What is the difference between setaar and tanbur

Setar and Tanbur: Echoes of Ancient Iran

setaar and tanbour

Setar, also referred to as Setaar, and Tanbur are traditional musical instruments originating from Iran and various other Middle Eastern countries. This article delves into their distinct characteristics, structural composition, and musical capabilities. Their similar appearances often lead to confusion in differentiating the two.

History of Setaar and Tanbur

Setar’s historical roots trace back to the “Old Iran” region, positioned west of Asia and east of the Mediterranean Sea. A 3500-year-old clay statue discovered in the Choqar Zanbil temple in Iran’s Khuzestan province depicted a musician playing an instrument akin to the Setar. Moreover, medieval Iranian and European authors, including “Farabi,” have mentioned Setar and Tanbur in their works.

Belonging to the stringed musical instrument family, the Setar produces sound when the musician strums its strings and manipulates pitch by moving fingers along the strings. Its structure bears a resemblance to the guitar, yet it possesses distinct nuances in terms of sound production and playing techniques.

Contrary to the literal translation of “Setaar” in Persian, which means “Three Strings,” the instrument, in fact, comprises four bronze and steel strings. Each string extends from the resonating body (the bowl) to the neck, producing a distinct sound upon being plucked. The key components of a Setar are:

  1. The Bowl or “Kase”: Crafted in a pear shape, the bowl’s dimensions range between 12 to 30 centimeters with a depth of approximately 12 to 15 centimeters. Constructed predominantly from Mulberry or walnut wood known for their strength and superior acoustics, the bowl is sometimes created as a single piece, though it is often made of multiple smaller sections.
  2. Soundboard or “Safhe”: This board features holes allowing for the ingress and egress of sound. As music is played, the sound enters the bowl, amplifies, and then resonates within the surrounding space.
  3. Handle or “Dasteh”: The handle is used for grasping the Setar and managing the instrument’s pitch. All string are situated on the handle.
  4. Strings or “Sime-Ha”: These strings are affixed to the soundboard and bowl through the bridge or “Kharak” and Nut or “Shey-Ta_nak,” enabling each string to produce different tones.
  5. Fret or “Pardeh“: These are strips, usually made of gut or silk, which alter the sound of the strings when pressed, producing varying musical notes. A typical Setar features 25 to 28 frets.

The arrangement of the strings on a Setar is as follows:

  • The first string is steel, with a white or silver color, producing a sharp sound.
  • The second string is bronze, with a yellow or brown color, producing a tremolo sound.
  • The third string is steel, with a white or silver color, producing a trill sound.
  • The fourth string is bronze, with a yellow or brown color, producing a flat sound.

Tanbur: An Overview


Much like the Setar, the Tanbur belongs to the family of stringed musical instruments. It shares a similar structural design with the Setaar, which often leads to misrecognition. However, the Tanbur is characterized by a larger bowl and fewer strings, typically two or three, as opposed to Setar’s four. Consequently, it yields louder, higher pitch, and more sonorous notes compared to the Setaar. As a central element of Persian, Turkish, and Arabian poetry, the Tanbur plays a significant role in Iranian gatherings and celebrations.

Constructed with a pear-shaped bowl usually made of Mulberry or Walnut wood, the Tanbur’s bowl is often built as a singular structure, facilitating louder sound projection. Additionally, the Tanbur’s handle is typically longer than that of the Setar, sometimes reaching up to 80 centimeters. The elongated string length allows for greater resonance and pitch control. However, it also necessitates heightened skill to maneuver the notes due to the increased string length.

Distinguishing Between Tanbur and Setar


A key differentiator between the Setar and Tanbur is the number of strings; the Setaar sports four strings, whereas the Tanbur has two or three. This discrepancy in string count renders the Setar’s musical system more intricate than the Tanbur’s, hence the more widespread use of Setaar for Iranian melodies.

The difference in handle length and, subsequently, string length affects sound production. The Setar’s shorter handle allows it to emit sharper and trill sounds compared to the Tanbur. Furthermore, the Setar’s smaller bowl compared to the Tanbur means it generates less flat sound waves. In a concert setting, the Tanbur’s notes tend to stand out, while the Setaar’s blend more subtly with the accompanying instruments.

Construction methods also differ. The Setar’s bowl is often built from multiple parts, whereas Tanbur manufacturers favor a unified structure for the bowl, enhancing the instrument’s sound volume. Fret count is another distinguishing feature – the Setar possesses between 25 to 28 frets, while the Tanbur has between 12 to 14. This variance allows the Setaar to have a more refined control over pitch, resulting in a more nuanced sound production compared to the Tanbur.

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Tanbur and Setaar: Aesthetic and Cultural Significance

From an aesthetic standpoint, both the Tanbur and Setaar exude an unmistakable elegance in their design, underscoring a rich heritage of craftsmanship and mastery in luthiery. Their characteristic pear-shaped bodies, coupled with the fine timber selection, evoke a sense of refinement and cultural pride, while their melodious sounds stir emotions and tell stories of an ancient civilization.

Beyond mere aesthetics, these instruments occupy a hallowed space in the socio-cultural fabric of Iran and the broader Middle Eastern region. Their sounds have echoed through the corridors of time, bearing witness to countless historical events and societal transitions. They’ve been the soundtrack to life’s milestones and communal gatherings, imparting a profound resonance that transcends mere auditory experience.

Purchasing a Setaar or Tanbur

Our store offers a wide range of Setars and Tanburs. To purchase your preferred musical instrument, visit the ‘Shop’ section of our website. For additional guidance, don’t hesitate to contact us. We offer consultation services to assist you in choosing between a Setaar and a Tanbur. Moreover, we provide international shipping to accommodate customers worldwide.