Middle Eastern Dance
Tips for Playing the Qanun

The Qanun is a more difficult instrument to master than most Middle Eastern instruments.  Experience playing other string instruments like a guitar, harp, oud, or another type of zither or psaltery will be helpful if you want to master the Qanun.  Unfortunately it does not have a plethora of instructional books, DVDs, and audio files from which people can learn.  This makes learning it much more difficult.  The only way to then master it is usually to locate a Qanuni (Qanun player) and have them teach you.  You could locate a teacher of Greek Kanunaki, Arabic Qanun, or Turkish Qanun.  All of these would teach you the same basic principles of playing the Qanun.  The music and technique however, do vary.  Given that Qanuni's who will teach you lessons are not always easy to find and may not be close by take what you can get and then once you've mastered that musical style/technique expand through self study or seek out teachers in the style you want to learn.  It may mean that you have to travel quite a ways to get those lessons though.

This page will not teach you how to play the Qanun but rather give you some basic information and tips about playing and learning.  So, let's start with the basic components of the Qanun.

The Qanun is played by lying flat on either the performers lap or a table.  The sounds are made by plucking the strings.  The Qanuni wears a set of metal rings to which they attach a plectra.  The Arabic style plectra are more flexible while the Turkish style are more rigid.  This does change the sound a little depending on which type of plectra you use.  The traditional method is to strike the string downwards.  Another technique is to strike downwards and then upwards (like a back and forth striking movement).

The tuning of the Qanun will largely depend on whether it is being tuned to the Arabic or Turkish style.  The Arabic tuning is usually a pitch lower than the Turkish. They usually have 74 - 81 stings grouped in three chords to each note and produce 24-27 different notes.  The range is up to 3.5 octaves.  Microtones are achieved by adjusting the mandal levers or by using the left thumb to gently push on the string changing it's pitch.  In the most general terms these are two examples of some of the common tunings:

mode rast (C D E F G A B C) with E and B being one comma flat

mode huzam (E F G A B C D E) with both E's being hal flat and A being flat but raised by a comma and
the B being lowered by a comma.

The Qanuni tunes the Qanun to start in the Maqam they will be playing.  Switching Maqams takes time and can be difficult during play.  For more information about tuning you can visit this site and read this file.

The only Instructional Book and DVD that I am aware of it Kanun Metodu by Halil Karaduman which is kind of a rare find and unsually not cheap.  It is subtitled in English but it's main language is Turkish.

So if your looking into learning the Qanun, find a teacher, buy the only Kanun Method instructional set, listen to lot's of Qanun pieces to get a feel for the music, practice a lot, and watch this demonstration of some basic technique from Bassem Alkhouri.


If you want to learn more about the history and development of the modern Qanun check out the About Qanuns page.  If you'd like to know how to care for, maintain, and perform some repairs to your Qanun then check out the Care of Qanuns page.
George Dimitri Sawa master of the Qanun.

Egyptian Clay Tabla, Inlaid with Mother of Pearl and Camel bone.  Private Collection.