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Musical Instruments


To learn about different instruments from Iran, recognise their sounds and understand how they are played.


  • There are many different kinds of musical instruments in Iran

  • In ​The Phoenix of Persia, you can hear some string, wind and percussion instruments

  • Each instrument represents a different character in the story

Learning about musical instruments can be a great way of finding out more about a music tradition and the wider culture. Pupils can be encouraged to develop listening skills, as well as thinking about ways of describing sound and understanding different ways of  playing instruments. They can also learn about material culture, instruments as objects of art and the cultural significance of certain instruments. Below are some ideas for learning activities around musical instruments.

Look at the last spread of The Phoenix of Persia book and show pupils the different instruments.

Listen to the soundtrack as well as the individual instruments (below) so pupils become familiar with the sounds of different instruments.

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Click on an instrument below to learn more about how it is played, its historical roots and how it is used in The Phoenix of Persia!



1. Listening - Ask pupils to listen carefully to the sound of each instrument. Can they learn to recognise and identify each one from its sound? Which instrument do they like the sound of best and why? Which instrument might they like to learn to play?


Learn to identify different instruments and their names. Can pupils describe each one: string instrument, percussion or wind? Plucked, struck or blown?

You could play the chain game to help identify different instruments. You could also create a version of the chain game where pupils  match pictures of instruments and their descriptions to the sounds.

2. Writing activity - Ask pupils to select an instrument and write a description of its sound for someone who has never heard it. Encourage pupils to use a range of adjectives in describing the sounds. Pupils can also write about how the sound makes them feel and what pictures it brings to mind. They may also want to incorporate art work by drawing a picture of the instrument. Here are some examples from pupils at Manorfield Primary School in Leicester.

Encourage pupils to think about why each instrument was chosen to represent a particular character or scene in the book. They might think about how the sound of the santur is like the Mountain of Gems (Chapter 2); the soaring sound of the nei representing the magical Simorgh bird (Chapter 3); and the qanun sounds like baby chicks (Chapter 8).

You could introduce pupils to other pieces where instruments are used to represent characters in a story. The most famous is probably 'Peter and the Wolf', a piece for orchestra and narrator composed in 1936 by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.


3. Thinking about different kinds of instruments and how they are played... ask pupils to name instruments that they know are:

  • string instruments (e.g. guitar, violin, ukelele)

  • wind instruments (e.g. saxophone, flute, recorder)

  • percussion instruments (e.g. drums, cajon, tambourine)

  • plucked, like the qanun and tanbur (e.g. guitar, harp, ukelele)

  • struck, like the daff and santur (e.g. piano, drums, tambourine)

  • blown, like the nei (e.g. saxophone, flute, recorder)

Instruments can also be played in different ways. In Chapter 3 of The Phoenix of Persia, the nei (usually a wind instrument) is played percussively by tapping the fingers on the finger holes.

Encourage pupils to think about the similarities and differences between the instruments in The Phoenix of Persia and those they may be more familiar with. For example, the santur is a hammered dulcimer that works in much the same way as a piano, with stretched strings that are struck with little hammers. Piano hammers are usually hidden inside the instrument box so we don't see them.

4. Travelling instruments - Many instruments that we are familiar with in Europe have developed over many centuries from instruments that came from the Middle East and beyond. Look at a world map and talk to pupils about how instruments were brought to Europe by travellers, traders, missionaries, crusaders ... You could ask pupils to find out about ancient trade routes as sites of exchange and encounter. Musical instruments are tangible and material evidence of historical cultural encounters.

5. Materials and instruments as objects of art - musical instruments are often an important part of what is called 'material culture', and are sometimes so beautifully decorated that they are regarded as works of art in their own right. The Horniman Museum's music gallery in south London holds some examples of Iranian instruments decorated with inlay or carving. Here is a picture of a beautifully decorated tombak goblet drum.




Encourage pupils to think of instruments as material objects. What are the instruments made of? Talk about the properties of the different materials and why those particular materials are used.


What kinds of materials are used to make instruments that pupils are most familiar with? [link to videos of instrument makers]. For the Iranian instruments in The Phoenix of Persia, you could talk about the following materials:

  • wood (santur, qanun, daff frame, tanbur), what kind of wood in each case?

  • reed (nei)

  • skin (daff skin head, although these are often made from synthetic materials nowadays. Why might this be?)

  • strings can be made from metal or gut.

  • Felt (on the santur hammers)

6. Cultural significance of instruments - Some instruments have particular cultural significance. For instance, the tanbur is considered a sacred instrument in Iran. Talk to pupils about what 'sacred' might mean in relation to an instrument. What might the instrument be used for to make it sacred? How should you treat such an instrument? Can pupils find other examples of sacred instruments around the world?

7. Research and writing activity - There are many other instruments found in Iran. Ask pupils to do some research and find other instruments. They can describe the instruments and write about their sounds and how they are played. Examples of other instruments they may find are the tar, setar, kamancheh, tombak and sorna.

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