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Title: Cuneyd Orhon--Hicaz Taksim; Cuneyd Orhon, kemence. Label: Kalan. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD 162. Track: 14.

Contextual Associations

The kemençe is a bowed bowl-lute chordophone of the western part of Turkey used primarily in the performance of Turkish art music (including the music performed by Mevlevi Sufi musicians to accompany their ayin ceremony [known to Westerners as the ‘Whirling Dervishes’]) and urban folk music. In order to distinguish it from a related folk fiddle found in Eastern Turkey, this instrument is more precisely called fasil kemençesi (classical kemençe) or kemençe rumi (Greek kemençe) (Morris, p. 372). This latter name alludes to the reality that the kemençe is not a uniquely Turkish instrument for it is found also in Greece (where it is called lyra), Croatia (lijera), and elsewhere in southeastern Europe. The instrument pictured here was made in Istanbul at the Veysel Muzik instrument workshop of Dr. Cengiz Sarikus. Interestingly, some of his customers are European early music performers specializing on the Medieval rebec, a similar bowed lute known to have existed in Western Europe almost a thousand years ago.


The shallow, pear-shaped body of the kemençe is carved from a single piece of plum wood and can therefore be considered an integral lute (see detail images 1 and 2). The bottom half of the body is hollowed out and covered with a thinly-shaven soundboard of straight-grained spruce; two semicircular soundholes are cut into it. A removable bridge straddles the two soundholes, and beneath one of the bridge's feet is a soundpost. The front of the fretless neck and the pegblock are covered with a thin layer of ebony wood decorated with wood inlay; there is no nut dividing the neck from the pegblock. The backside of the neck and pegblock are veneered with tortoise shell. Three widely-gapped strings are wound around unusually long back-mounted tuning pegs in the pegblock, run unobstructed down the length of the instrument until they cross over the bridge on the soundboard, finally to be tied to a small tailpiece that in turn is connected to a keel-shaped button at the bottom end of the resonator (see detail image 2). Two of the strings are thick gauge synthetic racquet stings; the highest-pitched string is wire wound. The wood bow (yay) is strung with horsehair.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The kemençe is held in a vertical position with the base of the instrument's resonator resting between the seated player's knees and tilted slightly back so that the end of the pegs touch the chest. The bow is held in the right hand with an underhand grip, the player adding tension to the bow hairs with his fingers. The strings are tuned a fourth apart, but not to a standardized pitch. If, for example, the lowest string is tuned to G3, the tuning pattern would be G3 - C4 - F4. The kemençe is used in the performance of classical Turkish music both as an ensemble and as a solo instrument. Available recordings suggest that it is played melodically with an occasional double-stop (related folk instruments are typically played in a polyphonic fashion). The strings are stopped by pressing them from the side with the fingernails of the left hand--the strings are not pressed against the neck. This technique allows the performer to slide between notes and produce wide vibratos, two prominent characteristics of the melodies performed on the kemençe.


The literature on the history of this instrument is somewhat confusing. Its wide distribution throughout southeastern Europe today suggests it is an instrument type of some antiquity. Its striking resemblance to 11th century European bowed lutes suggests that one might have developed from the other, but there does not seem to be conclusive evidence to argue either that it originated in the East and traveled West, or vice versa (see Pickens, pp. 317-318). While scholars are quite sure that the kemençe was in use as a urban folk dance instrument in Istanbul during the 18th and 19th centuries, it appears that it was only around the middle of the 19th century that it began to be used in Turkish classical music circles. An important figure in cementing the place of the kemençe in this domain was the musician Tanburi Cemil Bey (1871-1916), whose style of performing the instrument is imitated to this day thanks to recordings he made on the instrument in the early years of the 20th century. 

Bibliographic Citations

Bates, Eliot. 2011. Music in Turkey: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hagopian, Harold G., and Ercument Aksov. 1995. Tamburi Cemil Bey Vol. II & III. CD and liner notes. Traditional Crossroads CD 4274.

Morris, R. Conway. 1984. “Kemençe.” NGDMI v.2: 372.

Picken, Laurence. 1975. Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey. London: Oxford University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: West Asia

Nation: Turkey

Formation: Turkish

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - integral

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to tuning peg

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by direct free stopping)


16.1 in. length 5.8 in. greatest width of resonator

Primary Materials

string - wire-wound synthetic
string - synthetic


Dr. Cengiz Sarikus, Veysel Muzik

Entry Author

Roger Vetter