Arabic Musical Instruments

Instruments used in Arabic music are too diverse and too many to list. As with maqamat and rhythms this section will not attempt to be comprehensive, instead it will describe the Arabic musical instruments which are most commonly used in the Middle East.

The traditional Arabic ensemble or takht pronunciation (literally bed in Arabic) consists of 4 main melodic instruments: oud, nay, qanun and violin, and one main percussion instrument (riq). Sometimes the riq is supplemented/substituted with the tabla or daff (frame drum). Older ensembles used a jawzah or kamanjah instead of the Western violin.

Stylistically melodic instruments are divided into two families: sahb pronunciation (pulling or stretching), and naqr pronunciation (plucking or hammering). violin and nay fall under sahb, oud and qanun fall under naqr. These two families are meant to complement each other to create a richer and more complete sound. In case of duets, the most common combination is oud with violin or qanun with nay.

The use of Western equal tempered instruments in Arabic music is very widespread nowadays. These include the piano, electric piano, electric organ, synthesizer, accordion, guitar, electric guitar, electric (fretted) bass. Some of these instruments can be altered to produce quarter tones (see intonation in Arabic music). Drum sets and electronic percussion are are also commonly used with modern Arabic pop/dance music.

The flute, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and trombone are not necessarily equal tempered instruments and allow greater control over pitch (called pitch bending). They are used to various extents in Arabic music, especially in modern Arabic Jazz and Jazz fusion styles.

The violin, viola, cello and upright bass are very widely used in Arabic music, especially in large ensembles like Um Kulthum's, etc. Being all fretless, these instruments can be comfortably used to perform the Arabic maqam.

The following references were quoted when compiling this page:

 The Oud (Ud, 'Ud) Pronunciation

The oud is one of the most popular instruments in Arabic music. Its name derives from the Arabic for 'a thin strip of wood', and this refers to the strips of wood used to make its rounded body.

The neck of the oud, which is short in comparison to the body, has no frets and this contributes to its unique sound. It also allows playing notes in any intonation, which makes it ideal for performing the Arabic maqam. The most common string combination is five pairs of strings tuned in unison and a single bass string, although up to thirteen strings may be found. Strings are generally made of nylon or gut, and are plucked with a plectrum known as a risha (Arabic for feather). Modern strings are made of steel wound over nylon. The instrument has a warm timbre, low tessatura, and is often intricately decorated. The oud used in the Arab world is slightly different to that found in Turkey, Armenia and Greece. Different tunings are used and the Turkish-style oud has a brighter tone than its Arab counterpart. The European lute is a descendant of the oud, from which it takes its name (al-oud).

Volumes have been written about the Oud. For more reading, please visit these excellent links:

Masters of the Oud: Muhammad El Qasabji (Egypt), Riyadh El Sunbati (Egypt), Farid El Atrache (Lebanon/Egypt), Munir Bashir (Iraq), Simon Shaheen (Palestine).

The Oud


 The Violin (Kaman) Pronunciation

The European violin (also called Kaman/Kamanjah in Arabic) was adopted into Arab music during the second half of the 19th century, replacing an indigenous two-string fiddle that was prevalent in Egypt also called kamanjah. Although various tunings are used, the traditional Arab tuning is in fourths and fifths (G3, D4, G4, D5.) As a fretless instrument the violin can produce all shades of intonation of the Arabic maqam.

The playing style is highly ornate, with slides, trills, wide vibrato, and double stops, often using an open string as a drone. The timbre ranges 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 gamba style and often Moroccans use the GDAE tuning.

Masters of the Arabic violin: Sami El Shawwa (Syria), Ahmed El Hefnaoui (Egypt), Abdu Daghir (Egypt).

The Violin


 The Qanun (Qanoun, Kanun) Pronunciation

The qanun is a descendent of the old Egyptian harp. It has played an integral part in Arabic music since the 10th century.
The word qanun means 'law' in Arabic, and the word exists in English in the form of "canon." The qanun was introduced to Europe by the 12th Century, becoming known during the 14th to the 16th Century as a psaltery or zither. the qanun also resembles a dulcimer.

The form of the qanun consists of a trapezoid-shaped flat board over which 81 strings are stretched in groups of three with 24 treble chords consisting of three chords to each note. The instrument is placed flat on the knees or table of the musician; the strings are plucked with the finger or with two plectra, one plectrum attached to the forefinger of each hand. 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; on the left hand side, each course of strings passes over a series of small brass levers that are used to make microtonal changes in pitch.

Since the qanun only includes 8 notes (groups of 3 strings) per octave, the player initially sets the levers to create the scale of the starting maqam. when the player needs to modulate to another maqam, they need to switch some 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 tuning of some strings.

In Arabic music, the instrument lays down the law of pitch for other instruments and singers.

