General Description

The santur is the Persian hammered dulcimer (more precisely called a struck zither) whose trapezoid body is made of a hard wood such as walnut or rosewood. It normally has two sound holes, and 72 strings, which are strung over two sets of 9 bridges on either side of the instrument. The instrument is strung 4 strings to

a note, and the gamut rendered has a diatonic range of just over 3 octaves. Its tuning pins are much like a harp’s.

It is played with 2 wooden beaters made of wood (the darker the wood the better) with felt tips.

Limitations and Different Santurs

Part of the limitation of the santur is that some sections of a given mode can only be played in a certain octave. So, in a higher octave one obtains a certain gusheh (section of a mode), but in the lower octave one would obtain a different gusheh, or a different section of the mode. The instrument is a bit limited this way and one may not be able to play the same gusheh in all three octaves.

There are also santurs with 12 bridges – they are not yet common, though in Iran they are becoming more common. Its range is a bit bigger but what it really allows for is more non-diatonic notes and greater ease of transposing from one tonic reference to another. So for example, if a singer wants to sing the same mode on a different tonic centre, one does not have to retune, or use a second santur, but can have the mode available.


On the santur only 2 notes are fixed, the C and the G, and all the remaining notes will be tuned in relation to these. This is a bit similar to the Sa-Pa (tonic – dominant) system in Indian music. We can assume that the C and G accord with standard pitch in the west – certainly this would be the tuning called for.

There are alternate tunings, to enable certain places where one can play certain maqams (modes) or dastgahs (modal groups). Again, it is not a chromatic instrument, nor one which covers the entire gamut of the

17 tone Persian scale, like the Tar. However, it can be tuned according to the mode(s) called for, including their quarter tones and/or microtones.

The bridges can move, to enable different tunings, and small corrections are made with the tuning hammer to make the four courses sound a unison. Players do not usually like to move the bridges, but it may be useful in certain cases to enable a small tuning change.

The range of the Santur can be taken as from c (octave below middle C) to f3 (2 octaves and a fourth above middle C). Note that the lowest octave is not complete – only one note below f (a fifth below middle C) is possible, and has to be chosen ahead of time)

General Considerations


The santur has a long decay, and there are sounds which continue sympathetically after a note is struck. This is typical for the santur, and it gives it a very full sound as a solo instrument. It is not good at sounding discrete notes, and harmonically it poses problems because of its long decay and non-equi-tempered tunings. However, it may be utilized in accompaniments, in ostinati, in counterpoint, and of course as a melodic lead.

Performance and Tunings

Note: In the diagram above, the note names are ‘pitch classes’, in other words, B can be Bb or B quarter flat etc.

Santur – new info on tunings

The updated Santur incorporates a lever system for tuning. With this system, the bridges are fixed, and each speaking length of string can be varied at the nut to give two new speaking length variations – ¼ tone (actually a microtone, not necessarily a ¼ tone) and ½ tone.

The updated possibilities for the diatonic positions are as follows (check this against the diagram I have): C > C# (up ¼ and ½ )

(down ¼ and ½) Db < D (down ¼ and ½) Eb < E

F > F# (up ¼ and ½ ) G > G# (up ¼ and ½ )

(down ¼ and ½) Ab < A (down ¼ and ½) Bb < B


The performer facing the santur to play it has the broad part of the trapezoid closest to him (see diagram above). This situates the tuning pins on the player’s right. The lowest pitch is at the bottom, close to the player while the highest pitch is at the top, furthest way from the player. The lowest string is stretched over a bridge on the right and extends to a hitch pin on the left. This lowest note acts as a kind of pedal point, a bass note that can be repeated. The courses above it are melodic notes, not necessarily related scale-wise to the low bass note.

The bridges on the left allow for notes to both the left and the right of that bridge – thus one course can render two different notes. However, the bridges on the right do not allow this. Thus, certain string courses are strung over a right bridge and render only one note, and other courses go over a left bridge and render 2 notes. These two notes are an octave apart – one is in the middle octave and the other in the high octave;


Here is an example of a Santur tuning that the author created for a recent (2007) composition of his.

The lowest note is not a fixed pitch, it varies depending upon the piece played – it can be a C, or a D, or an E, and, depending upon the range of the singer one is accompanying it can be a variety of pitches which give different tonic references. This lowest note is pitched below the 1st octave’s lowest note.

Note that the k in Ek is E koron, which is approximately E quarter flat. There is another accidental in

Persian music which is a quarter (or microtone) sharp and it is called sori and is designated with an s.

