The Setar

by Kiya Tabassian

The origins of the Setar go back to a pre-Islamic lute called the tanbouré Khorassan, from the family of long neck and small resonating chamber plucked instruments. In the evolution of Persian music, this instrument underwent many transformations, especially with regard to the shape of the resonating chamber, the number and placement of the frets, and the number of strings. This last transformation took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. A fourth string was added to the setar (the literal meaning of which is ‘three strings’) by Moshtaq Ali Shah, who positioned it between the second and the third.



 Setar[/caption] Today the Setar has 4 strings, two singles and one doubled. The setar is tuned in different ways depending on the mode in which the musician plays. A wide variety of tuning can be adapted to the Setar regarding the desired effect by the instrument, modal or non-modal. The instrument has between 25 and 29 moveable gut frets (depending to players) organized in microtones according to the Persian musical scales. The setar has a range of two and a half octaves. Depending on the tuning of the lowest string, it can go from B to A2b. The strings are plucked with the help of the nail of the index finger on the right hand (nakhon) in a back-land-forth movement (râst va chap) that allows the musician a variety of combinations ranging from the most simple to the most complex (mezrabs). As the setar is primarily a monodic instrument, the musician usually plays on one string at a time while creating resonance and ambient (sympatic) sounds with the other strings. But there are also new techniques of playing consisting by using two, three and sometimes all four of the setar’s strings. As the ornamentation has a great importance in Persian music, there is a variety of mezrabs with the right hand and also lot of left hand movements, which have the role of creating the ornamentation on the notes. Tunings : In the frame of traditional music, the tuning of the setar have never been adjusted to the diapason. The first string is called «DO» or «C» but, it could be somewhere between A and C (usually B or Bb). When the instrumentalist plays in an ensemble tuned to diapason, the setar will be also tuned to the diapason. The first string is always tuned C. The second could be tuned to G or to F. The third and fourth strings are tuned in order to have the sympathetic sound of principal notes of the mode. These are some of the conventional tunings used by setar players to play in the frame of the modal system of Persian music, radif and its dastgâhs and avazs : ** p= koron between natural and flat (double) string #4 and #3 : C/C1 (single) string #2: G (single) string #1: C1 (double) string #4 and #3 : D/D1 (single) string #2: G (single) string #1: C1 (double) string #4 and #3 : D/A (single) string #2: G (single) string #1: C1 (double) string #4 and #3 : Ep/Bp (single) string #2: G (single) string #1: C1 (double) string #4 and #3 : Ap/Dp (single) string #2: G (single) string #1: C1 (double) string #4 and #3 : C/C1 (single) string #2: F (single) string #1: C1 Alternative tunings can also be used to play pieces that are not necessarily in the frame of radif and its modal system: (double) string #4 and #3 : Ab/Db (single) string #2: F (single) string #1: C1 (double) string #4 and #3 : C/B (single) string #2: F# (single) string #1: C1 (double) string #4 and #3 : B/B1 (single) string #2: G (single) string #1: C1