Introduction to Iranian Indigenous and Local Musical Instruments

Posht-e Sahneh, Monthly Magazine, No. 4,
Aug. 2002
By: Kamran Komeylizadeh
Word Count: 3688

Iranian local musical instruments are very simple yet quite diverse, some of which are used along with those common to western orchestras. Some of them, which are made on the basis of scientific principles, are common to Iranian and western orchestras, while others are specifically played by Iranians. The tunes played by the specific Iranian instruments are normally accompanied by folklore songs and local dances.

Iranian musical instruments are classified into three categories of "wind", "percussion" and "string" which are introduced in this article.

The most common Iranian musical instruments which are now played almost all around the country might be classified into three categories on the basis of their type and structure: wind, percussion and string instruments. The string instruments are played either by bows or by plectrums.

Iranian wind instruments played almost all across the country include sorna (oboe) and pipe. To the northwest of Azarbaijan provinces balaban (Narmeh-nay) and dozeleh are commonly played. Another wind instrument played in Kurdestan, Fars and Gilan provinces is known as karna (horn).

Among string instruments one might refer to qeychak, rebab (with 18 cords), tar, dotar, sehtar (or sitar) and kamancheh. The most common Iranian percussion instruments are dombak and dohol (various types of drum), dayereh (tambourine) and naghareh (timbal), which are usually played almost all across the country.

Tambour -- Tambour, with a 1,500-year-old background, is considered a local and gnostic instrument. It was unearthed for the first time, while lying on three small earthenware statues in Shoush and being played by a musician.

It has been one of the most commonly played instruments in various historical eras. Tambour was taken from Iran to Syria and Egypt, while later on it became common in Europe, especially in east Europe. It looks like sehtar with a longer handle and a larger bowl. It is, however, more curved and elongated compared to sehtar. It has 3-6 cords and four tones. Tambour, which is played by claws, is common at the get-togethers held by dervishes, men of various sects and sufis in Kurdestan province. It is also considered a principal instrument for playing Khorasan local music and religious music at some other areas. There are various types of tambour including Baghdadi, Mongol, Turkish, Khorasani, double-corded, Shervani, Moroccan and complementary tambour. The last two items were commonly played in the past. Today, it is made in Iran and played both in solo and ensemble. Its bowl is 35 cm long. The length of the handle measured between the nut and the bowel is 35 cm, while the earpieces are installed 10 cm from the nut.

The conventional tanbour has 4-6 cords, two of which are equally tuned, while one of the cords is tuned according to the selected musical composition. It is usually played by the claw head or by all fingers.

Rebab (a two-stringed violin) -- In the myths attributed to the civilization of the ancient Iranian Empire reference has often been made to lute and rebab. The type of rebab currently played in southeastern Iran (specially Sistan) has 18 cords, which end up being tied to a button. Having crossed a bridge in parallel, the cords extend across the instrument's handle and cross the nut's groove to end up being connected to the earpieces.

Rebab is comprised of two wooden boxes the larger one being covered by a layer of hide measuring eight cm in length. The primary and secondary cords are extended along the larger box, on which a bridge is installed. Its handle is made of wood, while three (or four) cords (producing different tones) extend along it respectively at intervals measuring 3.5, 4, and 4.5 cm from the nut towards the bridge. The handle partially overlapping the second smaller box is covered by a number of holes in various shapes. The second box is aimed at amplifying the echo of the played tunes. Rebab is comprised of six primary cords, which are tied to the earpieces and 12 secondary metal cords. The instrument is 74 cm long and 23.5 cm deep.

It is a sacred instrument among the people residing in southern Iran and a great number of religious verses are engraved in its body. It has a sweet lucrative tune and by striking on a cord, the other cords start vibrating as well. The holes on the instrument's handle and the box make the produced tune to sound a little nasal and quite charming. The most interesting point about Iranian local instruments is the method of drying the wood and the application of specific chemicals and oils in making the solvent used to paint and varnish the wooden box. This amplifies the produced tunes.

Lute (barbat) -- In Persian the word "bat" means duck, while "bar" is the duck's breast. Lute is one of the most ancient Iranian instruments. It is called "roud" by the Persians and Arabs call it "oud". Some believe that lute has either come from Hairah to the west of the Euphrates river near Mada'en, the education center of the Sassanid princes, or from a city known as "Bab". It has also been referred to by many other names including "oud", "mozhar", "motar" and "keran".

