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Music instruments of Pakistan



Pakistan's cultural heritage includes a large number of musical instruments: stringed (plucked or bowed), wind and percussion. Each instrument has its own peculiar structural and tonal characteristics, producing unique effects of pitch, loudness, thickness and intensity of tone that differentiate it from the rest.

Plucked stringed instruments: Sitar, Rubab, Iktara, Soor Bahar, Sarod, Taanpura, Damboora, Soorsinghar, Banjo, Veena, Vichatra Santoor.

Bowed stringed instruments: Sarangi, Sarinda, Taos, Siroz, Dilruba

Wind instruments: Bansuri, Soornai, Been, Shehnai, Alghoza

Percussion instruments: Tabla, Khunjari, Ghara, Dhol, Tanboor, Dholak, Naqarah, Chimta,Pikhavaj.

A small number of stringed and percussion instruments, and a seven-key flute, have been unearthed from the ruins of Moenjodaro and Harappa, indicated their origin at an earlier stage. According to the Ramain, a Hindu holy book which gives information on primitive musical instruments, the oldest instrument is said to be the gatra veena, in which sound was produced by clapping, beating the thighs and chest with the hands, and stamping the feet on the ground.

Bhoomi Dandobi was a primitive percussion instrument. A pit was covered with skin, and this was played with sticks. The Sarswati Veena was a zither with one hundred strings, and the mookha veena was another instrument of the same kind. The Sarasvati Veena and Vichatra Veena are still in use for both solo playing as an accompaniment to vocal music. The sound of the Veena is supposed to come closest to the human voice. Around eighteen types of veena have been described in different texts. A melody produced on a veena is really mellow and pleasing.


Hazrat Amir Khusro (1253-1325 AD), the great Muslim scholar, legendary poet and musicologist, mentioned 26 musical instruments of his time in the second volume of his book, Ejaz-e-Khusravi. The unknown author of Koonzaul-Tohaf (15th century AD) has mentioned nine more musical instruments of Central Asia. Abul Fazal, a great scholar, poet, historian, and senior minister of the Great Mughal Emperor Akbar, has mentioned 23 musical instruments of his time in Ain-e-Akbari. Approximately 80 musical instruments have been discovered so far in Pakistan.

By the middle of the 19th century, much had been written about the names and structure of musical instruments, but little was known about their invention or inventors. Nor had anything been written to transfer the technique, tuning, or musical repertoire. This is because most books on music were written by historians, not by musicians or musicologists.

The lack of documentation has left room for countless assumptions and contradictions about the authenticity and purity of Pakistan's musical heritage. It took almost 2,000 years to agree on a final grouping of classical melodies and ragas.



This instrument consists of a pair of flutes of nearly the same length and width. One flute is used for a continuous drone, while the other is played to produce a melody. The alghoza has six holes.

The alghoza originated in Sindh, but its popularity has spread all over Pakistan. Many of the tunes presented on this instrument are composed in the raga Bheem Pilasi, which is sung soon after sunset. Bheem Pilasi emanates a romantic mood and is an intense expression of longing and waiting for the beloved.


The bansuri, or flute, is one of the most primitive instruments of Pakistan. It is played by holding it horizontally against the lips. It has six holes, which are closed and opened with the finger-pads in accordance with the melodic phrases. The thumb below supports the flute. The typical flute has a slanting mouthpiece that can easily rest between lips. The notes of the higher register are produced by accurately controlling the apertures and by contracting the lips to blow a narrow stream of air.

Sain Allah Ditta Qadri is known for his flute playing, and Salamat Hussain is a meritorious flutist who has won the President's Pride of Performance medal.


The chimta is a pair of fire-tongs still used in Pakistani homes. The chimta used by performers is approximately one metre long. It is played by hitting the tongs against each other and slapping a large iron ring at the bottom against the tongs. Popular in Punjab and Sindh, it is used mostly as an accompaniment to folk and mystic songs.


The Dhol or drum, which means "lover" in some regional languages, is a rhythm instrument enjoying wide popularity in both town and countryside.

The Dhol was originally used for communication over long distances for community announcements and to summon congregations. Today, the instrument is played on a variety of occasions, such as folk festivals, dances, horse and catel shows, rural sports, wrestling matches, weddings, etc.

The Dhol is a two-headed, hollowed-out piece of wood covered with goat skin. It is beaten with wooden sticks and is certainly an instrument of great antiquity.


The Ghara of Punjab (dilu or changer in Sindh, mangay in NWFP, and noot in Kashmir) is actually a baked clay pitcher normally used for storing drinking water. Used to produce a fast rhythm, it is one of the most primitive percussion instruments known.

The height of a ghara ranges form 30 to 35 centimeters, with a girth of 80 to 90 centimeters. The diameter of the mouth is 8 to 10 centimeters. A metallic ghara is known as a gagar or matki. The performer sits on floor, places the instrument in front of his knees or on his lap with its mouth up, and beats the side wall with the fingers of the right hand while the left hand strikes the mouth to produce a stronger ground beat.

Ghara is also used by village people as a float for swimming. The swimmer holds the hollow pot under the belly, its mouth down, and swims across a river or stream. A popular folk song of Punjab takes its name from the ghara. It is associated with the romanctic folk tale of Sohni and Mahinwal. Sohni used a garha to swim across the river Chenab.


The harmonium is a keyboard instrument. Thin metal tongues vibrate to a steady current of air produced by pumping the bellows. The harmonium has a three-octave keyboard.

This compact organ was introduced in the early 19th century by European missionaries to sing hymns in remote villages, where it was impossible to carry a heavy church organ. Later, it became a part of the music of the subcontinent. The harmonium in its present form has completely vanished from the musical scene in the western countries of its origin. In Pakistan, the harmonium is very popular as an accompaniment to solo singing and Qawwali singing.


