Santoor The Persian Dulcimer

Santoor the Persian trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The "santoor سنتور" (also spelled in the Latin alphabet as santour or santur) is a Persian trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer and one of the most popular musical instruments performed in Persian classical music. This is a brief introduction to the Persian santoor.

The etymology of the word santoor. Paul Gifford reports in his book that the word "santur" derives ultimately from the Aramaic "pesanterin" and Greek "psalterion". Some Iranian researchers emphasize that the eleventh-century Persian poet Manuchehri Damghani mentions the word "santoor" in the following verse:

کبک ناقوس‌زن و شارک سنتورزن است فاخته نای‌زن و بط شده طنبورزنا

However, Ella Zonis believes that "santoor سنتور" can be a miswritten form of the word "sheypoor شیپور" because, in some manuscripts of Manuchehri's works, exactly the same verse is included but instead of the santoor, the word "sheypoor شیپور" has been written. The argument by Zonis is probably correct because, as far as I know, in ancient poems there is no mention of the word "santoor" (except the one given above) though many Persian poets such as Ferdowsi (940 - 1019/1025 CE), Asadi Tusi (c. 1000 - 1073 CE), Fakhraddin Asa'ad Gorgani (an eleventh-century poet), Osman Mokhtari include the word "sheypoor شیپور" in their poems. Note that "sheypoor" is a kind of Persian bugle.

Illustrated in Persian dictionaries, the "santoor سنتور" is spelled as "سنطور" or "صنطور". And it has been also pronounced as "sontoor سُنطور". In Dehkhoda dictionary, it is explained that the Arabicized form of "santoor سنتور" is "santir سنطیر". As Gifford reports in his book, the word "santir" is mentioned in a fourteenth-century Arabic manuscript entitled "Kashf al-ghumum". The mentioned manuscript explains that Syrians called santir the same instrument known as qanun by Egyptians.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no mention of the word santoor and/or related words in the ancient manuscripts except Masudi's manuscript (if we exclude Manuchehri's verse because of the reason explained above), but then, I must add that some contemporary poets such as "Qa'ani Shirazi" (1808 - 1854) (in Persian "قاآنی شیرازی"), Iraj Mirza (1874 - 1926), and Shahriar (1906 - 1988) use the word santoor in their works. For example, I bring a verse by Qa'ani in the following:

چمانی و نی و سنتور و تاره و سارنگ چغانه و دف و طنبور و بربط و مزهر

Different kinds of trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimers, with similar names, are popular in many regions. While the name of this instrument in Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey is santoor (also, spelled as santur), in Greece, it is called "santouri σαντούρι". Now, we proceed to discuss the history of the santoor in Iran (Persia) briefly.

A brief history of the santoor in Iran. It is assumed that the antiquity of the Persian santoor dates back to pre-Islamic times. In the Arabic language manuscript "Moruj al-Zahab مُروج الذَهَب" written by Al-Masudi (c. 896 - 956 CE), it is explained that during the Sasanid era, different musical instruments were popular including the "santoor سنطور". However, it is not clear whether the santoor mentioned by Al-Masudi is related to today's santoor or not. One of the most important manuscripts on Persian music, entitled "Kanz-al-Tohaf کنزالتحف" written by "Hassan Kashani حسن کاشانی", illustrates how to make nine musical instruments as well as the silk and gut strings. The construction of the musical instruments explained by Kashani are "oud عود" (a lute), "gheshak غشک" (a spike fiddle), "robab رباب" (a lute), "mezmar مزمار" (a double-reed), "pisheh پیشه" (an end-blown reed), "chang چنگ" (a vertical harp), "nozha نزهه" (a rectangular psaltery), "qanun قانون" (a half-trapezial psaltery), and "moghni مغنی" (a rare historical instrument which was a combination of the robab, the qanun, and the nozha). Still, none of the instruments seem to be related to today's santoor. The good news is that a kind of hammered dulcimer similar to today's santoor has been depicted in a fifteenth-century Persian manuscript. More precisely, two illuminations in a manuscript of "Khamsa خمسه" of Nizami depict women playing "chang چنگ" (Persian harp), barbat (Persian lute), and santoor. Also, note that in 1684 or later, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651 - 1716) reported in his book "Amoenitatum exoticarum" (published in 1712) that he had seen a quadrangular instrument in Persia, played either with "curved sticks" or with "quills". Finally, a painting from the early nineteenth century shows a female santoor player while the santoor rests on its box.

