Iranian traditional music instruments at a glance
The traditional music of Iran is a message, a call from the artist's innermost consciousness. Deeply intertwined with Iran's glorious history and culture, it is an expression of the joys, loves, sorrows, efforts and struggles, all the many victories and defeats that the peoples of Western Asia have experienced over the millennia. It is something of a miracle that these people have kept their music intact despite numerous, murderous foreign invasions - in fact, imposing their own art, lifestyle and generous view of the world on their invaders.
Iranian classical music relies on both improvisation and composition, and is based on a series of modal scales and tunes which must be memorized. Apprentices and masters have a traditional relationship which has declined during the 20th century as music education moved to universities and conservatories.
Persian classical music instruments include the bowed spike-fiddle kamancheh; the goblet drum tombak; the end-blown flute ney; the frame drum daf; the long-necked lutes tar; setar; tanbur; dotar, and the dulcimer santur.
The European violin is also used, with an alternative tuning preferred by Persian musicians. Harps, "chang" were a very important part of music up until the middle of the Safavid Empire. They were probably replaced because of tuning problems or replaced by the Qanun (zither) and later the piano which was introduced by the West during the Safavid Dynasty of Iran.
Daf is one of the most ancient frame drums in Asia and North Africa. In the early 20th century it was generally considered as a Sufi musical instrument to be played by dervishes but now this percussion instrument has become very popular and it has been integrated into Persian art music successfully.
Dotar which literally means "two strings" comes from a family of long-necked lutes. It can be found throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and as far as the North East of China in Xinjiang too.
In Iran, the dotar is mainly played in the north and the east of Khorasan as well as northern cities of Gorgan and Gonbad by the Turkmen inhabitants.
However, the instrument varies from region to region mainly its dimensions and the number of its ligatures. The pear-shaped body is carved out of a single block of mulberry wood. Its neck is made of either the wood of the apricot or the walnut tree. It has two steel strings, which in the past were made of silk or animal entrails. The dotar is tuned in fourth or fifth intervals.
Kamanche, a bowed spike fiddle, has four metal strings. Its body consists of a wooden hemisphere covered with thin sheepskin membrane. Oddly, the instrument's bridge runs diagonally across this membrane. The instrument is highly ornate and is about the size of a viola. The tuning varies depending upon the region of the country where it is being played.
The Persian ney is a wind instrument which consists of a hollow cylinder with finger-holes. Sometimes a brass or plastic mouthpiece is placed at the top to protect the wood from damage, but this plays no role in the sound production. It has a very compelling sound, unlike any other wind instrument.
The ney is blown in a unique manner, which gives it its characteristic sound. The upper edge of the ney, which is just the top of a hollow cylinder, is placed between the two upper front teeth, inside the mouth. A small stream of air is directed with the tongue, and the upper lip surrounds the upper part of the ney. Moving the lip and tongue changes the pitch (up to a whole tone) and tone quality. This technique is very difficult to learn but once mastered gives great control over the timbre. Advanced players control the amount of turbulence in the air stream allowing a large variety of sounds from pure tones to extremely breathy sounds.
The santur is a struck zither in the form of a shallow, regular trapezoidal box. There are several sound posts inside the box, and two small rosettes on the top panel which help to amplify the sound. The santur has 72 strings, arranged in groups of four, i.e. each of four closely spaced strings are tuned to the same pitch. Each group of four strings is supported by a small, movable, wooden bridge; the bridges are positioned to give the instrument a range of three octaves.
Setar, one of the most favorite musical instruments of Iran, is a four stringed lute. Two of the strings are made of steel, two are of brass. Its sound box is wooden with some holes on its surface. It is played with the nail of the index finger.
The similarities between Persian setar and Indian sitar, shows that their root should be the same and many Indians believe that sitar's ancestor is the setar.
According to historical records, the 14th century Indian musician and poet Amir Khosro Dehlavithe who was originally from Persia, made some changes to make it more appropriate for Indian music.
The tar is currently the most popular plucked instrument in Iran. It is a fretted lute with six strings, five of steel and one of brass. It has a long neck and a double bellied sound box, over which is stretched a thin sheep skin membrane. The tunings of the strings are in a traditional system and the twenty six frets are movable. Finally, the strings are plucked with a plectrum.
The tombak is the chief percussion instrument of Persian classical music. It is a one-headed drum that is carved of a single piece of wood, and is open on the bottom. Across the larger, upper part of the body is stretched a sheepskin membrane which is glued into place. Thus, the instrument cannot be tuned; the performer prepares it for a piece by warming the membrane over a heater.
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