Persian Musical Instruments

Iranian / Persian Musical Instruments

Persian Musical Instruments: Tar, Setar, Barbat, Kamancheh, Gheychak, Santoor, Ghanoon, Ney, Tanbour, Tonbak and Daf

By Dr. Peyman Nasehpour
Tar is a plucked stringed instrument (a long-necked lute) that is played in Iran (Persia), Caucasian countries (like Azerbaijan, Armenia and so on) and central Asia (like Tajikistan). It exists in two forms now, the Persian (that is named Tar-e-Shiraaz or Irani) and Caucasian (that is named Tar-e-Ghafghaaz). The Persian tar is carved from a block of mulberry wood and has a deep, curved body with two bulges shaped like a figure 8. The upper surface is shaped like two hearts of different sizes, joined at the points. The sound box consists of two parts. The small part is called Naghaareh and the large part is called Kaasseh (that means bowl (sound box)). The sound box is covered with lambskin. On the lower skin, a horn bridge supports six metal strings in three courses. The long fingerboard has twenty-two to twenty-eight movable gut frets. The strings are plucked with a brass plectrum coated on one side in wax. Its range is about two and a half octaves.
Setar is one of the most favorite musical instruments of Persia (Iran). As its names shows, it had three strings. "Se" and "Tar" in Persian language respectively means three and string. But in the beginning of Ghajar Period (19th century) a famous dervish setar player, Moshtagh Ali Shah, added the fourth string to have more melodic colors and tunes.

In historical texts for Persian music, many authors and poets have mentioned to its name and describe it as a three-stringed tanbour. Tanbour is a very ancient long necked lute of Persia and it seems its ancient name has been tambour in pre-Islamic ages.

Setar's sound is not as loud as the other instruments such as kamancheh, santoor and tar and therefore some love to listen to the sound of setar in the silence of nights.

Setar's sound box is wooden with some holes on its surface. It is played with the nail of the index finger.

The similarities between Persian setar and Indian sitar, shows that their root should be the same and many Indians believe that sitar's ancestor is the setar and Amir Khosro Dehlavi, the very famous Indian musician-poet who was originally from Persia, made some changes to make it more appropriate for Indian music.

Famous setar makers of the past: Ostad Haj Taher and Ostad Eshghi

Famous setar players of the past: Mirza Abdollah and his son Ostad Ebadi, Ostad Abolhasan Saba, Ostad Saeed Hormozi, Ostad Yousef Foroutan and so on...