"Mohammad Hasan Khan محمدحسن خان" widely known as "Santoor Khan سنتور خان" is perhaps the oldest known santoor player by his name. Another important historical santoor player is Mohammad Sadegh Khan Santoorchi entitled to "Sorur al-Molk سرورالملک". Note that Sorur al-Molk was a santoor student of "Santoor Khan" and a son of "Agha Motalleb آقا مطلب" who was a great master of kamancheh. It is reported that Sorur al-Molk had two sons "Motalleb Khan مطلب خان" and "Abdollah Khan عبدالله خان" and both were santoor players, but it seems they never became as famous and important as their father. Sorur al-Molk trained other santoor players in which among them "Habib Sama' Hozur حبیب سماع حضور" was the most popular one. The other student of Sorur al-Molk was "Ali Akbar Khan Shahi علی‌اکبرخان شاهی". The famous multi-instrumentalist "Abolhassan Saba" was a santoor student of Ali Akbar Khan Shahi.

Habib Sama' Hozur's father Gholamhossein, widely known as "Aghajan Santoori آقاجان سنتوری", was also a santoor player. Sama' Hozur taught the santoor to only two people; his sister, "Andalib al-Saltaneh عندلیب السلطنه", and his son, "Habib Sama'i حبیب سماعی" who was a great master of santoor of his time. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the santoor was only popular in Tehran, and after the efforts of Habib Sama'i who appeared on the national Iranian radio, it became more popular and inspired some people to learn and play it. The students of Habib Sama'i include "Morteza Abdorrasuli", "Dr. Nour Ali Khan Borumand", "Talieh Kamran", "Abolhassan Saba", "Dariush Safvat", and "Ghobad Zafar".

In recent decades, Persian classical music has seen many other santoor players including Mohammad Heydari (a student of Saba), Pashang Kamkar (a student of Boroumand and Safvat), Milad Kiaei (a student of Saba), Majid Kiani (a student of Manuchehr Sadeghi and Mohammad Heydari), Hossein Malek (a student of Borumand and Saba), Parviz Meshkatian (a student Boroumand and Safvat), Faramarz Payvar (a student of Saba), Mehdi Setayeshgar (a student of Boroumand and Payvar), and Reza Shafieian (a student of Saba and Payvar).

A brief on the structure of the santoor. As mentioned above the santoor is trapezoid-shaped. The frame, the upper and the lower surfaces of the santoor are wooden. Today's standard santoor has seventy-two strings in courses of four each. On the upper surface, eighteen wooden bridges exist. Each course of strings passes over the bridge and between a bridge and a course of strings, there is a small metal cylindrical bar. All the keys of the santoor are metal incorporated on the right leg and the strings are tuned with the help of a T-shaped metal handle. On the upper surface, two flower-shaped holes are, and on one of the bases of the frame, one circular hole is incorporated. The strings on the left side are white and the strings on the right side are yellow.

The santoor is played with two thin wooden plectrums called "mezrab-ha-ye-santoor مضراب‌های سنتور". Each plectrum (mezrab) has three parts called "sar سر", "sagheh ساقه", and "halgheh حلقه", literally meaning "head", "stem", and "ring", respectively. Note that the index finger of the musician goes through the ring and the plectrum is held by the thumb from behind and the middle finger from beneath.

For the so-called G-tuned santoor (in Persian "سنتور سل کوک"), the length of the larger and smaller bases of the trapezoid is 90 and 36 centimeters, respectively, and the length of each leg is 27. The distance between the upper and lower surfaces is 5 centimeters. The thickness of the upper (lower) surface is 6-7 (7-9) millimeters. The thickness of the frame is 17 millimeters. The length of the cylindrical bar is 17 millimeters and its diameter is 2-2.5 millimeters. The height of each bridge for the white (yellow) strings is 22 (20) millimeters. The base of each bridge is circular and its diameter is 17 millimeters. Between the lower and upper surfaces, four cylindrical wooden bars are installed to help the surfaces to tolerate the pressure of the tuned strings. The diameter of each wooden bar is usually 1 centimeter.

The length of a santoor plectrum is usually 22 centimeters.


[G]: Paul M. Gifford, The Hammered Dulcimer: a History. Vol. 6. Scarecrow Press, 2001.

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

[M]: Hassan Mashhoun, Tarikh-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1994.

[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.

Keywords. santoor, santour, santur, dulcimer, zither, Iranian, Persian, hackbrett, mizrab.

Also, check Qanun Persian Zither Instrument.

Ostad Mehdi Nazemi making a santoor

A picture of an Iranian santoor maker, Ostad Mehdi Nazemi (1910 - 1997), courtesy of Pooyan Nasehpour.

A picture of Persian santoor, courtesy of Pooyan Nasehpour