The geographic area and cultures of the near and middle-east from which the music and instruments evolved are diverse and ancient. The instruments used are too numerous to list. This section will describe the instruments that are common. The geographic area and cultures from which the music and instruments evolved are just as diverse and equally ancient. The details of the construction and playing techniques of their instruments differ from region to region but also have many similarities.
The traditional ensemble or Takht, literally translated “platform” in Arabic consists of 4 main melodic instruments. They are the oud, nay, qanun (or kanun) and violin. They are divided into two families called the Sahb, (pulling or stretching) instruments and the Naqr (plucking or hammering). The violin and nay are examples of Sahb and the oud and qanun are Naqr. These two families are meant to compliment each other. The most common combination is the oud and violin or the qanun with the nay.
The use of western even-tempered instruments are now wide spread. These include piano, electric piano, or keyboard synthesizer, accordion, guitar and electric guitar, electric or fretted bass. Some of these instruments can be altered to produce the quarter tones or microtones common in the music of the near and middle-east. Drum sets and electronic percussion are becoming common with modern POP/dance music.
The flute, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and trombone allow greater control over pitch (called pitch bending). They are used in modern jazz and jazz fusion styles.The violin, viola, cello and upright bass are widely used. Having no frets, these instruments can comfortably play music of the region.
The Oud (Ud, ‘Ud)
The oldest known oud was discovered by Americans in the tomb of the famous Egyptian musician Harmasis who lived around 1500 BC. The oud is known as the “amir altarab” or the “piece of enchantment.” It is a favorite instrument among theorists, composers as well as amateur performers.
The word oud means piece of wood or thin strip of wood. This refers to the strips of wood used to make its rounded body. It is a pear shaped short-necked fretless instrument known for its mellow bass sound.
The neck of the oud which is short compared to its body, has no frets and contributes to its unique sound. Between the eighth and the tenth centuries, the oud had 4 strings. A fifth string was added by Mohamed Ziryab who introduced the luth from Iraq into Andalusia. This was a region in southern Europe and North Africa specifically including the most southern part of Spain, at the time it was occupied by the Moors.
The soundboard has one large sound hole and two small ones. They are called Shamsiyya. This name comes from Shams or the sun. The word Qamarat comes from Qamer the moon or Ayun the eyes.
The oudi or oud player of old used a long plectrum or pick made of eagle feather to strum the strings. The modern plectrum is made of plastic.
The most common string combinations is five pairs of strings tuned in unison and a single bass string, although up to thirteen strings may be found. Strings are made of nylon or gut and are plucked with a plectrum known as a Risha. This is an Arabic word that means feather. Modern strings are made of steel wound over nylon. The instrument has a warm timbre, low tessitura and is often intricately decorated. The instrument like all near and middle-eastern instruments varies slightly in pitch, styling and tuning throughout the region. It is most commonly tuned to GADGC. The first course may also be tuned to F.
The oud made its way into Europe, starting in Spain in the 8th century and finally developed into the most popular instrument in the western world; the guitar. The European lute is a descendent of the oud, from which it takes its name (al-oud).
The Qanun ( Kanun or Kanoun)
The qanun (kanun, kanoun) is a chordophone and is a descendant of the old Egyptian harp.
According to legend, the more current version of the qanun was created by Al-Farabi, a philosopher born in the small village of Wasij near Farab in Turkistan in 870 of Persian parents. . Aber al Nasr al Farabi invented and played several instruments and wrote a lot of material about the theory of Arab and Persian classical music. Farabi had a remarkable approach as to how the musical laws were constructed. This great scientist mastered his instruments and music so well, he could make people laugh or weep at will! Al-Farabi died in 950 in Damascus.
The qanun is a stringed zither. The sound box is trapezoidal in shape; it somewhat resembles the autoharp, but is larger. It is played by plucking the strings with short horn or plastic- plectra placed between the tip of each index finger and a small metal ring. A long bridge on the right hand side of the instrument rests on goat or fish-skin covered windows in the top of the instrument and on the left hand side, each course of strings passes over a series of small brass levers that are used to make the microtonal changes in pitch. The qanuni (qanun player) can play many types of intervals, called the zulzul or coma of sound. A note can be altered by comas which is a small fraction of a note. 8 coma of sound exist between E flat and E natural which is only a ½ step in western music theory for example.
The strings are arranged in groups of three called courses. Each course is tuned to one note. The Arabic qanuns typically are larger than the Turkish kanuns. The Arabic version can have up to 27 courses or 81 strings and may have less levers or (mandals) to change the pitch than their Turkish neighbors. The Arabic “flavor” consists of quarter tones when the Turkish “flavor” can have as many as the full 8 coma of sound to express microtonal subtleties. Thus, the Turkish kanuns can have as many as 12 mandals per course of strings. The Turkish kanuns are smaller and may have 24-25 courses of strings or 72-75 strings.
