The oud

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The oud (Arabic: عود[1][2][3] ʿūd [ʕuːd]) (Somali: kaban or cuud) is a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped, fretless stringed instrument[4] (a chordophone in the Hornbostel–Sachs classification of instruments), usually with 11 strings grouped in six courses, but some models have five or seven courses, with 10 or 13 strings respectively.

The oud is very similar to other types of lutes, and also to Western lutes.[5] Similar instruments have been used in the Middle East, North Africa (particularly the Maghreb, Egypt and Somalia), and Central Asia for thousands of years, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Caucasus, the Levant, anatolian Greeks, Albania and Bulgaria; there may even be prehistoric antecedents of the lute.[6] The oud, as a fundamental difference with the western lute, has no frets and a smaller neck. It is the direct successor of the Persian Barbat lute.[7] The oldest surviving oud is thought to be in Brussels, at the Museum of Musical Instruments.[8]

An early description of the “modern” oud was given by 11th-century musician, singer and author Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham: أبو علي، الحسن بن الحسن بن الهيثم (c. 965 – c. 1040) in his compendium on music Ḥāwī al-Funūn wa Salwat al-Maḥzūn. The first known complete description of the ‛ūd and its construction is found in the epistle Risāla fī-l-Luḥūn wa-n-Nagham by 9th-century philosopher of the Arabs Yaʻqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kindī.[9] Kindī’s description stands thus:

[and the] length [of the ‛ūd] will be: thirty-six joint fingers—with good thick fingers—and the total will amount to three ashbār.[Notes 1] And its width: fifteen fingers. And its depth seven and a half fingers. And the measurement of the width of the bridge with the remainder behind: six fingers. Remains the length of the strings: thirty fingers and on these strings take place the division and the partition, because it is the sounding [or “the speaking”] length. This is why the width must be [of] fifteen fingers as it is the half of this length. Similarly for the depth, seven fingers and a half and this is the half of the width and the quarter of the length [of the strings]. And the neck must be one third of the length [of the speaking strings] and it is: ten fingers. Remains the vibrating body: twenty fingers. And that the back (soundbox) be well rounded and its “thinning” (kharţ) [must be done] towards the neck, as if it had been a round body drawn with a compass which was cut in two in order to extract two ‛ūds.[10]

In Pre-Islamic Arabia and Mesopotamia, the oud had only three strings, with a small musical box and a long neck without any tuning pegs. But during the Islamic era the musical box was enlarged, a fourth string was added, and the base for the tuning pegs (Bunjuk) or pegbox was added. In the first centuries of (pre-Islamic) Arabian civilisation, the oud had four courses (one string per course—double-strings came later), tuned in successive fourths. Curt Sachs said they were called (from lowest to highest pitch) bamm, maṭlaṭ, maṭnā and zīr.[11] “As early as the ninth century” a fifth string ḥād (“sharp”) was sometimes added “to make the range of two octaves complete”.[11] It was highest in pitch, placed lowest in its positioning in relation to other strings. Modern tuning preserves the ancient succession of fourths, with adjunctions (lowest or highest courses), which may be tuned differently following regional or personal preferences. Sachs gives one tuning for this arrangement of five pairs of strings, d, e, a, d’, g’.[11]

Historical sources indicate that Ziryab (789–857) added a fifth string to his oud.[12] He was well known for founding a school of music in Andalusia, one of the places where the oud or lute entered Europe. Another mention of the fifth string was made by Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham in Ḥāwī al-Funūn wa Salwat al-Maḥzūn.

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