The Oud and Other Articles


A Brief History of the Oud

Ahmed Mukhtar

The oldest known Oud comes from ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the Acadian period (circa 2350-2150 BC), depicted on cylindrical seals as shown in the picture here on the right. Examples can be seen at the British Museum in London.

The word “Oud” literally means “wood”. The likely explanation for this name is that relatively late – not until the end of the sixth century – the Arabs of the Hijaz region adopted the wooden-faced lute from the city of Hirah, in Iraq, in place of the old skin-faced instrument known in pre-Islamic times by the name mizhar, used in different sizes.
It is possible that the Oud was influenced by the four-stringed Persian Lute “bar-bat”; it is also possible, however, that the term bar-bat, at that time, was merely a synonym for Oud.

In the ninth century, the Arab philosopher al-Kindi, further developed the lute from a four-stringed instrument to a five-stringed instrument and the great singer and Oud player Ziryab implemented this practically. Up until the fifteenth century, the Arabs differentiated between the “qadim” Oud (the old Oud that was strung with four strings tuned in fourths), and the “kaamil” Oud, the “complete” Oud that had five strings.

Until then, strings used to be plucked with a wooden plectrum. Ziryab introduced the use of the quill of an eagle feather (risha), which can still be found among Oud players nowadays, although a feather-like plectrum made of plastic is far more popular among both beginners and professional musicians.

During the Middle-Ages the Oud arrived into Europe by way of the Arabs in Andalusia and later, with the addition of frets, became the Western lute, the name of which is derived from the Arabic word “al Oud”.



Dear Mukhtar,
A quick update for your site.
The oldest lute dates further back than what you say.
We have found one dating from the Uruk Period, that is about 3500 – 3200 BC.
It is represented on a seal cylinder. We have it at the British Museum

As ever,
Pro. Richard Dumbrill
Archeomusicologist, The British Museum


Oud – The Stringed Instrument

Ahmed Mukhtar

The oud is a fretless, plucked short-necked lute with a body shaped like half a pear. The Oud can indeed be considered the very embodiment of Arabian musical culture. Music theory, in particular the Arabian tonal system, was and still is illustrated using the oud.


The oud is regarded as the cornerstone of Arabian musical artistry in concerts, on the radio, and in the domestic sphere. It is not without reason that the Arabs describe it to be: “the Sultan of Musical Instrument”.
Both men and women perform on this instrument. Since the beginning of Arabian musical history, the lute enjoyed immense popularity and was not absent from any festive and joyful social gathering. To this day, the tender and sweet sound of the Oud fascinates the Arabian listener, who occasionally compares the tone to the voice of a nightingale. The Oud is as widespread in North Africa and the Near East as is the piano in Europe. At any rate, its area of distribution is not limited to the Arabian world alone, but reaches far off into Central Asia and the regions South of the Sahara.
This seal was acquired by Dominique Collon on behalf of the British Museum, in 1996. It dates back to the Uruk period, 3500 to 3200 BC. However, the seal is a palimpsest, having been reworked from an older one. It has also been contended that it was not a lute but a paddle that the woman was holding. The position of the hands tend to confirm that this was a lute. The importance for a lute to be represented at such an early period implies that the Sumerians were aware of the usage of ratios in the division of the strings. It can be deduced that the Sumerians were aware of such ratios due to the frets seen, or position the of the strings on the neck of the instrument.


There are suggestions that the neck of the lute was divided into 60 units of length, (fingers) with a first fret position at 50/60th of the length, the second fret at 40/60th and a third fret at 30/60th of the length. Should the free string produce a fundamental ‘c’, then the first fret would give an ‘e’ flat, the second fret a ‘g’ and the third fret the octave ‘c”. These notes would provide the essential division for the production of both an hemi-tonic pentatonic and diatonic scales. This would constitute the first example of frets, or of fret divisions over 5000 years ago, at least.
Source: Dumbrill, R.J., (2005) The Archaeomusicology of the Ancient Near East, p.321


The Oud In Europe

Ahmed Mukhtar

Source: SOAS MMus research


During the Middle Ages, the Oud was already finding its way toward Europe, making the journey with returning crusaders, as well as through Spain in the West and Byzantium in the East. However, it wasn’t until the 16 Century that Troubadours, musicians and wandering singers took up the instrument to accompany their singing. But when did the popularity of the lute reach its peak? Since all the Europe names for the instrument: laut; alaude; laud; luth; liuto, and the lutr; were all derived from the Arabic word “al-Oud”, one could deduce that it was the Golden Age when the oud was truly c experienced in the West.


