Persian Musical Instruments

Persian Musical Instruments

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. The main purpose of this note is to introduce Persian musical instruments used in Persian classical music.

Introduction. Persian classical music is based on the Persian modal system called "dastgah دستگاه". In ancient times, Persian classical music was based on the ancient modal system called "magham مقام". Though it is not clear when Persians changed from the magham system to the dastgah system, it is clear that in the Ghajar era, the dastgah system was an established one. During the Ghajar era, the different pieces of the dastgahs were organized in a special row called the "radif". There are a couple of different radifs though some of them like Mirza Abdollah's radif, Mirza Hossein Gholi's radif, and Ostad Abdollah Davami's radif are more popular and somehow the standard radifs in Persian music. Persian classical music has been performed by many different musical instruments. In the following, we discuss the main ones briefly.

Barbat. Very similar to the Persian oud (short-necked lute), the "barbat بربت" is one of the most ancient musical instruments of Persia. Its antiquity goes back many centuries ago, at least to the time that "Barbad باربد" (late 6th – early 7th century CE), a Persian poet-musician and barbat player, who performed in the darbar دربار (palace) of the King Khosrow II (c. 570-628). For more, see my note on the barbat.

Daf. The "daf دف" is a Persian large-sized frame drum. While in the past, the daf was performed mainly in Persian Sufi music, today, it is considered the second national drum of Iran after the tonbak (Persian goblet-shaped drum). For more, see my note on the daf.

Dayereh. The "dayereh دایره" is a Persian medium-sized frame drum. Though it is sometimes used in Persian classical music, it is a popular folk drum with different versions in many regions of Iran. For more, see my note on the dayereh and daf.

Gheychak. The "gheychak قیچک" is a bowed fiddle performed in Persian folk music belonging to the southeastern region of Iran (in particular, in the Sistan-Baluchistan province with the local name "soruz سروز"). 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 classical music. The soundbox resembles an upside-down anchor, which is carved from a tree trunk and placed vertically on the player's lap. The upper and lower sections are separated by two oval indentations on the right and left sides which give the gheychak a distinct nasal sound. The gheychak is somehow related to the musical instruments of the Indian subcontinent such as the "sarangi سارنگی", the "saringda سرندو", the "esraj اسراج", and the "dilruba دلربا". For more, see my note on gheychak.

Kamancheh the Persian Spike Fiddle

Kamancheh. The "kamancheh کمانچه" 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 its modern version has four strings. It is played vertically in the manner of the European viol. The kamancheh has been painted in Persian antique paintings. For more, see my note on kamancheh.

A description of the pictured kamancheh. This is an old-fashioned three-stringed Persian kamancheh dated c. 1880.

Ney. The "ney نی" is a Persian knotgrass reed and has five finger holes in front and one thumb-hole 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. The sound is produced when a stream of air is directed by the tongue toward the opening of the instrument. In this way, the 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. For more, see my note on the ney.

Qanun. The "qanun قانون" (also spelled as "ghanun") is a 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. It is less popular than the santoor in Persian classical music. The qanun is used in Arabic and Turkish music extensively. For more, see my note on qanun.

Santoor. The "santoor سنتور" 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. The secret of making the trapezoid-shaped soundbox 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. Different versions of the santoor are played in India, Iraq, Egypt, and some other countries. For more, see my note on the santoor.

Setar. The "setar سه‌تار" is a four-stringed long-necked lute. The setar is played by the nail of the index finger. The soundbox and neck of the setar are wooden. There is a wooden bridge on the surface of the soundbox to hold the strings (similar to what we have for guitar, for example). The setar has 25-27 movable frets. For more, see my note on the setar.

Tanbour. The "tanbour تنبور" with the ancient name "tambour تمبور" is an ancient long-necked lute of Persia. The tanbour has a larger soundbox than the Persian setar. Having three strings, it is played by all the fingers of the musician. Its structure is similar to the Persian dotar, but the style of playing is different from the dotar and the setar. It is very popular in the Kermanshah province of Iran though recently some famous musicians have used this instrument in Persian classical music. For more, see my note on the tanbour.

Tar. The "tar تار" is a six-stringed long-necked lute with a double-bowl-shaped body carved from mulberry wood and a thin lamb fetus membrane covering its top. Mainly performed in Persian classical music, it is also used in the folk music of some cities like Shiraz. On its neck, it has 22-28 movable gut frets. For more, see my note on the tar.

Tonbak (Persian Goblet Drum)

Tonbak. The "tonbak تنبک" is the chief percussion instrument of Iran. Mainly performed in Persian classical music, it is also popular in the folk music of the Hormozgan, Kurdistan, and Lorestan provinces of Iran. The tonbak is goblet-shaped and a larger version of this drum is used in the Persian traditional sport called "varzesh-e-bastani ورزش باستانی". The centers for this traditional sport are called the "zourkhaneh زورخانه" and the tonbak played in these centers are called the "zarb-e-zourkhaneh ضرب زورخانه". For more, see my notes on the tonbak like the history of the tonbak and the other ones listed here.

Keywords. Iranian, musical, instrument, instruments, tombak, zarb, tanbur, santur, santour, ghaychak, qanun, dayere, mizrab.

For more on musical instruments, see the following notes:

Azerbaijani Musical Instruments

Persian Percussion Instruments

Persian Drums