Mugam belongs to the system of modal music and has close ties to the Persian musical tradition. It is therefore meta-ethnical, because it is not restricted to one particular region but covers a wide area of the Middle and Far East. The Uighurs in Xinjian (Sinkiang) call this musical development “Muqam,” the Uzbeks and Tajiks call it “Maqom” (also “Shasmaqom”), while the Arabs, Persians call it “Maqam", or "Dastgah”. In Azerbaijan the word is Mugam. It is based on many different modes and tonal scales where different relations between notes and scales are envisaged and developed.
The meta-ethnicity (and dazzling complexity) of this music also becomes apparent in the fact that terms such as “mugam,” “maqam,” or “dastgah,” omnipresent in oriental music, can mean one thing in the Turkish tradition, while the same term in the music of Uzbekistan takes on quite another meaning, and yet another in the classical Arabian tradition. So, in one culture “mugam” may be related to a strictly fixed melodic type, while in another it is only the cadences, i. e. the melody endings that are associated with it. In a third culture it may only correspond to a specific type of tone scales.
It is therefore not surprising that reference works give insufficient information (if any at all) about the concept, since it is not easy to define: “[M]usicologists mutter something incomprehensible (because, with a few exceptions, they don’t know either), and the Azeri people explain it in such a roundabout manner that it is impossible to work it out.” (Skans).
“Mugam,” describe a specific type of musical composition and performance, which is hard to grasp with western concepts of music in another respect: for one, Mugam composition is improvisational in nature. At the same time it follows exact rules. Furthermore, in the case of a “Suite-Rhapsody-Mugam” the concept of improvisation is not really an accurate one, since the artistic imagination of the performers is based on a strict foundation of principles determined by the respective mode. The performance of mugams does therefore not present an amorphous and spontaneous, impulsive improvisation.
With respect to the concept of improvisation, Mugam music is often put in relation to jazz, a comparison that is accurate to a certain point only. Although Mugam does allow for a wide margin of interpretation, an equation with jazz is oversimplified, since it fails to account for the different kinds of improvisation for different Mugam modes. The performance of a certain Mugam may last for hours. (For the uninitiated listener it is close to impossible to know whether a musician is actually improvising or playing a prearranged composition.) Furthermore, as Garayev stresses, Mugam music has a symphonic character.
The songs are often based on the ancient poetry of Azerbaijan, and although love is a common topic in these poems, to the uninitiated ear many of the intricacies and allusions are lost. For one, the poems do not primarily deal with worldly love but with the mystical love for god. Yet, strictly speaking, this is still secular music/poetry, as opposed to, say, Sufism. Nevertheless, mugam composition is designed very similarly to Sufism in that it seeks to achieve ascension from a lower level of awareness to a transcendental union with god. It is a spiritual search for god.
Considered to be the classical music of Azerbaijan, the Mugham is a traditional musical form characterized by a large degree of improvisation and draws upon popular stories and local melodies. The recent evolution of the cultural industry has threatened the improvisational nature and the ear-to-ear transmission of this art form. During his official visit to the country in August 2005, the Director-General of UNESCO, in the company of President Aliyev and several Goodwill Ambassadors, attended a foundation stone-laying ceremony of a Mugham Centre. In 2004, Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan, was named as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the oral and musical traditions.