Oud Makers

Ahmed Mukhtar

Instrument makers who manufacture the Oud are found in almost every Arabian land, especially in big cities. A few of the best-known makers are: Mohamed Fadil Al-Awad of Baghdad and his sons Earb, Omer and Faiq; Fawzi Munshid of Basra, Iraq; Nazih Ghadban of Beirut; and Nahhat of Damascus; all of whom pride themselves for being the best Oud craftsmen in the Arabian world. Indeed, because of the excellent sound of their ouds, most great Oud players buy instruments from them. Iraqi builders, such as Mohamed Fadel, Ali Al-Armani, and Fawzi Munshid, are the best Oud makers in the Middle East.

Iraqi builders, such as Mohamed Fadel, Ali Al-Armani, and Fawzi Munshid, are the best Oud makers in the Middle East. In fact, one of Fawzi Munshid’s ouds has recently been chosen to represent the best-made oud of the 20th Century and is on display at The British Museum as part of the permanent collection. 


Below is an episode from Ahmed Mukhtar’s television program: “Solo Program”/”عزف منفرد” describing and illustrating how an oud is made from start to finish. The program is in Arabic.



The Oud Today

Ahmed Mukhtar


Today the Oud is strung with five double strings, of which the three highest are made of gut or nylon and the two lowest are made of silk, wound  with copper wire.

Altogether, the instrument includes a tonal range from G to C (Yakah to jawab Kurdan).
Some Oud performers attach a sixth string after the C string (Kurdan), usually tuned to F (Mahuran). Iraqi Oud performers, however, prefer the tuning F (qarar Jaharkah). The plectrum, or “risha”,  is held between the player’s thumb and index finger. The term “risha”, meaning feather, is used to describe the plectrum because a quill of an eagle’s feather was used to play the Oud.

A good oud player is celebrated for his large repertoire of maqamat, as well as for his/her well-balanced application of regular and irregular motions when using the plectrum.  The style and manner of plucking used, allows the musician to expresses a certain individual air and personality to his/her listeners. Every Oud player strives to do his/her best, especially while playing taqasim. This is where one can apply a variety of plucking techniques, since the music is not bound to any temporal order. The musician can further demonstrate complex technical abilities in the clean and rapid execution of passages using the high registers of the instrument through quick changes between the high and the low register of the instrument; usually at an interval of an octave. Additionally, a player will apply a rapid, “hocket-like” motion, alternating the plucking of an open-string (usually an open C-string) and other notes, creating a drone while playing other melodies. 

A musician may occasionally desist from plucking with the risha, and instead, will mute a string with the index finger of the left hand while striking it with the middle, ring, or small finger of the same hand.

The solo repertoire of the Oud is principally made up of taqasim of the individual maqamat. In the“Lyaali ” vocal form, the Oud is looked upon as a preferred, if not a completely irreplaceable, accompanying instrument to the solo vocalist.


Solo Playing Styles

Ahmed Mukhtar



Three principle elements:

Taqasim: A traditional Arabic music style. A prelude to the most important musical themes plus a few simple additional improvisations by the player.

Improvisation: One of the distinctive features of Arabic music, inherited from singing traditions. It usually does not features prepared musical themes.

Musical Pieces: A piece composed using a theme, maqam or maqamat that invoke and express emotions.


An Introduction to Arabic music

Evidence from the Past

In the times of ancient Arabia, the art of song came about before instrumental music. Huda (The Caravan of Camels Song) has been long regarded by Arab historians as the first recorded Arabic song. Its source traces back to Mudar Ibin Nizar Ibn Ma’add. The song, performed using the poetic metre Rajaz, corresponds to the sound of camels’ footsteps. According to Al Masudi and Ibn Khaldun, Mudar fell off of his camel and broke his hand. In his pain, he cried out “Ya yadah! Ya yadah!” 


