I have begun working on an Arabic-style pop song–I wanted to write something not too traditional but not too Western-sounding, either. I began by looking at Middle Eastern scales; not microtonal ones, but ones like the Phrygian dominant (e.g., C Db E F G Ab Bb C), similar to the Hijaz-Nahawand maqam in Arabic music. I then went to YouTube and typed in searches like “Egyptian pop music”, “Algerian pop music”, “Iranian pop music”, and so on. Alas, after listening to 50 or so songs, I didn’t have much inspiration. They all sounded alike, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. I mean in the sense there seemed to be less emphasis on chords or song structure and more on melody, but even the melodies (to my Western ears) just seemed to meander along the scale.
Later I did a search for online streaming radio from the Middle East, and found this station from Egypt. I listened for a couple of hours, and was quite surprised–while the songs definitely used Middle Eastern scales and instruments, the arrangements and rhythms and styles were much more varied than what I found on YouTube. Some of it sounded exactly like Eurovision pop, some like Latin pop (think Ricky Martin), and some like American hip hop or R&B, or even adult contemporary (think Celine Dion). Surprising! Well, this takes some of the pressure off–I want to do my best to make the song sound authentic, but I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.