Arabic Instruments in Saudi Music

The sounds of Saudi

6 popular instruments in Arabic music

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6 Arabic Instruments to Listen To

The sounds of Arabia are mesmerizing and widely played by everyone from local folk musicians to international rock stars like Sting, whose duet with Cheb Mami, “Desert Rose,” featured Arabic riffs and lyrics. There are six main instruments (see below) that produce the sounds of the desert. 

“These are instruments that have been played consistently for 5,000 years,” says Yousif Sheronick, a percussionist and world musician who has performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Philip Glass, Branford Marsalis and others. “They’ve had a tremendous impact on both the players and the listeners, or they wouldn’t have stayed around so long.” Sheronick attributes their longevity to their calming effects. “They’ve studied the brain activity of someone after they listened to a frame drum [a drum that has a drumhead with a width greater than its depth],” Sheronick says. “And rather than spiking, their brain waves flatten.” 

“The sound of Arabic instruments is so beautiful,” says Brian Prunka, a Brooklyn-based musician who has played the oud for almost 20 years. “They have very deep and earthy sounds that are organic and warm. They’re simply captivating.”

  • Rabab

    One of the earliest string instruments (introduced in the eighth century), the rabab is the precursor to Western instruments such as the violin. With its dusty twang sound, the rabab is perhaps the most identifiable Arabic instrument and comes in three versions; the most popular version is the “spike fiddle,” which has a long neck and a spike at the bottom to rest on the ground.

  • Oud

    The oud is another prominent string instrument in Arabic music, one that is shaped like a pear. And with six strings, it has much in common with the mandolin in terms of pitch and sound. Earlier versions of the oud had only three strings. Tuned to a higher octave than the rahab, it also comes in three versions: Arabian, Persian and Turkish. The Arabian version is the largest of the three and retains a richer, deeper sound.  

  • Qanoon

    The stringed qanoon is shaped like a trapezoid and is played resting on the musician’s lap with two picks. The early qanoon had 26 sets of triple strings, and a player achieved sharps, flats and microtones by playing with the left thumb. But in the early 20th century, sets of levers called mandals that could be flipped up and down were introduced so that a performer could more easily produce sharps, flats and quarter tones not found in Western music.

  • Ney

    The ney is an end-blown wood instrument akin to a flute or recorder. Constructed out of hollow cane, the Arabic version of the ney has seven holes to play, six in the front and one for the thumb in the back. A skilled player of the ney can produce sounds within a three-octave range.

  • Riq

    The riq is a small hand-held frame drum with cymbals similar to a tambourine. Original versions of the riq were usually made with wood, though today they’re often made with aluminum. The brass cymbals usually come in five groups of four and give the riq its distinctive rattling sound. “The riq is one of my favorite instruments because there are so many possibilities with it; you can play the cymbals or the drum head. Universally, it sounds exotic,” Sheronick says. 

  • Goblet drum

    Percussion, as typified by the goblet drum, is the foundation of Arabic music. “The goblet drum puts you in Arabia,” Sheronick says. “If people are going to dance at a party [in Saudi], the goblet drummer always comes out.” The most prominent types of goblet drums are the tablah and dumbec. Usually held under the nondominant arm or on the lap, the goblet drum can, depending on where the player strikes the head, emit deep bass sound as well as higher-pitched, lighter sounds 

Listen to the sounds of Saudi instruments on this playlist

 

—Matt Hendrickson has more than 25 years of experience in magazine and digital journalism, covering travel, food and music for publications including Rolling Stone.

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