Setar

World Music Instrument: The Setar

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that students in World Music in the Schools enjoy working with . . .

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. 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 is made from walnut. The instrument has a melodic range of just over twenty scale degrees. Although it is traditionally played with the nail of the right index finger, 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. However, it was almost forgotten during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries owing to the increased popularity of the tar, a similar but larger instrument with a fuller sound. The tar is a double-chambered string instrument that has 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, and thus a new generation of setar makers and players has recently emerged.

—Kourosh Taghavi, World Music in the Schools Teaching Artist

See the setar in action on YouTube: Lotfi Taknavazi Setar Niavaran Concert.