A Lexical Discussion of the Tonbak

A lexical discussion of the different names of the tonbak throughout history

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. There are many popular drums in Persian classical and folk music like the dayereh, the daf, the dohol, and the naghareh, but the tonbak is considered to be the chief percussion instrument used in Persian music. In this article, I explain different names of the instrument applied throughout history and conclude that the word "tonbak" is the most suitable one for this drum.

Introduction. The tonbak is the chief percussion instrument in Persian classical music, though it is performed in Persian folk music also. This instrument, after the efforts of the great masters of tonbak especially the late Ostad Hossein Tehrani and the late Ostad Nasser Farhangfar has become more advanced comparing the tonbak players of the Ghajar era, and it has become more popular [Z, p179]. Throughout history, it has been applied different names for this instrument but the two names, the "tonbak", and the "zarb" have been used more frequently than the others. In this article, by illustrating the different names of the instrument, I try to reach the conclusion that the name tonbak is the most suitable name for it. 

The Explanation for Different Names of Tonbak

Zarb. On the whole, applying the word "zarb ضرب" for this instrument is an error allowed by usage. If we refer to different Persian dictionaries, we find many meanings for the zarb including "zadan زدن" (to play). By taking its different meanings into consideration perhaps we deduce that since the act of playing is done on this instrument, in other words, with a view to the fact that it is played on, so it has been named zarb; then immediately the question arises, setar - which is a Persian long-necked lute, with 4 strings, a wooden body, and 25-28 movable frets - is also an instrument and is played on, why it is not called zarb!

The name zarb has been given to this instrument since ancient times. For example, Rumi has a verse including the word zarb:

خدایا مطربان را انگبین ده     برای ضرب دستی آهنین ده

The name zarb which has been applied to call this instrument is apparently for this reason that the "osul-e-zarb va ahang" اصول ضرب و آهنگ (i.e., rhythm) is underpinned by this instrument [Saj, p9] and this justification is closer to reality. In order to complete this justification, it should be noted that the main role of the tonbak players, as an accompanist, has been to underpin the rhythmic composition, performed by the soloist, though occasionally the tonbak players have performed tonbak solo after Ostad Hossein Tehrani.

Dombalag. The "Dombalag دمبلگ" was one of the popular instruments to be performed during the time of Khosro Parviz (the famous king of Persia in the period of Sassanid) and it was a small drum; the old form of dombak دمبک [Dehkhoda dictionary]. Dombalag is a Pahlavi (an ancient Persian language) name of this instrument and the oldest text that its name has been mentioned is a Pahlavi text named Khosro va Gholam [Se, p294]. Also, Dr. M. Forough, in one of his works, has mentioned that in the period of Sassanid, a kind of percussion instrument that is similar to the tonbak of today has been called the donbalak or the dombalak and both are Pahlavi names and maybe the "donbak دنبک" and the dombak are a transformation of these words [Ra, p15]. It is good to know that the word "dombarak دمبرک" is a dialect of the dombalak [B, p128]. In the end, it should be mentioned that in the Persian language, the pronunciation of the letter "n ن" is altered to "m م", when the letter "n" in a word, comes immediately before the letter "b ب", therefore, e.g. usually the word "tonbak تنبک" is pronounced as "tombak تمبک". Finally, let me add that the Persian name "donbak دُنبک" can be considered a diminutive form of the "donb دنب" meaning little tail since "k ک" is a diminutive suffix in Persian. Note that the structure of a tonbak has five parts (see Structure of Tonbak). However, one may consider the structure of a tonbak to be like a bowl having a little tail as the throat and a small opening together.

Khorazhak. Though the instrument "khorazhak خوراژک" has been taken into consideration as an Indian elliptical drum [Sac], the first part of the word, i.e. "khor خور" comes from the word, "khordan خوردن", in the concept of "zadan زدن" (to play) and "esabat kardan اصابت کردن" (to hit) and this concept can be perceived in the meaning of zarb (tonbak) [B, p128].

Tabang. Different Persian dictionaries such as Borhan-e-Ghate', Anjoman-e-Ara', Rashidi, and Anend Raj have explained that the meaning of the word "tabang تبنگ" is tonbak. Also, the Persian poet, Suzani, has brought the word in his poems as a percussion instrument:

 در جد قرینشانم لیکن بباب هزل     من کوس خسروانم و ایشان دف و تبنگ

Dr. M. Moin, in his dictionary, explains that according to Anend Raj, the words tonbak and donbak are altered forms of tabang.

