Mugam also known as Azerbaijani Mugham (Azerbaijani: Muğam; مقام) is one of the many folk musical compositions from Azerbaijan, contrast with Tasnif, Ashugs. Mugam draws on Iranian-Arabic-Turkish Maqam.

It is a highly complex art form that weds classical poetry and musical improvisation in specific local modes. "Mugham" is a modal system. Unlike Western modes, "mugham" modes are associated not only with scales but with an orally transmitted collection of melodies and melodic fragments that performers use in the course of improvisation. "Mugham" is a compound composition of many parts. The choice of a particular mugham and a style of performance fits a specific event. The dramatic unfolding in performance is typically associated with increasing intensity and rising pitches, and a form of poetic-musical communication between performers and initiated listeners.
Three major schools of mugham performance existed from the late 19th and early 20th centuries - the region of Garabagh, Shirvan, and Baku. The town of Shusha (Garabagh) was particularly renowned for this art.
The short selection of Azerbaijani mugham played in balaban, national wind instrument was included on the Voyager Golden Record, attached to the Voyager spacecraft as representing world music, included among many cultural achievements of humanity.
In 2003, UNESCO recognized mugam as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Azerbaijan also has a great tradition of composers and musicians of western classical music. Uzeyir Hajibeyov with his Leili and Majnun created the genre of mugham-opera. Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) was the first Azeri composer symphonic mughams - Shur, Kurd Ovshari, and Gulistan Bayati Shiraz. Azerbaijani composers created a plethora of compositions that fused mugham and traditional European genres. Among those, for example, Vasif Adigozal's mugham oratorio Shikestesi. Such works are obviously very different from traditional mugham formations but in fact incorporate many mugham idioms. On the level of musicians, there remains a strict separation between classical and "traditional" music in terms of training. Even if the musicians are educated at the same conservatorium they stick to one camp.


 In the course of its long history, the people of Azerbaijan have retained their ancient musical tradition. Mugham belongs to the system of modal music and may have derived from Persian musical tradition. The Uighurs in Xinjian (Sinkiang) call this musical development muqam, the Uzbeks and Tajiks call it maqom (or shasmaqom), while Arabs call it maqam and Persians dastgah. In Azerbaijan the word is mugham from Arabic Maqam. It is based on many different modes and tonal scales where different relations between notes and scales are envisaged and developed.

Uzeyir Hajibeyov merged traditional Azerbaijani music styles with Western styles early in 20th century.

The meta-ethnicity and intricate complexity of this music also becomes apparent in the fact that terms such as mugham, maqam, or dastgah, omnipresent in oriental music, can mean one thing in the Turkish tradition, while the same term in the music of Uzbekistan takes on quite another meaning, and yet another in the classical Arabian tradition. So, in one culture mugham may be related to a strictly fixed melodic type, while in another it is only the cadences, the melody endings that are associated with it. In a third culture it may only correspond to a specific type of tone scales.

The genre itself has roots in prayer and lullaby and is passed on from mother to baby in this way. However, there are hundreds of varieties, such as songs similar to war chant.

In the 16-17th centuries the art of mugam was passing through the development process as a folklore professional music of the palace conditions. In this period a dastgah form

 starts to develop in the structure and forms of mugam. New colors and shades as well as tasnifs developed in mugam performance. The masters of mugam of Azerbaijan sang gazals written in aruz genre by Fizuli, Habibi and Khatai. The music events were held in most regions of Azerbaijan in the 19th century and mugam was performed at these events. In the 19th century famous French scientist Alexandre Dumas who attended the ceremony in Shamakhy, wrote in his works about his trip saying he was greatly impressed by mugam that sounded there. Such events held in Azerbaijan were attended by khanendes from Karabakh, Baku and Tabriz which in turn caused the blending of singing traditions of different regions.

In the early decades of the 20th century, a member of native intelligentisa, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, the author of the first national opera Leili and Majnun, also formulated the theoretical basisof Azerbaijani mugham in his work The Principles of Azerbaijani Folk Music. Famous Azerbaijani composer Gara Garayev and Fikrat Amirov also made a great contribution to the development of the art of mugam through creating the mugam symphony.

According to the New York Times, mugham is a symphonic-length suite, full of contrasting sections: unmetered and rhythmic, vocal and instrumental, lingering around a single sustained note or taking up a refrain that could be a dance tune.

