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
(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
(pulling or stretching), and naqr
(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
The following references were quoted when
compiling this page:
Oud (Ud, 'Ud)
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
Masters of the Oud: Muhammad El Qasabji
(Egypt), Riyadh El Sunbati (Egypt), Farid
El Atrache (Lebanon/Egypt), Munir
Bashir (Iraq), Simon
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
Qanun (Qanoun, Kanun)
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.
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
Masters of the qanun: Muhammad El 'Aqqad
(Egypt), Abraham Salman (Iraq).
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).
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
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).
Riq (Rik, Rikk)
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
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,
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),
Shams Eddine (Egypt), Hossam
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,
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).