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qanoun

Qanoun

 


Qanun is a lap-harp or zither used in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Armenian and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music. It is built in the shape of a trapezoid. Its strings, tuned in courses of three strings to each pitch, start at the square edge and pass over a bridge that sits on panels of skin, giving the instrument its characteristic sound.  A qanun usually has a range of about three and a half octaves. On the diagonal side of the instrument, there are a series of orabs (mandals in Turkish) or collapsible bridges that are used to change the pitch of each course independently during playing, and a set of wooden tuning pegs. The instrument is placed on the player’s lap, or on a table or stand, and is plucked with fingers of  both hands. A qanun player wears picks on the fore finger of each hand, held on by rings.  Most players also use some of their other fingers as well, without wearing picks on them, and some players now use no picks at all.

There are two major styles of qanun made today – the Arabic and the Turkish style. Usually the Arabic qanun is larger and heavier than the Turkish, and is tuned to a lower range of pitches. There are usually five skin insets, and five pillars to the bridge of an Arabic qanun, while the Turkish style has four. The most important difference, though, is in the number of orabs  for each string: an Arabic qanun has four, while there are many more for each course of a Turkish qanun, reflecting the relatively more complex system of Turkish intervals.

Qanun is first mentioned about 850 a.d. in the tales of the Arabian Nights, but neither the name nor the instrument seems to have been common until somewhat later.  In Moorish Spain, Ibn Hazm (who died in 1064) referred to the qanun as the ‘chief’ of instruments, and al-Shaqundi (who died in 1231) listed it among the instruments which were exported from Seville. The early qanun was played upright against the player’s body until the 15th century, according to pictures that have survived. Early instruments did not have orabs. These were gradually added, starting after 1910, before which temporary changes of pitch during playing would have been done by the fingers of the left hand.