An example of a traditional tuning is the one for Dastgah Shur, as follows:

lowest note: C or D

low octave: F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D or Dk, Eb, F [played to the left of the right bridges] middle octave: Ek, F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D, Eb, F [played to the right of the left bridge] high octave: Ek, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D or Dk, Eb, F [played to the left of the left bridges]

There are several notes which can have two variants, a microtone different one from the other. Here we have Eb and Ek, Ab and Ak, and D and Dk. It is important to note that the performer must play those strings in those places described above, because they actually dip down after a while and you can’t get down below between the strings with the hammers. Only where the string is raised up can you strike it.

Melodically, the mode’s tonic seems to be G, so it is a kind of natural minor with the 2nd degree lowered a koron from the major 2nd interval. Another mode resulting from this tuning is a mixolydian on F, with the 3rd degree lowered a touch.

The tuning is called Shur from G. It is named thus according to the radif – the classical Persian repertoire, handed down from generation to generation, approached in the Persian classical way. This is how one communicates the tuning to other musicians – one speaks of Shur from G. Needless to say, one needs to study the theory and repertoire of Persian classical music in order to utilize these resources, and this is beyond

the scope of this article. However, it is good for the composer to know about the tradition, and to consult closely with the performer to make sure that what he is writing is feasible and incorporates some of the instrument’s idiomatic expressions.

There are many other traditional santur tunings, and many more tunings are possible, including standard western diatonic tunings. These need to be indicated in the composition, and by and large cannot be changed during the course of performance. The only exception is that a bridge may be moved slightly, given a little time, to change a pitch by up to a semitone. Generally, in order to change from one mode to another, one would

need several santurs. This can be done to some extent, depending upon whether the performer has these santurs at the ready.

Consulting with the performer, to ask about the feasibility of a tuning the composer wishes to utilize, is essential.


Generally one writes at pitch, utilizing the treble clef alone. The bass clef is not really necessary, though it may be useful now and then to avoid the ledger lines below middle C. The low C note would be notated

below the 4th ledger line below the treble clef staff. In other words the pitch is c (or C28 in piano notation). Consult with the performer to make sure he is comfortable with the clef choices.

Speed of Execution

Very fast is almost always possible, in this respect the santur is very flexible. Scalar figures are a bit easier to execute than intervallic leaps, but tremolos which go from a high string or strings and jump to tremolos on the lower strings are do-able and idiomatic.


Timbral variations are not convincing, regarding placement of the stroke. Different felts on the mallets may give some variation. Some mallets have a sharper sound, some a lighter sound. One can experiment with these ideas, together with the santurist.

Col Legno may work, its sound is brittle and in the estimation of the author’s informant (santurist Navid Goldrick) its sound is ‘sharp, dirty, messy’. From the viewpoint of the santur tradition, it is an extended technique.

Muting may offer a variation, as an extended technique. One strikes the note and mutes with a hand. The result is a clipped sound, but with a ghost note, which is the sympathetic resonance of the original note on other open strings. Speed of execution of course is considerably compromised.

Tremolo is highly idiomatic. All kinds are possible. One traditional device calls for dwelling on one note in tremolo and then moving over a tetrachordal melodic cell.

Dynamics are very effective, from pp to ff. The dynamic shift is accentuated by moving to the higher octave, which has a greater energy and cutting quality.

Intervallic play is possible and idiomatic; for example, falling thirds and so on as well as intervals simply played in tremolo.

Arpeggios are performable, but the note choices are important, as the harmonic quality will be compromised severely by the microtonal notes.

A two mallet technique (in one hand) is highly unusual, and cannot be called for unless some specific and careful work is done to prepare the performer. The traditional mallets are not constructed to be held in one hand, and the mallets need to bounce off the strings to obtain a good tone. Perhaps by experimenting with different kinds of mallets, it may be possible to do this. It seems to be something a composer may want, to obtain harmonic intervals which are muted after playing, thus rendering a discrete harmonic accompaniment. However, this is very ‘western’ thinking, and the idea definitely does not fit well with the Persian santur tradition.

Bent notes – by bending to the right of the right bridge one can obtain a slide, over a very small diapason (a semitone?) and on a low note. On a somewhat higher note this can also be achieved, but for a smaller diapason . A certain vibrato perhaps can be accomplished in this manner. It is an extended technique

Glissandi – as an extended device and a special musical effect, one may obtain a glissando by striking a string and sliding a smooth metal object over it from one side to another. Like a slide guitar effect. It needs to be worked out with the performer.

Accents – other than the staccato note which is muted after the stroke, the santur basically renders soft and loud. One can of course call for an accented stroke (>) but staccati of different kinds are not effective.

