Ostad Saeed Hormozi

Setar the Persian Long-necked lute

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The "setar سه‌تار" is a Persian four-stringed long-necked lute performed in Persian classical music. It is one of the most favorite musical instruments for Iranians. The history of the setar is still in dispute. However, there is some good information on this instrument during and after the Ghajar era.

The etymology of the name setar. The name setar is a combination of "se سه" and "tar تار" meaning "three" and "string" in Persian, respectively. The reason that this instrument was called "setar" was that it had three strings in the past. In their poems in the Persian language, the famous poets "Khaqani خاقانی" and Rumi have mentioned this instrument though under the name "seta سه‌تا" which is an abbreviation of the name "setar". Another interesting example is the following hemistich of the Persian poet "Osman Mokhtari عثمان مختاری":

"دوتا و سه‌تا را گرفتی به چنگ"

A translation of the mentioned hemistich is: "You took the dota and the seta in your hand".

Note that in the mentioned hemistich, the names "dota دو‌تا" and "seta سه‌تا" are included and they are abbreviations for "dotar" and "setar", respectively. Let me add that "dotar دوتار" is a two-stringed long-necked lute and the name "dotar" is a combination of "do دو" and "tar تار" meaning "two" and "string", respectively. Finally, let me bring a verse of Khaqani including the names "dota" and "seta":

چنبر دف شود فلک مطرب بزم شاه را ماه دوتا به بر کشد زهره ستای نو زند

A brief on the history of the setar. The setar, as its name shows, had three strings. The Sufi poet-musician "Moshtagh Alishah Kermani مشتاق علیشاه کرمانی" added the fourth string as a sympathetic string. This is why this string is given the name "sim-e-moshtagh سیم مشتاق" which means Moshtagh's string. The other name for this string is "sim-e-vakhan سیم واخوان" which is a Persian translation for "a sympathetic string". The setar is not a loud musical instrument, and it was played in private small gatherings. Since it was not loud enough and the microphones were not sensitive and advanced enough, old recordings for the setar are not available. However, when more sensitive and advanced microphones were imported to Iran, most great masters of setar (for example, Abolhassan Saba) recorded their music and because of that, we have access to their music.

On the structure of the setar. The setar is played by the nail of the index finger. If the setar player's nail is fragile, prefabricated or metal nails can be very useful. The setar's soundbox and neck 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. The names of the strings of setar from down to up are "sim-e-sefid سیم سفید", "sim-e-zard سیم زرد", "sim-e-moshtagh", and "sim-e-bam سیم بم" meaning "white string", "yellow string", Moshtagh's string, and "bass string", respectively.

Today, the setar is one of the most popular instruments in Persian classical music which is played both in solo form and in orchestras. In recent decades, women have also shown much interest in this elegant instrument.

Some famous setar players. The famous setar players include Mirza Abdollah, Saeed Hormozi, Yousef Foroutan, Ahmad Ebadi, Arsalan Darghahi, Abolhasan Saba, Dariush Safvat, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Hossein Alizadeh, Jalal Zolfonun, Dariush Talai, Hamid Motebassem, and Massoud Shaari.

Appendix. The Persian term "tar" which means "string" is seen in the names of many stringed instruments such as the Indian sitar (in Urdu ستار), the Uyghur instruments "dutar دۇتار", "satar ساتار", and "khushtar خۇشتار", Persian tar, and even in guitar. Let me add that Shakespear in his dictionary explains that the Hindu word "sitar ستار" comes from the Persian words "سه" (three) and "تار" (string) and adds that "ستارباز" is a person who constantly plays on the sitar.

Remark. A description of the picture of the head of this page. Ostad Saeed Hormozi dedicated his own picture to my father, Ostad Nasrollah Nasehpour.

The second picture shows Ostad Saeed Hormozi on the setar. The picture is courtesy of Ata Omidvar.

Keywords. setar, musical instrument, Iranian, Persian, Iran, Persia.


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

[Sh]: John Shakespear, Dictionary, Hindustani and English

Peyman Nasehpour on the tonbak and Massoud Shaari on the setar
Peyman Nasehpour on the tonbak and Massoud Shaari on the setar

Massoud Shaari on the setar and me on the tonbak (Arasbaran Culture House, Tehran, Aug. 30th, 2001)

Persian setar (19th century)