Masters of the qanun: Muhammad El 'Aqqad (Egypt), Abraham Salman (Iraq).

The Qanun


 The Nay Pronunciation

The nay (Farsi for 'reed') is an open-ended, obliquely end blown flute made of cane. They nay was known in the Near East since antiquity. The nay is nine-jointed, and usually has 6 holes in the front for the fingers to play and 1 hole underneath for the thumb. It is played with the pads of the fingers. Nays come in different lengths, each one being tuned to a specific pitch and named after the note produced with the 1st fingerhole open (D4 for the nây used in the demonstration. Lowest note: C4).

The nay is blown using a unique lip technique called bilabial blowing, with both upper and lower lip used to partially close the end of the bevelled tube. The 2nd and 3rd registers are overblown a fifth and an octave higher than the 1st register respectively. Some of the tone-holes are assigned to certain microtonal steps, although microtonal variations can also be achieved by partially opening a tone-hole, changing the blowing angle or a combination of the two.

Fine, mellow tones are brought forth by blowing gently over the orifice of the tube while manipulating the fingers and thumbs; by blowing with more or less force, sounds are produced an octave higher or lower, and tunes in different scales can be played by utilizing nays of various lengths. The nay has a wide range of over two octaves.

Although very simple, the nay is one of the most difficult Arabic instruments to play. A fine player can produce a large variety of liquid sounds and ornaments; it is an extremely soulful instrument. Its poetical timbre makes it especially suitable for melancholy effects expressing both joy and yearning. It is the only wind instrument used in Arab art music, widely appreciated for its warm, breathy sound and its subtle tonal and dynamic inflections.

Masters of the nay: Bassam Saba (Lebanon).

The Nay


 The Riq (Rik, Rikk) Pronunciation

The riq (sometmes called daff) is a small tambourine (approx. 8.5 inches in diameter & 2.5 inches deep) traditionally covered with a goat or fish skin head, stretched over a wooden frame 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 'sagaat' in Arabic. The cymbals are what produces the exciting jingle sound.

Although fish or goat skin heads are valued for their warm and natural sound, their main problem is that they are very sensitive to humidity and can easily lose their tightness. Traditionally riq players had to heat their riqs just before the performance. Since the riq skin could stretch again after 5-10 minutes, proffessional riq players often had to own two identical riqs, heating one one while playing the other, and switching between songs.

In the late 1980s, a mylar-headed, aluminum (or wooden) bodied instrument was introduced and was adopted by a number of professional riq players. Modern riqs are tunable, and allow heads to be replaced without having to be glued. The best tunable riq today is made by Kevork Kazanjian in Lebanon. It combines sound, ergonomics, aesthetics, and functionality.

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 art-music ensembles. In the second half of the 20th century, with the addition of the tabla and other percussion instruments to these ensembles, riq players adopted a technique that emphasizes the cymbal over the membrane sounds.

The sound of the riq sets the rhythm of much Arabic music, particularly in the performances of classical pieces. In the traditional Arabic ensemble the riq player plays the role of Dabet Al Iqaa ('Rhythm Master' in Arabic). The riq player can singlehandedly control the speed and dynamic of an entire orchestra (e.g. the Um Kulthum orchestra).

Masters of the riq: Mohamed El 'Arabi (Egypt), 'Adel Shams Eddine (Egypt), Hossam Ramzi (Egypt).

The Riq


 The Buzuq Pronunciation

The word buzuq is Turkish and occurs in 'bashi-buzuq,' the name given to the Ottoman troops, literally meaning 'burnt head' or 'uprooted.' In its folk form, the buzuq is a larger and deeper-toned relative of the Turkish saz and has a body carved from a single piece of wood. In its modern, urbanized form, the body is constructed from separate ribs and has mechanical, rather than wooden pegs.

A long-necked fretted lute, the buzuq is usually furnished with two courses of metal strings, a double (C4) and a triple (G3), played with a thin piece of horn or a plastic plectrum. The metal strings give the instrument a bright sound quality, while the fret distribution (~24 movable frets) offers many microtonal possibilities.

The buzuq, typically used as a solo instrument, is not considered a member of the standard Arab ensemble. It is found in both folk and urban contexts in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, and is associated with itinerant Gypsy musicians. The Rahbanis (Lebanon) latety popularized the use of this instrument and made it more mainstream.

The buzuq is slightly limited for the execution of the Arabic maqam, given that it's fretted. However frets are usually added for the most common quarter tones (E, A and B), and can be moved for additional fine tuning. Despite that fact a slight difference in intonation is noticed when the buzuq plays alongside a oud or a qanun for example.

Masters of the buzuq: Mohammad Abdel Karim (Syria), Matar Muhammad (Lebanon - Gypsy), Ali Jihad Racy (Lebanon).

The Buzuq



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