Turkish Music

Turkish Music

Historians believe that the roots of contemporary Turkish music extend back to the 11th century when the Seljuk Turks migrated to Anatolia from what is now Kazakhstan. They brought with them new instruments and musical traditions. It’s widely accepted that Turkish national musical culture began under the Turks' influence. Yet the Seljuks were not the only ones to have such an impact. We can also see the traces of Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews who lived in different regions of the country.

The trend towards Europe, sparked by Ottoman sultans and advanced by Atatürk, has also modified cultural life. The government officials invited composers and teachers from the West; Istanbul and Ankara saw their first conservatories. Locals became more gripped with Western European melodies and, at some point, preferred them over national ones.

Today, popular Turkish singers rank at the top on Turkey's Spotify, Shazam, and Apple Music, alongside other major global artists. Young people love listening to national music, where one can still catch authentic folk tunes.

Turkish Musical Instruments

The Seljuk Turks also introduced new instruments to Anatolia. The famous one is saz, a kind of lute that looks like a huge short or long-necked wooden pearl. The instrument had 2 to 7 strings in different periods of Turkish history and gradually transformed into two instruments.

  • Baglama – a plucked long-necked string instrument with 23 or 19 frets. 
  • Cura – looks like a baglama of a smaller size, with 6 frets.

The words baglama and saz are often used interchangeably. Both instruments can be played with a guitar pick.

Various types of saz are found in other Caucasus, Asian, and Middle East nations. Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Greeks, Iranians, and nationals in Balkan countries play similar instruments.

Turkey emphasizes the materials used to make these folk instruments. They choose certain woods for the neck and body. Lute is usually made from mulberry, which is first dried for several years.

Turkey still has craftsmen who specialize in hand-made baglama. Experienced musicians always opt for “made-to-order” instruments over the store-purchased ones. 
A large saz with a long neck is common in Turkey for performing sad love lyrics and ballads. It’s ideal to convey the suffering of a yearning heart.

The Influence of Other Cultures

The Mey, an ancient double-reed wind instrument, has prevailed for centuries in the Anatolian and Mesopotamian regions.

It takes different forms in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Azeri people call it “balaban”, the Georgians “duduki”, and the Armenians “duduk”. They are reminiscent of each other in how they look and sound.

The Mey’s body is typically made of an apricot tree and a plum tree. It has seven holes on the front side and only one hole on the backside.

The origin of Mey is under debate. An instrument like mey was used in Hellenistic Egypt called “mait” or “monaulos,” and there was one discovered in Anatolia called “auloi”.

Byzantine culture had a huge influence on the “high” Turkish music of nobility. It is Byzantium that many scholars blame for similarities in Greek, Turkish, and Armenian cultures. Some even believe it is possible to recognize the ancient influence of each musical tradition. However, the task seems impossible since we are left with no works of ancient Greek composers.

The Pontic lyre or Turkish kemence is one of the antiquity traces. Many ancient Greek myths and legends mention this string instrument. Today, kemence is one of the main instruments used to play Turkish folk melodies.

Classical Turkish Music

Classical Turkish music, known as palace music, was performed for sultans and the nobility. Court composers used traditional musical instruments and created melodies based on folk tunes. A specific type of classic musical form was “fasil “– a sequence of instrumental and vocal compositions united in one theme.

  • One of the most famous 19th-century composers was Dede Efendi, who served at the court of the Ottoman sultans. He created musical pieces for Sufi religious ceremonies played on a wooden flute ney. 
  • Buhurizade Mustafa Ytri was another court musician who earned fame as a talented composer. His portrait is found on the 100-lira banknote.  

After Turkey had become a republic, it set a course for Europeanization, and classical Turkish music declined. The government seized finding composers and even temporarily banned this music tradition. Officials saw it as overly pampering and even degenerative. Contrary to that, European music sounded vigorous, calling for achievements. Wealthy and educated Turks dubbed the musical heritage of the Ottomans “old-fashioned.” Under the influence of European academic traditions, the national conservatories were opened in Istanbul (1926) and Ankara (1934).

Turkish Folk Music

It’s easy to see similarities in the folk music of different Turkish regions. While classical Turkish music relied on religious works, simple people loved listening to songs exalting love, heroes, and their everyday lives. The songs were usually accompanied by saz. These are sad and shrill chants about suffering, death, and unhappy love. However, the Turkish tradition also boasts cheerful dance melodies. One of them is cifteteli, which was widely used for listening and dancing at weddings and other celebrations.