The seven main frets

In recent years, Azerbaijan folk music existed within the scope of folk art. The vocal-instrumental forms of folklore contain the elements of polyphony. The peculiarity of folk music clarifies itself firstly with the development of a fret system. It contains seven main frets - rast, shur, segyakh (are especially spread), shushter, bayati-shiraz, chargyakh, khumayun and three collateral kinds - shakhnaz, sarendj, chargyakh in some other form. Before, it was considered that each of the frets has its special vivid emotional meaning. Every fret represents a strongly organized scale, possessing a firm tonic prop (maye), and each step of the fret has its melodic function. These include:

  • Rast mode is the first mode of main modes which kept its base and root, unchanged its function during the historical period of development. So, rast mugam based on this mode is called “mother of mugams”. Rast mode consists of 1+1+0.5 tone, which is created in three tetra-chords in the result of amalgamation of reach method of the first main tetra-chord. Literaryly, Rast creates courage and cheerfulness at listener. Subgenres of Rast are: Bardasht (with Novruzu-Ravanda), Maye, Ushshag, Huseyni, Vilayati, Dilkesh, Kurdu, Shikasteyi-fars (Khojasta), Erag, Penjgah, Rak-Khorasani, Gerai, space for Rast. Other mugams relating to the Rast are: Mahur, Mahur-Hindi, Orta Mahur, Bayaty-Gajar, Gatar.
  • Shur is the second mode and consists of 1-0.5-1 tone, which is created in the result of amalgamation of three tetra-chords with reach method of the first tetra-chord. Shur mode is the most used mode in Ashik art. Shur creates joyful lyrical mood at listener. Subgenres of Shur includes: Bardasht, Maye, Salmak, Shur-Shahnaz, Busalik, Bayaty-Turk, Shikasteyi-Fars, Mubarriga, Ashiran, Semai-Shams, Hijaz, Shakh Khatai, Sarenj, Gemengiz, Nishibi-Feraz, space for Shur. Mugams relating to the Shur are: Shahnaz, Sarenj, Arazbary, Osmani, Rahab, Neva.
  • Segah is the third mode and consists of 0.5-1-1 tone which is created in amalgamation of three tetra-chords with the reach method. Segah mugam associated with love, romantic feelings at listener. Subgenres of Segah includes: egah Zabul-Segah-Bardasht, Maye, Muya, Manandi-Mukhalif, Segah, high-pitched tone Zabul, Manandi-Hisar (in high-pitched tone), Manandi-Mukhalif (in high-pitched tone), Ashig-Kush, Mubarriga, Zabul, space for Segah, Kharij Segah-Bardasht, Maye, Takhtigah, Mubarriga, Manandi-Hisar, Manandi-Mukhalif, high-pitched tone Segah, space for Kharij Segah. Other mugams relating to the Segah are: Hashym Segah-sol, Kharij Segah-si, Mirza-Huseyn-lya, Orta Segah-mi, Zabul Segah.
  • Shushtar is the fourth and the smallest mode according to its amount of sounds. Sound line is created in amalgamation of two tetra-chords with different method. It has eight membranes and consists of 0.5-1-0.5 tone. In Shushtar mode the third membrane is the completive tone, the fourth membrane is Maye. It creates deeply sad feelings at listener. Subgenres of Segah includes: Amiri, Shushtar, Masnavi, Movlavi, Tarkib, space for Shushtar. Other mugams relating to the Mugham are: Ovshary, Heydari.
  • Chahargah is the fifth and the longest mode according to the amount of sounds. It consists of eleven membranes. Three tetra-chords are amalgamated with two methods. The first and the second tetra-chords are amalgamated with the first method. The second and the third tetra-chords are amalgamated with different method. Tetra-chords are 0.5+1.5+0.5 tone structural. Chahargah mode is represented in two kinds in Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s composition. It creates at listener excitement and passion. Subgenres of Chahargah are: Bardasht, Maye, Bali-Kabutar, Djovhari, Basta-Nigar, Hisar, Mualif, Garra, Mukhalif, Ouj Mukhalif, Maghlub, Mansuriyya, Uzzal, space for Chahargah.
  • Bayaty-Shiraz is the sixth mode and consists of 1-1-0.5 tone, which is created in amalgamation of two tetra-chords with the third method. It consists of nine membranes. There passes membrane among the tetra-chords. It creates melancholic feelings at listener. Subgenres of Bayaty-Shiraz are: Bardasht, Isfahanak, Maye, Gardaniyye, Nishibi-Faraz, Bayaty-Isfahan, Khums-Ravan, high-ptched tone Bayaty-Shiraz, Abulchap, Khaveran, Uzzal, Shikasteyi-Fars, Dilruba, space.
  • Humayun is the seventh mode and consists of 0.5+1.5+0.5 tone, which is created in amalgamation of two tetra-chords with the fourth method. It is able to get sound line of Shushtar mode by changing the tetra-chords’ places in Humayun mode. So, these two modes’ structures are close to each other. It creates deeply mournful feelings at listener. Subgenres of Humayun are: Bardasht, Humayun, Baxtiyari, Feili, Boyuk Masnavi, Movlavi, Shushtar, Tarkib, Uzzal or Bidad, Kichik Masnavi, space.