The instrument is placed flat on the knees or on the table of the qanuni (qanun player). The player initially sets the levers or mandals to create the scale of the starting maqam. When the player needs to modulate to another maqam, they need to switch some of the levers back and forth with the left hand while playing with the right hand. Quick modulation can also be achieved by using the fingernail of the left thumb to temporarily raise the tone of some of the strings.
The qanun is a very complex musical instrument. The word qanun means the “law”. The word comes from a Latin word and exists in English in the form of “canon”. In the near and middle-eastern ensemble, the instrument lays down the law of pitch for the other instruments and singers. The qanun player is often the leader of the orchestra. More than any other instrument in the near and middle-eastern music, the qanun is suitable for the display of virtuosity, the execution of fioriture and rapid scales.
Nay or Ney
The Nay or Ney is classified as an aerophonic. It is one of the oldest forms of flute. The ney is the end blown flute of the middle-eastern world. The word ney is a Persian word in their language which is Farsi. It is made from reed not bamboo. It is played from Morocco to Pakistan. The kaval and the salaam flutes belong to the same family. These flutes are thicker and are not as long as the classical ney.
The oldest form of the nay dates back to the age of the Pyramids. It is seen on Egyptian tomb paintings as early as 3000-2500 years BC. This variety of nay is still used among certain Ethiopian tribes.
The ney has seven holes. Six are finger holes plus a thumb hole. The Turks started to use wood, bone and horn around the 11th century and now even plastic mouth pieces. These are really lip rests. As for playing, the fingering and lip techniques remain the same. This embouchure is called biabial blowing. The upper and lower lips are used to partially close the end of the tube.
The name for the top of the ney is Paspare in Turkish. Turkish style neys have a special mouthpiece which is called Parazvane. It is some kind of black cone which protects the mouthpiece.
Both the Arabic nay and the Turkish ney come in different lengths, each one being tuned to a specific pitch, somewhat similar to the Irish penny whistle. A neyeti or nay player usually has a set of nays to use depending on the maqam or key of the music. The normal set consists of 7 nays. However, a competent nay player usually uses two nays, one of which being the Dokah or D Nay.
Nays are referred to by the name of the second note. That is the note the nay produces when the first hole is uncovered. When all holes are covered, the basic note is C or Do as most near and middle-eastern musicians use the French names of the notes. Notes are also produced by partially opening a tone hole, changing the blowing angle or a combination of the above and also by altering your blowing force. The G note in the 1st register is the same pitch as the all-holes closed note, as is the C in the 2nd register and the closed C of the 3rd. These alternate fingerings are used for musical purposes and to check internal tuning and angle positions. Some of the tone-holes are assigned to certain microtonal steps, although microtonal variations can also be achieved by partially opening a tone-hole and changing the blowing angle or a combination of the two.
Arabic stylization is more rhythmic, reflecting the instrument used in the shepherd tradition. This is a good example of the use of the nay in oriental music. A classical nay is usually longer, the folk models like the Kavala or Kawal- which has no thumbhole is shorter.
In Turkey, the ney is a more urban classical instrument. The Turkish style is more smooth and flowing, betraying the Dervish association. In Turkey, the Mevlevi (whirling Dervishes) long ago adopted the ney as their main instrument in the Serna, the spiritual service, that includes the trance dance spinning.
Its poetical timber and breathy sound and its subtle tonal and dynamic inflections make it especially suitable for melancholy effects expressing both joy and yearning. Although very simple, the nay is one of the most difficult near and middle-eastern instruments to play. A fine player can produce a large variety of liquid sounds and ornaments; it is an extremely soulful instrument. It is the only wind instrument used in near and middle-eastern art music.
The violin is classified as a chordophone. The European violin was adopted into Arab music during the second half of the 19th century replacing the two-string fiddle that was prevalent in Egypt called the Kamanja. After World War 1 the takht was gradually expanded into an orchestra that combined Arab instruments and other instruments from the west, especially the violin family. Mohammad ‘abd al Wahab utilized this orchestral structure for many of his compositions and during the Om Koulthoum era orchestras became very popular.
The European violin has replaced the older kamanja as the principal bowed instrument partly because of its louder tone. The Arabic violin is tuned differently than its European counterpart. Although various tunings are used, the traditional Arab tuning is in fourths and fifths (G3, D4, G4, D5).
The playing style is highly ornate, with slides, trills, wide vibrato, and double stops, often using an open string as a drone. The timbre changes from rich and warm, similar to the sound of the western violin, to nasal and penetrating, reminiscent of the sound of the rababah, a type of Arab folk fiddle.
The violin is held both in the usual under-chin fashion and gamba style on the knee. Moroccans play the gamba style and often the Morrocans use the DGAE tuning.
