Technical information on composing oud parts

This information is for anyone intending to compose oud parts, or rearrange existing compositions to include the oud. The oud is flexible enough and its sound attractive enough as  a solo instrument, as part of an ensemble and as vocal accompaniment. It is therefore somewhat surprising the oud doesn't play a larger part outside of the Arabic and Turkish musical scenes.

1. Basic Information

Range

Intermediate                          Advanced

Due to to the shape of the oud, fingering the top B and C might be difficult in larger bellied ouds.

These ranges are given based on Arabic tuning. Turkish musicians tune their instrument one whole tone higher. Transposition for Turkish musicians is also different. See the section on writing oud parts for more information.

Characteristics

The oud is a melodic instrument. Although it is possible to voice some chords harmonically on the oud, the resulting sound is not convincing. The lack of frets, the narrow distance between strings, the tuning and the shape of the neck make it impossible to voice many chord positions harmonically. The oud's sound is delicate and rich, and is relatively a soft instrument. Amplification if often required for oud even in smaller quieter venues which wouldn't require amplification say for acoustic guitar.

Strings and tuning

Ouds have 6 strings (more precisely, 11 strings, but five are unison tuned pairs). The highest pitch string is tuned to middle C  and the others are G3, D3, A2, E2*, C2*.

*Some players tune the last 2 strings differently. Professional musicians usually use either the tuning given above or, F2, C2.

Turkish musicians tune their ouds one tone higher.

Writing oud parts

Oud parts are written in treble clef. Arabic ouds sound an octave lower than they are written. However, due to the strong first partial in the oud overtones, the oud should not be considered a bass instrument. No transposition is necessary to writing parts for Arabic tuned ouds.

Turkish music notation requires different treatment. This information applies to all Turkish music notation not just oud parts. Turkish musicians tune their instruments one whole tone higher than concert pitch. Furthermore, they write staff notation a fifth up. Therefore when a Turkish musician sees a note in the second space (corresponding to western or Arabic "A4") she will call it Re, and play an E (not D because of the tuning). The simplest way to convert a part to Turkish notation so that it will "sound" in concert pitch is as follows: Transpose the piece a whole tone lower (for example if we started with a piece in G major, it will now be in F major). Write down the new key signature with the same number of flats or sharps, but 2 line (or spaces) higher. Write the music two lines (or spaces) higher in the staff. Thus if the starting tone was a G in the original score, it will be written in the third space in the Turkish score.

Technical information on writing oud parts (2).

1. Playing the oud

The right hand technique and technical challenges

The right hand is used for plucking the strings. Therefore it also controls the dynamics, and produces several special effects as will be described later. The distance between the bridge and the point of plucking affects the color of the sound. A warmer deeper sound is produced as the plectrum (AKA the pick) strikes further from the bridge. Generally speaking oud players try to play as far from the bridge as possible while maintaining a horizontal (or almost horizontal) wrist (making the part of the arm below the elbow almost parallel to the string) for best control and speed. Therefore it is possible to ask oud players to play closer to the bridge. But asking them to play farther from the bridge should be done only for slow part, as it might require them to move the whole arm into a new position.

Leaping between different strings requires special right hand techniques (up and reversed pick). Better oud players will have perfected that. However, it remains difficult to do it quickly when having to skip over strings to execute a large descending interval. for example, a jump of a descending 7th (or larger, though some smaller intervals can be problematic as well, depending on the notes before and after the leap).

If the above limitations are observed, well trained oud players will be able to play through fast parts with ease, especially relatively conjunct parts.

The left  hand technique and technical challenges

Four left hand fingers are used to finger the strings. Similar to other string instruments, there are discreet left hand positions. The first position is when the index finger presses a semitone higher than the open string. The second is a whole tone higher and so on.

Intermediate oud players will be able to play in tune up to the 7th position (making the highest note on the oud the B flat above middle C). Advanced oud players can play the 9th position and beyond (making the highest note the C above middle C).

Generally speaking, it is wise to avoid very fast disjunct parts in higher positions, as the belly of the oud makes it harder for the fingers to press the upper strings making it necessary to move up and down the neck, a process slower than playing across strings.

Finally, the weakness of the pinky makes it the slowest of all fingers. While oud players spend endless hours working on strengthening and speeding of the pinky, it always remains slightly weaker and slower than the rest of the fingers. This makes some fast passages difficult on the oud. Because oud fingering is flexible, it is possible in most cases to execute those passages in a position that doesn't require hard pinky work. Sometimes, however- depending on what comes before or after the rough parts, that might not be possible. In such cases a work around will be necessary.

Technical information on writing oud parts (3).

Special Effects

Tremolo

A rapid succession of up and down plucking that is unique to the Arabic oud style (very rarely used by Turkish oudists.) Oudists often use several flavors of this technique, producing a variety of dynamics and tone colors. The faster the tremolo, the shallower the plectrum goes in between strings, and the smaller the overall hand movement. Therefore do not expect  your oudist to do a fortissimo fast tremolo.

Short tremolo

A series of 3 or 4 very fast plucks. Used frequently by both Arabic and Turkish oudists. One of many oud techniques that color slower notes. Not possible in a fast passage or when immediately followed by a very fast passage.

Octave with short tremolo

Another coloring for a slow note: Is actually a series of two actions: the oudist plays the note an octave below the note being ornamented, and immediately a short tremolo on the actual note. Two varieties exist: one in which the octave below is treated as a grace note and the other where the octave below receives half the time of the ornamented note, and the short tremolo the other half.

Un-plucked ornaments

Immediately after plucking, the oudist can rapidly finger and release another note on the same string which produces a soft sweet ornament. The interval can be a minor second up to a minor third.