After Huda, the Nasb song came about which was not much different from Huda. The Nasb and Nuah were the only types of songs practiced until the end of the sixth century. More advanced songs were developed in Al-Hira (present day Iraq), when the poet and musician Al- Nader Ibn Al- Harith (624) introduced several creative musical forms. In his work, Al Farabi (d.950), describes instruments of his period that are different compared to those from pre-Islamic time. One of the instruments is: the Oud. It is known by various names and shapes, such as: Muwatter and Mizhar. In his book, Femmes Arabs pre-Islam, Ferron says ‘Before Islam, music was little ales than unpretentious varied and declaimed, by the singer, male or female or rather caprices’.

The Golden Age 

‘The arts of music continued to make progress with the Arabs. Under the Abbasids, it was carried to perfection’ Ibn Khaldun, Al Muqaddima

During the period of the Islamic Golden Age (800-1200 AD), Arabian music made greater progress than during any other period. The main two causes are considered to be the economic and political progress of the time. Along with stability, a society can find intellectual prosperity and artistic magnificence, including music brilliance.

Famous singers, girls and professional musicians, were treated very well and with generosity, and even ordinary professional musicians made a small fortune though their art. Theoretical and practical progress was original. And in this period, genres and melodic modes were first established methodically. From various works such as books, manuscripts, and letters, we have close insight into the theatrical and musical works. this has allowed us to see the progress of various rhythms, musical terminology, musical instruments, teaching methods, lyric and poetry.

Musicians and Singers

Many great singers and musicians have been contributed to Arabic music, past and present. Most of them had and still have creative live innovations and inventions such as: Nashit per-Islam, Isaac Musally and Zriab during 8th century, Alarmaoy 14th century, Abdo Al Hamoly,Abu khalilal Qabani and Mula Otman Mossali in the late 19th century and Um Kalthom Farid Al Atrash, Firuz and Abdul wahab in the mid-20th century.


Musical Instruments

As early as the 10th century A.D., Arabian scholars such as Al- Kindi, Al Farabi, Ibn Zaylah, the Ikhwan as-Safa (Brothers of Serenity), and Ibn Sina, devised a special classification system for musical instruments that led to their subdivision into percussion, plucked, bowed, and wind instruments. In addition to these classifications, it was important for the systematisation whether the duration of the tone produced by the instrument was short, long or sounded continuously, and whether the neck of a stringed instrument was with equipped with frets.

From time immemorial, the Arabs have preferred to make music in small ensembles. The only exception to this was presented by the splendid court orchestras in Iraq, Morocco, and Egypt, as reported to us by historians. Up to one hundred musicians were said to have performed in these orchestras on drums, timpani, horns, and oboes.


The Oud is a fretless, plucked short-necked lute with a body shaped like half a pear. The Oud can indeed be considered the very embodiment of Arabian musical culture. Music theory, particularly the Arabian tonal system, was and is still illustrated using it. It is regarded as the cornerstone of Arabian art music in concerts, on the radio, and in the domestic sphere. It is not without reason that the Arabs call the Oud the ‘Sultan of the Musical Instrument’. Since the beginning of Arabian musical history, both men and women have performed on this instrument.


Qanon (Ka-noon)

The Qanon is a plucked box zither used in Arabic and other Oriental music and is a classical instrument of the Arab world. The Qanon was invented in the Abbasid period (750-1258 AD), by legendary musician and instrument maker Al Faraby (950 AD). The Qanon has a trapezoid body with one rectangular side. The longer side varies in length between 75 and 100 cm (29-39 in) and the box, between 32 and 44 cm wide, runs across a bridge resting on five patching of fish skin. The instrument has a range of about four octaves.  The player rests the Qanon on his knees or on a table with the longest side facing him and the perpendicular side to his right. Ring-shaped plectra made from buffalo horns are placed on both index fingers pluck the strings.



In spite of the many wind instruments extant, the Nay is still the most popular and common used instrument in Arabic music. The Nay is an oblique rim-blown flute of Arab world. The classical Nay consists of an open-ended segment with six finger holes in the front and one in the back. The Nay is the only wind instrument played in Arab music art.


