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Top Five Persian Musical Instruments

Music is the universal language of the whole world through which every nation can connect. Each musical genre transfers a certain feeling to the listener and arouses his emotions. Like many other nations, traditional Persian music dates back thousands of years ago when ancient Iranians played drums and horns at sunrise and sunset. In Avesta, the Zoroastrians religious book, it is mentioned that doctors treated their patients with Persian music. At that time, three types of ritual music, festive and martial music, were common. These were primarily performed in nature celebrations and historical and national days. During the Achaemenid period, hymns and songs called Horeh were performed in wars and festivals, which is still common today in Ilam and the western parts of Iran with the same name. The instruments used for playing these songs have also been passed down to the Persians and commonly mastered and used by people. Generally, Persian musical devices are divided into three categories based on the way they are played and the type of sound they produce; String Instruments, like Tar, Setar, Harp, and Kamancheh, Percussion Instruments, such as Daf, Drums, and Tonbak, and Wind Instruments, like Ney and Flute. In this article, we try to introduce you to 5 of the most famous Persian musical instruments worldwide.

Santour

Santour is one of the oldest instruments in Iran, which traces back to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires (559 BC). Although the origins of this instrument are yet not known, evidence suggests that the Iranians were familiar with it even before the rise of Islam. After that, this instrument gradually spread to other countries and received changes and other names. Today, there is still a painting of a woman playing Santour in the Hasht Behesht Palace in Isfahan from the Safavid era.

Santour consists of 72 strings played by two hammers and is in the shape of a trapezoid. It is believed that Santour’s form is inspired by a ship, and the formation of its strings is similar to a fishing net. It also makes a pleasant sound identical to sea waves hitting a rock. There are two flower-shaped holes on the surface of Santour, which in addition to the beauty of the instrument, play an essential role in the softness and clarity of its sound. The sound range of Santour is a little more than 4 octaves making it unique among other Persian instruments in this respect.

There have been many professional Santour players throughout history: Faramarz Payvar, Abolhassan Saba, Parviz Meshkatian, and Ardavan Kamkar, to name a few. Here you can enjoy Chaharmezrab Nava by Iranian composer Faramarz Payvar performed by Tomos Brangwyn:

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Santour Vs. Piano:

The mechanism of sound production in Santour is very similar to the piano. This fact has led some sources to refer to Santour as the original version of the piano. To produce sounds in Santour, a pair of wooden instruments called “Mezrab” are used. While in Santour, the Mezrabs are the interfaces between the hand and strings, the black and white keys play the same role in the piano. It is important to note that the range of sounds produced by the piano is much broader than Santour. This requires the use of much thicker strings in the piano.

Tar and Setar

Tar is a stringed instrument made of wood, the skin of animals, bone, string, and metal, and is about 95 cm long. The musician places Tar horizontally on the thigh while sitting and strikes the strings with the plectrum he holds. The Persian Tar consists of 6 strings made of metal which produce a three-octave sound range.
According to the findings, Tar dates back to the 9th century and the famous Iranian musician, Farabi. After Farabi, Tar was gradually developed and perfected by Safi al-Din Ermavi. In the paintings of Hasht Behesht Palace in Isfahan, an image related to the Safavid era (1702) proves the existence of a stringed instrument at that time. This instrument has existed with modern shapes and specifications since the Qajar period. Morteza Hananeh and Ruhollah Khaleghi, masters of Iranian music, have introduced Tar as an original and national music instrument in Iran. It is also worth mentioning that the word Tar means string in Persian, which refers to its 6 strings.

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Setar is one of the string instruments of Iranian music played with the fingernail of the index finger of the right hand. Its sound is subtle and somewhat sad, and it has a sound range close to 3 octaves. In making this instrument, wood (usually walnut and berry) is used for the body, plate, and handle, metal (brass and steel) is used for strings, and animal bones are used to decorate the handle.
The name Setar is derived from the shape and structure of this instrument in the past. Setar used to have three (Se) strings (Tar). The fourth string of this instrument, with the opinion of music activists in the past, namely Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Safiyuddin Armani, and Abolhassan Saba, was finally added to this instrument. In the late Qajar period, the golden age of Tar and Setar in Iran, Setar was used to play Persian music for the King. Later this instrument, similar to Tar, gradually became an independent instrument.

It is worth mentioning that up until this era, playing the Setar was more popular among the aristocrats and the upper classes of society. Still, with the encouragement of Mirza Abdullah Farahani and holding Setar training classes, this instrument gradually became popular among ordinary people. Setar is called an urban instrument by some people because it does not belong to any ethnic group or region in Iran and is considered a national instrument.

