The ‘ūd (oud) is the oldest of our three instruments, and the ancestor of the other two. This short-necked lute is considered the ‘king’ of instruments in the Arabic world. The name ‘ūd literally means ‘wood’ or ‘stick.’ A seal cylinder at the British Museum dates the ‘ūd from the Uruk period (3500-3200 BC), according to professor Richard Dumbrill. The ‘ūd was also known during the Babylonian period from 1600-1150 B.C., and was also played in Pharaonic Egypt, 1501-1479 BC.

Originally strung with a combination of gut and silk strings, the ‘ūd is strung today with nylon strings. It is played with a risha or quill plectrum which becomes a sort of extension of the player’s thumb. The plucking technique requires a very subtle wrist. Its short neck has no frets, allowing the player to slide between pitches and to play scales in the Arabic Maqām system which include quartertones. The most ancient ‘ūds probably had four courses. In the ninth century, a fifth course was added by the famous scholar Zyriab, who is also said to have played the ‘ūd with an eagle’s beak or quill instead of a wooden pick. More recently, six and seven-course ‘ūd have been used. A recently discovered manuscript from the Muslim scholar Al-Farabi describes an eight-course ‘ūd with a range of three and half octaves.

The ‘ūd has had a presence in early Mesopotamia as well as in many surrounding areas, including Turkey, Egypt, Greece, and Eastern Africa. It was likely introduced to Western Europe by the Arabs who established the Umayyad Caliphate of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula in the early eighth century.

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The Moors introduced the ‘ūd to Europe during their conquest and occupation of Spain (711–1492). By 1350 the European lute was well-established outside of any connection with Arab musicians. Nonetheless, its inheritance from the ‘ūd was still manifest through the use of a plectrum throughout the medieval period. In the fifteenth century some lutenists began to play with their fingertips. With the rise of polyphony and the onset of the Renaissance, this new fingertip technique allowed lutenists to play compositions which imitated vocal music written for multiple parts, and for that reason it was considered a ‘perfect’ instrument. The instrument’s popularity during the sixteenth century is sometimes described as being equivalent to the piano in the nineteenth century. During this Renaissance period, the lute had six courses of strings made from gut, and was made in different sizes (soprano, alto, tenor, & bass, or could be sized according to the tessitura of your voice). It was played by amateurs as well as professionals, and used for solos, song accompaniments, and in larger ensembles.

Around 1600, the technology for making gut bass strings improved, allowing the addition of a seventh course. The 7-course lute quickly gave way to lutes with 8, 9, and 10 courses, and many European nations began do modify the lute’s design and tuning in different ways. At this point the right-hand technique changed so that the right-hand thumb came outside the hand and rested on the bass courses, accompanying melodies with deep bass notes. The final swan-song of the lute occurred in Central Europe in the eighteenth century. Following a period of sophisticated repertoire for the 13-course lute in d-minor tuning, the lute fell into decline. Largely forgotten about for over a century, only through the enthusiastic research of twentieth and twenty-first century lutenist, musicologists, and instrument builders has the lute and its precious heritage been revived.

From Giambattista Marino’s L'Adone, “Dual between the Lutenist and the Nightengale.”

Clutching the hollow instrument in his arms
and playing marvelously as he is used to doing,
with notes in fugue and with syncopations all over
he probed every means of varying the song.

Without any pause he squeezes and releases
the neck from its root to its summit,
And as he is guided by his fantasy, he subsides,
then revives in a flash, and so sublime.
Sometimes he ascends to the chanterelle with trills,
and plays the first string with his index finger;
And at other times with profound seriousness
he plunges down to the octave diapasons.

Flying along the strings, now low, now high
the hand hurries faster than the rossignol itself,
from above, from below with unexpected leaps
the facile fingers flicker like lightening.
He imitates the movements inimitably
of a fiery conflict and a confused assault,
and equals with the sound of sweet songs
the bellicose uproar of armor.

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The pipa’s name originally referred to two right-hand techniques: pi meant "to play forward" and pa "to play backward." The ancestor of the modern pipa arrived in China in the 4th century AD, a direct descendant of the ‘ūd. It had a half-pear-shaped soundbox, a crooked neck, 4 or 5 strings and 4 frets. Until that time a plectrum had been used. The five-stringed,straight-necked pipa reached a height of popularity during the Tang Dynasty, and was a principal musical instrument in the imperial court. Many delicately carved pipas with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period. This instrument was introduced into Japan during the Tang Dynasty as well as into other regions such as Korea and Vietnam. The five-stringed pipa however had fallen from use by the Song Dynasty. During the Ming period, the plectrum was replaced by fingernails, while the horizontal playing position became the vertical (or near-vertical) position by the Qing Dynasty.

By the 1960s, a special fake fingernail made from plastic had been introduced , and is now normally attached to each finger of the right hand. This allows more freedom for the player to perform certain demanding techniques. Used for both solos and in ensembles, the pipa is considered the most expressive of plucked-string instruments as it uses the widest range of techniques. The number of frets has gradually been increased up to 30 frets, expanding the instrument's range dramatically, giving it a range of over three and a half octaves. The original silk strings have now been replaced with steel or nylon strings, always arranged in a pentatonic tuning A-D-E-A. The playing techniques used today are even more sophisticated than those used in antiquity.

The pipa's clear, bright and mellow tone and its wide dynamic range is described in the immortal poem ‘Song of the Pipa’ by the Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi:

The bold strings-they patterned like the dashing rain,
The life strings-they sounded like the lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering
As pearls, large and small, on a jade patter fall.

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