Lute is considered to be of Persian origin and playing it has been quite common in Iran since the ancient times. Once the Iranian lute was taken to Saudi Arabia, the Arabs, likewise, started making it from wood and called it "oud". Its bowel is very large and pear-shaped. It has an extremely short handle, so that the cords mainly extend along its bowel. It has 10 cords or five pairs of cord and is played by a plectrum. A chicken or peacock feather serves as plectrum. Lute produces a dull, soft and melancholy tone.

Tar -- It is one of the most ancient classical Iranian string instruments known for its highly original and traditional characteristics. It has six cords and is played by a metal plectrum or horn. The body, which is the instrument's main bowel, is usually made in two wooden pieces (of walnut or Indian berry trees). The handle is made separately and then connected to the bowel.

The word "tar" was originally obtained from the Sanskrit word "tarah". It was made for the very first time with four cords, while the number was then increased to five and eventually to six. Its plectrum is either made from metal or a tough horn. Besides the conventional tars, two other types, alto (outar) and soprano, have also been made recently. It should be noted that tar is one of the most complete musical instruments.

Setar -- It is one of the Iranian plectrum-type string instruments, which is plucked by the player's forefinger's nail. Sehtar or Setouyeh is a three-cord instrument, which was converted into a four-cord instrument under the reign of the Qajars. It is, in general, an ancient and gnostic instrument usually played at the gathering of dervishes most often held at Khaneqahs (monasteries or houses of dervishes), which makes the listener feel high. In view of its special vocal features, Sehtar is known as the instrument appealing to the listener's heart and the Iranian musical instrument ranking second among Iranian musicians. It is simpler than other instruments both in appearance and the method of playing. Its low tune, compactness and tenderness are the main reason for its great appeal in the course of the past centuries. It is made in various types and sizes including large, small, flat and zir-abai. Tars are made in two methods: Turkish (in many pieces) and scraped kasdani (in one piece).

Sehtar is generally made from berry wood, while at some occasions that of pear or walnut tree might be used as well. Its bowel is a pear-shaped semi-sphere, while its thin and delicate handle is tenderer than that of other instruments.

Dotar -- It is one of the Iranian local plectrum instruments commonly played by the local traditional musicians and farmers in northeastern Iran, especially Gorgan plain. Dotar is very similar to Sehtar, but its handle is a bit longer. In ancient time, it had two silk strands while today they are replaced by two wire cords. It is played as an accompaniment to the conventional kamanchehs. All the tunes played by dotar are marked by two tones. The second tone is produced by plucking the forefinger's nail on the second cord. The instrument is tuned by plucking the claws on its surface with the right hand in a familiar rhythm. This will also develop the rhythm of the melody to be played.

Qeychak-- It is one of the ancient Iranian classical instruments. The oldest sample instrument still remaining is comprised of a dual box and the surface of the lower one is covered by a hide.

The produced tune is first transferred from the lower box to the upper one, from where it is broadcast through two wide openings. This part of the instrument is very interesting from the scientific point of view, since a second box has been added on its surface in order to amplify the tune.

This makes the instrument much richer in producing a great variety of tunes. It has 4-6 cords, which similar to conventional Kamancheh, have been extended on a wooden box. It is played by a bow of particular shape, while the musician simultaneously creates the desired tune by plucking the cords by his/her left hand. The instrument's box is made of berry wood.

Kamancheh (a spiked fiddle) -- It is an ancient Iranian classical string instrument played by a special bow with a beautiful form, which is comprised of four main sections: a bowel, a handle, a base and a bow. Its bowel is spherical in shape, a portion of which is cut off and covered with a hide. In old days the bowel of Kamancheh was made from walnut wood, horsehide and silk. It was initially made of three cords. However, once violin was imported into Iran, besides the three cords, a fourth one was added, which became known as a Sol key. Its handle is made from wood obtained from bamboo, jujube and walnut trees. In old days its cords were made from silk, while later on metal cords replaced silk strands. Today violin wire cords are used as a substitute.

It is a common Iranian traditional instrument comprised, similar to other string instruments, of a handle, a bowel, a base, a handle cap, an earpiece and a bow.

