Organology: Daff and Qanun-Women’s Instruments of the Middle East

Organology:  Daff and Qanun-Women’s Instruments of the Middle East

As an ethnomusicologist I have seen that women play certain instruments in Arab music; what are they, and why do they do this?  In this article we will explore the daf, the frame drum, and the qanun, the plucked zither instrument of the Arab world.  These instruments have Persian origins, and go back to women’s culture.

Daff and Qanun:  Women’s Instruments of the Middle East

  • Classification/Cultural Meaning:
  1. What is the indigenous name for this instrument?

The names of these instruments are:

  • the Qanun, qanoon, qanoun
  • the daff, deff, or tar
  1. What is the indigenous system for classifying the instrument?

Gender Classifications


In Doubleday’s article, her informants in Afghanistan assessed the classification of the daff drum not according to its organological features, but according to its evaluation as music or not, and to whom is playing it, and to whom it is being played for.

It is not considered an instrument by men on three counts: 

1) It is considered lawful in the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) that the sounds that come from the daff are not considered music, because it was sanctioned by him as such.  So, it is considered an instrument that is used for sacred purposes, and religious music is not considered “music” in Islamic culture. Since secular music is considered unlawful, popular music is considered “haram” or forbidden.  B’id’AA means innovative, and that it is acceptable, but not really “good”.  The daff falls into this category.

2) It is played by women, who are supposedly ignorant of music theory, and so it is not classified as a serious musical instrument.

3) It is played by Jat/Ghorbat groups/tribes, who are outsiders in the Afghani society.  They are entertainers who use prostitution mixed with playing music and dancing, and they use the drum to collect the money.

Women do consider it an instrument, and attribute apotropaic properties to it (the ability to ward off evil spirits) (p119).  They give the performance religious merit, but not the instrument itself.  It is believed that music, and especially the frame drum, can exorcise evil spirits.  It is often used in zar ceremonies to rid evil spirits from individuals in a group setting in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (Doumato).


In Doubleday’s article, she claims that the daff is the most popular and well known of instruments that women play in the Middle East.  Ms. Doubleday states on page 103, based on CD liner notes from Kerimova, Taira, 1996, “Women’s Love and Life. Female Folklore from Azerbaijan”,

“In Iraq, women traditionally play only idiophones and a limited range of membranophones, including the frame drum (daff) (ibid.94). In Azerbaijan “the only instrument allowed into traditional women’s surroundings is the deff’ (Kerimova 1996:4). No doubt there are other examples. It must, however be stressed that elite women have had access to a wider range of musical instruments. At the same time a considerable number of instruments are traditionally reserved for men. These phenomena point to a multi-faceted gender bias, which is clearly demonstrated in other aspects of Middle Eastern culture (see Ahmed 1992).

I interviewed qanun player, Hakan Toker of Turkey, and he said something to the contrary.  He claimed that in his travels to Azerbaijan that he discovered that primarily women play the qanun there.

“I have observed that in Azerbaijan, traditionally it is mostly played by women. I have yet to see a male Azerbaijani kanun player! But then, I don’t watch Azerbaijani TV, so, maybe they exist anyway. Other than that, traditionally in most Islamic countries, especially in the conservative past -or places that are still conservative-, the performers were male, of course, in a male-dominated society, performing for men; while women -definitely in Ottoman Turkey- also performed the kanun as well as other instruments while entertaining each other.”(Personal communication)

It would seem from Mr. Toker’s description that perhaps other instruments are played in women’s quarters by women for women, and that the ethnographic research has not been done on the qanun to prove this point.  Ms. Doubleday’s assertion that the frame drum is the most popular instrument played by women for women in the Middle East can be misleading if you do not read closely what she says.  She bases this assumption on liner notes from Kerimova’s CD, “Women’s Love and Life. Female Folklore from Azerbaijan” that states, “In Azerbaijan

“The only instrument allowed into traditional women’s surroundings

is the deff’.” (p 103)  This is a point that I would like to make about basing research only on what has been written on the subject; you cannot believe everything you read, or if the information is vague, you may gloss over it and make assumptions.  Ms. Doubleday’s article is very famous in the fields of Ethnomusicology and Dance, but if I had not asked a qanun musician about the instrument myself, I would have never known that women played it exclusively in Azerbaijan.


  1. Where does the instrument fit into the Sachs-Hornbostel system?


  • Membranophone
  • Directly struck membranophones 211.3: Instruments in which the body depth is not greater than the radius of the membrane (frame drums)


  • Chordophone
  • Frame zithers (316): The strings are stretched across an open trapezoidal frame


  • Distribution/Context:
  1. Does the instrument have widespread or limited distribution?


According to Oxford Music Online, the daf is common in these regions:

  • West Asia
  • The Caucasus
  • The Iranian Plateau
  • Central Asia
  • South-Eastern Europe

According to Doubleday, the daf  has different names in different countries:

  • duff (principally applied in Arabia and western regions)
  • daff/def (Turkey, Iran and further east)
  • daireh/daira/ doira (Middle East and Central Asia)
  • tar (Arabia)
  • tof/tov (Hebrew)
  • mazhar, riqq and ghirbal (Arabic)
  • bendir (North African)


According to Oxford Music Online, the qanun is common in these regions:

  • Middle East
  • North Africa
  • Parts of Asia (Central, and Western)

Variations on the name have been spelled as qanoon, qanoun, kanun, kanoon, kanoun.  In Arabic it is spelled with the letter “qaf”, not “kaf”, so spelling it with a “q” in English is much closer to the Arabic translation.

  1. What factors have contributed to its migration or containment?


Islam and male dominated society has marginalized the daff into being a women’s instrument.  The frame drum had been used in the cults of Inanna in Babylon/Mesopotamia, in Canaan, Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Iran by sacred prostitutes, and was associated with illicit sexuality practices.  Dancing was associated with the drum, as dancers used the drum instead of finger cymbals (Doubleday, p103) The advent of patriarchal religions in the Middle East brought a containment of anything that came before, and the frame drum was relegated to the women’s quarters.  This may have preserved the drum, however.  It also may give use the biggest clues as to where “bellydancing” came from, as no one in the field can seem to agree on its origin.  It was and is used in the zar trance ritual of North Africa and the Saudi Arabian Peninsula as the bendir frame drum, and probably whatever local variants of the frame drum there are from region to region (Doumato).

Doubleday attests there are Persian Miniature pictures of royalty enjoying the music of the daff in Persian paintings of the Timurid period (16th century).  This attests to the change from folk instrument to classical instrument in the royal courts, transitioning from the Zoroastrian fire dancing rituals, to the Islamic royal court entertainment purposes.


I asked my aforementioned informant qanun player, Hakan Toker, about the history of the instrument, and how it came to be today.  He had a few books on the subject, but they were in Turkish, so he kindly translated them for me:

The Kanun Method by Gültekin and Tahir Aydoğdu (father and son):

“The kanun was invented by the Turkish scientist Farabi (870-950). Some sources say that Farabi -only- made some improvements to the instrument.

Yet, besides documents showing the usage of it in antiquity by Egyptians and Sumerians and according to an ancient Arab account, the kanun may have been invented by Ibn-i Hallegan who is supposed to be a member of the Bermek family or Horasan and who was born in the city of Irbil of Mosul, which was inhabited largely by Turks then (13th century.)

One myth suggests that the effect of the wind producing sound through the dry guts of a dead bird dangling from a tree branch has inspired the making of the instrument.

Evliya Çelebi [17. century Turkish traveler, writer] says that the instrument was invented by the famous Ali Shah

Albert Lavignac, in his Encyclopedi do la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire (Conservatory Dictionary and Encyclopedia of Music) claim the kanun to be an Arab instrument

Although its name is from the Greek word canon (single stringed instrument), the kanun was invented in Asia and brought to Anatolia by Turks as they migrated from Central Asia

According to Kurt and Ursula Reinhard (1968), during the early Islamic era, the kanun was used for pedagogic purposes, to demonstrate the system of pitches. Hence the Greek [usage] of canon, meaning law, rule…”


From Forgotten Ottoman Instruments by Fikret Karakaya (2010)

“There it says that “the instrument called Kisara, which is still used by the Uighurs, is none other than the ancient kanun. As for the Hindu instrument Surmandala which is held vertically, it is a modern example of yet an earlier kanun.”

So, it seems that the instrument in its present state is but a transformation of an instrument from antiquity in several different regions.  Farabi in early Islamic times changed it to make it suitable to help the other instruments find their pitch.  There were further changes to come, however.  The Oxford Music Online says that the new qanuns use levers on the side of the peg box to control the pitch; the old ones do not.  After the Music Congress of 1932 in Cairo, the qanun went through further transformations, and only the new qanuns were used after this landmark event.

“The more recent history of the qānūn resumes at the time of the technical revolution that reached Istanbul in 1876. There is a gulf between the old qānūn and the new, the earliest examples of which were made by the Istanbul instrument maker Mahmut Usta. The older type did not immediately disappear, however; the Arab Music Congress at Cairo in 1932 noted the existence of two types, the newer marked by the use of small brass levers on the (player’s) left of the case close to the pegbox. There are two to five for every three strings on the modern Arab qānūn, five to nine on those from Turkey and ten on those from Aleppo (Armenian models never have more than two). Intervals can be minutely adjusted by rotating the levers, which control the tension of the strings; this permits a full range of keys. On the older model, the tension controls the tuning. The introduction of the levers, with their characteristic noise when raised or lowered, encouraged the construction of larger instruments. A less obvious innovation in the Turkish models was the modification of the bridge. In earlier examples the bridge rested directly on the resonator. On the modern Arab qānūn manufactured in Egypt, it is supported at a height of about 5 cm by five feet placed at intervals across the width of the instrument; the Turkish kanun has only four feet.” (Oxford Music Online)

Perhaps because the qanun was more widely used by men, and played for men in public spaces, it went under much broader changes than the daff.

According to Sawa, Ib Khallikan wrongly attributed the invention of the qanun to al-Farabi. The latter explained the kanon of Ptolemy, a 15 stirnged polychord used to teach children about ancient Greek modes, but al-Farabi did not call it kanon or qanun, he just called it an instrument invented by one of the ancient; later he found out it was Ptolemy (personal interview).


  1. Has the instrument moved from local to transnational contexts?

Salwa El Shawan’s article in the SEM Journal, “Traditional Arab Music Ensembles in Egypt since 1967: ‘The Continuity of Tradition within a

Contemporary Framework’”, shows how the traditional takht ensemble of Arab music in Egypt was transformed into a more Western style orchestra and how the instruments were shifted accordingly (El Shawan, 1984).  It is important to know that what happens in Cairo musically affects the rest of the Arab World.  They set the pace, as they produce the music and films of the Arab Entertainment Industry.  I shall discuss each instrument separately according to her article.


  • Traditionally, according to Doubleday, the daff was played by women for sacred purposes; when used by men, it was in Sufi rituals, also for sacred purposes
  • At some point the riqq, the smaller frame drum with cymbals, became the preferred rhythm instrument for the takht, or small Arab music ensemble
  • El Shawan states in her article that the riqq was the one instrument that remained the constant in the change in Cairo from the move towards a more Westernized orchestra format; only one is still used.



  • Qanun means “law” in Arabic
  • Traditionally the qanun is the leader of the takht, or small ensemble
  • Because of its precision tuning, it would set the tonal scales for the rest of the instruments
  • According to El Shawan, in the transition from the takht to the firqah (orchestra) occurred gradually, but initially was present in 1910 Cairo; by the 40’s the firqah format took over the takht
  • Musical theatre with live music could have been an influence
  • After that 1-3 qanuns were included in the firqah
  • By 1967, TAM, or Traditional Arab Music, as El Shawan calls it in her article, is established under the Ministry of Culture; this is the firqah format


  1. What are the consequences of this movement?

The consequence of changing the format of the TAM is that it affected how Arab music is played all over the world.  The reason is that Cairo is the “Hollywood” of the Arab World, and most of the music and film is produced there.

For instruments, change over time has brought the daff and the qanun a more gender specific genre towards segregating who plays them, and who they are played for.  It also affected how they were classified by genders, in that the men did not even consider the daff in Afghanistan a real instrument because it was played by women.


  • Construction:
  1. What materials are used in the construction of the instrument?


  • Oxford Music Online: Wooden circular frame 2-3 inch depth with goatskin stretched between and glued to the frame; sometimes Mother of Pearl inlay
  • Sometimes percussive elements are added (cymbals, rings, chains, bells, etc.)
  • The skin is often painted by women; the flowing tree of life symbol, the paisley, is a common motif


  • Oxford Music Online: Nylon or PVC strings are stretched over a single bridge trapezoidal-shaped zither
  • Fish skins on one end, and tuning pegs on the other; sometimes Mother of Pearl inlay


  1. Have these been modified over time?

The daff has not changed much, but the qanun has.  It has come from a primitive upright harp as played in ancient Egypt and the kisara in Xinxiang, to a flat framed zither that is plucked with a guitar pic, and uses levers on the pegboard for fine tuning.

  • Scholarly Treatment:
  1. What scholars are primary contributors to the study of this instrument?


  • Veronica Doubleday


  • George Dmitri Sawa
  1. What issues have been most thoroughly researched?

For the daff, the ethnographic side has been thoroughly researched by Doubleday, but the history of how the instrument is made, how it is taught, and the musicological sides are not covered by her.  Those aspects are not covered in any other scholarly works I could find, but they were covered in Arab music books and websites I found online.

For the qanun, it is the opposite.  There is no existing ethnographic work to place it in relation to its culture of origin, but there is a lot of information in Arabic and Turkish books about the history, and musicological aspects.

  1. Are there particular theoretical or methodological problems which encumber research on this instrument?

For the daff, the fact that it is a women’s instrument in Iran poses a difficulty to male researchers in getting into the women’s quarters, and female researchers would have a hard time doing research in public in Iran.  Issues of this kind in an Islamic state are not uncommon, which is perhaps why she did her research in Afghanistan.  She does not discuss why she chose this country, but I know that dance is illegal in Iran, and so are women performing in public.

  1. How have these problems been addressed in the scholarly literature?

Doubleday is a woman, so this must have facilitated her research quite a bit, but she does not discuss her research methodology.


  • Audio/Film Treatment:
  1. What is the extent of coverage of the instrument on film and video?

There was nothing I could find in the Smithsonian Folkways online archive for video; there were a few audio recordings.  However, on YouTube there are literally thousands of videos of Arabic music that one can search through to find the music in several different genres, sacred and secular, and classical, folk and popular.

  1. What filmmakers or recording companies have provided the most extensive coverage?

Most Arabic music recordings come out of Cairo, although fusion music is coming from all over the world now.  It is hard to say how many companies are involved in this phenomenon, but one that comes to mind is Arc21, which is owned by Miles Copeland, the manager of the rock band The Police; he is also the founder of IRS Records.  He has had an interest in the Middle East since he lived there as a child, and so he has been involved in bringing Arabic artists to the West.  He recently made a PBS documentary of this phenomenon called, “Dissonance and Harmony:  Arabic Music Goes West”.

Works Cited

  • Ali, Aisha. “Dances of Egypt”.    1991.  Los Angeles, CA.  Discs. Associated Research in Arabic Folklore (ARAF).
  • Doubleday, Veronica. “The Frame Drum in the Middle East:  Women, Musical

Instruments and Power”.  Ethnomusicology, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 101-134. 1999.