The Medieval Rabab, a Bowed String Instrument with an Arabic-Islamic Past and Present

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November 5, 2021 to November 6, 2021
Subject Fields: 
Arabic History / Studies, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Medieval and Byzantine History / Studies, Music and Music History, Spanish and Portuguese History / Studies

The Medieval Rabab, a Bowed String Instrument with an Arabic-Islamic Past and Present

Conference in Bern, University of the Arts, Friday 5 to Saturday 6 November 2021

Organised by the Bern University of the Arts (HKB), Institute Interpretation, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)

The skin-covered rabab was one of the most important bowed string instruments of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, besides the fiddle (and the rebec, which is not documented in written sources until the 14th century). The origins of the rabab in the Arabic-Islamic world date back to the 9th century, and detailed descriptions of the instrument can be found in the works of well-known Arabic authors such as Al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) as early as the 10th century. After large parts of the Iberian Peninsula had been under Arab rule since 711 (Al-Andalus), the rabab soon spread there as well and became part of European musical practice in the course of the Christian reconquest. For example, several depictions of rabab players can be found in the Cantigas de Santa María, written in the 13th century under Alfonso the Wise. Furthermore, an organologically very similar bowed string instrument, the North African rabāb, remains a key element of Moroccan and Tunisian andalusi music today.

Therefore, the discrepancy between the numerous textual, visual and ethnomusicological sources and their lack of «resonance» in musicology and European music practice is all the more astonishing. For these reasons, since 2019 rabab and rebec have been the subject of investigation as part of a four-year interdisciplinary research project at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB), funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The contributions to this conference will on the one hand present the results of the first part of the project (9th-13th centuries) and juxtapose them with further research on related topics in order to discuss them together. The range of topics will include Arabic music theory based on ancient models, the etymology of the Arabic term rabāb as an instrument, the early routes of spread of the bow, European visual and textual sources on the rabab and their interpretation, ethnomusicologically related stringed instruments (lyra, kopuz, rubāb), as well as more general methodological-practical questions on the interpretation and reconstruction of musical instruments in image sources and the relationship between ethnomusicology and historical musicology.

Contact Info: 

The full conference programme can be found on this webpage:

Registration welcome:

For further questions, please contact the project's postdoctoral researcher, Marina Haiduk <>.

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