Tar the Persian Long-necked Lute

Tar the Persian Six-stringed Long-necked Lute

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. The tar is a Persian six-stringed long-necked lute. The Persian tar is one of the main instruments performed in Persian classical music. It is also used in the folk music of some cities such as Behbahan, Shushtar, and Shiraz. This is a brief introduction to Persian tar.

Introduction. The Persian "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 the 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. The contemporary history of the tar is clear due to the historical documents and books on the history of Persian music. However, the history of this important instrument in ancient times needs more careful investigations. My try in this note is to give a brief introduction to Persian tar and its history so far as my knowledge permits.

A lexical discussion of the word "tar". The term "tar تار" has a couple of different meanings such as blur, cloudy, dim, indistinct, misty, obscure, and vague as well as a chord, fiber, strand, string, the warp (in the "warp and weft"), wire, and yarn.

The word "tar تار" in the sense of "warp" has appeared in the poems of different poets extensively. For example, Rudaki says:

تا لباس عمر اعدایش نگردد بافته تار تار پود پود اندر فلات آن فوات

In many cases, the word "tar" exists in the phrase "tar o pud تار و پود" which means "warp and weft". For example, the phrase "tar o pud" have been used in the poems of Ferdowsi several times. As an example, I bring one of them in the following:

به شهر اندر آوای رود و سرود به هم برکشیدند چون تار و پود

The word "tar" in the sense of a string (chord) exists in the names of some Persian musical instruments like the "dotar" and the "setar" and these names have been mentioned in Persian literature (see my notes on dotar and setar). On the other hand, the word "tar" in the sense of a string is also mentioned in a verse by Khaqani (c. 1120 - c. 1199):

وان هشت تا بربط نگر جان را بهشت هشت در

هر تار ازو طوبی شمر صد میوه هر تا ریخته

Note that in the above verse, I guess, by "hasht ta barbat هشت تا بربط", it is meant an eight-stringed barbat.

As Khaleghi reports, in the following verse, Farrokhi Sistani (1000 - 1040) mentions the musical instrument "tar تار":

هر روز یکی دولت و هر روز یکی غژ هر روز یکی نزهت و هر روز یکی تار

The "nozhat نزهت", also known as "nozha نزهه", is a kind of rectangular psaltery illustrated in the book "Kanz-al-Tohaf کنزالتحف" written by "Hassan Kashani حسن کاشانی".

Qatran Tabrizi قطران تبریزی (1009 -1014 - after 1088) brings the musical instrument "tar تار" in his poem:

ز ژاله لاله چو لؤلؤ شده رفیق عقیق نوای صُلصُل و بلبل چو چنگ و تار و رباب

The word "tar" in the sense of a string, and also, in the sense of a musical instrument is included in the following verse by Vahshi Bafqi (1532 - 1583):

زانچه از زخمه به تار آید و از تار به گوش وانچه از خُم شده در شیشه و از شیشه به جام

I did not find any document describing a musical instrument that is similar to the contemporary tar. Therefore, I do not know if the musical instrument "tar" mentioned in ancient poems can be considered an ancestor of today's tar or not.

The musical instrument "chahartar". In some Persian-language resources, the name of the musical instrument "chahartar چهارتار" has been mentioned. First, let me explain that the word "chahartar چهارتار" is a combination of the words "chahar چهار" and "tar تار" meaning "four" and "string", respectively. One of the oldest resources mentioning this four-stringed instrument, i.e., "chartar چارتار" is a verse by Salman Savoji (1309/10 - 1376), and the name "chartar" is an abbreviation of the name "chahartar":

طبع گیتی راست شد در عهد تو زآنسان که باز

نشنود صوت مخالف هیچکس زین چارتار

The word "chartareh چارتاره" means a "chahartar چهارتار". Khaqani (c. 1120 - c. 1199) has a verse including the name "chahartareh چارتاره":

سار به شاخسار بر، زنگی چارتاره زن خنده‌زنان چو زنگیان، ابر ز روی اغبری

In the Dehkhoda dictionary, it has been reported that "Hossein Sabouhi حسین صبوحی" was a poet and a fine "chahartar" player from Khansar city. First, he moved to Tabriz, and later, with "Molla Vaseb ملا واصب" moved to Lahijan. He passed away in 1667.

Finally, let me add that Khaleghi, in his book on the history of Persian music, reports that in the Safavid era, there has been a master musician called "Ostad Shahsavar Chahartari استاد شهسوار چهارتاری" and his family name "Chahartari چهارتاری" shows that the musician was a master of "chahartar".

The term "chahartar" has been also used as a general term for any four-stringed musical instrument. In Persian dictionaries, the musical instrument called "shushak شوشک" (also spelled as "shashak شاشک" and "shishak شیشک") has been described as "saz-e-chahartar ساز چهارتار" which means a four-stringed musical instrument or "robab-e-chaharroud رباب چهاررود" which means a four-stringed robab. The "robab" is an old lute-like musical instrument.

The name "shushak" has been mentioned in a verse by Farrokhi Sistani (1000 - 1040):

گهی سماع زنی گاه بربط و گه چنگ گهی چغانه و طنبور و شوشک و عنقا

The above verse has been also attributed to the poet "Zeynabi زینبی".

The musical instrument "sheshtar". In "Amid عمید" dictionary, the name "sheshtar شش‌تار" (abbreviated to "sheshta شش‌تا") stands for a six-stringed musical instrument of the lute family. A verse by Rumi (1207-1273) includes the term "sheshtar":

شب شد ای خواجه ز کی آخر آن یار تو کو

یار خوش‌آواز تو آن خوش دم و شش‌تار تو کو

Abdolqadir Maraghi, in his book on music with the title "Maqasid al-Alhan" explains that there have been three types of "sheshtay شش‌تای":

  1. The type I sheshtay is in the form of a pear having six strings, and its soundbox is as large as an "oud" (lute). In this type of sheshtay, every two strings are tuned with the same frequency. The type I sheshtay may have frets or not, as Maraghi reports. Note that for describing the shape of a "sheshtay", Maraghi uses the old Persian term "amrud امرود" which means a pear coming from the Pahlavi name "armut ارموت".

