Instruments | Lute | Stringed
The word ‘lute’ is the collective term for a category of instruments defined as ‘any chordophone having a neck that serves as string bearer, with the plane of the strings running parallel to that of the soundboard’. In other words, the lute is a soundbox with a neck sticking out. The strings of some are plucked, some are bowed.
The Western Lute
The lute family consists of a large group of stringed instruments in which the mechanism for holding the strings and the resonating body are joined, and in which the strings run parallel with the resonating body (i.e., guitar-like rather than harp-like).
The western lute evolved from the Arabian oud. It is recognizable by its characteristic pear-shaped vaulted body, from which stems the neck. The gut strings are usually in pairs, passing over an ornately decorated sound-hole, along the neck and into the tuning pegs, which are generally set at a right angle to the neck.
Early Western Designs
From pictorial evidence it is clear that a standardized design of the oud existed as early as the ninth century. The earliest design for a lute is thought to be that recorded by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle in 1440. He described the instrument’s geometrical proportions, implying that it would be made in different sizes.
Until the fifteenth century, lutes had five courses (pairs of strings), generally tuned in fourths around a central third (e.g. G-c-e-a-d'). By the sixteenth century, six courses had become standard, with the third in the middle. This Renaissance-style lute tuning is the most familiar to us today, however there was never a truly standardized system. Instruments with 10 courses were not uncommon, usually to give extra bass pitches.
The lute was played at first with a plectrum and occupied a more rhythmic than melodic role. However, from the mid-fifteenth century it became standard to use the fingers – this meant that it could perform melody and harmony, making it the perfect instrument for accompanying song.
There is a huge number and variety of lutes in use worldwide, and they have a history going back thousands of years. Most similar to, and ancestors of, the lutes of European art music are the ud or oud family. Much played in classical, popular and traditional music throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, the Mediterranean coastal countries of North Africa, and also in Malaysia, they have a large but light body, shaped something like a bisected pear, a medium-length neck bearing a flat, fairly wide, tapering fingerboard, the peghead bent back at an angle approaching 90 degrees.
Arabic music, like much of the traditional and classical music of non-European cultures, is not chordal so, unlike the European lutes, with their tied or fixed frets, ouds have fretless fingerboards, giving the player the freedom to slide notes and to achieve the microtones of Arabic maqam scales. They generally have six courses of nylon or wound-nylon strings – five double and a single –...
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