Percussion Instruments

Percussions Instruments in Arab art music play a very important role, as it helps keep the rhythm and timing in all musical genres, especially in vocal music, which makes up more than 85% of traditional Arab music art. For this reason, many kinds of percussion instruments can be found that have different sounds and colours and play circular rhythms with the same key signature.

For instance:


Dombak: single-headed goblet-shaped drums

Riqq:  a small, circular frame drum with jingles

Tar: a circular frame drum found throughout Arab world. Diameter from 12 to 70 cm. Mizhar

Mizhar: a frame drum

Khishba: a single-headed, narrow hourglass drum, made from wood original used by gypsies.

Bowed Instruments

There are many names for the bowed spike fiddle instrument typically found in the area, such as Joza in Iraq, Kamanja in Egypt, and other names, depending on the length and number of the strings. It ranges between 60-100 cm long with a resonator made from a hollowed-oud coconut. It is cut off at both ends, with one opening covered by lamb or fish skin.



Rababah: The Rababah is a spike fiddle, traditionally used to accompany Bedouins poetry. The Bedouin version has a quadrilateral sound box covered with skin and a single horsehair string. It is played with a horsehair bow. The Moroccan variant has a boat-shaped sound box and the string may be positioned to the side of the neck. In Egypt, the sound box is made from a coconut shell. Some versions have two strings.




Music Theory Today (Scales and Rhythms)

Every Maqam consists of seven notes per octave with the first note added to the end of the sequene to begin forming the next octave up. This brings the total number of notes up to eight. Each Maqam is divided into two main jins‘ (ajnas) or genders (tetrachords) consisting of four notes each. Some ajnas use particlar, rare exceptions. Each gender consists of a scale that is independent of the genders that follow or precedes it. This is what is referred to as a tetrachord. For example, in Maqam, Rast C (C – D – E half-flat – F), is the first gender jins and G – A – B half-flat or flat (depending on whether one is ascending or descending the scale) – C is the second jins. We notice that the notes of each gender are independent of each other and are not shared. The first gender is usually derived from one maqam and the second gender is derived from another maqam.

Rhythms (iqa’at) can be highly complex, with some pertterns consisting of as many as 48 beats. The basic components of a rhythm are two kinds of beats and silences or rests. The down beat (dumm) is a deep sound made by hitting the drum or tambourine near its centre. The up beat (takk) is a crisper, high-pitched sound made by tapping the rim of the instrument. Players usually ornament the basic pattern with improvisations.

Present Ajnaas (Genders/Tetrachords)

There are many genders and musical forms in Arab music arts heritage. The first are vocal music genders, such as Dawr, short and long song and Qasidah. The second type is the musical treatment genders, such as Sama’ai, Longa, Peshrav and Dowlab. Vocals in local Arab music include Nuba, Malof and Malhon in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and Maqamt in Iraq, Qiddod in Syria, Taqtoqa, in Egypt and Sout in Arabian Peninsula. But today all of these styles and genders are exercised within the heritage and traditional music, and most of the music used today is called modern, youth or electronic music, and is played at a variety of places for entertainment and enjoyment.


In Arabic music, the basics of a piece are notated, while ornamentation and embellishments are left to the performer. This is where we find a greater freedom of expression being afforded to the musician and we see him/her adding their own touches and interpretation to the composer’s ideas. Therefore, the piece is a sort of tandem work between the composer and whatever musician happens to be playing the piece at the time. These embellishments and additions are either improvised by the instrumentalist during the performance or are prepared prior to it. However these embellishments are not fixed and change according to the mood of the performer. We can therefore say that Taqasim and improvisation enters all forms of Arabic music in varying degrees. Improvisation does not feature the prepared musical themes and depends on the creation in the course of playing, but the Taqasim features the prepared musical themes mostly plus a few simple additional improvisations by the player in the course of the performance.

