Tag Archives: Abol-Hassan Sabâ

The Art of The Persian Santur

Faramarz Payvar – Santur




The santūr for the first time appears in the Moruj al-Zahab, a history book written by Abol Hassan Ali Ibn Hussein Masudi (tenth century). He mentions the santur when talking about Persian music and its various instruments during the Sassanid Empire. Also, the santur is mentioned by the famous Persian poet, Manuchehri (eleventh century). Although Abdol Qader Maraqe’i (a great Persian Musician of the thirteenth century) in his writings introduces an instrument called the yatufan which is very similar to the santur, the instrument that today we know as the santur is absent from Persian music history until the nineteenth century. However, a very similar instrument called the qānūn existed in the Iranian plateau for centuries. Farabi (Persian philosopher and musician of the tenth century) in his famous book, al-Musiqi al-Kabir, portrayed the qānūn. Also, this instrument is seen in the paintings and miniatures of the Chehelsotun building (sixteenth century). This point should be made here that the santur is similar with the qānūn only in shape. The santūr is played by special-shaped picks (mezrab) whereas the qānūn is played by the fingernails. The santūr did not exist at least in the urban music until the middle of the Safavid era. Later, the santūr appears in the miniatures of this era. Most historians believe that the origin of the santūr is Iran. This instrument with little differences in shape and name is seen throughout the world. In China, this instrument is called the yangqin, in the west it is called the hammered dulcimer, and it exists with different names in the other parts of the world.


The santūr is a trapezoid-shaped box whose longest side (the side which is in front of the player) in the regular ones is 90 cm. The shortest side (the side which is on the opposite side of the longest side) is 35 cm. The other two sides which are diagonal are 38 cm and the height of this instrument is from 6 to10 cm. The santūr is often made of walnut, mulberry, cypress, boxwood, rosewood, and betel palm. There are several sound posts inside the box, and two small rosettes on the top panel which help to amplify the sound. The santūr has seventy two strings. These strings are made of two different materials and are in two different colors. The yellow strings (the low-pitched strings) are made of brass and the white strings (high-pitched strings) are made of steel. Up to the twenty century when metal strings did not exist, the strings were made of silk. The strings are arranged in groups of four, i.e. each of four closely spaced strings are tuned to the same pitch, and if they are not exactly in the same pitch, they will produce cacophonous sound. Each group of four strings is supported by a small movable wooden bridge; the bridges are positioned to give the instrument a range of three octaves. Two rows of nine articles called “kharak” (totally eighteen kharaks) divide the santur into three positions and each lead four unison strings to the right and left side of the instrument. The santūr with the two rows of nine kharak is called “nine kharak santūr”. There are santūrs with eleven or twelve kharks as well, but they are not prevalent. The distance between each kharak from the left raw to the left side of the santūr is called “posht-e kharak” (behind the kharak). The tuning of the santūr is done by turning its strings by an especial spanner. Like the tuning of the piano, the tuning of the santūr is difficult. The santūr is played with the special-shaped picks called mezrab which are held between the index and middle fingers. In the past, the picks were heavier and without felt. Now most picks are lighter and have some felt. As a result, the picks with felt let the player to increase his playing speed and do more maneuver. On the other hand, the pick without felt which are heaver produce stronger sound and are able to do some detailed ornaments peculiar to Persian music. Today, both kinds of the picks are used. The santūr with nine articles or sometimes called the Sol (G)-tuned santūr is the most popular one. Most notations of Persian classical music are written for this kind of santūr. Another version of this santūr which is smaller in size and higher in pitch is known as the La (A) – tuned santūr. In comparison with other Persian instruments, the santūr has some limitations. As a result, the santūr player cannot play the various modes of Persian music with one system of tuning, and he or she should retune the instrument for playing the different modes. Sometimes, the player has to change the kharaks’ locations for retuning the strings, which in turn may result in the different pitches of the paired strings. In general, tuning of the santūr is very difficult. The player should always be aware of all the seventy two strings which are very sensitive and can go out of tune by humidity or any change in temperature. Therefore, many skilled santūr players are sometimes unhappy with the sound quality of their instruments. Habib Soma’i, an undisputed master of the santūr once said; “The tuning of the santūr made me old”.


The first recoding of the santur in Iran belongs to Mohammad Sadeq Khan from the Qājār period. After him, the playing of some santur players, such as Ali Akbar Shahi, Hassan Khan, and Habib Soma’i was recorded. Abol-Hassan Sabâ was another famous santūr player who is considered as the leading figure of the modern movement of playing the santūr. Unfortunately, there is no recording of him. But, we can figure out about his style from his students and those who followed his style. Hussein Malek, Dariush Saqafi, Reza Shafian, Faramarz Payvar and his student, Saeed Sabet are some santur players who followed Saba’s style. Some santūr players like Mansur Sarami, Reza Varzandeh, and Majid Najahi chose their own style of playing and produced unique sounds which were not heard before. In the new era, the style of playing the santūr was confronted with different experiences which has roots in traditions from one side and was related to new innovations from another side. The leading figures of this movement are Parviz Meshkatian and Pashang Kamkar. On the other hand, the traditionalist movement was shaped under the leadership of Majid Kiani who tried to revive the playing style of the past generations specially that of Habib Soma’i. In this style, the player seats on the floor and the santur is little higher than him and will be located in front of him. Also, in this style, the picks do not have felt. On the other hand, the modernist will seat on the chair and put their santūrs on a table and their picks have felt. The santūr is more popular among Iranian women than other instruments. Because of this fact there are many skilled santūr players among women. Arfa Atra’i, Azar Hashemi, and Susan Aslani are among the well-known female santūr players.

Family Instruments

As mentioned, the santūr has some limitations especially with its tuning system and is not capable of performing different modes of Persian music without retuning. To solve this problem, in 1961 two new santūrs were invented under Hussein Dehlavi’s suggestions and advice. One was a chromatic santūr with seven more kharaks (total of 16) and the other one was the bass santūr. The chromatic santūr is little bit bigger than the regular santūr. Also, in the chromatic santūr the strings are arranged in three instead of four. The advantage of this new santūr is that the player can do modulation and play different Persian modes without retuning the instrument. But, the chromatic santūr has some disadvantages as well. First, because of the extra kharaks, its playing is more difficult than the regular santūr. Second, the resonance of those strings which are not used in a particular mode can still be heard; as a result, the whole sound quality of the instrument will be affected. Because of theses unwanted harmonies created by the extra strings and kharaks, the chromatic santūr is usually used in the orchestra or larger ensembles so that its undesired harmonies can be covered by other sounds and not heard that much. In general, the chromatic santūr has not been a successful invention so far in the history of Persia music. But, the other invented santūr, the bass santūr has been accepted much warmer by the Iranian musicians. Probably, the reason is that the bass santūr is not very different from the regular santūr since it is just the regular santur with bass sound. Also, it does not create the problems which the chromatic one does in terms of undesired harmonies and tones.

(c) By The “Simorq”(Simorgh) project.