Persian culture is a pretty rich and diverse one. So, it’s no wonder that its music is the same way. If you look at its instruments, you’ll see each one has its own story, history, unique sound, and purpose.
Some of these instruments are inspired by other instruments. Some of them inspired the creation of other instruments. All in all, it’s the love of music and the transcendent experience it brings that makes Persian music highly impactful.
In this article, we’ll show you 16 traditional Persian instruments you should know. Let’s get into the details of what makes each instrument on this list unique to Persian music.
First up, we have the Tar, a Persian stringed instrument that derives its name from the Persian word for “string.” The Tar’s name is fitting, as it features a double-bowl shape and six strings. Five of the strings are made of steel, while the sixth is made of brass. The instrument is also distinguished by its long neck and a layer of lambskin on the top.
To play, the performer holds the instrument high on the breast. He plucks the strings using a brass plectrum known as mezrab or mizrab. He then uses different techniques and strokes.
The Tar is so highly perceived that its music is considered able to induce a philosophical mood. It is also said to heal stress, headache, and insomnia. In addition, it is a valuable instrument in weddings, festivals, and social gatherings.
Craftsmanship and performance art of the tar was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2012. This list aims to raise awareness about the significance of cultural items or activities.
Historians consider the Ney, a flute, to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It existed for about 4500-5000 years and maybe even more. It’s probably as old as the pyramids!
The word “Ney” is Persian for “reed,” which is what it’s traditionally made from. The Ney is a hollow cylinder with five or six holes in the front and one in the back.
Other Ney flutes are made of metal or hide. Sometimes it comes with a mouthpiece to protect the blowing edge. When played, this instrument produces a mournful sound.
Other than music, the Ney was used in various religious songs and hymns. In Sufi tradition, its music was considered able to connect people’s spirits to God.
The Santur is a wooden trapezoid with 72 strings stretched over it. It first appeared in the Babylonian and Assyrian eras around 669 B.C. We know this thanks to the dozens of stone carvings showing the instrument being played while hanging from the players’ necks.
On the other hand, there are those who attribute the invention of the instrument to Farabi, an early Islamic philosopher.
The Santur can be made from different types of wood, such as walnut, rosewood, or oak. Different wood types create different sound qualities. The strings on the right-hand side are either brass or copper. The ones on the left side are steel.
To play, the performer hits the strings in certain patterns with two mezrabs or mallets. The mezrabs are made of wood. The tips can be covered in cloth or felt.
Since its creation, the Santur has been a vital part of Persian classical music. It has a special place in the traditional Persian orchestra and in motrebi, or music for entertainment.
Our next Persian instrument is the Daf, a frame drum that has a diverse, rich history. It existed in the pre-Islamic ages, and some artifacts even show that it goes back to before the birth of Christ.
In terms of its design and mechanism, the Daf is probably the simplest instrument on this list. It’s made of a layer of animal skin, like goatskin. It measures 18 to 20 inches in width. It’s surrounded by a round wooden frame to which small metal rings are attached.
To play, the performer hits the membrane with either hand. One hand hits the center while the other hand, which holds the instrument, hits the edges.
Initially, the Daf was associated with spiritual chanting. It was also an important instrument during the Sassanid periods to celebrate festivals. On these occasions, the Daf was used to accompany Iranian classical music.
The Kamancheh is a stringed instrument that existed in different periods of time, such as the Safavid and Qatar eras and the Mongol period. The word means “little bow” in Persian.
When you first look at it, you might think that it looks like an ancient version of the violin. After all, the Kamancheh has a small, wooden body with a layer of animal skin on top. It has a long neck with four metal strings and is played with a bow. Its bowl-shaped resonating chamber is positioned on the lower portion.
Originally, the Kamancheh had three strings. It’s believed that the addition of a fourth string was inspired by the violin. But unlike the violin, the Kamancheh is played vertically like a cello.
During the Safavid and Qatas eras, the Kamancheh was used in royal courts and celebrations. It was played solo or in ensembles and accompanied the folk and classical music of Iran.
Up next is the Tanbur, a stringed instrument with a round, wooden body and a long neck. It also has four strings and 14 gut frets.
Unfortunately, we can’t pinpoint the exact origin of the Tanbur. However, you’ll find that historians date the Tanbur back to different periods of time, such as ancient Babylon, ancient Egypt, and the Sumerian era.
Originally, it was only used by a group of Iranians called Ahl-e Haqq in their prayers. They believed that it helped connect their spirits to God. However, as time passed, it became part of Iranian music and was the inspiration behind other instruments.
The Tanbur of the modern era is used in folk and traditional music. It also accompanies chants and mantras. When used on these occasions, the Tanbur is usually played with the Daf.
Our next instrument, the Tombak, is the main percussion instrument of Persian classical music. This is a wooden goblet with a hollow top over which a layer of goat or lambskin is attached.
As with the Tanbur, the origins of the Tombak aren’t very clear. We definitely know that it existed in the pre-Islamic period, so it’s quite an ancient instrument.
To play the Tombak, you hold it diagonally across your torso. You can use your fingers or palms on the drumhead.
The Tombak witnessed a rise in popularity at the hands of Ostad Hossein, who’s considered a master in playing the instrument. Prior to the 20th century, the Tombak was known as an accompaniment instrument. But Hossein’s playing techniques showed that the instrument can also be played solo.
Next, we have the Sorna. This is an ancient double-reed woodwind instrument. Unfortunately, historical records don’t exactly show when this instrument originated.
Some historians trace the Sorna back to the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 BCE). Others trace it to the Sasanian dynasty (224-651 CE).
