Feb 142012

By Mark D.

With a history that goes back thousands of years, the instruments played by Arabic musicians have developed over many generations, and across the different regions of the Arab peninsula, North Africa and Central Asia. Because they have evolved in such a wide variety of cultures, today there is a rich family of Arabic Musical instruments, often very closely related but each unique.

In this article, we will take a brief look at some of the most popular and important.


The Oud

The Oud – the most famous of Arabic music instruments

The oud, sometimes spelled ud, is probably the most famous Arabic musical instrument. It is a stringed instrument, with a timber, pear-shaped bowl as its body, and a short neck that bends back at right angles.

The oud has no frets, so it is ideal for playing the many subtly different pitches used in Arabic music. Like a guitar, it is played horizontally, resting on the knee, and is plucked and strummed with either the fingernails, or with a long thin plectrum called a risha.

Mythology traces the first oud back to Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam (who was the first human in the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions).


The ney (or nay), a long, thin flute, is one of the oldest musical instruments anywhere in the world still in use today, dating back to at least around 5,000 years. Because it has developed simultaneously in so many different places over such a long time, many different types of ney exist.

The ney is one of the oldest musical instruments still in use today.

The ney is one of the oldest musical instruments still in use today.

Until recently, neys were made from a length of hollow reed or cane, but modern neys can also be made from plastics and metals. Despite its relatively simple construction, with skilful breath control and deft fingers, the ney can be a very expressive and articulate instrument.


Descended from the Egyptian harp, the qanun (also called kanun; the English word ‘canon’ has the same origin) is first noted in tenth century Iran. At around a metre in length and with more than seventy strings, it is lain across the lap and plucked with two picks, or with the fingernails of both hands. With so many strings, the qanun’s tunings rely on intricate mathematics learned from the pre-Islamic Greeks.


As one of the oldest and most common Arabic percussive instruments, the riq often determines the rhythms and dynamics of a performance. It is a small wooden tambourine with pairs of brass cymbals, or sagaat, built into the frame, and a skin (traditionally goat or fish) stretched over it. The frame is often decorated with mother-of-pearl or ivory.

The riq

The riq

Unlike many other types of tambourine, the riq is moved up and down the player’s body, as well as being shaken and drummed, to accentuate the range of sounds that a talented musician can produce.