Two Systems for Notating Rhythms Played on the Tombak (Zarb)

Dr. Peyman Nasehpour and Matt Hannafin

There are two systems for notating rhythms played on the tombak (Persian goblet drum). This article introduces both, and explains the various symbols used to indicate all the basic techniques of the drum.



ccording to old manuscripts that discuss Persian music, there was in previous centuries no notation for indicating the strokes to be played with finger or stick on Persian drums, though there was a system called "atanin" for notating the rhythm's cycles (Advar-e-Igha'i). There was also a kind of alphabetical notation for Persian music called "abjad." The famous singer, barbat (Persian lute) player, poet, and theorist Abd-al-Ghader Maraghi reportedly wrote a book called Kanz-al-Alhan, in which he notated the Persian songs of his time using this system, but this manuscript has not survived. We only know its name from references in his other books, Jame'-al-Alhan and Maghased-al-Alhan.

After the introduction of Western music to Iran, some Persian musicians and Western orientalists started notating Persian music using standard Western notation.

The One-Line System

The late Ostad Abolhassan Saba, multi-instrumentalist and great master of Persian art music, was perhaps the first person to suggest the one-line system of notation for tombak. This system uses Western notation for denoting the duration of the notes (sixteenth notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, etc.), but the traditional five-line staff is not employed -- instead, all notes are written along one line. Symbols are applied above the individual notes to indicate which stroke is to be played on the drum. Some of these are standard: For example, a symbol similar to a backward question mark without the dot is employed above the note for tom (the bass stroke). An upward-pointing arrow above the note (^) indicates that the stroke is to be played with the free hand, while a downward-pointing arrow indicates the note is to be played with the non-free hand. Several other symbols appear above these arrows to indicate particular techniques/strokes, but unfortunately, tombak players often apply their own taste when notating these techniques, so there is no universal standard. In the book of Ostad Bahman Rajabi and others, two straight lines over an arrow are employed for bak (the rim stroke); a straight line over an arrow is employed for a stroke that is similar to bak but played with the ring finger; and a dot above an arrow is employed to indicate pelang (snap).

In some books, the particular finger to be used for the pelang is also indicated by a number above the dot. In the one-line system, the fingers are numbered in the following "pinkie-to-thumb" manner:

Little finger (Angosht-e-Kuchak): 1
Ring finger (Angosht-e-Halgheh): 2
Middle finger (Angosht-e-Miyaneh): 3
Index finger (Angosht-e-Neshaneh): 4

(Note that when Persians count on their fingers, they start from the little finger, while Westerners start from the thumb. This distinction is important in comparing the two systems of notation.)

Riz (roll) is indicated by three crosshatched lines across the stem of the note, and eshareh (allusion note, a kind of pickup that creates a triplet effect) is indicated by two small (half-size) sixteenth notes tied to the note into which the eshareh leads. Similarly, a half-size eighth note with a small line slanting up from left to right through the flag is tied to the riz to indicate that the roll should begin with a tom.

Beneath the notes, a right-pointing arrow indicates an accented beat


See Basic Strokes of Tombak (Zarb) by Matt Hannafin for an explanation of the various techniques described above and also Composed Rhythms of Ostad Nasser Farhangfar by Peyman Nasehpour for some examples of one-line system.

The Three-Line System

The idea of the three-line system also came from the late Ostad Abolhassan Saba, and was introduced in Ostad Hosain Tehrani's book Amouzesh-e-Tombak (Tombak Rudiment), compiled by Houshang Zarif, Mostafa Pourtorab, and Farhad Fakhreddini. In this system, standard Western notation is used and the staff is abbreviated to three lines, with notes appearing as follows:

Tom (bass): bottom line Tom

Mayaneh (the drum's middle or open note): center linemayaneh
Bak (rim) and pelang (snap): top linebak

Upward- and downward-pointing arrows are used to indicate free and non-free hand , respectively, exactly as in the one-line system. The method of notating the eshareh , riz, and riz beginning with tom are also identical, and depending on how the riz is to be played, it can appear on any of the lines. For pelang, a small downward-pointing triangle takes the place of the normal round note head, and numbers are placed above the notes to indicate fingering, as in the one-line system. However, this numbering is based on the Western "thumb-to-pinkie" system. Thus:

Little finger (Angosht-e-Kuchak): 4
Ring finger (Angosht-e-Halgheh): 3
Middle finger (Angosht-e-Miyaneh): 2
Index finger (Angosht-e-Neshaneh): 1

In both the one- and three-line systems, standard Western notation is used to indicate the various rests and repeat signs. More advanced techniques are indicated by more advanced symbols and notation, which we will not go into here.


[B]: Binesh, M.T., Shenakht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1997.
[E]: Ostad Amir Naser Eftetah, Amouzesh-e-Tombak (Tombak Rudiment), Tehran, 2001.
[T]: Ostad Hossein Tehrani, Amouzesh-e-Tombak (Tombak Rudiment), Tehran, 1970.