The Sorna is about 11-20 inches and varies according to region. It features a disc, or a pirouette, placed under the reed.
Originally, the Sorna was played on special occasions. In the Loristan Province of Iran, it was used in weddings and funerals. In Sistan and Baluchestan Provinces, Sorna was used in various celebrations. It took a while for the Sorna to become part of orchestral music.
Another stringed instrument to appear on our list is the Setar. It has a pear-shaped soundbox with a long neck. It consists of four strings stretched over it and 25–28 gut frets.
The name might be a bit confusing, as “setar” is Persian for “three strings.” That’s because it originally had three strings. It was only in the 19th century that another string was added. This was to enhance the sound quality and tuning complexities.
To play the Setar, the performer sits and holds the instrument at a 45-degree angle over the right thigh. He uses the index finger of his right hand in an “oscillating” motion.
These days, this instrument is considered the supreme one in performing Persian classical music. It can be played solo or to accompany singing.
Up next on our list is another stringed instrument, this time an angular harp. The Chang had been a part of Persian culture since 3000-4000 B.C.E.
As the Common Era began, the Chang began to take a more modern shape. Manufacturers started making it larger. This forced players to place it on the floor instead of holding it in their hands.
In terms of design, the Chang is pretty much a normal harp. The main difference between the two is that the Chang’s strings are made of goat hair or nylon. As a result, the sound the Chang produces a unique sound different from harps with metal strings.
In ancient times, the Chang was played mostly by women. It was used as an accompaniment for singers and poets in lavish banquets. These days, the Chang is used in ensembles during ceremonies and parties.
Up next, we have the Dozaleh, played in different parts of Iran, such as Hormozgān, the Kermānshāh, and Kurdistan.
The Dozaleh is different from all the wind instruments on this list in terms of design. It is basically two pipes combined together. They can be made of a variety of materials, such as copper or aluminum.
The Dozaleh consists of five to seven holes in each reed. The performer places the three middle fingers of his hands on the holes. The thumbs are positioned on the back of the instrument. He then places the reed “tongue” in his mouth and blows into it.
Typically, you can hear the Dozaleh and the Tombak played together in festivities and religious celebrations.
Another traditional Persian instrument is the Dotar, or dutar. In Persian, the word means “two strings,” referring to the two strings stretched on top of its pear-shaped body and long neck.
As you can probably guess, the description of the Dotar is similar to the Tanbur and Setar. That’s because, as with the setar, the Dotar is a descendant of the Tanbur.
How it is played depends on the region. People from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan do strumming and plucking. The ethnic group, Uyghurs from China, pluck the strings.
In the 15th century, the Dotar was a shepherd’s instrument. It was usually played to accompany sung poetry.
While there are many forms of the Rebab, they mostly follow the same pattern. It has a semi-rounded wooden body with a long neck. Two short wooden sticks are attached to that long neck. The Rebab can either be bowed or plucked.
Some versions of the Rebab have a modern appearance, looking more violin-like than their predecessors. The number of strings differs, depending on when and where it’s made.
The performer sits cross-legged and holds the Rebab vertically in front of him. He holds the bow in his right hand. He uses the fingers of his left hand to press on the strings.
The rebab dates back to the 8th century. There are traces of it in different regions. Back in the day, the Rebab was popular in mystic as well as secular music.
Next, we have the Ney-anban, which is Persian for “bag pipe.” As the name suggests, the instrument consists of a bag, a pipe, and two small wooden chanters.
While it may not look like a refined instrument, it’s a crucial part of Iranian culture and tradition. Its cultural significance shines the most in the southern regions of Iran, such as Khuzestān, Khuzestān, and Bushehr.
In fact, the Ney-anban had such a significant cultural impact that an international bagpipe day was created. The event has been held annually on March 10 since 2012.
The Ney-anban is the perfect instrument for expressing joy and sorrow. It is usually played at weddings and other cultural and traditional rituals.
Now we have the Barbat, a lute of Persian origin. It is short-necked and has a pear-shaped soundbox. It may look pretty standard, but it has a rich, complicated history.
There are traces of the Barbat in different regions at different periods of time. From ancient northern Bactria and Persia all the way to the Arab world.
That’s where it witnessed some modifications, not only in its design but in its name as well. From these modifications, the Oud emerged and started to spread throughout the Arab region.
To play, the performer holds the Barbat like he would a guitar. He can use his thigh and right hand to support the instrument while the left hand manipulates the fingerboard. The Barbat can be played solo or as part of an ensemble.
To end this list, we give you the Gheychak (sometimes spelled as Ghaychak or Ghichak). This is a bowed instrument related to the Kamancheh.
When you first look at it, you might think that it’s a combination of both the Barbat and violin. That’s not entirely true, although it does share some characteristics with both instruments.
Description-wise, the Gheychak has two chambers consisting of four or more metal strings. The soundbox is made from a single piece of wood. From end to end, it’s usually 23 inches.
The performer plays the Gheychak seated. He holds the instrument vertically using his left hand. He then draws the strings horizontally.
Long ago, the Gheychak was used for Iranian folklore and classical music. It had been a crucial part of the music culture of the southern parts of Iran, Baluchestan, and Sistan, and even Afghanistan and India.
Summing Up Our List Of Persian Musical Instruments
It’s always fun learning new things about a country’s music culture. We see a glimpse of what makes it the way it is right now.
Hopefully, with our list above, you have a better understanding of the origin and impact of every instrument. Each of these Persian instruments either had an influence on the country’s culture or was influenced by it in one way or another.
All of these instruments vary in shape, size, sound quality, and method of playing. Nonetheless, they all serve the same purpose: to reflect the grandeur of Persian culture and link it back to other cultures.