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Daf

Daf is a percussion instrument in Iranian music mainly used for rhythmic accompaniment in group playing music. The name of this instrument is specially mentioned in ancient music books and manuscripts to accompany other instruments and maintain rhythm and weight in gatherings and festivities.
Daf is a percussion instrument made of wood, bark, and metal. This circular instrument has an opening diameter of about sixty centimeters, a peeled-off side, and metal rings installed at regular intervals around its inner wall. When playing Daf, one has to hold it vertically with both hands and tap it with the fingers of both hands. This is because most of the weight of Daf is borne by the left hand. The musician vibrates the loops hanging on the inner wall with the vibrations he gives to the instrument, thereby creating a rustling sound, accompanied by the beating of the skin.
Although the main geographical areas of application of Daf are Kurdistan and Azerbaijan region, today, this instrument is taught and played all over Iran.  Among professional Daf players, the names of Bijan Kamkar and Masoud Habibi stand out. Kamkar has played an essential role in giving a character to this instrument in original Iranian music. On the other hand, Master Habibi has invented a modern method of playing this instrument in an entirely principled way.

 

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Kamancheh

Kamancheh is a bowed string instrument played like a violin with a bow. This instrument has 4 strings pulled parallel to the handle and over its skin. Kamancheh is one of the original Iranian instruments that has been used in neighboring countries in addition to Iran and is still used.
Ibn Faqih is the first person to mention the word Kamancheh in his works in the 9th century, and as he says, this instrument has been used a lot in Egypt and Sindh. Besides, in the paintings of Chehel Soton Palace in Isfahan, a Kamancheh player can be seen. During the Qajar period, this instrument was also of particular importance.
This instrument’s name has been used in the works of Arab poets as kamnja. Additionally, this instrument is used in different parts of Iran with some differences under other names. For example, in the Kermanshah region, Kamancheh is called Mokash, and in Lorestan, it is called Tal. Kamancheh has long received more attention than other Iranian instruments due to its exceptional sound range and its wide range of technical possibilities. Still, after the advent of the violin in Iranian music, this instrument became less common.
Under the influence of introducing the violin to Iran with four strings, Kamancheh makers also added a string to this instrument. It is played sitting and placed vertically in the player’s left hand. The fingers of the same hand move along the handle. The bow is pulled horizontally in a reciprocating motion with the right hand on its strings.

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Ney

Ney is one of the ancient wind instruments made of reed plant, the length of which consists of six knots and seven straps, and for this reason, it is called “seven-string Ney.” Ney is believed to be one of the oldest musical instruments made by man, which can be seen in the Iranian miniature paintings that have survived for thousands of years.
The sound of the Ney is close to the human’s voice, turning it a symbol of the human soul. This belief was widespread in the past to the extent that five thousand years ago in Egypt, a kind of Ney was buried with the body of its musician! Believing that the musician’s soul remains in his instrument. In Persian literature, Ney and flute players are noticed by most of the classical poets of Iran and have a special status in their poems.
To play this kind of end-blown flute, the musician holds the Ney vertically and places its mouth between the two front teeth or between the lips and blows into it. Much of the blown air comes out of Ney’s holes, and the musician opens and closes the holes with the fingers of both hands.

The length of Ney is about 30 to 65 cm, and its diameter is about 1.5 to 3 cm; it consists of 5 holes in the front and one hole in the back. The narrower and shorter the Ney, the lower the sound, and vice versa. These traditional instruments that cannot be tuned cover two and a half octaves and make a relatively melancholic sound.

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What is the difference between a Ney and a flute?

 Besides their appearances, Ney covers more tones than the flute and, therefore, is more suitable for producing Persian music. Moreover, the flute has moved away from its old form, which was made of wood, and is now made mostly of metal. But Ney, this natural instrument, is still made in the old way and style without any interferences.

Persian Musical Instruments on UNESCO’s World Heritage List

The musical instruments of each country are the storytellers of its people. They are the artistic representations of the culture, tradition, and ritual that the musician turns into an audible sound. Registering these instruments in World Heritage List gives a chance to introduce them into the world, prevent their gradual death, and stop their occupation by other countries. So far, 17 Iranian cultural heritages have been registered in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Among these, Kamancheh, Tar, and Dotar can be mentioned.

Traditional Iranian music dates back to BC and has been passed down from generation to generation. However, the most popular parts still remain untouched and have been slightly modernized. As mentioned in this article, we tried to overview the original Iranian instruments and give you general information about their appearances, components, and how to play them. Although the scope of information in this regard is so broad that not all of them can be included in one article, we hope that this article could guide you to Persian musical instruments and motivate you to awaken your interest.