What do Adele and the Quran have in common?

19 02 2012

Earlier this week, Adele swept the Grammys and won all six of the categories she was nominated for – including the prestigious Album of the Year. Her songs and performances have touched millions around the world. While there are several theories for her success such as her voice or lyrics, the Wall Street Journal explored a scientific reason for why “Someone like You” in particular makes so many people cry. The article contends that a musical device called an “appoggiatura” is used to elicit emotion in the listener.

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. “This generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves…”Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.

This phenomena, although studied scientifically recently, has been around for a very long time. Appoggiaturas were used extensively in Renaissance and early Baroque music. However, the origins may be traced as far back as the 7th century during the time of the Prophet Muhammad when he received revelation from God. Unlike other scriptures, the Quran is unique in that it has preserved not only every single word and letter of God but even the intonations as it was verbally revealed to the Messenger through the Archangel. This method of recitation is known as the science of Tajweed which is a set of rules that govern many of the “parameters of sound production such as duration, segment quality, and single-breath phrase” (Yeou). As Lesley Hazleton correctly explained in her TED Talk, the Quran is not just meant to be read but recited. Today millions of Muslims around the world learn to read and memorize the Quran by heart.

While the recitation of the Quran is certainly not considered to be a form of music, reciters have the creative freedom to ornament certain elements (art of Tajweed). Mohamed Yeou, professor of linguistics at the Chouaib Doukkali University, has studied the acoustics of the recitation of the Quran. He analyzed the recitation of six professional reciters from Egypt and Saudi Arabia and discovered compelling data – including the use of appoggiaturas.

One example is from a powerful set of verses from Surah Maun (Chapter 107), which is an uncompromising, unapologetic depiction of social corruption of pagan society at the time. God is pointing out those who drive away the orphans and and does not encourage feeding the poor. Are we not going to be accountable for our deeds? The surah ends with an appoggiatura on the word that it is titled by – “maun”.  In Arabic, this means a small kindness – one that is not going to make a difference to the person that is giving. An example might be a neighbor stopping by to borrow some salt. Are you going to be one to refuse “maun”? What about the homeless asking for some change? From the Arab pagan of the time to the present day listener, the Creator and Master of the Heavens and the Earth breaks on his/her moral conscious with each successive verse until that final note – “maun” sends chills down the spine and the mindful listener cannot help but to shed tears. The transformational power of the Quran can be seen in numerous documented cases in which the original Islamophobes covered their ears when they heard the verses because they could not deny the Truth and accepted Islam. Listen carefully to the following recitation of this surah by AbdurRahman Sudais.

For a more extensive, linguistic explanation of this chapter, I would highly recommend listening to the commentary by Nouman Ali Khan of the Bayyinah Institute. This is intended for a Muslim audience so feel free to comment to ask if there is any terminology or concepts that you are not familiar with.

Best Ramadan iPhone App you already own

2 09 2010

There are several good free Qur’an apps available in the App Store – iQuran, alQuran, ezQuran, and Quran Explorer to name a few. I haven’t decided which one I like better so I use all of them as they each have their pros and cons. In addition, there is iPray to keep track of salah times which I use often. However, an “Islamic” app you probably never considered is one that should already be in your springboard – Voice Memos.

How can this help me?

We all know the importance of reciting the Qur’an properly – with tajweed. In salah, we all recite verses of the Quran but what many people do not realize is that it is an individual obligation upon every Muslim to recite without making “clear, obvious mistakes”. I would even go as far as saying that it is more important that praying Taraweeh based on the fact that the former is fard whereas the latter is sunnah.

Some examples of “clear” mistakes:

  • Changing a short vowel into another  – like a Dammah into Fathah (i.e. Alhamda-lilah instead of Alhamdu-lilah)
  • Changing a letter – like pronouncing the letter Qaaf as a Kaaf  (i.e. “Qalb” which means heart would become “kalb” which means dog). There are seven pairs like these in the Arabic language. Can you list them all? (Hint: In addition to the K sound there are A, D, H, S, T, and Z letters which have an Arabic-only counterpart)
  • Ignoring elongations (Madd). This is easy to do if you are reciting too quickly. (i.e. Dhaaaaaaleen at the end of Surah Fatiha)
  • Stopping or continuing at an incorrect place so that it affects the meaning. Like stopping at ‘Laa ilaaha’ (There is no God), without completing ‘illallaah’ (except Allah).

How unfortunate is the one who takes time to do ibadah but does not maximize reward due to making easily avoidable mistakes like these?

As we are now in the last 10 days of Ramadan, searching for the Night of Power in which the Qur’an was revealed, we are reciting more than anytime during the rest of the year. For many people this is also a good time to review the portions of the Qur’an that we have memorized. We may not even be aware of any mistakes we are making. Further, we should be trying to memorize additional verses. This is a critical time because mistakes made while memorizing often stay with you and become habit that is difficult to break. One of the best ways to avoid these mistakes and help you memorize quickly and efficiently is to record yourself.

One of the most useful apps on the iPhone, and perhaps one of the most underused, is Voice Memos. Although this app was designed as a way to record voice memos (as the name implies), it works equally well as a way to record your recitation. Once you have recorded a set of verses or a small surah from memory, you can play it back while looking a the Qur’an and verify that you haven’t made any clear mistakes or perhaps skipped a word or verse. I would also recommend listening to a qari online and comparing it. There are several sites for this purpose but some of my favorites are quran.com and tanzil.com. I have found that this is one of the best methods of improving your tajweed.

The Voice Memos native app is very basic and easy to use. The latest version allows you to share the files via MMS or email as well as the ability to trim the file. Unfortunately, naming the file is not as straightforward as it should be. Of course, there are other apps that provide similar functionality with more advanced features but it does the job and I haven’t found one yet that is free.

If you have found this useful please share it with others! The Prophet(S) said the best among you are those that learn the Qur’an and teach it.