This article featuring the Iranian setar is part of our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world musical instruments. Lessons on the setar are part of the CWMs innovative World Music in the Schools program. This instrument profile was contributed by Kourosh Taghavi.
The setar is a Persian (Iranian) stringed instrument with a small, pear-shaped soundbox and four metal strings. Its name means “three strings.” A fourth drone string was added about 150 years ago by the mystic Moshtagh Ali Shah. The drone string is referred to as the “Sim Moshtagh” (Moshtagh string) by many prominent tar and setar players. This modification gave the delicate instrument a “bigger” sound and more complex tuning possibilities. The resonating box of the setar is attached to a long neck that has twenty-five gut frets. The soundbox is made from mulberry wood, while the neck comes from the walnut tree. The instrument has a melodic range of just over twenty scale degrees. Although it is traditionally played with the right index finger’s nail, in the past three decades, two distinguished master performers, Mohammad-Reza Lotfi and Hossein Alizadeh, have introduced new techniques to give setar playing a whole new life.
Today the setar is generally considered the supreme instrument for performing Persian classical music. Due to new playing techniques, its evolution, and new approaches to melodies within Persian classical music boundaries, the setar has opened the door to contemporary compositions.
It is hard to believe the setar was nearly forgotten during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to the tar‘s increased popularity. The tar a similar but larger instrument with a fuller sound. The tar is a double-chambered string instrument with three sets of double strings with the same fretting on its neck as the smaller, more delicate setar.
In 1984, a pivotal recording of a setar solo performed by the master Mohammad-Reza Lotfi brought the smaller instrument to the attention of a whole new generation of Persian classical music enthusiasts. Indeed, Lotfi’s historic album, in memory of the great musician Darvish Khan, enticed many young instrument makers and musicians to fall in love with the sound of the setar. Thus a new generation of setar makers and players has recently emerged.
Updated and expanded: March 9, 2021