The word Taqasim remains the most accurate way to describe this distinct form in Arab music art and so. However, Taqasim was translated into ‘improvisation’ in other languages, which does not describe the form, as accurately, even though the two words have rather similar meanings. Upon closer inspection, we find that the difference between them is that improvisation is prepared or created during the performance and relies entirely on the musician’s ability, technique and knowledge of the various Maqams. Taqasim, however, consists in part of phrases and ideas that were prepared before the performance in the form of composition, or modifying other musicians’ phrases or Taqasim (from folklore or otherwise) to be performed in a way that suits the performer (i.e., not necessarily performed exactly as it was notated).

The Concept of Tarab

Tarab is “the ecstasy, elation, pleasure of delight spiritual of listening to excellent singer, the excellence of the singer who could fascinate her/his audience’. The marvellous voice that could sing with harmonic modulations of Maqams also had a unique quality of voice.  All those descriptions could be suitable to define and identify Tarab. Without understanding and feeling the meaning of the words (lyrics) of Tarab, it is hard to influence audiences. The concept of Tarab could include other forms of arts, such as dance. In general, certain distinctiveness connected to the appreciation of art in Arab music.


Between Prohibition and Legality

Ahmed Mukhtar

 The legality of music and singing in Islamic law is an issue hotly debated among individuals and scholars in Islamic societies of our present day. Arriving at the correct view requires unbiased, scholarly research of the available literature, which must be supported by authentic, decisive proof

 A considerable amount has been said and written both for and against this subject, and the proliferation of doubt and confusion necessitates another critical, meticulous analysis and assessment of this whole matter, in order for one to come to a clear, decisive conclusion which leaves not the least bit of doubt in the mind of the reader.


More on Beat & Rhythm

Ahmed Mukhtar

The rhythm pattern in Arabic music and Oud is call Wazn (literally “measures”).A Wazn consists of a regular sequence of two or more time segments. Each time division is made up of at least two beats, which can be long or short (accented or un-accented). The time division of a Wazn can be equal or unequal in length: a Wazn in six-beat, for example, could be composed of two equal division have three beats each (3+3) or of equal division having, say, four beats and two; a Wazn containing eight beats could be made up of three different time division (e.g. 3+2+3). The first beat of Wazn is usually accented.
Every beat is represented by one of two types of drum strokes; Dum (heavy beat) which is produced at the centre of the drum skin or Tak (light beat) which produced at its edge.
To practice rhythm in Oud we will write down some patterns making D open-string as Dum and G open-string as Tak.

·Wazn Sma’ai Darij or Valus (3/4) Contains three beats one time division
Wazn Hcha’a (2/4) Contains three beats one time division.
Wazn Maqsom (8/4) Contains eight beats two time division (4+4).
Wazn Masmudi Kabir (8/4) Contains eight beats two time division (4+4)
Wazn Sma’ai Thaqeel (10/8) Contains eight beats three-time division (3+4+3). D SS T S DD T SS

In Arabic music, a Maqam (plural Maqamat) is a set of notes with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development. Maqamat are best defined and understood in the context of the rich Arabic music repertoire. The nearest equivalent in Western classical music would be a mode (e.g. Major, Minor, etc.)

The Arabic scales which Maqamat are built from are not even-tempered, unlike the chromatic scale used in Western classical music. Instead, 5th notes are tuned based on the 3rd harmonic. The tuning of the remaining notes entirely depends on the Maqam. The reasons for this tuning are probably historically based on string instruments like the oud. A side effect of not having even-tempered tuning is that the same note (by name) may have a slightly different pitch depending on which Maqam it is played in.


Other Musical Terms

What are Quarter-Tones?

Many maqamat include notes that can be approximated with quarter tones (depicted using the half-flat sign or the half-sharp sign), although they rarely are precise quarters falling exactly halfway between two semitones. Even notes depicted as semitones sometimes include microtonal subtleties depending on the maqam in which they are used. For this reason, when writing Arabic music using the Western notation system, there is an understanding that the exact tuning of each note might vary with each maqam and must be learned by ear.

Another peculiarity of maqamat is that the same note is not always played with the same exact pitch, the pitch may slightly vary depending on the melodic flow and what other notes are played before and after that note. The idea behind this effect is to round sharp corners in the melody by drawing the furthest notes nearer. This effect is sometimes called the law of attraction or gravity, and is common in other musical traditions (e.g. in Byzantine music).


Are maqamat transposable?

