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Setar Introduction

Setar is a traditional Persian musical instrument, considered to be one of the main instruments of Persian classical music. It has a soundbox covered with thin wood which contributes to the improvement of the sound, and a long neck, with four strings. According to many, its presence goes back more than 1000 years. It is a stringed instrument and a member of the tanbur family of lutes with a long neck. However, it has evolved more closely to Tar, in terms of the neck shape, number of frets, tuning system, and playing style. Setar is commonly played solo, due to its delicate and special sound, but it also can be accompanied by voice.

Etymology

Setar’s name means “three strings.” Traditional lutes are mainly named based on the number of strings it has- i.e. dutār, setār, čartar, and pančtār. The word ‘tar’, meaning string, combined with the original 3 strings of Setar, makes the name se-سه- (three)+ tār-تار- (string). Other tanbur-family instruments also share the Setar name, but this doesn’t relate directly to the musical traditions among them.

Origins

Setar’s origins is hard to trace back. While many claim that its presence goes back to the 9th Century C.E., it is safe to say that it has been played since the 15th century.

The fourth String

Modern setars have four strings. Originally, Setar had three strings. In the midst of 19 century, a drone string was added just below the Bam string. Grouped and played together, the two strings are called as the Bam (بم). According to a narration of Abolhassan Saba, the addition of the fourth string is brought in by the mystic Moshtagh Ali Shah. This is the reason behind the name “Moshtagh” of the drone string. This addition however was recognized as necessary by famous figures such as Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Abu Ali Sina, Safi al-Din Ermavi, and the late Abul Hassan Khan Saba, improving the sound and allowing for more complex tunings.

Shape

Setar has a pear–shaped soundbox with a long neck, a series of frets, and four strings. The Kamaliyan and the Hashemi models are the two common setar models regarding the size of the soundbox.

  • Bowl: The Bowl is 26-30 cm in length, 12-16 cm in width, and has a depth of 12-16 cm.
  • Soundbox: The Soundboard of the bowl has holes letting the sound escape the bowl, made of a thin layer of wood.
  • Neck: The neck works as a fingerboard which is 3-3.5 cm wide and 40 and 48 cm long to support the strings and the frets. A camel bone may be added to its structure, to improve its lifespan as well as to make it more beautiful. Pegs are located on the peghead, which takes about 12 cm off the top.
  • Bridge: Functioning as a wire holder, the wooden bridge located at the end of the strings, is a 5-6 cm piece having less than 1 cm height and grooves allowing it to receive the strings.
  • Strings: Four strings pass across the neck, from the peghead to the Bridge, up until the wire holder by the end of the Bowl. They are usually 62-70 cm long and pass around 25 cm after the neck. They are called Bam (bass), drone or Moshtagh (also called the fourth string), the Yellow or Gold, and the White, Silver, or the Melody in the top to bottom order.
  • Frets: Frets are distributed through the neck, and their functionality is to guide the musician to find the note by fingering them. They are separated from the peghead by the Nut, which is a fret that is not used to create a note. They are made from thin threads of animal intestines or silk, each having 3-4 strands. The numbers of the threads vary between 22-26, and they are sectioned into main and secondary frets.

Playing Style

In order to play Setar, the musician needs to sit mainly cross-legged and hold the instrument at a 45-degree angle, situating the bowl on the right thigh in a way that the Soundboard would stand perpendicularly to the ground. The frets are used to choose notes with the left-hand fingers on the White or Silver string. The instrument is played by the right hand resting on top of the bowl, traditionally with the right index finger, but now a flat pick can be also used, in an oscillating motion. Mohammad-Reza Lotfi and Hossein Alizadeh, two master performers of setar, have introduced new playing techniques, adding another dimension to the music, and providing the opportunity to enter it into contemporary compositions. The left hand plays an important role in more complicated works. The index, middle, ring, and sometimes the little finger of the left hand are used to fret notes. Also, the thumb can help to pick notes on the bass strings.  These techniques will influence the quality of the sound.

Material

Setars are usually hand-made crafts, mostly of wood. Its bowl is made of either mulberry, walnut, or maple wood, the neck from walnut wood, and the soundboard from mulberry. The bowl can be made by patching pieces of wood together, milling a whole piece, or using the bowl of a pumpkin.  The white and the drone strings are made of steel and the yellow and the Bam strings are Bronze. Shells, bones, and ivories can also be used as ornaments for the Setar.

Sound Performance

Setar has a wide melodic range due to its unique properties that can produce sounds with a range of more than two and a half octaves, and around twenty scale degrees. When strummed, the melody and the drone can be heard together, usually providing a soft timbre sound which sometimes may become loud and vigorous.

Setar in Persian Classical Music

Though Setar was used much less during the Qajar era in Iran because of the introduction of Tār, its popularity rose up again thanks to a pivotal recording of a Setar solo performed by the master Mohammad-Reza Lotfi in 1984. Mirza Abdollah, Hossein Alizadeh, Ahmad Ebadi, Sa’id Hormozi, Kayhan Kalhor, Hamid Motebassem, Abolhasan Saba, Dariush Safvat, Dariush Talai, and Jalal Zolfonun are other most famous Setar master performers.

 

 

Setar on Media

Setar has been played both in traditional and contemporary Persian music as well as non-Persian songs. It was first recorded in 1888 by Arthur James Twain played by Batool Rezaei. Setar was also played by Joey Walker in the album Nonagon Infinity by the King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard band.

 

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