Santur (dulcimer) -- It is one of the oldest Iranian string instruments played by plectrum. It has been discovered among the ancient Assyrian objects obtained during the archaeological excavations. It has been observed in the paintings and illustrations of pre-Islamic and post-Islamic eras. Later on dulcimer was taken to the West and other countries. Today more than ten types of dulcimer are made, among which one might refer to the Iraqi, Iranian, Indian, French, Egyptian, Turkish and European versions. Each type is marked with slight variations in the form and number of cords according to the culture and taste of the people who have made them. In Iran it is one of the favorite musical instruments among the residents of Ilam. The dulcimer used today isn't too much different from its old version. It is a prism-shaped instrument with trapezoidal bases made of walnut wood.

Seventy-two cords are extended on its upper surface towards the two side faces, which are tied to small nails, which look like six-petal flowers, measuring 5-5.5 cm in diameter. They are placed on the upper plate of the dulcimer at definite intervals from the edges and the hole. This is to prevent the produced tune from being damped. Due to its vocal limitations, dulcimer is not included in great orchestras. However, it sounds very charming when played in solo or in accompaniment to small orchestras.

Qanoon -- It is one of the string instruments commonly played in Iran since ancient times. It has also been widely played in other Islamic and Western countries, where their structure has been changed to some extent. Some people attribute its invention to Plato and some others to Farabi. Later on, once it was introduced to the public in the Arab lands around the 12th century it was taken to Europe via Andulesia and became known as Qanoon, while it appeared in a new shape and dimension. Several major types of Qanoon are known including the European (French), Egyptian, Turkish, Baghdadi and Iranian. The size of the instrument's box is proportionate to the tune produced by it and the larger the box the more bass will be the produced tunes. Its box is made of walnut wood and it is either played by a thimble or plucked by hand.

Introduction to several Iranian wood instruments

Sorna (oboe) -- It is commonly played almost across the country in accompaniment to kettledrum and timbale in special traditional occasions. For instance, in Kurdestan, western Iran, the demise of people is announced by playing sorna along with kettledrum. Once the public is gathered around the grave of the deceased person, some verses pointing to the unstable material life are sung in accompaniment to the exciting tunes played by sorna and tambourine. Then to rise the spirit of the participants and to divert their attention from the sad event the musicians switch to fast tempos. In northern Iran the instrument is played in accompaniment to some special sports events including tightrope walking. Also a special tune is commonly played by sorna during a wrestling game.

Pipe -- It produces a simple primitive tune expressing the noble feelings of simplistic people, including the shepherds taking their cattle to the green mountain slopes in order to feed them and the peasants taking time to relax once they are through with their daily routines, who play it as a pastime. Women at times respond to the played tunes by singing songs. Various types of pipe played in Iran include haft-band pipe (seven-corded), ney-labak, karna, dozeleh, balaban (soft pipe) and bagpipe.

Haft-band Pipe -- Its mouthpiece is placed in-between the players lips who blows into it to vibrate the air inside it and produce the desired tune. Meanwhile, the pipe has a definite number of holes on it. In some types one hole overlaps another and it is held by the player's thumb.

Neylabak-- It is 30 cm long and is comprised of a mouthpiece, a tongue and a maximum of six holes. The thumb of the player is placed at the point where one or two of the holes overlap.

The other type commonly played in Mazandaran is smaller in size with a slice on one side. It is placed inside a bigger pipe and has four holes.

Karna-- It is one of Iran's ancient instruments. Much has been said and observed about karna in the myths about Iran's civilization, in the paintings of Taq-e Bostan and the historical monuments of the Sassanid era. Its original appearance has been quite different from what it looks like today. The most ancient and primitive sample of the instrument is currently available in Gilan province. Karna is a vocal pipe and once the player blows into it, the air column inside it vibrates and a tune is produced.

It is an instrument mainly made of wood and a tender pipe is placed on it. There is a type of karna commonly played in northern Iran, especially in Gilan province, without a tongue and the overlapped hole to be gripped by the player's finger.

It is comprised of three sections: the mouthpiece made of reed pipe two cm in diameter, the 3.6-meter long body and a trumpet-like cap with one end connected to the body, while the other end is protruded.

Usually 5-6 karna players come together on the occasion of Imam Hussein's martyrdom in the religious month of Moharram, when the Muslims mourn. First of all a tune is played by the main karna-player who conducts the other players. Then the same tune is played in ensemble right away. The instrument is four meters long and made of ordinary reed. karna is a simple insturment just good for playing the secondary tunes. The more advanced type of karna has some holes on its body, which are added to play notes in the lowest (bass) or highest ranges (soprano). The shape and size of the instrument is variable and each instrument produces special sets of secondary tunes, characteristic to various areas.