When Arabic maqamat are taught and documented, each maqam is usually associated with the same starting note (tonic). For example, maqam Bayati is almost always shown as starting on D in reference textbooks.

In general maqamat are transposable, but only to a handful of other tonics. For example, maqam Bayati can also start on G and A. When transposing Arabic maqamat, musicians mention the tonic name after the maqam name for clarity (e.g. “Bayati on G” or “Bayati on A”). For this reason also, only a few quarter tones are exploited (with the understanding that the term quarter tone is approximate, and that many semitones include microtonal variations). The most frequently used quarter tones are: E, A and B.


How many maqamat are there?

There are dozens of Arabic maqamat, too many to list, including many Persian and Turkish hybrids. It’s difficult to find a definitive list of Arabic maqamat that all textbooks agree on, or a definitive reference on which maqamat are strictly Arabic and which are Turkish or Persian. There are also many local maqamat used only in some regions of the Arab world (e.g. Iraq and North Africa), and unknown in others. But the most widely used and known maqamat are about 30 to 40, and these are the ones covered in this web site

The Samai (plural Sama’iyyat)

The Samai is a composed genre comprised of four sections (khana, plural khanat), each followed by the refrain (taslim).

The samai composition demonstrates the 10/8 rhythmic mode (called samai thaqil) followed throughout the taslim and the first 3 khanat. The 4th khana, which precedes the last statement of the refrain, is typically composed in a 3/4 or 6/4 rhythm, called Samai Darij. Some contemporary composers display a 5/8, 7/8 or 9/8 rhythm in the 4th khana.

The first three khanat of the Samai consist of 4 to 6 measures. The last (4th) khana varies from 6 to 24 measures.

Generally the first khana in the Samai displays the selected maqam in a stepwise motion. It is usually played in the lower tetrachord (jins) of the maqam. The second khana shows a modulation to a related maqam. In the third khana the melodic range expands and reaches the higher tetrachord of the maqam.


What is a Taqsim? (plural: Taqasim)

The Taqsim is an instrumental improvisation, which could be metric or non-metric. The taqsim is usually performed solo, but could also be accompanied by a percussionist or an instrumentalist playing only a drone. the taqsim is an impromptu musical composition where the soloist extemporized a piece using the maqam as a vehicle while abiding by a certain set of rules particular to that maqam. A taqsim usually includes a number of modulations to other related maqamat.


What is Iraqi Maqam?

What is Iraqi maqam? The word maqam grossly means place or situation. In the context of music the word maqam may refer to two different aspects of musical form. One definition is common everywhere in the Arab world, the other is specifically in Iraq. Everywhere in the Arab world the word maqam refers to the specific Oriental tone scales, of which there is an enormous variety in Arabic music due to the vast range of different `microtones’.

At the same time in the classical musique savante of Iraq the word maqam refers to a special kind of `suite’, consisting of improvisations based on certain standard rules or performance and aesthetics.

*As the leading recitalist of the Iraqi Maqam, Ahmed mukhtar perpetuates the centuries old traditional singing and playing.

The Iraqi Maqam follows a pattern of three main parts; the introduction and finale being interspersed with set musical and melodic passages performed alternatively by the vocalist and musicians.

The art of Iraqi maqam reached its ultimate refinement during the golden age of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad, a key city on the borders of the Arab, Turkish arid Persian worlds. Used by classical and popular musicians, it was not only favoured by the local aristocracy in their music rooms but also used at religious celebrations and Sufi ceremonies. All the composition and the contemporary compositions By Ahmed Mukhtar are based on the Iraqi Maqam, accompanied by the Iraqi Ensemble Qanaon , Joza Nay and many kind of percussion .



Arabic Sources – 

  1. Arab Music History pre-Islam (A.H Rashid)
  2. Instrument music in Islamic centuries. (A.H Rashid)
  3. Dictionary Of Arabic music Terms. (Prof. Dr. Hussein Ali Mahfuz)

English Sources –

  1. In the Course of Performance – Bruno Nettl and Melinda Russel
  2. A History of Arabic Music – H.G.Farmer
  3. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music – Michael Kennedy

French Sources – 

  1. Femmes Arabs Pre-Islam – K. Pesson