Harmonics – are not utilized, but on the lowest string harmonics are playable, since it is a single string. A delicate sound results. The other notes, having 4 strings each, would seem not to render harmonics, unless one could touch the nodes of all 4 with exactitude. It is something that could be researched further.


Grace notes, nuances – these are very idiomatic, and there are specific kinds that are part of the traditional vocabulary. Some are as follows:

  • mordents – upper and lower
  • upper and lower single grace notes
  • tremolo on one note to a rest on an upper note, or a lower note
  • two grace notes which ’embrace’ the main note, like geF
  • a kind of ‘flan’, basically two quick repeated grace notes which land on the same note as main note: ccC
  • rhythmic ostinati which alternate between a lower pedal and upper notes; sometimes the pattern may
  • begin with the upper note ‘flan’, or other graces to start off the first beat of the pattern; these ostinati can
  • take the form of arpeggiated triads, changing from one triad to another, e.g. –

12/8 || ceg ceg ceg ceg | cea ceg cef ceg ||

  • playing in octaves is highly useful.
  • hard attack on notes gives a certain presence.
  • octave tremolos on both sides of the bridge, intervallic tremolos
  • trills are often utilized, either on their own, or as graces to melodic movements

Appendix 1 – Some Traditional Santur Tunings

Compiled by Navid Goldrick

Some scales have been designated as having a Shahed note. This term may be defined as “the witness note, the most important note possessing the notion of tonic” (Lloyd Miller, Music and Song in Persia: The Art of Avaz, pg. 61). The note in the brackets beside the name designates the Shahed note for the Dastgah. It comes in handy when getting familiar with scales that are similiar, but have different names.


Dastgah – a primary mode or collection of modes

Avaz – a secondary mode, derived from the dastgah but also standing on its own.

K = Koron, a microtone flat (approximately a quarter tone)

S = Sori, a microtone sharp

Dastgah Homayoun, Shustari and Avaz Esfahan lowest note: C

low octave: F, G, Ak, B, C, D, Eb, F

middle: E, F, G, Ak, B, C, D, Eb, F

high: Ek, F, G, Ab, B or Bb, C, D, Eb, F

Alternate Homayoun, Shustari and Esfahan

(Note: This tuning is predominantly used in Shustari and Esfahan.)

lowest note: D

low octave: F#, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F middle: Ek, F#, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F high: Ek, F#, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F

Alternate Esfahan

(Shahed note or tonic is on F)

lowest note: C

low octave: F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Dk, Eb, F middle: E, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F high: E, F, G Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F

Dastgah Chahargah

Lowest note: C

low octave: F, G, Ak, B, C, Dk, E, F

middle: E, F, G, Ak, B, C, Dk, E, F

high: Ek or E, Fs, G, Ab or Ak, B, C, Dk, E, F

Dastgah Segah lowest note: C

low octave: F, G, Ak, Bb, C, Dk, Eb, F middle: E or Ek, F, G, Ak, Bb, C, Dk, Eb, F high: Ek, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Dk, Eb, F


Dastgah Shur, Avaz Dashti, Avaz Abu-Ata, Bayat Tork, Bayat Kord, Avaz Afshari lowest note: C or D

low octave: F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D or Dk, Eb, F middle: E or Ek, F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D, Eb, F high: Ek, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D or Dk, Eb, F

Alternate Shur tuning low note: D

low octave: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F middle: Ek, F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F high: Ek, F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D, Eb, F

Dastgah Nava

(Note: Nava and Shur can use the same tunings, with exception of lowest note.)

low note: C

low octave: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F middle: Ek, F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F high: Ek, F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D, Eb, F

Alternate Nava tuning

(Same as original Shur tuning)

lowest note: C or D

low octave: F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D or Dk, Eb, F middle: E or Ek, F, G, Ak, Bb, C, D, Eb, F high: Ek, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D or Dk, Eb, F

Dastgah Mahur

(Shahed note on C. Also not too sure on this one)

lowest note: C

low octave: F, G, A, B, C, D, Eb or E, F

middle: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, Eb or E, F

high: Ek or E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb or E, F

Alternate Mahur

(Shahed on G. This tuning is variable)

lowest note: D

low octave: F#, G, A, B, C, D, E, F middle: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, Ek or E, F high: E, F#, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F

Dastgah Mahur, and Dastgah Rast-Panjgah

(Shahed note on F and I’m not 100% on this tuning, it is quite a variable one, depending on the melodies you want to emphasize. It is also altogether awkward to play.)

Lowest note: C

low octave: F, G, Ak, Bb, C, Dk or D, Eb, F middle: E, F, G, A, Bb, C, Dk or D, Eb, F high: Ek or E, F, G, Ak or A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F