Tanbour the Persian long-necked lute

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The "tanbour تنبور" (also spelled as tanbur) is one of the most ancient musical instruments of Persia. A couple of small clay sculptures, found in the ancient city "Susa شوش" belonging to at least 1500 B.C., show the tanbour players. Different types of the tanbour have been popular throughout history as they are discussed in Persian old manuscripts in detail. Today, the tanbour is quite popular in the Kermanshah province of Iran and it is sometimes performed in Persian classical music. The main purpose of this note is to introduce this important and ancient musical instrument of Persia.

The etymology of the name tanbour. The name "tanbour تَنبور", also spelled as "tonbour تُنبور" is a combination of two words "tonb تُنب" and "var وَر". The old Persian word "tonb تُنب" means belly, and "var وَر" is a suffix for possessing in Persian. Note that the word "tonb" is seen in the names of Iranian islands "Tonb-e-Bozorg تُنب بزرگ" and "Tonb-e-Kuchak تُنب کوچک" in the Persian Gulf and this is justifiable in this sense that an island is like a belly in sea or ocean. The Arabicized name of this instrument is "tonbour طُنبور" used in Persian old texts and manuscripts. Some believe that the existence of the word "tonb" in the name of the Persian goblet-shaped drum "tonbak تنبک" is not accidental since the letter "k ک" is a diminutive suffix and the body of the "tonbak" has a small belly form. For a lexical discussion of the word "tonbak", see my note Lexical Discussion of Different Names of the Tonbak. In some references, it has been recorded that the ancient name of the "tanbour" is "tambour تمبور". In my opinion, the Persian "tanbour" is related to the Indian long-necked lute called the "tanpura", also known as the "tambura". In Persian folk music, there is a kind of long-necked lute called "tambourak تمبورک" which is quite popular in Baluchi music. In old dictionaries, other names such as "tanboureh تنبوره" and "tanboureh طنبوره" have been illustrated as synonyms for the "tanbour". Finally, let me add that a long-necked lute similar to tanbour with the name "tembor" (in Uyghur "تەمبۈر") is popular in Uyghur music.

Tanbour in Persian poems. The name "tanbour" in both forms, i.e. the Persian form "تنبور" and its Arabicized form "طنبور", has been used by old and contemporary Persian poets. Perhaps the oldest Persian poet who used the name "tanbour تنبور" in his works was Rudaki (858-940/41 CE) who was also a musician. Note that Rudaki is considered the first major poet to write in "New Persian". One of the most important Persian poets Ferdowsi (940-1019/1025 CE) mentioned both forms in his poems. Famous Persian poets including Nasir Khusraw (1004-after 1070 CE), Fakhraddin Asa'ad Gorgani, Manuchehri Damghani (fl. 1031-1040 CE), Nizami Ganjavi (c. 1141–1209 CE), Attar of Nishapur (c. 1145 - c. 1221 CE), Rumi (1207-1273 CE), Saadi Shirazi (1210-1291/1292 CE), Amir Khusrau  (1253-1325 CE), and Jami (1414-1492 CE). As an example, I bring the following verse by Rumi which is perhaps the most famous verse in Persian literature including the name "tanbour طنبور":

بانگ گردشهای چرخست این که خلق      می‌سرایندش به طنبور و به حلق

Remark. At the end of this note, I uploaded a document (taken from the Ganjoor website) including Rumi's verse.

Different types of tanbour. Not only in Persian poems but also in Persian texts the name "tonbour طنبور" has been mentioned several times. For example, Ali Hujwiri (c. 1009-1072/77 CE), in his book on Sufism discusses different instruments such as "nay نای" and "tonbour طنبور". Without going into further detail, we proceed to discuss different types of tanbour, illustrated in old manuscripts on theoretical music.

Tanbour-e-Baghdadi. The tanbour of Baghdad (in Persian "tanbour-e-baghdadi تنبور بغدادی") also known as "tanbour-e-mizani تنبور میزانی" is a type of tanbour illustrated by Alpharabius (c. 872-950/951 CE) (in Persian "Farabi فارابی") in his famous book on music entitled "Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir كتاب الموسيقى الكبير". It is a fretted long-necked lute played by the fingers of the musician. Alpharabius explains that the frets are tied in a way that the melodies extracted from this type of tanbour are suitable for the music of "the Age of Ignorance" (in Arabic "Jahiliyyah جَاهِلِيَّة").

