The qanun is a string instrument, descending from the old Egyptian harp. The name derives from the Arabic and means ‘rule’, ‘principle’ or ‘mode’.

It has a narrow trapezoidal soundboard. Strings are stretched over a single bridge poised on fish-skins on one end, attached to tuning pegs at the other end. It is played on the lap by plucking the strings with two tortoise-shell picks, one in each hand, or by the fingernails, and has a range of three and a half octaves, employing quarter. The instrument also has special latches for each course, called mandals. These small levers, which can be raised or lowered quickly by the performer while the instrument is being played, serve to change the pitch of a particular course slightly by altering the string lengths.