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Middle East Music

The voice of the oud

Musician Michael Onsy plays the oud during a concert
Musician Michael Onsy plays the oud during a concert facebook / Michael Onsy
Text by: Anne-Marie Bissada
6 min

What’s the quintessential musical instrument of the Middle East? Many of you might be quick to say it’s the drum, more specifically the darbouka or tabla.


But guess again.

It’s the oud.

Michael Onsy with Albert Mansour, a popular oud-maker in Lebanon
Michael Onsy with Albert Mansour, a popular oud-maker in Lebanon facebook / Michael Onsy

You’ve probably heard it many times over and didn’t even realise it.

But it accompanies just about every type of music in the Middle East as far as Iran and across north Africa to Morocco.

Many people refer to it as the eastern or oriental lute, to avoid confusing it with the western lute that usually has frets: the bars beneath the strings that are seen on a guitar.

Frets on a guitar neck
Frets on a guitar neck Wikicommons

“The oriental lute or oud doesn’t have frets. Which is how we can make that quarter tone; the famous sound of oriental music,” explains Michel Arkash, oud player, professor and owner of the Conservatory of Oriental Music in Paris.


The oud is a wooden stringed instrument, a precursor to the guitar. According to some specialists, the origins of the oud go back to Persia as early as 3500 BC, when it was called a Babat.

Back then the instrument was carved out of a single piece of wood.

But many musicians and musical historians agree it really became a prominent instrument via Iraq. "There are several theories. Some say it is Iraqi [from] Sumer, a place in Iraq, around 3500 BC. And some others, they say it that it is an Egyptian instrument. But in all ways it is a very old and traditional instrument" says Michael Onsy, an oud player in Egypt.

The word ‘oud’ came about when the Arabs started calling it that.

Oud, meaning a strip of wood.

And so unlike the Babat, the oud is made out of strips of wood, often between 15 and 25 pieces.

With the spread of Islam, the oud eventually made its way over to Europe via Spain.

“It began its popularity in Iraq at the turn of the century with musicians who belonged to the school of Ziryab. Ziryab himself was a musician who brought the instrument during the time of the caliphate in Baghdad to the caliphate in Grenada in Andalusia,” explains Arkash.

And if you look at the instrument itself, over the years the number of strings has changed, but the round hollow base and the strings at the head with no frets have remained intact.

Popular in Europe

With the arrival of the oud in the caliphate in Andalusia, the instrument became very popular in the 7th century and straight through until the 17th says Arkash.

Even here in France the oud was a known instrument until about the 17th century, just before the arrival of the piano.

But its origins have long been associated with the Middle East and north Africa.

The oud remains the number one instrument in Turkey and it is still played in Iran, southern Spain and Greece .

In fact, a very popular tune in Greece at the turn of the 20th century called ‘Misrlou’ - meaning Egyptian girl - by Tetos Dimitriades was revamped by the popular ‘King of Surf music’ Richard Anthony Monsour , who went by the name of Dick Dale.

Dale’s father and uncles were of Lebanese origin, and he allegedly remembers hearing them play Misrlou on the oud.

The revamped version is likely very familiar to people today:

The voice of the oud

What makes the oud such a popular instrument?

Many feel the notes of the oud are steeped in emotion, which is why it often accompanies singers.

“To accompany a Middle Eastern singer, it’s the oud. Practically all singers opt to be accompanied with an oud, over a guitar or piano. The vibration of the oud comes from the echo of the large bowl so we can hear it,” explains Arkash.

While playing the oud, Arkash shows how it rests snuggly against the body. So the vibration resonates with the body of the musician so “he or she can concentrate on the vibration of the oud.” This connection with the instrument also means the oud player can easily correct the voice while singing.

Musician Michel Arkash playing oud, Paris
Musician Michel Arkash playing oud, Paris facebook / Conservatoire de Musique Orientale

That’s why Oum Kalthoum, one of the great singers of the 20th century would play the oud, “but only discretely in her home, not in public, but just so she could tune her voice.”

When one listens to the oud, the reason it has such a range of sounds is because it can hit notes that most other instruments can’t.

Remember the famous music scale that all western instruments follow: do re me fa so la ti.

Now the oud, can hit all the notes in between those. And as Michel points out, this famous quarter note exists only in Middle Eastern music.

And when one listens to the sounds of the oud, it has an almost poetic, romantic sound.

"It's a very inspiring instrument. It has something related to the culture and it's familiar to the ears of the people here in the Middle East. I believe also it has a very warm sound that touches the heart. We are here in the Middle East, people are so romantic and sentimental, yes emotional. So I believe anyone who doesn't know the oud, when he first listens to it, he gets touched one way or another. That's why it's very near to people's hearts here," says Onsy.

Across borders

The oud is the ubiquitous instrument of the Middle East.

In fact it can’t really be associated with just one country in particular.

But there are variations in the instrument itself and the rhythms, such as a 6 – 8 rhythm in Morocco which doesn’t work in the Middle East “because no one can clap their hands to it,” explains Arkash.

So the rhythms vary, but the range of chords and techniques essentially remain the same regardless of geography.

Classics stay forever

Despite the history behind the instrument, the music itself remains traditional; a classic, which means it never goes out of style.

Onsy adds that people of the new young generation still love listening and playing the big names such as Mohamed el-Qasabji, Farid al-Atrash, Riad el-Sunbati and Naseer Shamma.

Arkash adds that while popular music comes and goes, the classics will always be the base, as are Mozart and Beethoven to western music.

So the youth of today still look to the great Oum Kalthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez and Lebanese Fairouz for inspiration, no matter how old the music and which all feature the beloved oud.

You can subscribe for the monthly Mid-East Junction podcast. Just look for 'rfi mideast junction' in your favourite podcast platform to subscribe, so you'll never miss another episode.

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