Tanbour-e Hasht Roud. In an old manuscript entitled "Mojmal al-Tawarikh wa al-Qasas", it has been written in Persian:

"طنبوری هشت‌رود ساخته بودند همی‌زدند و سرود همی‌گفتند و نشاط همی‌کردند. (مُجمَل‌ التواریخ و القصص)"

This can be translated into:

"They had made (tuned) a tanbour with eight strings and they played and sang and celebrated." Though the author of the book "Mojmal" is unknown, specialists in the Persian language and history believe that it is a very exact and trustworthy manuscript from the 12th century and so, one can trust that a type of eight-stringed long-necked lute existed in the 12th century. 

Tanbour-e-Khorasani. The tanbour of Khorasan (in Persian "tanbour-e-khorasani تنبور خراسانی") is a two-stringed long-necked lute illustrated by Alpharabius in his book on music. Alpharabius explains how to tune this type of tanbour and where to tie the frets. Iranian musicologist, Dr. Mehdi Barkeshli explains that the frets on the tanbour of Khorasan give the Pythagorean scale, however since, the tanbour is a pre-Helleni instrument the discussed scale has been performed on this instrument before Pythagoras (c. 570 - c. 495 BC).

Tanbour-e-Shervanian. As Persian musician Abdolqadir Maraghi (in Persian "عبدالقادر مراغی") in his important and famous book on music entitled "Jami al-Alhan جامع الالحان" illustrates, the Shervanian tanbour is a two-stringed long-necked lute popular among the people of "Tabriz" city emphasizing that this type of tanbour is different from the Turkish one.

Tanbour-e-Torki. The Torki tanbour (in Persian "tanbour-e-torki تنبور ترکی") is a two- or three-stringed long-necked lute illustrated by Abdolqadir Maraghi in his book on music entitled "Jami al-Alhan جامع الالحان".

Tanbour in Today Music of Iran. Tanbour is a folk musical instrument heavily popular in the Kermanshah province of Iran. Traditionally, it had two strings, but today three-stringed tanbours are more popular. The soundbox and neck of a tanbour are larger than the soundbox and neck of a setar. The body of the tanbour is wooden usually made of mulberry wood. Having 14 movable frets, tanbour is played by four fingers of the musician with some unique finger patterns. Shahram Nazeri, a famous vocalist from Kermanshah sang in a Persian classical music album that tanbour was the main instrument. Some famous musicians such as Kaykhosro Pournazeri and Ali Akbar Moradi popularized the tanbour in Iran. Note that drums are not traditionally used to accompany the tanbour. However, in a few cases, it has been seen that some tanbour players have wanted the daf players to accompany them in their "Jamkhaneh جمع‌خانه". Note that Jamkhaneh literally means a "house for gathering" and is the temple for Yarsan people. Finally, let me add that some modern tanbour players have shown interest to be accompanied by the daf players. In modern tanbour ensembles, I have seen that the ensembles are accompanied by the daf players. For more on Persian frame drums, go to Daf Dayereh Frame Drums.

The strings of the tanbour. In the past, the strings of tanbour were made of silk (in Persian, "abrisham ابریشَم", also spelled as "abrishom ابریشُم"). It is quite interesting that Amir Khosro Dehlavi uses "abrisham" as the string of tanbour in the following verse:

من عاشق و مستم، ره زهدم منمایید     کابریشم طنبور به طومار نبندند

Today, the strings of the tanbour are metallic.

Remark. The tanbour picture is courtesy of Pooyan Nasehpour.


[A]: Seyed Khalil Alinezhad, Tanbour az Dirbaz ta Konun, Danesh-va-Fan Publications, Tehran, 1997. 

[H]: Ali Hujwiri, Kashf al-Mahjub, Soroush Publications, Tehran, 2004. (This book was translated by Reynold Nicholson from Persian into English in 1911 and a corrected version was published by The E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust in 2014).

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

Keywords. tanbur, tanbour, Persian, Iranian, Kurdish, musical, instrument.

Reza Aliabadi on Tanbour

Arash Shahriari on Tanbour

Khorshid Dadbeh on Tanbour

A page of a book including poems of Rumi talking about tanbour

The most famous verse in Persian literature, by Rumi, including the name "tanbour طنبور":

بانگ گردشهای چرخست این که خلق      می‌سرایندش به طنبور و به حلق