Arabic music is a term that refers to the music played in what is known as the Arab world. With 22 Arabic countries, it’s no wonder that Arabic music is extremely rich and unique.
The most distinctive trait of Arabic music is the use of varied traditional instruments. Some of these are still used in the present time as is. Others have gone quite extinct. Or they’re completely altered to cope with the changing times.
In this post, we’re going to explore some of this musical culture by looking at 15 types of Arabic musical instruments you might not know. Enjoy reading!
The Oud is probably one of the oldest Arabic musical instruments. It’s called the “grandfather of the guitar” because it is one of the precursors to the modern guitar.
This type of lute is a fretless stringed instrument shaped like a pear. It is short-necked as well, consisting of 11 strings grouped in twos and a single bass string. Compared to its Turkish and Persian counterparts, the oud is bigger. Thus, it produces a deeper sound.
And without frets, the Oud player can be more experimental in using vibrato or sliding along the strings. The player will play it using a plectrum called “risha.” It means “feather.”
The Oud is a key element in Arab orchestras, though it can also be played in small bands or solos.
Farid El Atrache is an Egyptian-Syrian composer and one of the most famous Oud players. Watch the video above to see him playing this iconic instrument.
Our next Arabic instrument is called a Ney. It is a type of end-blown flute that has been used in the Arab world for more than 4500 years making it one of the oldest instruments in the world.
The traditional Ney was made of a hollow cane or reed with six holes for the fingers and another for the thumb. The modern ones are made of metal or wood. The mouthpiece is made of either horn, brass, or plastic to protect the wood.
As such, Ney can produce a distinct and distinguished sound. It sounds tragic and mournful, and listening to it will remind the listeners of ancient times.
In addition, the Arabic Ney flutes have always been central to various religious and Sufi ceremonies. Not only that. Ney is notable in that this is the only wind instrument in classic Arabic music.
The Buzuq is another string instrument from the oud family, but it’s considerably smaller with a thin long, fretted neck.
The strings on the Buzuq are made of metal and played with a thin piece of horn. Modern Buzuqs have their strings arranged in three courses to expand their range.
Buzuq has metallic pegs for tuning, and the player can manipulate the frets to tackle quarter tones accurately.
This instrument originated from the Eastern Mediterranean region, especially Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.
Traditionally, the Buzuq was played as a solo instrument. It later became part of the traditional Arabic ensemble where it’s played with other string instruments. Today, the Buzuq is a popular instrument in modern Lebanese and Syrian music.
Our next Arabic instrument, the Kawala, is a cane flute that resembles the Ney. The main difference is that the Kawala is shorter with six holes, while the Ney has seven.
The Kwala was originally used as a shepherd’s tool. It’s widely used in Egyptian folk music and is currently used in religious ceremonies and weddings.
To play the Kawala, one has to position it at an oblique angle in front of him. The beveled rim must rest on his lower lip. Because of the design of the mouthpiece and how air is blown, the Kawala produces a breathy sound.
Some players play the Kawala to accompany Sufi singers. But experienced players can produce different sound effects using the circular breathing technique. In this technique, the player will breathe in through the nose and retain some of the inhaled air in the mouth to control the output.
Up next is Sagat, is an arabic percussion instrument. The Sagat or Sajat are Egyptian brass finger cymbals that have been traditionally used in Ancient Egypt and throughout North Africa.
They’re usually sold in sets of four. The player or singer will wear a pair on the thumb and third finger, and they’re secured using elastic bands. Each sagat measures between 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter. Other bigger versions can be almost double the size of the traditional ones.
One of the popular uses of the Sagat is in belly dancing performances. But these instruments have always been important in several Egyptian rituals.
In addition, the Sagat are used in Sufi religious music and in the zaar, a healing ritual. Dancers or singers usually use them to accompany traditional songs and performances.
Related: For more like this, check out our list of Egyptian instruments here.
We are featuring next an indigenous stringed instrument from Egypt. Simsimiyya is a type of hand-plucked lyre made of beech wood. It has steel strings and a movable bridge, its shape similar to a harp.
The instrument features a trapeze-shaped soundboard. It has 14 strings attached to the trapeze and to a carved branch with 14 wooden nails for tuning.
The Simsimiyya was used in the folk genre called sawahli, which means coastal. Up to this day, Simsimiyya players play coastal music in the region of Port Said and Ismailia. It is also played in the coastal areas of Jordan and Yemen.
In Egypt, the Simsimiyya is still very much a part of its folk music culture and used to accompany a traditional dance called the bambutiyya.
Coming up next is the Mizmar, a single or double-reed instrument that traveled from Ancient Egypt to other parts of the world. This is usually played in ensembles known as tabl baladi. This consists of several Mizmars and two double-sided drums accompanying them.
In the old days, these ensembles were hired to play in various gatherings such as weddings and festivals. They were also an important part of traditional horse dancing.
The Mizmar has a body, a pirouette, and a reed. The body is made from apricot wood, the end of which flares out. It consists of seven holes for the fingers and one for the thumb. There are smaller holes that remain uncovered but contribute to the timbre or sound.
The pirouette, on the other hand, is 4.5 inches long, though one can only see the top 3/4 inches. At the top of the pirouette is a hole for the reed.
The Manjur is an unusual percussion instrument that is widely used in Eastern Arabia. It’s made of goat hooves that are attached to a cloth or mesh bag. The player will tie the bag around his waist and shake his hips to produce the beats.
