Perhaps, some of the oldest known history of the plucked string may be found in the Middle Eastern civilizations which dates back to the thousands of years before Christ. Evidence of the existence of instruments such as the long-necked lutes as the tanbūr, the sāz, and the buzuq, has been unearthed in Iraq dating back to 2350-2170 B.C.E. The tanburs existed in Mesapotamia since the third millennium before Christ and by the tenth century, Al-Farabi, an eminent scholar, mentioned the presence of the tanbur in Persia, which eventually spread to other countries, to Central Asia, to Turkey, and to the Arabian peninsula. The Iranian tanbur has a narrow pear-shaped resonator body and has three metal strings, with the first course being doubled where the melody is played. The Afghan tanbur (or tambur) on the other hand, has a gourd-like rounder body, a wide hollow neck with some decoration, and 3 courses (either single or double) of metal strings. The Tajik/Uzbek tanbur has four metal strings played with a wire plectrum on the index-finger. Just like the Afghan tanbur, its neck is usually decorated with inlay bone or white plastic. Turkey has also a tambur with a very long thin neck and a rounded body, with six (three pairs of) metal strings. The word tanbur has also influenced the Indian tambura, even though the latter has a very different musical function, which is supplying the drone to a given performance.
The sāz on the other hand is found in Persia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. In Azerbaijan, the sāz refers to a long-necked plucked lute having nine strings that are grouped in triple courses. Sāz is the generic term for any instrument, especially stringed instruments, while in Turkey sāz refers to music in general and to long-necked lutes in particular
As can be gathered from their descriptions, these instruments were made in different sizes and exhibited different shapes, having a variety in the number of frets from 12 to 17 and with two to three courses of strings. The buzuq has twenty-four frets and through the years, it has become a solo instrument and known for its improvisatory music called taqāsīm. The popularity of these instruments was widespread among professional and amateur musicians alike and aside from solo playing, they accompanied solo vocal renditions as well as some ceremonial songs of some peculiar Islamic sects. In more recent times, the long-necked tanbūr, the sāz, and the buzuq gained more acceptance among the folk communities, while the short necked lutes such as the ‘ud, the kwitra, and the tūnīsī became the instruments of the urban population in the Arab world.
Today, the ‘ud is the most widespread in the family of plucked string instruments in the Middle East, symbolizing high Arab culture, and representative of the highest form of entertainment and pleasure, as well as the scientific and intellectual reflections. According to legendary history, the oud or ‘ud came about during the early pharaonic era, and according to Farabi, it was an invention of Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. Today’s ‘ud is an unfretted lute with five to six strings and through this instrument, solo improvisation was given prominence in its playing by instrumentalists of the Bahgdad school. The ‘ud is also used to accompany the singing of the instrumentalist himself while he performs and composes. In the Egyptian and Syrian schools, ‘ud playing was based on vocal aesthetics. Since the voice was considered the ultimate instrument in ancient times, melodic instruments just like the ‘ud and other string and wind instruments were merely second in the hierarchy of importance. In the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘ud became the most prominent among the local lutes in the Arab world, where its performance covered different roles, such as solo performance together with improvisation, accompanying solo singing, as member of the takht sharqi ensemble consisting of the ‘ud, qanun (a plucked zither), nay (flute), violin and piano, and as soloist to a modern orchestra.
The tar is a Persian plucked string instrument, tar being the word that means “string” in Persia, and is shared by countries like Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and other places that are near the Caucasus. Other stringed instruments derive their names from the word tar, just like dutar, setar, sitar and guitar. The tar is considered the most significant musical instrument in Iran as well as the Cuacasus, and Persian classical music has depended its theoretical precepts on tar players, especially the most complete versions of the Persian radif or musical system. The tar has a double-bowl body with a stretch of lamb-skin covering the top, with the fingerboard having twenty-five to twenty-eight adjustable frets and three double courses of strings. The strings have their own tuning pegs. The melodies performed on the tar have both soothing effects as well as an inducement to reflect philosophically on life. Iranian musicians usually connect their musical knowledge or scientific outlook on such instruments as the tar and dutar.
In the 1960’s, the urban musicians of Iran would organize themselves into ensembles that include the tar, violin, ney (flute), santur (dulcimer), and zarb (goblet drum) to play for high-class weddings or two accompany a vocal soloist in performing the āvāz, the most prestigious rendering of classical poetry on a given gushe (or modal melodic motif). As in the past, Iranian music is dominated by the sung poetry which brings about the spiritual and emotional energies of man, while the instruments give support or imitate the voices.
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