Santoor’s invention is attributed to Farabi (9th century A.D.). The earliest sign of it comes from Assyrian and Babylonian stone carvings (669 B.C.), which show the instrument being played while hanging from the player’s neck.
In pre-Islamic Iran, people were already acquainted with the Santoor and used to call it Kunar. Variations of Santoor can be seen in China, Eastern Europe, England, Germany, and Austria as well as India, Cambodia, and the Americas. It can be found in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia as well. The shape of Santoor is inspired by a ship, its strings by fishing net, and the sound it makes resemble waves hitting the rocks at beach.
Santoor is played with the use of two wooden “hammers”, and the only resemblance to the Qanoon instrument is found in its shape.
Santoor is a trapezoid shaped box with the longest side (that which is closest to the musician) being 90 centimeters, the shortest (opposite of the musician) 35 centimeters, its lateral sides 38 centimeters, and a height of 6 to 10 centimeters. It is usually made of walnut, cypress, mulberry, black berry, or black currant wood. There are two flower shaped cavities on the surface of the Santoor which, in addition to aesthetic enhancement, add to the quality of the sound considerably.
Santoor has 72 strings. The brass strings have the lower resonance and the steel strings create the higher resonance tones. Until the end of the nineteenth century due to the lack of steel strings, silk was used instead. Santoor strings are secured in groups of four and each group creates the same pitch. The strings sit atop small bridges, called “Kharak”. In standard Santoors, there are two rows of nine bridges (total of 18 bridges). This type of Santoor is G-tuned and the notes for Persian classical Radif are written based on it. This Santoor exists with a smaller body as well creating a higher resonance and is usually A-tuned. Santoor’s range spans about three octaves. There are also Santoors with eleven and twelve bridges which are not as common. Bridges on the right are closer to the right edge of Santoor while the left bridges are farther from the left edge.
Santoor can be tuned by turning the “pins” with a special wrench, and similar to tuning a piano, it is very time consuming.
Santoor is played using two thin wooden “hammers”. In the past these hammers were heavier and were used without the attachment of felt. In the past few decades, however, lighter and more delicate hammers have been designed that are weighed down with the attachment of a small felt piece at their tips. These lighter hammers soften the sound of the Santoor a bit and enable the musician to play faster pieces. Older hammers may not be as agile as the new ones, however, their weight allows the musician to create certain Iranian “adornments” more easily while playing much stronger singular notes. Today, each style of hammer has its own fans.
Compared to other Iranian instruments, Santoor has many limitations. Not all of the classical Iranian Dastgahs can be played with one tuning, therefore, it is necessary to tune the Santoor differently if one is to play a piece in a different Dastgah in one sitting. Sometimes the bridges will need to be moved. This is usually done when the musician needs to change Dastgahs quickly and has no time to turn the pins. Doing this creates inconsistencies between the strings and their distances from the box edges. However, similar to other Iranian instruments, Santoor is suitable for both solo performances and accompaniments.
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