The accordion can have the internal reeds altered to create the microtones common in near and middle-eastern music. The stylization of the accordion has added yet another dimension to the Arabic sound.
The Percussion Instruments
As with the melodic instruments there are far too many percussion instruments to mention. We will discuss the riqq, tablah and the tar.
- The Riqq
The riqq (riq, rik rikk, daff) is a membranophone. The Riq or daff (the Arabic name) is a popular instrument resembling the English tambourine. The riq is a small tambourine (approx. 8.5 inches in diameter and 2.5 inches deep) traditionally covered with a goat or fish skin head, stretched over a wooden frame which is often inlaid with mother of pearl. The riq has five sets of two pairs of brass cymbals (approx. 2 inches in diameter) spaced evenly around the frame, and called the “saqaat” in Arabic. The cymbals are what produce the exciting jingle sound.
Although fish or goat skin heads are valued for their warm and natural sounds, their main problem is that they are very sensitive to humidity and can easily lose their tightness. Traditional riq players had to heat their riqs just before a performance. Since the riq skin could stretch again after 5-10 minute, professional riq players often had to own 2 identical riqs, heating one while playing the other, and switching between songs.
In the late 1980’s, a mylar –headed aluminum (or wooden) bodied instrument was introduced and adopted by a number of professional riq players. Modern riqs are tunable and allow the heads to be replaced without having to be glued.
The riq is especially valued for the variety of sounds it can produce and appreciated for the subtle yet virtuosic manner in which it is performed. In the first half of the 20th century, it was common for the riq to be the sole percussion instrument in the art-music ensembles. In the second half of the 20th century, with the addition of the tabla, and the other percussion instruments to these ensembles, riq players adopted a technique that emphasizes the cymbal over the membrane sounds. The classical playing technique of this instrument is extremely difficult; years of practice are necessary to develop the finger strength required.
- The Mazhar
The Mazhar, a large folkloric tambourine with very large loud cymbals.The sound of the riq sets the rhythm of much Arabic music, particularly of classical pieces. In the traditional Arabic ensemble, the riq player plays the role of the Dabet al Iqaa (Rhythm Master in Arabic.) The riq player can single-handedly control the speed and dynamics of an entire orchestra (e.g. the Om Koulthoum orchestra.).
- The Tabla. Also Known as Darbukka, Derbukka, Dumbek, Doumbek, Zarb, Kalouze, Tarabuka
The tabla is classified as a membranophone. The tabla is a small hand drum commonly called the dumbek in the west or darabukka. The name comes from the Arab root verb “derb” which means “to beat”. The Persian name of the instrument is the “zarb” as the z is pronounced somewhere between z and d. Once considered a woman’s instrument, it is now the most popular percussion instrument in the near and middle-east. The player of the darabukka is called derebki.
The goblet-shaped body used to be made of clay, sometimes wood and nowadays mostly of aluminum. Most tablas are intricately decorated with wood tile, bone inlay, mother of pearl, etched metal or paintings in the designs typical of the near and middle-east.
As for the membrane, it used to be fish skin or goat skin. Now fiber skin is replacing the traditional natural membranes. This gives it a crisper sound but it also lost some of its warmth of sound. An advantage of using fiber skin is that temperature and humidity do not affect the sound anymore. Fiber skin added to the stability of the notes. Indeed, the derebki sets the pulse of the music and adds notes of its own. In fact, notes of the specific darabukka should be considered and chosen for the maqam or mode of the song being played to blend with the sounds of the melodic notes.
The bass sound of the tabla is called a “dum” and the sharp sounds “tek and ka”. The fingers of the derebk are used as well as slaps and rolls. The upper part of the hand produces the bass sound and the Turkish musicians use even left hand finger knips to get the high sound. The tabla is placed either under the arm or between the legs and sruck in the middle for the strong beats (dums) and on the edge for the sharp in between beats (teks and kas).
In Europe the Ottomans introduced the tarambuka which became a common instrument in Bulgaria. The zarb or dumbek as a Persian instrument has a bit different shape. It is more rectangular than round. It is widely used in classical Persian music as the main rhythm instrument. The Persian dumbek is shaped slightly different. It has a larger membrane.
The tabla came into vogue in the 1950’s when the orchestras became popular. They are louder than the riq and could be heard above the louder instruments being used in the orchestras.
- Tar (Bendir)
The tar or Bendir is a membranophone. This instrument is a large daff or frame drum with no cymbals. It is probably the oldest drum known to modern humans. It can have stretched skin over a wooden or metal frame but more commonly now has a fiber skin like the darabukka and riq for stability purposes. It also has different tones created by using the hands. Unlike the darbukka, it is held upright in the hands instead of on the lap of the musician. It can be played in slower more hypnotic songs that are complimented by its mellow tones.
There are many sources of information about the music and instruments of the near and middle-east. The internet has made this information easy to research. Below are just a few websites that I believe you will find useful: