I started to learn how to recite the Qur'an shortly before turning 21, when I realized that I just had to know how to read arabic, immediately. This happened when I was reading up a lot on Islam and a lot of these books quoted the words from the Holy Qur'an, in arabic. How did these words sound like? What were these words that convinced the most critical skeptics and softened the hearts of the harshest of men? I had to know.
So I learnt, and in my state of recitation hunger, I was given the gift to be quite proficient in my recitation within the two years I started. The thing was, initially when I wanted to recite, I didn't want to recite like the layman: I wanted to recite like Qari Abdul Basit or someone similar. Yes, a bit too ambitious. But hey, I can dream right?
Along the way I picked up tajweed. (A primer for my non-Muslim readers: tajweed is a must when reciting the Qur'an. The words of the Qur'an are from Allah direct: so, they aren't to be recited normally, like how you could recite a poem by Wordsworth. Tajweed is the art of proper articulation of every alphabet, giving due time for pauses and elongations whenever they are needed. There are certains to rules to abide by, so it is an exact science even, in a way. More.)
Apart from tajweed, one also needs to recite with melody. A nice melody makes the recitation more powerful, more lively. To speak using terms my FYP mates will find familiar: No doubt, the content of the Qur'an is already powerful: but the form complements the content and unleashes the full power of the meaning.
The melody is not to be confused with a song tune or something of the like: The Qur'an isn't supposed to be sung to; rather, it is to be recited melodiously in accordance with the Qur'anic prose and the respective meanings.
Back to my story: So there I was, happy to recite in whatever tajweed and melody I knew.
And after this, I was introduced to the world of tarannum. This happened when I took part in a Qur'an recitation competition and at the end of it, the judge slammed all the participants for using outlandish melodies. He was especially upset that some folks were using "hindi song" melodies. Well, not direct hindi-tune rip-offs, but hindi-tune-inspired tunes. Was I guilty of it? No. I listen to mostly Tamil songs. (cough). Then he revealed that the "true, accepted way of melodies" was to use the 7 tunes taught by qaris (male recitors) and qariahs (female reciters) all over the region (which I nor the rest of my Indian-Muslim contestants knew about. All we knew were Hindi song tunes). These seven popular tunes are known as tarannum tunes. These tarannum tunes are to be used for mainly performative purposes: you need not use them if you're privately reciting at home, although it'll be great if you do. (Of course, using the tarannum tunes means you have to know and use tajweed too, that's basic.)
The seven are...
1. Bayati - you always, always use this to start the recitation. It begans from the base of the throat. The other 6 melodies that come after this can be used in any order.
2. Soba - A 'saddish' tune
3. Hijaz - I like this, but a bit high.
4. Nahawand - One of my favourites.
5. Rost - An all-time high: my voice cracks.
6. Seekah - Also very high.
7. Jiharka - Very pleasant.
As I later found out (in fact, only today), these tunes are an establishment in classical Arabian music. Each tune or melody is called a maqam, check them out.
The same judge who slammed us became my Ustad, who's actually a very nice jolly guy. I've been learning tarannum for the last 1.5 years, and it has its intricacies. The tunes must not sound bland, or flat: your voice has to vibrate ("lyke, how da R&B boyz and gurlz do it ya know"), and the melodies have to have a nice transition between them, if not, they'll sound jarring. It's really an art, and takes a lot of practice and mostly, God-given talent.
That's why I think these seven tunes aren't meant for everyone. It depends on the ability of the voice to be able to handle the tunes: some people cannot go too high (like myself) and some can't vibrate, or simply get the tune. I think for a lot of folks, custom-made tunes are fine: so what if it's inspired from hindi song tunes? Just make sure you don't whole-sale lift the words of the Qur'an onto the AR Rahman song tune. The tune has to be only inspired, not taken whole-sale; the words of the Qur'an will guide the recitor to establish a unique melody.
In fact, the famous Qari's from Egypt (like Abdul Basit) don't strictly stand by these melodies; theirs is an electic mix of tunes, that have elements of the 7 tunes but are not restricted to them. The 7-tune tarannum styles are popularly used in the South-east Asian region, like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. They're totally not used by the Indian-Muslims here, who have their own, erm, "eclectic" tunes that sound more Middle-East-Qari inspired. The 7-tune tarannum is recognized by the S.E.A region, which means that all recitation competitions held in this region expect the 7 tunes to be used, failing which, you aren't really recognized to be a real solid, qari.
I tried the tunes out at the recent MUIS Qur'an reciting competition, they worked fine. But as my Ustad always says, the tarannum is pointless if your tajweed is not up to par, especially in competitions where the judges are extremely particular about the obscurest of tajweed rules. It's the tajweed that makes the (in movie trailer voice) One Man (back to normal voice) stand out from the rest. So I guess my tajweed needs a lot more polishing.
In case you want to listen to some top-class recitation, check these out:
1. A huge list of various recitors, in MP3 format
2. Also quite a large collection
3. Transliteration of the Qur'an