The traditional Arab ensemble or takht (literally 'bed' in Arabic) consists of four main melodic instruments: ‘ud, qanun, nay and kaman, and one main percussion instrument (riq). Sometimes the riq is supplemented/substituted with the tabla or frame drum.
The nay is an open-ended, obliquely end blown flute made of reed, and in fact the word ‘nay’ derived from the Farsi for ‘reed’. Exhibiting a breathy tone, the instrument has a wide range of almost two and a half octaves. The nay is still the most popular and commonly used instrument in Arab music, and is the only wind instrument played in the takht.
It is nine-jointed, and usually has six holes in the front for the fingers to play and one hole underneath for the thumb. It is played with the pads of the fingers. Nays come in different lengths, each one being tuned to a specific pitch.
Famous nay players include Bassam Saba and Samir Siblini, both from Lebanon.
The Kaman is a Western violin with altered tuning and playing technique. It has become almost indispensable to the traditional takht. The instrument in the Arab tradition is customarily tuned to G, d, g and d’.
The ‘ud can without doubt be regarded as the cornerstone of Arab music, whether in concerts, on the radio or at home. It is suitable for both solo and ensemble playing and is an essential part of the traditional Arab ensemble – the takht. Its name derives from the Arabic for 'a thin strip of wood’.
The oud is a short necked, fretless lute, with a body shaped like half a pear. It has eleven strings, made from nylon or metal wound silk, and these are arranged in five double lengths and one single length of string made from either nylon or metal wound silk. These strings are tied through a bridge (faras) all the way up to the peg box at the top of the neck. The body of the oud has openings in it called qamarat. To play the instrument, the musician plucks these strings with a piece of horn.
The modern ‘ud and the European lute both descend from a common ancestor via diverging evolutionary paths. The ‘ud is readily distinguished by its lack of frets and smaller neck.
Music theory, in particular the Arab maqam system, was and is still illustrated with it. For this reason Arabs call the ‘ud the ‘Sultan of the Musical Instrument'. Since the beginning of Arab musical history, both men and women have performed on this instrument.
The qanun is a descendant of the old Egyptian harp, and has played a key role in Arab music since the 10th Century. It is a flat instrument with a body shaped like a trapezoid, and has 26 triple courses of strings made from nylon and metal wound silk. A long bridge on the right-hand side of the instrument rests on goat (or fish) skin covered windows in the top of the instrument; on the left hand side, each course of strings passes over a series of small brass levers that are used to make small changes in pitch.
To make music, the player rests the qanun on his knees or on a table, and plucks the strings with two short horn-plectra between the tip of each index finger and a small metal ring called a kuthban. In Arabic music, the instrument lays down the law of pitch for other instruments and singers.
Percussions instruments play a very important role, as it helps keep the rhythm and timing. For this reason, many kinds of percussion instruments can be found in Arab music. For instance:
Riq is a small tambourine traditionally covered with a goat or fish skin head, stretched over a wooden frame that’s occasionally inlaid with mother of pearl. The riq has five sets of two pairs of brass cymbals spaced evenly around the frame, and called ‘sunuj’ in Arabic.
Frame drums like tar, daf, mizhar, bendirm bodhran are hand drum that has a wooden frame and a thin translucent head made of goat skin or synthetic material.
Tablah is a goblet shaped hand drum. Its thin, responsive drumhead and resonance help it produce a distinctively crisp sound.