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A Short History of the Oud, “King of Instruments”

posted on: Aug 1, 2017

By Daniel Gi/ Contributing Writer

If the world of Arab music were a kingdom, this instrument would, without a doubt, be its bonafide ruler.

It has often been called the “king of instruments” and rightly so as the sound iconic tones it produces has come to symbolize the world of traditional Arab music. Literally meaning ‘twig’ or ‘flexible rod,’ the oud is the main instrument of composition similar to the piano. There are theories that the oud is the predecessor to the guitar, evolving from the Persian barbat, which then made its way to Europe through North Africa.

The oud’s presence in the Arab world can even be traced back to the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., and its influence cannot be denied in the development of music in the Arab world.

As for the oud’s invention, there are many differing accounts with some even making debuts in religious texts. The biblical story of the instrument claims that Lamak, a direct descendent of Cain was the one who invented it. According to the story, Lamak’s son died and his body was hung from a tree. After a long while, his body decomposed and all that remained was his skeleton, which appeared to resemble the shape of the oud.

However, a more probable theory behind the instrument’s invention or creation lies in texts from the 14th century Arab world. Abu Al Fida and Abu Al-Walid Ibn Shihnah were two prominent writers who believed the Oud’s origin could be placed somewhere between 241 to 72 B.C., under the rule of King Shapur.

Ibn Shinhah believed the instrument’s development was a process which was facilitated through the relationship religious offices had with musicians who would accompany them. There are also theories which support the oud’s migration from Asian kingdoms somewhere before the 7th century, suggesting it evolved from a similar Chinese instrument known as the guzheng.

Its inception is certainly something scholars have yet to pinpoint despite its appearance in texts from even the 9th century A.D.;however, its significance cannot be debated. The oud is likely the most commonly used instrument in Arab music.

 

The oud is traditionally made from lightweight wood. It has a short neck and is connected to a large round body which serves as the instrument’s base. Its shape is something akin to the shape of a pear.

Though there are many variations, the acoustic string instrument is typically built with 11 strings, 10 of which are paired together with the 11th and lowest note being played alone, usually, as a melodic metronome of sorts. Similar to other string instruments, the oud’s strings are spirally reinforced in that they are wound extremely tightly and then attached so as to give it its unique sound.

However, unlike almost all string instruments which are typically found with a singular large hole at the center of the base body, the oud can have up to three holes, differing in size. The three holes are a much more traditional sight, each one symbolizing celestial bodies. The largest one exists in the center as the sun, as the two smaller holes are representations of the moon and produce a higher pitch.

Today, the oud can be found in all genres of Arab music, from folk, to classic, to pop. Its popularity has increased  not only in the Arab World, but also in the West.