bout the Lute
The lute is a close relative of the modern guitar. One of the defining characteristics of the lute is its egg shaped body. Lutes commonly have eight or more sets of strings which are referred to as courses, as opposed the the guitar which as only six strings. Consequently the neck of the lute is wider than that of the guitar. Lutes are fretted, but unlike modern guitars, their frets are usually not attached to the neck, but rather made from cat gut which is tied around the neck. Each course of strings usually consists of two strings tuned to the unison, just like a double strung guitar. The upper six courses are commonly tuned in fourths with a third in the middle: G c f a d' g'.
Despite their differences, lutes have many features in common with guitars. In both types of instruments the strings are attached to a bridge which in turn is attached to the lower portion of the soundboard. Like guitars, lutes have a large soundhole on the front of the soundboard. In the lute it is known as the rose, and commonly is intricately carved. The tuning pegs on the lute are mounted on the side of the pegbox, just like the guitar. Historically the strings of the lute were made from cat gut, but modern instruments commonly use nylon strings. Early guitars also used gut strings.
Miniatures in codicies from the middle ages illustrate the lute's strings being plucked with a plectrum. There are fifteenth century accounts that state that the plectrum was still used, but that the lute may also be played with the fingertips. By the sixteenth century the plectrum was rarely used. Playing with the fingertips allowed the performance of polyphonic music. The lute's frets also allowed it to play all the notes of a chromatic scale. These factors almost certainly influenced its rise to prominence in the sixteenth century. Many famous composers, such as Palestrina, played the lute.
The lute is a relatively new instrument, as opposed to the harp or flute which are much older. Despite this fact, it has a relatively involved history due to its many variations and to use in many cultures. Musicologists differentiate between two types of lutes: long lutes and short lutes. The former have necks which are longer than their body, and usually lack frets on their necks. They are the older of the two varieties, and are pictured in artwork from ancient Mesopotamia that dates from more than 2000 B.C. Short lutes are instruments in which the body of the instrument is longer than its neck. European lutes fall into this category. Early depictions of short lutes date from 1300 B.C. There is an important example in the form of a figurine from Tanagra which dates from several hundred years B.C. It shows a woman plucking a lute with a plectrum. The lute is small and narrow, it is less than two feet in length and less than eight inches wide. Its body has a narrow tear drop shape, and it does not have a separate neck. Like a modern lute, its bridge is mounted on the soundboard, but its strings are attached to the top of the peg box like a rebec. Lutes such as this existed in ancient Greece and were called pandura.
Historians believe that the lute was transmitted eastward from Persia to India, China, and Japan. There are depictions of short lutes from Gandhara dating from 100 A.D. One relief shows a standing man playing a lute. It is larger than the Tanagra lute mentioned above, measuring approximately three feet long. Its body is teardrop shaped, but the neck is now distinct. There are two indentations in the side of the body. Such indentations were common on lutes of India, but did not occur on lutes in the Middle East or the Far East. Like the Tanagra lute, the bridge is still mounted to the soundboard, and the strings are attached to the front of the peg box.
In Indian music stringed instruments are referred to as vina. The citra-vina was a short necked lute with an ovoid body. It is thought that this form of lute was transmitted to China.
Indian music employs several types of long necked lutes. One is known as the sitar, which means three-stringed. Despite its name, most sitars have four to seven strings. They have numerous frets on their long necks. Sitars have a small body that is usually made from a gourd. An additional gourd is usually placed near the far end of the neck. This could be placed on your shoulder to help support the instrument. They are played with a plectrum which is attached to the thumb. The melody is played on the highest string, while the other strings serve as drones. A closely related Indian long necked lute is the tambura. Unlike the sitar it is unfretted. It also usually lacks additional gourds. It commonly has four strings, and is used to accompany songs. Two other types of long necked lutes were the rabab and the sarod. The rebab had a rounded body that was covered in a thick animal hide. (It should not be confused with the Arabian rabab, which was a bowed string instrument.) It had six courses of strings, a few of which were double strung. The rabab did not have frets. It was played with a triangular plectrum called a java. The sarod was the descendant of the rabab. Its main differences are its use of wire strings, larger body, and sympathetic strings that are placed inside the body of the instrument.
Both long and short lutes were present in oriental music. In China the short lute was known as the p'i p'a. It looks similar to the lute in the Ghadara relief. It has a narrow tear drop shape and distinct neck. However, it lacks the indentations of the Ghadara instrument. It also lacks soundholes on the soundboard. The bridge is attached to the soundboard. Unlike earlier lutes, the tuning pegs are attached to the side of the pegbox just like a modern lute. P'i p'a usually have four strings, although there are examples of instruments with five and six strings. Unlike Western instruments, they have four convex frets. They were strung with silk. As with the Indian Sitar, the melody was usually played on the highest string. The instrument was plucked with a plectrum. It would land on the soundboard making a distinctive knock. The lute was thought to have been brought to China during the Han dynasty which ruled China from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. It is pictured in artwork dating from 500 A.D. and extant instruments date from 700 A.D.