Contrary to the classical music of the Ottoman school that fell into decline, traditional folk music found great support. Ataturk was directly involved in its advancement. He ordered to make a list of the most famous music from different regions. Moreover, in the 60s, their singers went viral on the radio. Modern Turkish pop music has largely developed under their influence. To this day, folk melodies remain highly popular. They gave birth to Turkish Arabesque, often heard on the radio, and in the markets and cafes. Yet some modern composers consider these genres to be "low."

Turkish Religious Music

The religious music of Turkey covered instrumental compositions, calling for prayers. They often described the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his family members and expressed a believer’s love and gratitude towards God. Along with prayers, Turks sang and still sing chants at the funerals when bidding farewell to the deceased. 
Dervish dances hold a special place in the religious musical traditions of Turkey. The Sufi tradition taught that they help to get closer to God. The dervishes spin themselves into a trance state, while an orchestra plays traditional instruments. Tourists today can see the Sufi whirling dervishes dance in a ceremony known as Sema.

Influence on Western Music

The influence of Turkish and other national music traditions was mutually penetrating. Unusual tunes of folk instruments were a source of inspiration for European composers, and they incorporated them into their music. In the 18th century, enlightened Europe admired Janissary military bands. It is through these that European classical music adopted instruments such as metal percussion cymbals and a large round drum.

Contemporary Music

Contemporary music in Turkey is very diverse. Artists performing in the arabesque genre are still popular. There are famous Turkish rock bands such as Mor ve Otesi, Duman, Teoman, Sebnem Ferah, and Pinhani.

Rap lovers will be surprised to learn about a thriving Turkish rap and hip-hop scene mainly developed by the Turks living in Western Europe, particularly in Germany. Some of the popular rappers are Gazapizm, Ezhel, Ben Fero, and Murda. Many of them use old and classical tunes, which make their music unique in style and sound.

Pop Music

When it comes to pop music, the famous artist is Tarkan. In 1999, he received the World Music Award for Best Selling Turkish Artist. Every year, Turkey sends its artists to the Eurovision Song Contest since its first entry in 1975. Sertab Erener was a winner in 2003.

Anatolian Rock

Rock music usually protests the past. But not in Turkey. Anatolian rock is a unique genre that combines rock with traditional musical instruments and melodies. It originated in Anatolia in the 60s under the influence of Elvis Presley and other famed Western artists heard on Turkish radio at that time. The genre remains popular to this day.


The music tradition during Ottoman rule was passed on from a teacher to a student. Turkey’s Westernization showed the country lacked educational institutions to train musicians in national and Western traditions. In the 30s, Ataturk initiated the first school for music teachers in Ankara. Five young composers went to study abroad. Later, they would be called the Turkish Five.

In 1934, the school transformed into a conservatory, where students learned Western classical music. Later, the first Turkish ballet studio was opened at the Ankara State Conservatory.

One can become a vocal or music teacher after graduating from an art school. Children dreaming of playing in an orchestra can enroll in one of the university conservatories. Established in 1914, The Istanbul University State Conservatory of Music, Theater, and Dance is considered one of the best. Among its famous alumni is opera singer Leila Gencer.

Turkish Music at Holidays and Festivals

Turkish Music

Every year, the country hosts various festivals celebrating different styles of music.

  • The Whirling Dervishes Festival is held in Konya. Anyone can attend this 3-hour dance, commemorating the life and teachings of the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, who believed that music and dance can bring one closer to God. Like many centuries ago, they spin to the accompaniment of traditional musical instruments. Under the Islamic religious calendar, the date of the event is different every year.
  • The European Jaz Festival is held in Izmir in early March. The most famous jazz musicians from different countries flock to the country every year. 
  • Kadirga is one of the most famous Turkish holidays, which takes place in Trabzon in the mountaintop area. The festival is celebrated later in July, bringing together family and friends. This is a very fun event with national dances to the accompaniment of flutes, drums, and sazs. You won’t see many foreigners there, but you are more than welcome to join the festival. 
  • Echoes from Agartha. The festival is a stunning cultural event held in Cappadocia. The festival involved many activities like a horse safari, pottery classes, taking a hot air balloon, and many more. One of the highlights is electronic music. DJs play surrounded by mysterious rocks. 

Like every facet of Turkish culture, music absorbs the best from neighbors while remaining unique in a manner that is like no other.