The origins of this instrument go back to before the time of Christ, and to the civilizations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. In later times, the kanun from these regions spread increasingly to other parts of the world. Similar instruments can particularly be seen in China, India, and Pakistan. Almost all musicologists agree that the Arabic word ‘kanun’ comes from the Greek word ‘kanon.’ The term ‘kanon’ means law, administration, rule, regulation, etc. It is the name of both of a single-stringed test implement used to determine the relationship between string length and vibration, and also of a musical instrument of the lute type, in which the strings are partly on the resonator and partly on the stem.
Throughout its long history, the kanun has undergone several changes, although its main structural features are today the same in all countries. A narrow wooden box over which the strings are stretched and which performs the function of a resonator has one side at an acute angle and the other running diagonally. On the straight side is a section made of stretched leather. The feet of the long bridge over which the strings run press on the leather. Most of the strings are in threes, although some of the lower ones are in twos. Every string that comes out of the straight angled section and runs over the bridge is covered by an accord peg, passing through a special cleft running the length of the edge. The pegs stand in three rows, passing over the pegbox parallel to the cleft. The top edges of the pegs resemble truncated pyramids and are turned by a special metal tuning key. Gut strings have today been replaced by nylon. The Turkish kanun consists of 24, 25, or 26 sets of strings of two or three strings each (generally giving a total of 75). The strings are tuned flat. The strings can be lengthened or shortened by raising or lowering the small latches placed under the strings. In this way, the instrument can produce gaps smaller than a semitone during play. The reason why the instrument has a trapezoid form is to be able to insert the strings correctly from short to long and to produce different sounds from high to low.
Its sound range is from three and a half to eight. The performer sits on a chair and lays the kanun flat on his knees, playing it with small ivory plectra placed on the index fingers of both hands. Recently, some experts have played the instrument on a small table to produce a denser sound.