The short lute was brought to Japan shortly after it reached China. It is know as the biwa. Several different types of biwa evolved. The first type is known as gakubiwa, as it was used in gagaku ensembles. It is somewhat similar to the p'i p'a, but is longer and has a wider body. Examples from the 10th century are more than three feet long. A large strip of leather runs across the middle of the soundboard to protect it from the strikes of the plectrum. Unlike the p'i p'a, it has two small crescent-shaped sound holes on either side of the upper part of the soundboard. Many other types of instruments were played by blind Buddhist priests called moso. One type is called the sasabiwa and is named after the bamboo leaf. It is narrower than the gakubiwa. Instruments found in the north have four strings while those in the south have only three. The southern instruments have six frets while those in the north only have five. A second type is called the heikebiwa. Such instruments were used by blind priests to chant stories of the Heike clan, that is how the instrument received its name. Heikebiwa are only slightly more than two feet long. They have four strings and five frets like sasabiwa. Another type of biwa was created by feudal lords to propagate the idea of Bushido. This type is known as satsumabiwa. These instruments are about three feet long. They commonly have four strings, although some instruments have a fifth string that is tuned to the same pitch as the fourth string. The most recent type is called the chikuzenbiwa. It was created in the late 19th century. The instruments are slightly less than three feet long. They have five frets and four or five strings. Unlike satsumabiwa, the fifth string is usually not tuned in unison with the fourth string.
A new type of short lute was developed in China and Japan around the year 500 A.D. It is called yueh ch'in in Chinese and gekkin in Japanese and is named after its circular body which resembles a full moon. The back of the body is flat and in this respect it looks something like a banjo. However, unlike a banjo, the body of these instruments is quite large in comparison to its neck, which is about as long as the radius of the body. Also, unlike the body of a banjo, its body is made from wood. The yueh ch'in has two courses of two strings. The instruments have ten frets many of which are placed on the soundboard.
Long lutes are found in both China and Japan. The Chinese have an instrument that is related to the sitar. It is called the san hsien which means three strings. Unlike the sitar, these instruments only have three strings. The Japanese analog is called the shamisen. These instruments have thin necks that are approximately three feet long. The small rectangular bodies are made from wood and the soundbard is made from skin which is glued to the body. A small semicircle of skin is glued to the top of the soundboard to protect the soundboard from the plectrum which are used to pluck the strings. The strings are attached to the body of the instrument, and run across a bridge which is placed near the lower end of the soundboard. Unlike the sitar the shamsisen is held much like the modern guitar and thus it can be played while standing. It is plucked with a large wooden plectrum that is approximately one foot long.
It is thought that the lute was transmitted west from Persia, across the Middle East. From there is it certain that the Muslims brought the instrument into Northern Africa, and then to Spain. In Arabia the short lute was called the 'ud, which means wood. In fact, the term lute is derived from the Arabic al 'ud. 'Ud had four strings that were made of silk. The instrument was commonly tuned in fourths, A-d-g-c'. It is thought that 'ud had frets, although instruments dating from 1500 were fretless. They were played with a wooden plectrum. There are accounts of the 'ud being transmitted from Iraq to Mecca in the seventh century A.D. In the eighth century Zalzal is credited with giving the instrument an ovoid shape. This new form of lute was called the 'ud al-shabbut after a fish that had a slender head, wide body, and narrow tail. The old type of 'ud, with its pear shaped body, continued to be produced. By the ninth century the lute had been brought to Spain. Ziryab, a Spanish lutenist, is credited with adding a fifth string to the instrument, although four strings was still the norm. Two of his other innovations were using gut for the lower strings and fashioning the plectrum from horn rather than wood.
There are two renaissance instruments that are closely related to the lute. The first is the mandola or mandora. It is slightly smaller than the lute and its body merges seamlessly with the neck. It also has a sickle shaped pegbox, like the 'ud. The second instrument is the theorbo. They are best described as large lutes, with an extended neck that is topped with a second pegbox. Without the extended neck they look very much like a larger version of a renaissance lute, with a body that measures approximately two feet tall. Their total length can exceed six feet, thus putting them into the category of long lutes. The strings on the second neck are unfretted. It is not uncommon for a theorbo to have thirteen courses of strings.
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