Part of the confusion arises from the fact that the term itself can have two different, if related meanings. The famous Azeri composer Gara Garayev has the following explanation: “The expression mugham is used in two senses in the folk music of Azerbaijan. On the one hand the word mugham describes the same thing as the term lad [Russian for key, mode, scale]. An analysis of Azeri songs, dances and other folk-music forms show that they are always constructed according to one [of these] modes. On the other hand the term mugham refers to an individual, multi-movement form. This form combines elements of a suite and a rhapsody, is symphonic in nature, and has its own set of structural rules. In particular one should observe that the suite-rhapsody-mugham is constructed according to one particular mode-mugham and is subject to all of the particular requirements of this mode.” (Sovetskaya Muzyka 1949:3). Azerbaijani conservatory throughout the 20th century produced significant scholars and scholarship. Among them, Rena Mamedova explored the philosophical content of mugham, as an Azeri "formula of creative thinking". Elkhan Babayev wrote extensively on rhythmic aspect of mugham performance. The native scholars continued and expanded Hajibeyov's analysis of mugham.

Mugham describes a specific type of musical composition and performance, which is hard to grasp with western concepts of music in another respect: for one, mugham composition is improvisational in nature. At the same time it follows exact rules. Furthermore, in the case of a suite-rhapsody-mugham the concept of improvisation is not really an accurate one, since the artistic imagination of the performers is based on a strict foundation of principles determined by the respective mode. The performance of mugams does therefore not present an amorphous and spontaneous, impulsive improvisation.

With respect to the concept of improvisation, mugham music is often put in relation to jazz, a comparison that is accurate to a certain point only. Although mugham does allow for a wide margin of interpretation, an equation with jazz is oversimplified, since it fails to account for the different kinds of improvisation for different Mugam modes. The performance of a certain mugham may last for hours. (For the uninitiated listener it is close to impossible to know whether a musician is actually improvising or playing a prearranged composition.) Furthermore, as Garayev stresses, mugham music has a symphonic character.

The songs are often based on the medieval and modern poetry of Azerbaijan, and although love is a common topic in these poems, to the uninitiated ear many of the intricacies and allusions are lost. For one, the poems do not primarily deal with worldly love but with the mystical love for god. Yet, strictly speaking, this is still secular music/poetry, as opposed to, say, Sufism. Nevertheless, mugham composition is designed very similarly to Sufism in that it seeks to achieve ascension from a lower level of awareness to a transcendental union with god. It is a spiritual search for god.

Jazz mugham

The famous Azerbaijani jazz musician Vagif Mustafazadeh, who died in 1979, is credited with fusing jazz with mugham. Mugham jazz is jazz based on the modal forms or scales of mugams, just as a mugam symphonies are symphonies based on mugams. Ordinary jazz is marked by metered rhythm. But mugam jazz does not follow a metered system. Both rhythm and scales are improvised.

In recent years, interest to jazz mugham has seen rise in many western countries, particularly in the United States and Japan.

Cultural significance

In 2003, UNESCO has acknowledged the authenticity, richness and cultural significance of mugham both national and global culture, and in 2003 announced it as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

Considered to be the classical music of Azerbaijan, the Mugam is a traditional musical form characterized by a large degree of improvisation and draws upon popular stories and local melodies. The recent evolution of the cultural industry has threatened the improvisational nature and the ear-to-ear transmission of this art form. During his official visit to the country in August 2005, the Director-General of UNESCO, in the company of President Ilham Aliyev and several Goodwill Ambassadors, attended a foundation stone-laying ceremony of a Mugam Centre. In 2004, Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan, was named as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the oral and musical traditions.

At Eurovision Song Contest 2012, Azerbaijan has shunned local tradition, opting instead for a distinctly European-style pop song as When the Music Dies by Sabina Babayeva features mugham legend Alim Qasimov.

International Center of Mugham

In 2005, International Center of Mugham created under the decree of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. In August of same year, on the territory of the Baku Boulevard, Ilham Aliyev with his spouse, the Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO Mehriban Aliyeva and UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura, laid the first stone at the base of the complex.

Opening of the complex took place on December 27, 2008. The total area of center is 7500 meters squared, which also includes concert saloon of 350 people, recording studio, rooms for rehearsals. In the foyer, visitors can find busts of famous mugham performers, also a rich collection of musical instruments.

Social impact

The massive popularity of mugam resulted in a powerful impact on worldwide society. Many of mugam khanandas were known as country-loving, powerful, respectful characters, and mugam was popularly associated with sign of pain and hope during Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Mugam has lived and sounded in Azerbaijan in all periods, independently on political, public and economic situation and reserved its place in Azerbaijani culture. The mugam masters play tremendous role in transition of mugam from generations to generations.