This ancient instrument consists of one (ik) wire (tar). It was originally a droning accompaniment to a sung melody, particularly religious songs. It is played by plucking the solitary string with a to and fro movement of the forefinger. The same hand holds the instrument.

Its bowl is small and covered with skin. The stem is thin and long. It is played in a vertical position. The iktara was never meant for solo performance, but Saeen Marna of Balochistan was first artist to make the attempt, giving a new life to this tiny one-stringed instrument.


The jal tarang, a peculiar instrument, consists of 11 to 14 china bowls of varying thickness and height. Each bowl is tuned by pouring in a certain quantity of water. The cups are arranged in a semicircular position. Usually, the biggest bowl is tuned to the dominant or sub-dominant tone of the scale. The player sits in the middle of the semicircle and strikes the rims of the water-filled bowls with two small sticks to produce a melody. The jal tarang was first mentioned by Aahu Bal Pandit in Sangeet Parijat (17th century).


The Rubab is a plucked string lute with frets on the upper end of the fingerboard. Its hollow body is made of wood, and the sound chamber is covered with goat skin. The melody is played upon strings made of gut, beneath which are a number of resonating metallic strings called tarab.

This instrument is very popular throughout northwest Pakistan. Folk ballads, romantic songs and popular mystic poetry are sung to the accompaniment of the rubab. The music most frequently presented on this instrument is a Pashto folk form called lobha. The most famous instrumentalist of the Frontier, Taj Muhammad, is an acknowledged expert on the rubab.

A more evolved form of this instrument is in use in Azad Kashmir. The Kashmiri rubab is more complex, having a larger number of strings and resonators. It is beautifully decorated by artisans with ivory or mother-of-pearl motifs.


The sarangi is a classical bow instrument made of wood, 65 to 70 centimeters in height, with about three dozen strings of gut, steel and brass. It is played with a horsehair bow held in the right hand. The richness and variety of sound produced by this instrument has given it its name, which means "the one with a hundred colours." Besides being used as an accompaniment, the instrument has an independent identity and can be played solo, accompanied by the tabla.

The sarangi was chosen to present a famous classical raga, Mian Ki Malhar. This raga, created by the chief court musician of the Moghal Emperor Akbar, Mian Tan Sen, in the 16th century AD, is traditionally sung in the rainy season.

In Pakistan, Ustad Bandu Khan was a consummate exponent of both the theory and practice of sarangi playing. Other performers of note include two brothers, Ustad Hamid Hussain and Ustad Zahid Hussain, who learned the art from their father, Ustad Abid Hussain, and their maternal grandfather, Ustad Haider Bukhsh. Their style of playing is famous for its purity of notes and delicate rendering of melody.


Sarinda is the name given to a stringed instrument with a hollow wooden body made from one piece of wood. The lower part is covered with a thin wooden strip which extends into a finger board, upon which seven to nine strings are tensioned.

Sarinda comes from the Persian word surayinda, meaning "producer of tunes." The sarinda is usually accompanied by the rubab and tabla. The most famous tune presented on this instrument is a lilting melody from NWFP called hyberi, because of its origin in the Khyber Pass.

The finest recorded performer on the sarinda was the late Munir Sarhadi, who was taught by his father, Ustad Pazir. Since his death, there has been no one to equal his skill and creativity.


The shahnai is a double-reed wind instrument consisting of a hollow tube between 35 to 47 centimeters in length, widened toward the lower end, to which a plate of bell metal is fitted. The shahnai is an instrument for occasions of joy and festivity. A shahnai player typically belongs to a professional group of musicians and performers traditionally called mirasi.


The siroze is the medium-size local fiddle of northwest Balochistan. This stringed instrument is also popular in Sindh and NWFP, where it is known as sorendo and sarinda respectively.

Sachoo Khan is considered to be the finest exponent of the siroze. He studied under his maternal uncle.


Playing this complex instrument demands great skill and ability. It consists of a hollow wooden fingerboard almost four feet long and three to four inches wide, called dand. This is attached to a half-round ball called tunba (gourd). The face of the gourd is a polished wooden plate called tabli, decorated with ivory work. Along the fingerboard, two ivory bridges are placed one after another. The face of the bridge is slanting to keep the instrument's six strings from touching the moveable brass or steel frets.

The sitar was invented by Hazrat Amir Khusro (1253-1325 AD). It is said that he derived the idea from the veena. The instrument is played by using the right hand to pluck the strings with the mizrab, a sort of triangular plectum made of hard steel. The left hand moves up and down the frets to produce the melody. Many Pakistani musicians have became internationally known for their artisty on the sitar, among them Ustad Rashid Ali Khan Beenkar and Ustad Sharif Khan of Poonch.


The tabla is a set of twin drums. While occasionally played solo, it is an indispensible accompaniment for all types of music in Pakistan.

The drum played by the right hand is the main drum, called the the dayan, while the one played by the left hand is known as thebayan or dugga/duggi. Both drums are covered with goat skin. In the centre is a black circle, the siyahi, about 5 centimetres in diameter, which is made by pasting iron slag powder on the skin surface. Its purpose is to tune the drum to the correct pitch.


The classical music of Pakistan follows melodic modes called ragas and rhythmic modes called talas. In instrumental music it is customary to start with a long alap in free rhythm where the soloist improvises in exploration of the chosen raga and expresses its particular mood. Then the drum begins, and the soloist presents a fixed composition (gat), to which he returns quite frequently, in between allowing his imagination to develop such improvisation as his mood and the parameters of music permit.


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