Learning Mugham Tar – Tips and Insights from Polina Dessiatnitchenko

The Caspian Post

The tar is a form of lute with a double-bellied wooden sound-box and a mainstay of traditional music in Caspian region countries from Armenia to Tajikistan. There are several variants. The Persian tar typically has six strings in three resonant pairs. The 11-stringed Azerbaijani version, developed in the 1870s by Mirza Sadiq (aka Sadiqcan), has been listed by UNESCO since 2012 as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.


The tar (horizontal) along with the kamancha and qaval (aka daf) are the three instruments generally associated with mugham music – seen here on Azerbaijan’s 1 Manat banknote.

The instrument’s distinctive sound appears across genres, including contemporary pop – notably appearing from the flames and providing the starting refrain for Azerbaijan’s 2009 Eurovision Song Contest entry by Aysel and Arash.


However, the tar is far more at home as an integral part of mugham, the classic traditional sound of Azerbaijan – also UNESCO listed. In a recent edition of the Caspian Post’s podcast, Ukrainian-Canadian ethnomusicologist Polina Dessiatnitchenko offered a remarkably clear and helpful explanation of key phrasings, techniques and hidden difficulties that make learning the instrument so complex.



Polina’s Tar Tips & Insights

As Polina explains, mugham can be thought of as a language built up from a series of musical phrases, each of which ends up on the same terminal note. First, Polina shows us the bardasht (entrance), i.e. the very first section of a larger mugham composition known as a dastgah (set). In this first section, the terminal note is known as the mayə (essence). Later as the mugham develops, variations on the same musical phrases reappear at lower octaves. Throughout the entire composition (which can last around half an hour), there is a gradual staircase movement to higher pitch areas and greater emotional intensity.


There’s a lot more to learn from listening to the whole podcast, but if you’d like to get straight to the demonstration parts, here’s a guide of where to find them in the video:


shur – one specific modal arrangement of mugham that Polina uses as her demonstration.


xun – when the tar is shaken with a wobbling motion of the right arm, adding what musicians often see as a sense of “sorrow” to the phrasing


lal barmaq – literally “muted finger,” is an added un-plucked note used in a trill on top of the plucked base note


cırmaq/jirmag – sounds somewhat similar to lal barmaq but is achieved using the fingernail giving a more poignant striking of the string. The term means “to scratch,” from its emotional effect – thought to tear into one’s heart


vibrato bend – giving the sound an almost bluesy tone 


Bahram Mansurov (1911-1985), celebrated here on a 2016 postage stamp, maintained an older style of playing that emphasized tremolo.

tremolo – a continuous burst of rapid picking with the plectrum. Tremolo was more common in older forms of mugham but today remains a feature of the Mansurov lineage traced back to master tarzan Bahram Mansurov. Yes. Tarzan is indeed the correct title for a tar player! Later in the Soviet era, mugham in general, and tar-playing in particular, became more of a stage-based phenomenon than the more intimate gatherings that had previously predominated. The result was a growing virtuosity, spearheaded by tarzan Haji Mammadov.


right-hand work – while the audience is likely to be watching the tarzan’s fingering with the left hand, there is also a great deal of finesse to how the right hand wields the mizrab (plectrum). The two main motions are alt (striking from below) and üst (striking from above), used in complex combinations.


Image: Maneli Jamal/Shutterstock

Links Between Mugham and Poetry

A full mugham also requires the kamancha (a small, long-necked instrument on a spiked base played with a bow) and a poet-singer who will generally provide percussion through the qaval (aka daf), a little like a large tambourine. There is enormous importance[1] to the words. Laborious lessons for a tar player (which can last four or five hours at a time) are likely to include plenty of consideration for the philosophy underlying the poetic words that accompany the music.


In the podcast, Polina recites the following couplets from 16th-century poet Fuzuli:


Ney kimi, hər dəm ki, bəzmi-vəslini yad eylərəm,

Like the ney (flute), I recall the union every moment,

Ta nəfəs vardır quru cismimdə, fəryad eylərəm.

While my breath flows through my forlorn body, I will keep on crying.

Vəhm edib ta salmaya sən mahə mehrin hiç kim,

Fearing no one dares to love you and your moon-resembling beauty,

Kimə yetsəm zülmü cövründən ona dad eylərəm.

At every encounter, I shall complain about the endless tortures of your love.


She explains that, rather like a mantra, the sounds of the words are almost as important as their meaning, and there is always an underlying meter comprised of long and short syllables.


Making a Tar

As Polina points out in the podcast, the creation of a tar is in itself no mean feat. The starting point for the body is a particular type of very valuable mulberry wood that is generally aged for over a decade. This is then carved like a sculpture by master craftsmen like Talat Gabulov.



Talat Gabulov preparing to carve the body of a tar from a single piece of aged mulberry wood.

The result is a double cavity across which a membrane must be stretched. While Persian tars often use lambskin, Azerbaijani ones generally use the pericardial tissue from an ox heart.



[1] Indeed Polina is working on a book about the links between mugham music and ghazal poetry, developed from her PhD thesis, Musical and Ontological Possibilities of Mugham Creativity in Pre-Soviet, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Azerbaijan.