The word tar, in Persian, means “string.” This word can be found in the names of many of the instruments that musicologists class as chordophones, including setar (“3 strings”), dotar (“2 strings”), ektara (“1 string”), and of course, guitar.
The stringed tar of Iran and Azerbaijan—not to be confused with the North African drum of the same name—is a plucked instrument with 3 double courses of strings, giving a hint to its origin, the 3-string setar mentioned above. While the setar traveled to North India eight centuries ago, eventually developing into the sitar, the tar was adapted from the setar in Iran only three centuries ago. The North Indian sitar and the Iranian tar are both larger and louder than the setar.
The body of the tar has a double bowl carved from a block of mulberry wood, with a thin skin membrane attached as the soundboard. When it is played with the traditional brass plectrum called mezrab, it produces a full, round, yet clearly articulated tone. It can be played as a solo instrument, in an ensemble, or to accompany a singer. As in many music cultures, the instrument’s sound and articulation mimic the vocal singing style, so the tar is played to sound like Persian singing, which employs a distinctive technique of melodic and rhythmic embellishment known as tahrir.
In an ensemble, the tar is often played along with the kamancheh, a bowed fiddle that also features a skin soundboard, and the tombak, a goblet-shaped drum. The frets of the tar are made of gut tied on the neck so as to be movable. This allows players to make small adjustments that might be necessary to play in different maqams, or scales.
The Iranian tar thus continues to be fretted like a setar and tuned according to the traditional system of the greater Middle East. During the Soviet rule of Azerbaijan in the 20th century, on the other hand, Azeri music and the Azeri tar adopted the Western equal temperament (piano-like) tuning system.