The earliest forms of Armenian music were Christian chants. After polyphony was introduced to the area by Komitas Vardapet during the latter part of the 19th century, many Armenian folk songs (as in over 3000!) were harmonized by him. And I thought this blog would take a while to get to the end. Traditional folk music isn’t based on the same scales that you find in most European music; it’s based on a continuous set of tetrachords. A tetrachord is a set of four consecutive diatonic notes, and in this case, the next tetrachord is built on the last note of the previous tetrachord.
There are a few instruments that are important to Armenian folk music. Among those that you will find, probably the most important one is the duduk. You’ll find this instrument and similar ones across southern Europe and the Middle East, sometimes called by different names. The duduk is part of the reed family, and actually it’s a double reed (in the same family as the oboe, the bassoon, and the English horn). One of the most famous Armenian duduk players is Djivan Gasparyan. Other instruments you’ll find in folk music is the kanun (similar to a dulcimer or zither), the dhol (a double-headed drum played with sticks, sometimes called a davul), oud (a type of small necked lute that lacks frets), shvi (a fipple flute, meaning one that’s played in the same direction like a clarinet, not out to the side), zurna (another reed wind instrument, thought possibly to be an ancestor of the shawm, similar to the duduk but with a larger bell to make it more apt for outdoor performances). This video is of the kanun, the next instrument I've got my eye on (since I just bought a Zimbabwean mbira).
There are several Armenians who were fairly prominent in the classical music world. The most famous one is Aram Khachaturian. Music majors should know his name, but others would recognize his most widely-known piece is “Sabre Dance” from the ballet Gayane. This is a great piece for percussionists, especially the xylophone – one of my favorite instruments I used to play.
When it comes to popular music, one of the most famous bands is System of a Down. They are actually from California, but the members are Armenian and attended the Armenian school there (even though they all met later). I’ve liked them for years, even though I think their slower, more melodic songs sound better than their harder songs. Having a bachelor’s degree in music, I’m not so much of a fan of the “screaming as singing” style; however, a little bit here and there is bearable. But don’t push it. But if you listen closely, the melodic lines (especially in the guitars) are reminiscent of folk melodic lines. I also noticed that they were standing on Armenian carpets in the video as well.
Another famous Armenian-American is Cher, born Cherilyn Sarkisian. (Her father was of Armenian decent.) I haven’t always been a huge fan of Cher’s, but I have to respect her for having won so many awards and having had such a successful career that’s spanned almost five decades.
Armenian dancing has been inscribed in rock drawings in the mountain areas around Mt. Ararat. Kochari is considered to be the “national” dance of Armenia. In Armenian, kochari is literally translated as “knee-go” and involves high jumps with the intention of being daunting. Dancers, both men and women, will gather in a r line, and put their hands on the shoulders of those beside them or hold hands. The music is danced in 2/4 time and ranges from moderate to fast tempos. There are other variations of this that are danced in neighboring countries as well. You don't have to listen very hard for the zurna; it sort of overpowers the rest of the instruments.
Another folk dance that is popular is the Tamzara. The dance is usually accompanied by the lyra (a type of stringed instrument, similar to a lyre or a rebab). Like the kochari, there are regional variations, but one of the identifying factors of a tamzara is its unique 9/8 time signature. The dancers gather in a line or in a circle and interlock pinky fingers. It's a little harder to pick out the 9/8 beat and this dance can be a little slower than the kochari.
Next up: the food!
Wikipedia: “Tamzara” “Kochari” “Cher” “System of a Down” “Aram Khachaturian” “Duduk” “Kanun” “Dhol” “Oud” “Shvi” “Zurna” “Armenian music” “Armenian dance”