Percussion Instruments

Finger Cymbals - Made from a variety of metals – copper and brass are the most common. Finger cymbals are worn on the thumbs and index fingers.

Common names – Zil, Sunuj, Chumparat, Nuiqsat

Hand Cymbal - The most common is used in Yemen – a circular copper tray called a Sahn Nuhasi

Single Headed Drum

Usually tubular or hourglass shaped. A variety of animal skins were used traditionally; a synthetic skin is common nowadays. The drum can be made of clay, terra cotta, wood or metal.

Common names – Tabla (Tabala), Darbukka, Dumbek, Zarb (for the Persian type.)

Kettle Drum - A small truncated drum made in a kettle shape, of clay or copper. Common names – Baz, Naqqara, Tasa, Mirfa, Double Naqqara (used in classical ensembles of Iraq and North Africa).

Frame Drum - The most common is a single skin drum that comes in different sizes. Some are simple, with no additions, and others have cymbals that are put into the frame. Some include bells and jingles that are attached behind the skin. Another variety has one or more strings that create a snare drum like effect. Common names – Daff (Deff), Riqq (from Egypt), Tar (from Morocco), Bendir (from Tunisia and Libya). Double skin frame drums are found from Southern Iraq throughout the Gulf states.

String Instruments

Lyre - One of the oldest string instruments, known to have existed since the third millennium B.C. A 5 or 6-string instrument, usually triangular in shape, with a shallow sound box made of wood or metal, about 1 meter high. Common name – Tambura


Long neck lutes

Tanbur & Saz – Mostly associated with the folk tradition used in Iran, Northern Iraq, Syria and parts of Central Asia. Comes in different sizes and shapes, and have between 12-17 frets and 2 or 3 courses of strings.

Buzuq – Consists of 24 frets, with an expanded sound range which makes it into a preferable instrument for improvisation, and closer to the oud in this function.

Gimbri – A native instrument of North Africa. There are three types, according to origin: Arabi, Sudani and Gnawi. Two sizes exist – the smaller Saghir or Souidsi, which has almost disappeared; and the larger, associated with the loud, almost bass like quality of the famous Gnawa tradition. The soundbox is made of wood, tortoise shell or a rectangular metal can.

Bowed string instruments

Rababa –The oldest of the spike fiddles, this is a single string instrument which is extended on one end by metal spikes for frets. The musician uses cloth or thread that is tied along the neck in different intervals. Mostly used by the Bedouins around the Sinai, the Red Sea shore and the Arabian coast.

Rebeb – A 2-string fiddle used in Andalusian classical tradition.

Joze – A 4-string fiddle with a coconut shell for a soundbox, used in Iraqi classical music.

Kemenche – A 4 string spiked fiddle with a small soundbox covered with animal skin, played vertically, resting on the musician’s thigh. Primarily associated with Persian classical music, but can be found throughout Central Asia. The Turkish version has a different construction, but the method of playing is similar.

Cretean Lyra – Traditionally one of the main instruments in Cretean folk music, but can be found in other Greek islands as well. Can also be found in other Balkan countries, with some variations. Traditionally a 3-string upright fiddle. Some of the newer versions include 18 sympathetic strings. The unique difference between the Cretean lyra and other upright fiddles is the technique used. The back of the fingernails is used to apply pressure on the sides of the strings.


Lute family

Oud – Clearly the most respected and honored instrument in Middle Eastern classical music, in existence since the 7th or 8th century, with an unfretted short neck, with 5 or 6 courses of strings played with a plectrum (a type of pick).

Kwitra – Another short necked lute, mostly used in the North African classical (Andalusian) tradition. Has a smaller and elongated shaped sound box.

Qanbus – The Yemeni version of the lute, with 4 strings, made from a single piece of wood. The sound box is covered with skin.


Qanun – A trapezoid shaped zither, commonly using 26 triple strings, played with 2 plectras that are attached to rings worn on the first finger of each hand. In existence since the 14th century, and a main instrument of the traditional small ensemble of classical Middle Eastern music.

Santur – First mentioned in texts from around 600 B.C., in the orchestra of the Babylonian king. A trapezoid shaped zither with 23-25 triple strings played with two light sticks. Also a main instrument of the traditional small ensemble of classical Middle Eastern music.

Woodwind Instruments

Nay – The reed flute associated with the classical traditional music throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. There are seven sizes, with six top holes and one thumb hole. Three octaves may be reached by a master musician.

Mizmar- A single or double reed instrument. Common names – Mizwij, Jifti, Mitbej, Mijwiz, Zurna.

Arghull – A double pipe flute of two pipes of different length. The short pipe has finger holes, and the long pipe is a drone.

Bagpipes – A single reed instrument attached to a skin bag that holds the air.

Common names – Jirba, Qurba, Habban

Nafir & Buk – Two large conical horns, primarily used for religious ceremonies.

Duduk – One of the oldest woodwind instruments, with an emotional tone character. Considered the national instrument of Armenia. While there are different versions from different countries, the Armenian is the most well known; carved from apricot wood and available in three sizes.


Musical Instruments of traditional Middle-Eastern music

(ref: Scheherazade Qassim Hassan, Garland Encyclopedia of World Music-The Middle East, published by Routledge, New York, NY)

About traditional Middle-Eastern musical instruments


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