The piano of the east: the Qanun, is closely related to a zither that originates in the Middle East and possibly came from the Egyptian harp.
So, in that case, what is a zither, we hear you ask?
These guys are classified as a string instrument. Interestingly, the English word “guitar” is derived from “zither”, which is a German phrase.
They consist of a flat, wooden body that has many taut strings lengthways across it (almost the same as a dulcimer).
With that in mind, you probably won’t be surprised to know that you play it with your fingers by strumming it. Although you can utilize a pick if you want to — think guitar, that is pretty much how it’s played!
Right, on to the piano of the east: the qanun.
While it sounds like a pretty unique box of music, it is not — it resembles many of the other forms of zithers used in Arabic countries.
Having said this, there are differences between the qanuns themselves! How? Well, they do not share backstories (as is self-explanatory) and also harbour distinct sound qualities.
The Old Version’s Backstory
If you have studied historical music, you may have heard this before — especially those of you who have powered through a music degree or the like!
It is said that this one was brought over to Cairo, Egypt by a Syrian refugee at the time of the Ottoman Empire. Of course, this is a theory. To find out for sure, historians need far more evidence.
The New Version’s Backstory
The other tale that is told starts in 1876, where experts began to distinguish between the original qanun and the more recent variety.
According to researchers, this one was first produced by Mahmut Usta. Ever heard of him? If not, he is an Istanbul qanun maker that believed something about the first version wasn’t good enough!
However, both the old and the new kind existed together until 1930. This seems like an odd tidbit to know, right? Well, experts stumbled across records at the Arab Music Congress in 1932 that stated this fact.
The Piano of The East: The Qanun — Characteristics
This instrument is constructed from walnut wood that is specifically cut into a trapezoid form.
Amazingly, there are a whopping 78 strings on the carefully crafted form! They are split into groups of three so, this means it houses a sum of 26 sets (if you are a maths whizz, you would have figured that out quicker than us!). Like a guitar, the strings are stretched taught and can be adjusted by wooden and separate metal pegs (only present in the more recent versions, that allowed for a more fine-tuned sound) so players can ensure the sound is pitch-perfect.
Creators of this magical instrument make sure the holes themselves are adorned with intricate carvings. If you look closely, you will spy the white accents — can you guess the material used for this? That’s right! It’s ivory (traditionally).
Overall, the most distinct feature of the qanun has to be the bridge! It’s raised from the body by pillars and rests on a bed of animal skin! You won’t find anything else quite like this, trust us. Usually, cow skin is used for that part.
The Piano of The East: The Qanun — The Sound
The innovative changes that are present in the newer version of the qanun, allowed it to have an increasingly interesting sound character. Not only that but, as the instrument was altered, the physical playing style was too!
It emits a rather bright, uplifting tone that encompasses a variety of pitches that lends itself well to orchestral accompaniments.
If you are ever lucky enough to experience an ensemble with the qanun, you may well notice that it stands out from the rest. It truly makes the rest of the instruments seem like they are just an extra!
Having said this, if a player is relatively new to the qanun, it will drown out the ensemble and completely take over. Why is this? Well, it stems from the fact that it is the loudest string instrument (in the Turkish family). So, great skill is needed to seamlessly incorporate it into the orchestra.