When the hooves hit each other, it produces a rattling sound to accompany other musical instruments. This is a staple instrument during Fann at-Tanbura performances. These are quite common in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, especially in Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
This is also used in Zar performances, where singers and dancers usually get into a state of trance. Zar is a dance ritual to drive away evil spirits.
Zar performances have traveled from the Gulf states to Egypt. In Egypt and other Arab states, the performance is usually conducted by women.
The Qanun or kanoon is a traditional stringed instrument that’s either played solo or as part of an Arabic music ensemble. Traditionally, it was first used in the Old Assyrian Empire, where it was made of a box of elephant ivory.
In Arabic, qanun means “rules.” It comes from the fact that this instrument usually sets the pace for other instruments in an ensemble.
The Qanun is a trapezoid soundbox that produces a bright and melodramatic sound. The instrument features mandals, which are small levers to slightly change the pitch. Today, modern Qanuns use nylon strings attached to wooden pegs for tuning.
The Qanun player plays it while sitting or squatting by plucking the strings with the fingernails or tortoise-shell picks.
With 78 strings, it’s not easy to master playing the Qanun. Unsurprisingly, there are only a few who can play Qanun with such expertise.
Another percussion instrument on our list is the Riq (sometimes spelled as riqq). It looks like a tambourine but is played differently.
Traditionally, the Riq had a wooden frame, but today the frame is made of metal. It is usually 9″ in diameter. It also features five double jingle pairs and a thin head made of goat and fish skin.
The Riq was historically used in worship ceremonies to support the voices of singers. It was widely used in Egyptian, Lebanese, Sudanese, and Iraqi music. The riq was also an accompaniment in takht ensembles in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
To play it, it’s either held in front of the face or held above the head. The player will either shake the jingles or strike the membrane. Hand slaps, finger manipulation, and shaking the Riq back and forth while hitting the rim are also common.
Yet another Arabic instrument is the Arghul, a single-reed instrument that has been used in Ancient Egypt. Though it’s difficult to play, it’s still used in traditional music and wedding ceremonies in Egypt and Palestine. It also usually accompanies belly dancing.
The Arghul is a woodwind instrument that features two pipes. The melody pipe has between five and seven holes. The longer one is called a drone, with a sliding body that changes the pitch.
To play, the player will press the holes to change the melodies and move the longer drone pipe. The Arghul produces a sound similar to that of a clarinet.
Up next is Darbukka, also known as the goblet drum. This is a symbol of Egyptian Shaabi Music and is widely used in ceremonies and belly dancing performances.
Darbukka is a single-head percussion instrument with a goblet-shaped body. It’s either made of wood or metal, with its bottom open. The word itself is said to come from the Arabic word “darba,” meaning “to strike.”
A player will either rest the drum on their legs or hold it under the arm. The position of the drum and the power of the touch and strokes will change the way it sounds.
The origins of Darbukka go back to Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. Famous players include Egyptian drummers Said El Artist and Hossam Ramzy.
The Mizwad is a traditional Tunisian bagpipe instrument. It’s the most important instrument in mezwed music, the traditional music of the Tunisian countryside.
The word “mizwad” comes from the Arabic word for bag or pouch. The bag is made of ewe’s skin and features a double-chanter, ending in two cow horns. While one player places the bag below his arm, another blows and presses their fingers on the holes. This produces the desired sound.
Traditionally, the Mizwad is played with the Tunisian Darbukka. Mizwad players usually play this instrument in dances, folk ceremonies, and weddings. It is still used in many Arabic cultures to this day.
Our next Arabic instrument is the Mirwas. It is a double-headed drum that originally came from the Middle East. It was widely used in the traditional music of Kuwait and Yemen.
The Mirwas is a small hand drum, meaning it is played using hands instead of sticks or mallets. You hold the drum with one hand and use the other to play on it. The hand holding the drum can also use the index finger for more sound.
The Mirwas is used in the Fijiri vocal music genre, usually sung by pearl divers in Kuwait and Bahrain. In this genre, the lead singer is accompanied by hand clapping and the Mirwas.
Sawt musicians also use the Mirwas in their performances. Sawt is a form of Kuwaiti folk music where the singer is accompanied by the Oud and Mirwas.
To end this list, we have the Qanbus from the lute family. This traditional instrument is short-necked and originated from Yemen and Oman. It later spread to the rest of the Arab States in the Persian Gulf.
The Qanbus is carved from a block of wood with a rounded back. The lower half is covered in skin, while the top part functions as a wooden soundboard.
The modern version of the Qanbus has six or seven nylon strings grouped in four courses. A plectrum is used to pluck them. The instrument has no frets, unlike other instruments in the lute family.
To play, a player holds the instrument across the chest. He plucks the strings using his right-hand fingernails or a feather quill. The left-hand fingertips press the strings against the fingerboard.
The Qanbus can be played on its own or to accompany a singer. In addition, it can be part of an ensemble when there are gatherings.
Summing Up Our List Of Arabic Instruments
As our list showed you, these musical instruments have a significant contribution to Arabic music’s identity. Their rich history gives us a look into how they enriched their music and culture.
This list is by no means comprehensive because there are still a lot of Arabic instruments out there. But this article is a good starting point if you’re interested to learn more about these instruments.