The barbat, in Arabic courtiers and Iran known as the ud, is a short-necked fretless lute with five double-courses of strings and traditionally played with an eagle's quill. The barbat is the ancestor of the European lute, and functions as a bass instrument. The barbat is the ancestor of the Chinese pipa too. The pipa brought to Japan and was named biwa.
The kamancheh is the Persian spike fiddle and dates back to antiquity. It has a small, hollowed hardwood body with a thin stretched skin-membrane. Its neck is cylindrical, and it has four strings. It is played vertically in the manner of the European viol. It is suspected that the fourth string was added in the early twentieth century as the result of the introduction of western violin to Iran. The kamancheh has been painted in Persian antique paintings.
The gheychak is a bowed fiddle of the Persian folk music played in the southeastern region of Iran. There are two large holes on the upper side near the fingerboard and one on the lower tip, which is covered with a skin membrane. There are four main strings and eight to sixteen sympathetic strings, which have been eliminated in the context of Persian art music. The sound box resembles an upside-down anchor, which is carved from a tree trunk and is placed vertically on the player's lap. The upper and lower sections are separated by two oval indentations on the right and left side, which give the gheychak a distinct nasal sound. The other instruments of Indian subcontinent such as sarangi, saringda, esraj and dilruba.
The santoor is a three-octave wooden-hammered dulcimer with seventy-two strings, which are arranged on adjustable tuning pegs in eighteen quadruple sets, nine (bronze) in the low register, and nine (steel) in the middle register. The santoor can be made from various kinds of wood (walnut, rosewood, betel palm, etc.) depending on the desired sound quality. The front and the back of the instrument are connected by sound posts whose positions play an important role in the sound quality of the instrument. Although the santoor is very old, it was neither depicted in miniatures, nor presented in any other medium until the nineteenth century. The secret of making the trapezoid-shape sound box lies in the quality and age of the wood, as well as in the arrangement of the sound posts which connect the table of the instrument to its back. Santoor is played in India, Iraq, Egypt and some other countries.
The ghanoon is the Persian zither. It is a flat trapezoidal wooden box, with twenty-four strings in triple fastened at its rectangular side on one end and to pegs on the oblique side on the other. The player to make slight changes in pitch manipulates small levels lying below each course of strings. The strings are plucked with two horn plectra, one on each index finger.
The ney that is the Persian knotgrass reed, has five finger holes in front and one thumbhole in the back. The ney has a range of two and a half octaves. The upper end is covered by a short brass cylinder, which is anchored in the tiny space between the upper incisive of the player. Sound is produced when a stream of air is directed by the tongue toward the opening of the instrument. In this way, sound is produced behind the upper teeth, inside the mouth, which gives the ney a distinct timbre than that of the sound produced by the lips on the outside of the mouth.
The most popular percussion instrument in Persian music today is a goblet drum known as the Tonbak. The Tonbak is a large wooden instrument with a goatskin head. Unlike other goblet drums, this drum has a much more squared-off shape and produces lower-pitched and softer tones due to its size and skin being put on with less tension. Other names for this drum are Donbak, Tombak, Dombak, Tompak and Zarb. Maybe the name Zarb has its origins in the Arabic word darb, meaning to strike, as mentioned above. The other names have a more interesting origin. The two main strokes played on this drum are known as Ton, for a bass tone played in the center of the drum head, and Bak, for a treble tone played on or near the rim. Combining the terms results in the name Ton-Bak. It is highly likely that the American name Dumbek is derived from one of the Persian names.
Daf is one of the most ancient frame drums in Asia and North Africa. As a Persian instrument, in 20th century, it is considered as a Sufi instrument to be played in Khanghah-s during Zikr ceremony. Daf has recently become very popular and it has been integrated into Persian music successfully.


Tanbour with the ancient name tambour is the very ancient long necked lute of Persia, though even today it is played in Persia (Iran), particularly in Kermanshah city that is the center of Kermanshahan province of Iran.

According to three sculptures found in Susa of Iran, the history of tanbour goes back to 1500 BC.

Tanbour has a larger sound-box than Persian setar, usually has two or three strings and is played by all fingers of the hand. The structure is related to Persian dotar, but the style of playing is different from dotar and setar. It is very popular of the western areas of today Persia (Iran), though recently some famous musicians like Shahram Nazeri have used this instrument in classical music of Iran.

Apparently, it is related to tanbura and tampura of India that are respectively played in North Indian and South Indian classical music.

A little etymology of tanbour 

Tanb in ancient Persian language means belly and since the sound-box of this instrument has a belly form, it has been called tanb-var and var here is the suffix for possession like honar-var that means a person who has art and means artist (Honar means art). Also var has the same meaning as er in English language.

Some believe that since the body of the tonbak (Persian goblet shaped drum) is belly-form, it is called tonb-ak and k here is diminutive suffix.

Some of the famous tanbour players are: Ostad Nour Ali Elahi, Seyyed Khalil Alinejad, Kaykhosro Pournazeri, Ali Akbar Moradi, Darvish Amir Hayati, Davood Azizi, Seyyed Amrollah Shah Ebrahimi, Taher Yarveisi, Golnazar Azizi.

Other spellings for tanbour: tanboor, tanbur, tambour, tamboor, tambur.

Persian Traditional Musical Instruments

  • khatam_tombak
  • persian-dayereh
  • persian-santoor
  • persian-setar
  • persian-daf
  • persian-tanbour
  • persian-tar
  • persian-ney
  • persian-kamancheh
  • persian-robab