The Oud: Background information when reading The Pianist from Syria

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Pianist from Syria

A Memoir

by Aeham Ahmad

The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad X
The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 288 pages
    Mar 2021, 288 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Oud

This article relates to The Pianist from Syria

Print Review

OudIn previous "beyond the book" articles we've looked at different aspects of contemporary Syria - such as its culture and the refugee crisis. Now, we take a look at its music through a close up look at one of the Muslim world's most popular instruments.

Aeham Ahmad, author of The Pianist from Syria, owned a music store with his father that, among other endeavors, manufactured and sold musical instruments, the most important and profitable of which was a lute-like instrument called an oud.

In Arabic, the name "al oud" literally means "the wood," and may refer to the thin strips of wood that are glued together to make the instrument's gourd-like back. The name may also have served to differentiate it from earlier musical instruments that used a stretched animal skin for their faces. Known as the "king of instruments" in the Arab world, the oud is highly popular in all forms of music, from traditional to pop.

The oud's strings are strung in pairs known as "courses" similar to the configuration of those on a mandolin, and it generally has five courses plus one solo bass string that's used to set a rhythm throughout a piece. It's usually played with a small, flat, triangular-shaped pick called a plectrum. Ouds are also characterized by a short, fretless neck capped by a peg-box set at an angle, from which the strings are tuned. The fact that it has no frets allows performers to easily slide their fingers along the strings, "bending" the frequency of notes and add vibrato, giving songs a characteristic middle-eastern tonality.

The origin of the oud (rhymes with food) is lost in antiquity. Legend has it that the first instrument was created by the Biblical figure Lamak (or Lamech) a son of Cain and grandson of Adam, upon the death of his young son. Out of grief Lamak supposedly hung the boy's corpse in a tree until nothing was left but bone, and then he fashioned the remains into what is now known as the oud (the angle of the peg-box to the neck is supposed to call to mind the child's foot dangling from his leg).

Based mostly on early works of art, it's believed that the first true oud dates from between 224 CE and 651 CE and arose in pre-Islamic Iran. The pear-shaped instrument was most likely brought to Europe via the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century CE. The Al-Andalus caliphate seems to have cultivated an atmosphere conducive to artistic expression and promoted the use of the oud. A palace musician named Zyriab (789 – 857 CE) established the first music conservatory in Spain and improved the instrument, adding the fifth set of strings. Eventually it was adopted into European culture as the lute.

Today's oud may vary by region, but there are three main types being manufactured: Arabic, Turkish and Persian. The Arabic ouds (the type manufactured by Ahmad's family), subdivided into Syrian, Iraqi and Egyptian models, are generally larger with a darker timbre. The Turkish ouds are smaller with a brighter sound and higher pitch and are particularly popular in Greece. The Persian model, also called a barbat, is tuned differently than the Arabic oud. It's slightly smaller with a lighter sound than the Turkish ouds.

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Pianist from Syria. It originally ran in March 2019 and has been updated for the March 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $39 for 12 months or $12 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

One-Month Free

Discover books that
entertain, engage & enlighten.

Find out more

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Windhall
    by Ava Barry
    Ava Barry's debut mystery novel Windhall is centered around the salacious murder of a starlet named ...
  • Book Jacket: Libertie
    by Kaitlyn Greenidge
    Kaitlyn Greenidge burst onto the literary scene in 2016 with her award-winning novel, We Love You, ...
  • Book Jacket
    Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
    by Cho Nam-joo, Jamie Chang
    'Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age. She got married three years ago and ...
  • Book Jacket
    A Good Neighborhood
    by Therese Anne Fowler
    After fictionalized biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald (Z, 2013) and Alva Vanderbilt (A Well-Behaved ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Raft of Stars
    by Andrew J. Graff

    A timeless story of loss, hope, and adventure set against the vividly rendered landscape of the Upper Midwest.

    Reader Reviews
  • Book Jacket

    Of Women and Salt
    by Gabriela Garcia

    A kaleidoscopic portrait of generations of women from a 19th-century Cuban cigar factory to the present day.

    Reader Reviews
Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Mountains Sing
by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Debut Novel Award: A multi-generational tale set in Viet Nam.
Win This Book!
Win The Beauty of Your Face

A New York Times Notable Book of 2020

"Stunning.… A timely family saga with faith and forgiveness at its core."
Marie Claire



Solve this clue:

It's N S O M N

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.