Oud: Persian Musical Instrument

OudA short-necked lute with a large, round soundbox. The earliest example of an oud-type lute, called barbat by the ancient Persians, is found depicted in excavations from Tell at Susa from the eighth century B.C. Later, the same instrument appears in East Turkestan in a Ghandahar fresco of the fifth to seventh century A.D., in which the instument is shown with four or five strings. In Mafatih al Ulum, an Arab encyclopedia of tenth century A.D., the Persian barabt is said to have been so named because of its resemblance to the breast of a duck.


From Persia, the barbat moved east to China, where, before the Chou dynasty, only the zither (chin) was known. It was during the Han dynasty, when Chinese power and influence stretched to the Caspian Sea, the Western stringed instruments were brought to the East through the court orchestras of such countries as India, Tibet, and Mongolia and cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Kashgar. Sources claim that central Asian nomads found the Indo-Iranian instrument convenient for playing on horseback and thus carried it with them from the West to the East.


The Chinese renamed the barbat the pipa, the Koreans soon adopted it and called it hwang bipa, and the Japanese named it biwa. The earliest archaeological evidence of the lute family in China consists of sculptures of the sixth century A.D. From 623 A.D. the Japanese sculptures show the lute. Beautiful lutes of sandalwood with mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell work dating from 749 A.D. are still in the Imperial Treasury at Nara, Japan. Althoughh an early Asian gold painting depicts the four-stringed lute played with a large plectrum (called bahi by the Japanese today), the Chinese pipa is currently plucked with the fingers like flamenco guitar.


Variants of the Chinese pipa are the yueh chin (moon guitar) and the san hsien. The yueh chin is a short-necked lute attributed to the Tsin dynasty (265-419 A.D.). An eighth century inlaid specimen with the frets on the neck and on the soundboard is in the treasury at Nara and is depicted on the Turkistan fresco of 500 A.D. This instrument is obviously developed from the older form. The san hsien is the ancestor of the Japanese shamisen.


One of the earliest mentions of the Arabo-Persian oud in Europe was in the Roman de la Rose. Many fourteenth century art works depict the instrument with four strings and played with a quill plectrum. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the four strings had evolved to four courses or pairs of strings as had already happened in the Islamic world. By the fifteenth century, the tuning developed from the Arab tuning in fourths with a treble G to the odd D, A, F, C system and the plectrum was discarded in favor of the finger-plucking technique.


The earliest lute books were in Italian, and from these texts it is obvious that the art of lute-playing in Europe, although far inferior to the Arabo-Persian virtuosity, was still relatively highly developed. In Spain, the vihuela or de mano was used, although the odd European lute tuning was adopted.


The guitar was innovation on the basic lute form. The cittern tuning remained more faithful to the ancentral form and is cited as being E, D, G, A (D). Also, making a flat instrument was probably easier than gluing steam-bent strips together in a pear shape for Europeans who did not seem to take much pride in painstaking craftsmanship as Moslems did. Thus, the guitar with its illogical tuning and tinny-noted soundbox was a step down from the noble oud.


The Italian mandolin is a smaller version of Arab oud, the main deviation being that the strings continue past the bridge to the end of the soundbox instead of beginning at the bridge as in the case of oud.


The Russian balalaika, with its three strings and triangular soundbox, might not at first appear to be in the oud family, but it is just another deviation from the original pear shape. On the other hand, the buzuki of Greece and neighboring Balkan countries has faithfully maintained the original pear shape of the oud, and the Romanian cobza retains the logical Eastern tuning of the D, A, D, G in octave.


The most far-removed descendent of the oud is the Russian bandoura, which, as well as having several melody strings, has a large group of zither-type auxiliary strings. The bandoura could be considered a combination of oud and zither.


The American banjo has African origins, its skill-covered soundbox resembling that of the Ethiopian lyre, but its guitar playing concepts relate it also to the oud.