Khonbak. The "khonbak خنبک" is a kind of percussion skinned instrument that is played by the hands. These days, it is called the tonbak or donbak, and the transformation of "kh خ" to "t ت" and "d د" is common in the Persian language [Anend Raj dictionary]. Note that the famous poet, Nezami, has mentioned this word in his works. Also, consider that the word "khom خم" is an abbreviation of the word "khonb خنب" and it is a kind of barrel for keeping water, vinegar, wine, and so on in; the khom also means a big "kus کوس" (a big kettledrum) [M, p12]. Consequently, it is evident that the words "khomak خمک", "khombak خمبک", and "khonbak خنبک" have the same root, and they all mean the tonbak.

Tonbik. The name "tonbik تنبیک" is a dialect for the name tonbak.

Tonbak. In Persian texts, they have been applied various names for this drum, but the two names, "tonbak تنبک" and "zarb ضرب" have been used more frequently compared to the other names throughout the history of Persian music and literature. Also, note that "Nour Alishah I نورعلیشاه اول" brings an Arabiczed form of "tonbak تنبک", i.e. "طنبک" in a verse, as I report in the following:

مست شد از جام طرب یاسمن     طنبک سیمین ببغل برگرفت

Let me add that the Persian word "tonbak طنبک" is illustrated as a small drum in Redhouse's Turkish to English Lexicon. There is an interesting opinion about the word tonbak; "tonb تنب" means belly and "tonbour تنبور" (a very ancient Persian long-necked lute) means the owner of the belly. Perhaps the words "tonbak" and "tonbour" have the same root [Sh, p144]. In the end, it should be noted that the name of this instrument in Lorestan province (west of Iran) and Hormozgan province (south of Iran) is "tombak تمبک" and "tompak تمپک", respectively [BD, p127 & p133].

Conclusion. Now that we have discussed different names of this instrument, the name tonbak seems to be more suitable than the others. Also, there is another justification for the name tonbak, in this sense that, some people believe the name of this instrument comes from its sound, for if we play on the tonbak in the center of its skin by the cushions of the fingers, then we will hear a sound like "ton" and if we play on the tonbak at the rim of its skin by the cushions of the two, middle and ring fingers, then we will hear a sound like bak.

Acknowledgment. The author wishes to thank Ostad Abdollah Anwar and Ms. Ferdos Navabi for their helpful advice.


[B]: Binesh, M. T., Shenakht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1997.

[BD]: Boustan, B., & Darvishi, M.R., Morouri bar Musighi-ye-Sonnati va Mahalli-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1991.

[M]: Mojarrad, M. I., Chaghane-ye-Tarab, Amouzesh-e-Tombak, Tehran, 1970.

[Ra]: Rajabi, B., Tonbak va Negareshi be Ritm az Zavaya-ye-Mokhtalef, Tehran, 1977.

[Re]: Redhouse, J.W., A Turkish to English Lexicon, Librairie du Liban (New Impression, 1987), Beirut, 1890.

[Sac]: Sachs, C., The History of Musical Instruments, New York, 1940.

[Saj]: Sajjadi, Z., Bahs-e-Loghavi, Amouzesh-e-Tombak, Tehran, 1990.

[Sh]: Shoushtari, M. A. E., Iran, Gahvare-ye-Danesh va Honar, Tehran, 1969.

[Z]: Zonis, E., Musighi-ye-Kelasik-e-Irani, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973 (Translated from English into Persian by M. Pour Mohammad).

Remark. The lexical discussion on the many names of the tonbak, such as tombak, donbak, dombak, zarb, or even tompak, was the first article that I wrote and translated from Persian into English and submitted to Hormoz Dilmaghani to publish at his website, Tombak Network. This article was published at Tombak Network on Dec. 3rd, 2000. After the wonderful feedback that I received from the readers of my articles at Tombak Network, I published a couple of other articles and notes on other percussion websites to promote Persian percussion music. Most of my articles and notes have been gathered on the page Music Articles and Notes for the convenience of my readers. All references for this article are in Persian except [Sac].

Appendix: Expressions related to tonbak and similar goblet drums in Iran

Throughout history, many expressions related to tonbak have been applied in Persian. In the following, I have gathered the ones that I have seen here and there.

The Khatam Tonbak (late 19th century)

The Tonbak (late 19th century)

The Tonbak (late 19th century)

The Tonbak (late 19th century)

A Modern Khatam Tonbak

A Modern Khatam Tonbak