Music to the Ears - Oriental Instruments

By Suzanne Locke - UAE

Did you know the word ‘guitar’ comes from Arabic? Or that bagpipes are played in the Middle East as well as Scotland? Here are some of the musical instruments you may not have known from the Orient…

The Arabic ensemble (takht, meaning bed) consists of four main instruments – the oud, the nay, the qanun and the violin, with the percussion provided by the riq and occasionally the tabla/ doumbek.



Playing oud © Corbis

1) The Oud

The most popular stringed instrument, the oud is a (half) pear-shaped lute that originally had four strings and now has up to 13, traditionally plucked with an eagle feather. Meaning ‘branch of wood’, its Western equivalents are the mandolin and guitar, coming from the Arabic word qitara, introduced by the Moors into Spanish Iberia as the guitarra in the 10th century. The lute takes its name directly from the word al-oud.

The qanun © Corbis

2) The Qanun

A trapeze-shaped flat-board harp (its name means ‘rule’ or ‘law’ and translates directly to the English word canon) with 81 strings, plucked with the finger or with a plectrum on each hand. It was introduced into Europe in the 12th century, and morphed into the zither.



Crafting a nay © Corbis

1) The Nay

A simple reed pipe flute with six holes in front and one for the thumb. Other woodwind instruments include the Moroccan oboe (rhaita), the Persian oboe (zumas), the Turkish-style mey and three-part flute the kaval.


The oriental riq © Corbis

1) Riq

A type of tambourine with a canvas-covered round frame and 10 pairs of metal discs, descended from the daf.

Tabla the oriental version © Corbis

2) Tabla/ darbuka/ doumbek/ derbeki

A goblet-shaped hand - a skin membrane is stretched over the drum base, which is made of earthenware or metal. It’s played under the arm or resting on the player's leg and makes three main sounds, the bass beat ‘doum’, the treble ‘tak’ and the ‘ka’. Not to be confused with the Indian tabla, a pair of hand drums like a set of bongos.

Bagpiper in action © Corbis

3) Bagpipes

Bapipes may be synonmous with Scotland but they are also played throughout Europe, Turkey, the Arabian Gulf and Northern Africa. However the bagpipes used in the GCC, especially Oman and the UAE - al habban - do actually have their origins in the British version.

The kaman © Corbis

4) West to East

And it works both ways – the violin, piano, electric guitar, piano and bass, the accordion and cello have all made their way into Arabic music. The European violin (kaman) was widely adopted into Arab music during the second half of the 19th century.

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