Saturday’s Instrument: Lute, the western plucked string

Lute is one of the most important and versatile instruments in the western musical tradition. Played as both a solo and an accompaniment instrument, it provides backing to troubadour songs and formed part of the typical baroque continuo ensemble.

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Plucked-string instruments of the lute-type date back to ancient times, the Chinese Pipa, Persian Barbat, and the Arabic Oud are examples.

These instruments share a pear-shaped form and the system of stretching strings across the soundboard. Another shared characteristic is the ability to adjust the tension and therefore the tuning of the instrument.


It is mostly believed that the Lute is a direct ascend from the Arabic Oud, there are several ways that the Arabic instrument reached Europe in the early middle ages. The nomadic Bulgar people who settled in Balkans during the seventh century brought a short-necked form of the Lute.

A century later, the Islamic occupation of Spain from 711 introduced the Oud there. Contemporary artwork depicting the Lute suggests that it was played in Sicily in the 12th century.

It is possible that this instrument was introduced from the east through earlier conquests by the Byzantines or Saracens. From southern and the eastern reaches of Europe, the Lute spread north to France and Germany. By the 14th century, it was ubiquitous throughout Europe, and often referred to in medieval literature and artwork, notably as an instrument played bu angelic musicians.

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The words lute and oud possibly derive from Arabic al-ʿoud (literally means "the wood"). It may refer to the wooden plectrum traditionally used for playing the oud, to the thin strips of wood used for the back, or to the wooden soundboard that distinguished it from similar instruments with skin-faced bodies.

Many theories have been proposed for the origin of the Arabic name. A music scholar by the name of Eckhard Neubauer suggested that oud may be an Arabic borrowing from the Persian word rōd or rūd, which meant string. Another researcher, archaeomusicologist Richard J. Dumbrill, suggests that rud came from the Sanskrit rudrī (meaning "string instrument") and transferred to Arabic and European languages by way of a Semitic language. However, another theory according to Semitic language scholars, is that the Arabic ʿoud is derived from Syriac ʿoud-a, meaning "wooden stick" and "burning wood"—cognate to Biblical Hebrew 'ūḏ, referring to a stick used to stir logs in a fire. Henry George Farmer notes the similarity between al-ʿūd and al-ʿawda ("the return" – of bliss).


Lutes are made almost entirely of wood. The soundboard is a teardrop-shaped thin flat plate of resonant wood (typically spruce). In all lutes, the soundboard has a single (sometimes triple) decorated sound hole under the strings called the rose. The sound hole is not open but rather covered with a grille in the form of an intertwining vine or a decorative knot, carved directly out of the wood of the soundboard.

The geometry of the lute soundboard is relatively complex, involving a system of barring that places braces perpendicular to the strings at specific lengths along the overall length of the belly, the ends of which are angled to abut the ribs on either side for structural reasons. Robert Lundberg, in his book Historical Lute Construction, suggests ancient builders placed bars according to whole-number ratios of the scale length and belly length. He further suggests the inward bend of the soundboard (the "belly scoop") is a deliberate adaptation by ancient builders to afford the lutenist's right hand more space between the strings and soundboard.

The Revival of the Lute:

The revival of lute-playing in the 20th century has its roots in the pioneering work of Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940); whose research into early music and instruments started the movement for authenticity. The revival of the lute gave composers an opportunity to create new works for it.

Dizi, the Chinese bamboo flute

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