  2. The type II sheshtay is similar to the oud but there is only one difference, in this sense that, its neck is longer than the neck of the oud.

  3. The type III sheshtay may have a different number of strings depending on the need of the musician. Maraghi explains that this type of sheshtay is popular among Turkish people ("ahl-e-rum اهل روم").

The Persian name "sheshtay" is a combination of the Persian words "shesh شش" and "tay تای" meaning "six" and "string", respectively. Moreover, the word "tay تای" is another form of the word "tar تار", and "ta تا" is an abbreviation for both.

A three-stringed spike fiddle (kamancheh) and a six-stringed lute (sheshtar) are depicted in the above painting in Chehel Sotoun, Isfahan, Persia. The cropped picture is taken from Wikipedia.

A three-stringed spike fiddle (kamancheh) and a six-stringed lute (sheshtar) are depicted in the above painting in Chehel Sotoun, Isfahan, Persia. The cropped picture is taken from Wikipedia.

The contemporary tar and its history. The tar in its today's shape, i.e. having a double-bowl-shaped body with a long neck, has been seen since the Ghajar era (I did not find older documents). One of the earliest known masters of tar is "Ali Akbar Farahani" (c. 1820-1826 - c. 1861-1862). The shape of the tar has been clearly painted [in 1856 or 1857 (1273 lunar Hijri)] by "Sani al-Mulk صنیع الملک", the famous painter of the Ghajar era. To clarify the important role of Ali Akbar Farahani, John Baily reports that in the Ghajar court of Tehran, during the late nineteenth century, the repertoire ("radif ردیف") of classical Persian "dastgah دستگاه" music was formalized by the eminent master musician Agha Ali Akbar Farahani.

Maestro Ali Akbar Farahani on Persian tar surrounded by his students

"Ali Akbar Farahani علی اکبر فراهانی" on his tar (named "Ghalandar قلندر") and his students, painted by "Sani al-Mulk صنیع الملک" in 1856 or 1857 (1273 lunar Hijri).

Khaleghi reports that the tar had five strings. From down to up, the first and second strings (called "sim-ha-ye-sefid سیم‌های سفید", in English "white strings") were tuned with the same frequency, the third and fourth strings (called "sim-ha-ye-zard سیم‌های زرد", in English "yellow strings") were also tuned with the same frequency, and the last one was the bass string (in Persian "sim-e-bam سیم بم"). Later, Davish Khan (1872-1926) who was a great master of the tar and setar, added the sixth one as a sympathetic string (called in Persian "sim-e-vakhan سیم واخوان"). Note that in the contemporary tars, the tar's sympathetic string is between the bass string and the yellow string, and from down to up, it is the fifth string. The soundbox of Persian tar is 8-shaped. The sample suggested and made by the famous tar maker "Hovhannes Abkaryan هوهانس آبکاریان" (b. 1875 - d. 1931-1933), widely known as "Yahya-ye-Tarsaz یحیی تارساز", is rather the standard sample for making the tar, though there have been some efforts by a couple of tar makers to change the shape of the soundbox or the headstock of the instrument.

The soundbox of Persian tar is carved from a block of mulberry wood and has a deep and curved body with two bulged shape parts beside each other. The upper surface is shaped like two hearts of different sizes, joined at the points. The soundbox consists of two parts. The larger part is called "kaseh کاسه" and the smaller part is called "naghareh نقاره". The soundbox is covered with a thin lamb fetus membrane. 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, known as "mezrab مضراب", coated on one side in wax. Its range is about two and a half octaves.

Bam-tar. The "bam-tar بم‌تار" also known as "tar-bass تارباس" is a larger version of the standard Persian tar though with some differences. The neck of the bam-tar is usually a bit longer and its soundbox is also a bit larger. The bam-tar has three strings though the strings are thicker than the strings of the standard Persian tar. The plectrum of the bam-tar is made of a piece of a horn. The skin on the naghareh of the bam-tar is sometimes removed. Note that the bam-tar was invented by Ostad Ali Naghi Vaziri for the first time to use in his modern orchestras.

Ostad Ali Akbar Shahnazi on Persian Tar

Ostad Ali Akbar Shahnazi on Persian Tar

Ostad Ali Akbar Shahnazi was the son of Mirza Hossein Gholi and Mirza Hossein Gholi was the son of Ali Akbar Farahani. For a biography of Ostad Shahnazi see Maestro Ali Akbar Shahnazi.


[B]: John Baily, War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan: The Ethnographer's Tale, Routledge, New York, 2016.

[KH]: Ruhollah Khaleghi, Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1974.

[S]: Mehdi Setayeshgar, Vazhe-Name-ye-Musighi-ye-Iran Zamin, Tehran, Vol. I (1995) & Vol. II (1996).

[T]: Gen'ichi Tsuge. Musical Instruments Described in a Fourteenth-Century Persian Treatise "Kanz al-Tuḥaf". The Galpin Society Journal (2013): 165-259.

[Z]: Yahya Zoka, Zendegi va Asar-e-Ostad Sani al-Mulk Abolhassan Ghaffari, edited by Sirus Parham, The University Publication Center, Tehran, 2003.

Late 19th century Persian tar

Late 19th century small-sized Persian tar

Keywords. Iranian, Persian, tar, setar, mizrab.