The karnas of today, similar to sornas, have 6-7 holes on their wooden body. A brass trumpet-like cone is installed at the end of the instrument. Respiration and the movement of lips are quite effective in playing the instrument.

Dozeleh -- It is a double pipe and one of the Iranian classical wind instruments commonly played among Iranian nomads and tribes. It is comprised of two tongues producing similar tunes and two vacuum reed or bamboo pipes. It produces a particular tune representing the rural culture known in Lorestan and Kermanashah as "zanbureh". Dozeleh might be considered the remainder of the ancient dual pipes, which are frequently observed in the ancient paintings and drawings.

Balaban(Narmeh-nay) -- It is one of the tongues wind instruments marked by its high potential of producing exciting melodies.

Today, it is commonly played by the Kurds in western Iran and the Turks in northwestern Iran, which is usually accompanied by tambourine.

The instrument is made either from wood or bone and its body is covered by a total of seven holes.

Bag-pipes (Nay-anban) -- It is commonly played in southern Iran, especially Bushehr, as well as some Arab and European countries such as Ireland and Scotland. It is comprised of two pipes, each of which has six holes. The instrument is made of goat hide where the air is reserved.

The mouthpiece is placed between the lips of the player and the numerous holes on the pipe enable the musician to play various notes. Continuous tunes might be produced by bagpipe and it is excellent for playing exciting melodies of high tempo. It is usually accompanied by the local percussion instruments.

Introduction to a few Iranian percussion instruments

Dohol -- It is a big drum covered by a piece of goat hide. It is usually played in accompaniment to sorna in the villages, agricultural areas and plains and is made in various sizes. Its greater version is commonly played in Baluchestan. Dohol is played by a rather long wooden or osseous rod on one side, while on the other side tunes are produced by plucking the instrument with a few small bones tied to the fingers of the player's other hand. The dohols played in southern Iran are cylindrical in shape and their two bases are covered by goat hide. Dohols commonly played in Fars province (Fasa) are different in form and quite similar to the western instrument known as timpani. Its body is metallic and made from copper, while its goat hide is fastened by leather band.

Naghareh (timbale) -- It is comprised either of two small drums or a small and big drum played together. The greater drum produces a bass tune, while the tune produced by the smaller one is soprano. The instrument's bowel is ceramic, but most often it is made from copper, while at times it is made from a hollow tree trunk and covered by a piece of cow or sheep hide. Naghareh is either played by two wood rods or plucked by two hands. It is played both in feasts and mourning ceremonies. Various types of Naghareh include the Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi, Mashadi, southern as well as other types. It is played by two twigs.

Dayereh (tambourine) -- It is mostly played in feasts and wedding ceremonies. But in the cities of Maragheh and Oshnaviyeh, two persons holding big dayerehs in their hands play it and sing gnostic songs simultaneously at Khaneghahs (the gatherings of dervishes). The instrument has a descriptive tone and the dervishes residing in northwestern Iran perform rhythmic gestures and accompany the produced tune by shouting 'Allah Allah.'

Dombak -- It is the chief percussion instrument of Persian classical music. It is a one-headed drum carved from a single piece of wood. It is placed under the player's arm and held in-between the fingers of his two hands. Its body is made from wood, ceramic or light metals. But wood is the most convenient material.

Dombak is comprised of various sections including the hide, a big mouth and a small one. It is the only percussion instrument in the world that might be played by making full use of all the fingers of both hands. It became known as dombak during the reign of the Sassanids. It is placed horizontally on the player's leg and is played by two hands in a special way. The tune played by dombak has no definite pitch, but as far as its playing technique is concerned, it is one of the most advanced instruments whose structure contains hide.

Iranian cymbal -- It is one of the Iranian ancient percussion instruments. According to historians, it is invented by Iranians. It is comprised of two round metal disks (usually bronze or steel) and by beating them on one another high tempos are produced in accompaniment to religious or epical music. The tunes played by cymbal during the chain-beating mourning ceremonies observed on the occasion of the martyrdom of Imams in the month of Moharram serves to keep up the rhythm of the participants beating the chains on their shoulders.

In some areas such as Tehran, Fars, Bushehr, etc. the metal cymbal is played in duet, which is referred to as haft-joush. However, there is no remarkable difference between the appearance and form of Iranian and western cymbals, except that in the western orchestras small and big dual cymbals are played in duet, while placed horizontally on stands. It is either played by beating the two disks on one another or by striking the convex surface of the cymbal with a wooden plectrum.

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