There are a variety of styles used in playing the music of the Balkan Peninsula. Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, Macedonian, Greek, Albanian, and Turkish musicians all use the clarinet in slightly different ways. Romany musicians both negotiate those “national” styles and infuse them with some of their own ways of playing.
Common features to the music itself in many Balkan countries include uneven meters (5, 7, 9, 11 or more tiny beats per measure), unusual modes (scales), a wide array of ornaments applied to melodies, and frequent improvisation. Some melodies transcend national borders and ethnic groups; others are more specific with respect to location and/or people.
While many asymmetric meters are familiar to advanced band students in the US, their use is typically for a measure or two in a piece, frequently adding measures of 4/4, 3/4, or 6/8 in their midst. In practice, this typically results in larger beats/pulses which aren’t equal lengths. Typical usage in Bulgaria of 7/8 is two short beats (quarter notes) and a third, longer beat (dotted-quarter). Other subdivisions are as follows: 11/8 short short long short short; 9/8 short short short long; 5/8 short long. The 9/8 subdivision mentioned above is also used in Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania. In Macedonia and south-western Bulgaria, 7/8 can also be subdivided as such: long short short. In Romania, the 7/8 is typically short short long, and there is another dance rhythm (Învârtita) which can’t be explained in a “normal” meter. It’s a variation on long short short but the final beat isn’t as short as the first “short” beat! Additionally Bulgaria and Romania both use non-metric songs in a variety of ritual, ceremonial, and performance contexts. Romany (Gypsy) music frequently uses an asymmetrical version of 4/4 subdivided into long short long as well.
The most common mode (scale) used in southeast Europe is called hijaz. (There is at least one other common spelling: hicaz.) In hijaz centered on the note “D” the scale notes involved (for fixed-pitch instruments) are: D Eb F# G A Bb C (D). Many cultures and sub-cultures of this region do not play these notes the way they’re heard on pianos and other western instruments, instead altering some of the pitches by a quarter tone higher or lower. The closer to Turkey the culture is located, the more likely these altered notes are used.
Some of the ornaments are as simple as trills. In Bulgaria, the most frequent trill used is a rhythmic subdivision of a longer note by going up or down a half-step from the main note. It’s either notated as a trill or as an inverted mordent, one showing the ascending ornament and the other, the descending. The other main ornament is called a “nachschlag” (after-hit from the German) and involves a higher pitched note used to separate two moving notes from each other. Rhythmically its interest lies in its attachment to the first note rather than the second note. It’s frequently notated using grace notes, with the slur coming from the preceding “main” note.