Taqsim Music School


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The Iraqi Santur

14 March 2009

The Iraqi santur is a trapezoidal box zither with a walnut body and ninety-two metal strings. The strings, which are tuned to the same pitch in groups of four, are struck with two wooden mallets. The tuning of these twenty-three sets of strings extends from the low yakah (G) up to jawab jawab husayni (a"):

The name santur is derived from the Greek psalterion. Native to Persia and Turkey as well as to Iraq, the instrument came to Europe with the Arabs by way of North Africa and Spain during the Middle Ages. In China, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was referred to as the "foreign qin." Iraq has produced entire generations of famous santur virtuosos.
Although of the same type and name, the Persian santur differs from the Iraqi in the number of strings and the arrangement of bridges on the resonating surface. Whereas the Persian instrument has only eighteen sets of unison strings and two rows of bridges, the Iraqi boasts twenty-three sets of strings and three rows of bridges. Iraqi santor
Parallel to the oblique side of the Iraqi santur are twelve bridges, which divide alternate sets of strings so that exactly one-third of their vibrating length is to the left of the player, and two-thirds is to the right. The tone to the right side of the bridge is therefore an octave lower than that to left (oscillation ratio 2: 1). When being played, both parts of the string are used alike. Toward the right side of the santur, beneath the remaining sets of strings, are eleven to fourteen bridges arranged in groups of Seven, eight, nine, or ten, and four. The bridges in the larger group divide their sets of strings so that one- third of the vibrating length is to the right and two-thirds to the left. Their function is thus similar to the twelve bridges to the musician's left, but in this case the strings may only be struck to the left of the bridge. The four remaining bridges partition off the distance between the right edge of the instrument and the row of twelve bridges. Here again, one-third of this distance is to the right of the bridge and two-thirds to the left, and also again, the strings may only be struck to the left of the bridge.

In view of this arrangement of the bridges and the basically diatonic tuning of the santur, the following tones are available to the instrument:
1. The four sets of strings with bridges placed furthest to the right yield

2. The remaining seven string sets with bridge positions on the right yield

3. The twelve string sets with bridge positions on the left yield
a. struck to the right of the bridges

b. struck to the left of the bridges

All the metal strings of the santur have the same gauge, which is why the pitch of each string is solely dependent upon its tension. The bridges are called dama ("chessmen") because they look like pawns. The strings do not rest directly on the wood of the bridge but on a nail lying across the upper part of the bridge, hence the pure metallic sound of the santur. Belonging to the repertoire of a santur player are the taqasim and the complete literature of the maqam al-'iraqi.

Iraqi Music Heritage Project