The lands of modern-day Turkey have been a part of so much of human history and empires. Over thousands of years, it has been the capital of countless empires, with the most famous city of Istanbul splitting two continents (Europe and Asia) in half.
This unique geographical location and the many cultures that lived there gave Turkey a unique mix of cultures and traditions. And when it comes to art and music, Turkish culture is filled with a wide range of fascinating instruments.
In this post, we’re going to explore some of the most well-known traditional Turkish musical instruments!
The Kanun is a string instrument that was important for Turkish classical music. It is also popular outside of Turkey in other cultures in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa.
The tuning of the kanun divides a musical octave into 72 equal intervals, although not every interval can fit on one single instrument.
You tune each version of the instrument according to a specific modulation, and performers sometimes have to change the tuning while playing.
The kanun has a soothing and tranquil sound, and you play it by placing the instrument on your knees. You then pluck the strings with either your fingers or a pick (plectrum).
You can see a kanun played both as a solo instrument and as part of an ensemble.
2. Baglama (Saz)
The Baglama is one of the most popular instruments in traditional Turkish music, and if you visit Istanbul, there is a good chance you will encounter someone playing it on the road or in a subway station.
Also referred to as Saz, the baglama originated from the Asian lute, and people play it in traditional and modern music. Often, baglama sounds accompany traditional Turkish singing.
The baglama has similarities in shape and function to the western guitar, but it has a bulge where you pluck the strings. Also, you tune the baglama into a different scale system than western music.
In this baglama example, you can hear the baglama as a solo instrument in the beginning. Later it changed its role to be the accompaniment to traditional Turkish folk singing.
The Zurna is a woodwind folk instrument that could be considered a relative of the oboe. And like the oboe, it has a high-pitched sound that easily pierces through musical textures.
You will hear the zurna played at events like weddings or folk dances or occasionally as the music to send people off to military service.
Generally made from the wood of plum, apricot, or willow trees, the zurna comes in different varieties of length depending on the key and musical pitch desired.
It is related to the western oboe because of the reed, and the eight melody keys give the zurna a range of almost two octaves.
4. Karadeniz Kemenche
Karadeniz is Turkish for the black sea, and the name of the Kemenche is because this instrument is popular in the black sea region of Turkey.
As such, variations of the kemenche also exist in Armenia, Greece, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
The name derives from a Persian word that means small bow, which makes sense considering the instrument has three strings, and you use a smaller bow to produce sound.
The kemenche has flexible tuning, but you will commonly hear it played in intervals of parallel fifths.
This video from a Turkish wedding showcases the sound of the kemenche along with the traditional dance.
5. Ud (Oud)
The Ud or Oud is another instrument that traces its origin to the lute.
Popular during the Ottoman Classical period, this instrument has traces that go back so far that it is one of the oldest known instruments of its type. Historians think it arrived in Egypt sometime in the 14th century.
The ud is similar to the baglama, although, in comparison, it has a shorter neck and a fatter head.
This instrument is not unique to Turkey because people also play it in Morocco, Syria, Iran, and Algeria. But by the late 1800s, the ud was well established as a staple of Turkish folk music.
The Kaşık, or Kasik in its English spelling, is a percussion instrument whose name means spoon.
The name is because you produce sound on this percussion instrument by essentially striking two spoons against each other, usually in a rhythm to accompany a dance.
These so-called spoon dances are popular in many regions of Turkey, and they are most popular in the Anatolia and Mediterranean regions.
As you can see from this video of kasik playing, the dancers themselves click the spoons in rhythm while dancing.
The band plays accompanying music, and the percussive sound of the kasik blends perfectly with the dancing rhythms.
7. Kaval (Shepherd’s Flute)
Like many historical instruments from folk traditions, the Kaval has a long and complicated origin story between many Balkan and Middle Eastern countries.
In many different regions throughout Turkey, the Balkans, and Macedonia, the kaval was used to represent pastoral life.
As such, shepherds often played this instrument and gave it the nickname shepherd’s flute.
The kaval is like a flute in that it is made from a single piece of wood that is hollowed out to form a tube.
Like the modern flute in western music, the instrument uses finger holes to allow the player to make chromatic pitches.
It has a breathy and transparent sound quality, which makes sense considering it is thought to have been used to keep animals calm while grazing.
8. Tef (Tambourine)
Tambourines are a common instrument across many different cultures, and the Tef is the Turkish version of the tambourine.
The Turkish tef can be made with or without the metal cymbals attached to the side. But otherwise, the tef is similar to the western and modern version of the tambourine.
It is typically built by stretching a leather cover over a wooden frame, and many versions of this instrument have intricate artwork on the sides.
Davul, which means drum in Turkish, is one of the oldest percussion instruments in Turkish music.
While the davul comes in a range of sizes, it is usually on the larger side and has a loud sound that is best suited for outdoor occasions like weddings, dances, and other ceremonies.
The davul consists of a wooden circular frame with two pieces of animal skin tied to each side, usually with one side being thicker.
The skins are secured in place with tight strings, and each side is struck with a different stick to make a different sound.
The Turkish davul is thought to be the instrument that most directly led to the bass drum in European culture.
The Sipsi is another wind instrument in the Turkish folk tradition. While it can be made with wood or even bone, the most common material for this instrument is reeds.
There is a smaller end to the instrument that goes into the player’s mouth, and blowing air past the reed creates a sound.
In this sense, the sipsi is comparable in sound production and musical range to the western clarinet.
In this example of sipsi playing, the instrument is made from bamboo, and you can hear how the finger holes create the musical scale patterns typical of Turkish folk music.
11. Tulum (Bagpipe)
The Tulum is a wind instrument in the Turkish folk tradition that can be aptly compared to the English bagpipe.
A mouthpiece allows the player to blow air into the instrument, and the air is stored in a sack made of lambskin called the deri kismi.
When the bag is squeezed by the player’s arms, airflow into the melodic section of the instrument, which is called the nav.
As you can see from this video of solo Tulum playing, finger holes in the nav section allow the player to alter the pitches and create melodies.
The Mey is another wind instrument from Turkish folk music, and it is made from the wood of plum or walnut trees.
The instrument can be divided into three parts, with the top part consisting of the reed, which produces the sound. In this way, it resembles many modern and western woodwind instruments, and it has a counterpart in Azerbaijan called the Balaban.
There is also a clip attached to the top of the reed, which allows the player to adjust the tuning by pushing it up and down.
With eight melody keys—seven on the top and one on the bottom—the range of the mey stretches to around one octave.
Summing up Our List of Turkish Instruments
As you can see, there is no shortage of interesting Turkish musical instruments, especially when it comes to folk music.
This abundance of rich musical history should come as no surprise considering how much history occurred on the lands of modern-day Turkey.
And because of this long and interwoven history, Turkish musical instruments are part of a tradition that extends out of Turkish culture and into many of the surrounding cultures in the Middle East and Asia.
So next time you hear this music, see if you can pick out some of the instruments!