It is a highly complex art form that weds classical poetry and musical improvisation in specific local modes. Mugham is a modal system. Unlike Western modes, “mugham” modes are associated not only with scales but with an orally transmitted collection of melodies and melodic fragments that performers use in the course of improvisation. Mugham is a compound composition of many parts. The choice of a particular mugham and a style of performance fits a specific event. The dramatic unfolding in performance is typically associated with increasing intensity and rising pitches, and a form of poetic-musical communication between performers and initiated listeners.
Three major schools of mugham performance existed from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the regions of Karabakh, Shirvan, and Baku. The town of Shusha of Karabakh was particularly renowned for this art.
A short selection of Azerbaijani mugham, played on the Azerbaijani wind instrument balaban, was included among many cultural achievements of humanity on the Voyager Golden Record, which was attached to the Voyager spacecraft to represent world music.
In 2003, UNESCO recognized mugam as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.