory life which means: they spreaded over various regions, interacted with numerous different cultures. Consequently, they learnt various easy transportable instruments as a result of the interactions with other communities. The music was performed by ecclesiastics in religious ceremonies and by Aşıks (Minstrels). Minstrels were most important figures of Turkish society during the period. Their importance was not only for music, they were also one of the most distinguished and brilliant communities of performers encountered with the realm of Turkish . They sung lyrics and poetry to accompaniment of the saz. Minstrels were properly artists that give to voice to all of the social events of the societies and write footnotes to . They had developed great oral literature and used music to accompany the words in order to make them more moving and more understandable. Then, they travelled and spreaded their words to society.

Turkish music entered changing period after the acceptance of Islam. After Turks entered to Islam culture, the most important changing on music was the musical system such as ‘makam’ which is a system of melody types used in classical music. Meanwhile, Turkish literature came into being. The poets and philosophers, mostly grown up from dervish lodges, such as Yunus Emre and Mevlana influenced on music deeply. Turkish music continued in two main direction during the period. Classical Turkish music and Turkish folk music.



Ottoman classic music developed in palaces, mosques and Mevlevi lodges. The conquest of Istanbul paved the way for the city to be the new centre of Turkish music. The musicians from the centres of Persia, Azerbaijan and Anatolia gathered in Istanbul, the new capital of Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile a large number of non-Muslim established their own musical centres in Istanbul’s too. Ottoman court traditions and contribution of minorities played a major role on Ottoman classic music. It emerged as the result of a sharing process between the Turks and the minorities living alongside them such the Byzantines, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Jews and Armenians. The music had been included sultans education in their prince hood. Many of them were either composers or great lover of music. They deeply involved in this and helped in development of the music. The musicians and instrument makers received salary regularly from the court. The music was taught and practiced in the Enderun which was the royal school. It reached its golden age in the private school in the Ottoman palace. On the other hand, it didn’t only stay in Istanbul. It had a great development in major cities such as Edirne, İzmir, Thessaloniki, Damascus and in other urban cities.

The variety of music furnished products dealing with many subjects, such as religion, love and war. Each of these came to develop its own varieties, styles and communities. A specific sequence of classical Turkish musical forms become a fasıl, a suite an instrumental prelude (peşrev), an instrumental postlude (saz semaisi), and in between, the main section of vocal compositions which begins with and is punctuated by instrumental improvisations taksim.  A full fasıl concert would include four different instrumental forms and three vocal forms, including a light classical song, şarkı. A strictly classical fasıl remains is the same makam throughout, from the introductory taksim and usually ending in a dance tune or oyun havası. However shorter şarkı compositions, precursors to modern day songs, are a part of this tradition, many of them extremely old, dating back to the 14th century; many are newer, with late 19th century songwriter Hacı Arif Bey being especially popular.



Unlike Turkish classical music, which emerged and developed in an urban elite environment, folk music was a social product of people’s daily lives, combining the distinct cultural values of all civilizations that have lived in Anatolia. It took as its subjects all the natural and social events such as feelings, happiness, grief, heroism, migration, love and all other things experienced by the people. Two main sources, türkü singers and aşıks, nourish the Turkish folk music. Türkü singers perform the songs in all sorts of celebrations, and they contribute different words and new songs. In time, the musical patterns as well as the lyrics become anonymous. The aşıks (minstrels) usually compose and lyricize. Their songs never become anonymous because they mention their names in the lyrics. After the Turks accepted Islam, dervish lodges which were home of Sufism appeared all over Anatolia. The dervish lodges so Sufism became effective in Anatolia. Of course the minstrels didn’t keep themselves aloof from Sufism yet they penetrated it. Later, they created a Sufi literature and used it on their music. They travelled around all over Anatolia along with their saz and spreaded Sufism and kept it alive. Yunus Emre, Sultan Abdal, Karacaoğlan, Gevheri, Dadaoğlu were awe-inspiring minstrels of the period.

The first quarter of the 20th century brought about new political development in Anatolia. Almost 600 years-old Ottoman Empire declined, and birth of republic brought series of fundamental changes. The music policies, as a part of the cultural reforms, were given considerable attentions by the Kemalist cadres since the music, according to them, was one of the area to reflect the developmental level of a society. From the beginning of the late 1930s, the state implemented a number of coordinated cultural policies in the field of music. Western polyphonic music began in conservatories modelled on western schools. Foreign experts were hired while some gifted students were sent abroad for training. The symphony orchestras began giving free concerts all over the country. The music and dance nights organized by government employees in cities. While on one hand education was being given in contemporary western music, folk melodies gained an important mission.  As opposed to the Ottoman Classic Music, folk music is the real music of Turkish people, according to Kemalists. Turks expressed their pure, noble emotions and opinions by means of folk songs. The folk songs were written in pure Turkish language; that is, the Kemalists considered folk music as one of the most important sources to create a national homogenized language, which was one of the Kemalist nationalist aims. Folk culture, which until that point had been relegated to the margins of society, came forward, and folk music research and collection projects gained momentum. During the course of this work, approximately 20,000 songs and melodies were collected, and many works were produced which dealt with instruments, genres and forms.





Photo Credits: Carlo Rainone




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *