String Instrument

Stringed instrument widely played in the 14th to 18th centuries and revived in the 20th century; also, generically, any stringed instrument having strings that run in a parallel plane to the soundboard and along a protruding neck. The lute developed its classical form by about 1500. It has a flat fir belly, or soundboard, and a deep, extremely lightweight, pear-shaped body made by bending narrow strips of wood (ribs) and gluing them side by side.

Tied onto the neck and fingerboard are seven to ten gut frets. Six pairs (double courses) of strings run from tuning pegs (set in a pegbox that angles sharply back from the neck) to a bridge glued to the belly. The typical Renaissance tuning of the lute was G/c/f/a/d'/g' (relative pitch); the highest string was sometimes single. Above the bridge is a round sound hole filled with an intricate carving, or rose. The player's right-hand fingers pluck the strings, which are stopped (altered in pitch) by the left-hand fingers. The English lutenist John Dowland was outstanding among Renaissance composers for the lute.

About 1600, with the coming of the baroque era, the lute acquired additional bass strings (usually four). These strings were not stopped with the fingers, but were tuned in descending steps (F/E/D/C). For these lutes, French composers such as Denis Gaultier developed a notable body of music. Larger lutes with more and longer bass strings were also built; they include the theorbo, chitarrone, and archlute. By 1700 the introduction of metal-overspun gut strings allowed bass strings of normal length to be used. Typical lutes of the 18th century have one bent-back pegbox and a broad neck over which are stretched five to seven bass strings and the six double courses, by then usually tuned A/d/f/a/d'/f' (relative pitch).

The lute entered medieval Europe from Arabic culture as an instrument plucked by a plectrum, or pick, with four pairs of strings. It was a version of the Arabic 'ud (spelled oud by its modern Balkan players), which today is an unfretted, plectrum-plucked instrument with four to seven double courses. Relatives of the 'ud and lute include the Romanian cobza, the mandolin, and the medieval mandola. These broadly resemble the short-necked lutes that had appeared in the Middle East by about 700 BC. Moving to the east as well as the west, such lutes evolved into the Chinese pipa and Japanese biwa. Shallow-bodied, long-necked lutes were known in Mesopotamia by 2000 BC. Modern examples include the Greek bouzouki and the Japanese shamisen.

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