KARNĀ (Karrenāy), designation of three types of musical instrument, the most prestigious being long trumpets made of brass, gold, silver, or other metals.  This widely diffused instrument has been known by several other names, including nafir (adapted as Spanish añafil), buisine, and kakakai.

Two regional instruments of Iran are also called karnā. Like the metal karnā, the long reed trumpet of Gilān and Māzandarān (also known as derāznāy “long reed”) lacks fingerholes and can produce only partials of the fundamental tone. It is played in religious processions by ensembles, normally consisting of ten men. The lead player has in mind certain phrases appropriate to the occasion, and the others play responses (Bustān and Darviši, pp. 119-21). The karnā of Lorestān and the Baḵtiāri and Qašqāʾi nomads is a multi-sectional cylindrical tube with an attached conical bell, played with a double-reed.  The lower tube is of brass and the upper tube, made of wood, generally has seven front finger holes and a rear thumb hole.  It shares a melodic repertoire with the smaller sornā, including tunes played at funerals on either instrument or both together, with the accompaniment of a cylindrical drum (dohol).

ʿAbd-al-Qāder Marāḡi (d. 1435) distinguishes three varieties of long metal trumpet, emphasizing the absence of finger holes on all three.  According to the Maqāṣed al-alḥān, the karrenāy can be recognized by an upward curve of its mouth and neck, and the burḡu is said to be three times as long as the sornā, though shorter than the nafir (Marāgi, 1977, p. 135). In  two other treatises Marāḡi (1987, p. 208; 1991, p. 358) describes the burḡu as longer than the nafir, whose length is estimated as two gaz, which roughly amounts to the length of a dozen hands.

As signaling instruments, the long metal karnā and large bronze kettledrum (kus) announce many a battle in Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (e.g., Čon āvā-ye kus āmad o karrenāy / Farāmarz-rā del bar āmad ze jāy // “when kettledrum and trumpet were sounded, Farāmarz’s heart lept up,” ed. Khaleghi, II, p. 386, l. 112  Ferdowsi describes the sound of the karnā as ḵoruš “clamor,” nāla “groan,” and ḡolḡol “din” (Ṣāremi and Amāni, pp. 165-71, 177-201).  Illustrations of battle scenes in Šāh-nāma manuscripts commonly include both karnā and kus (Plate I).

As an emblem of royalty, the long metal karnā was an essential component of the naqqāra-ḵāna or nawbat ensembles, which performed at specific times of day and on special occasions (e.g., a military victory) from appropriate locations in Persia, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Naqqāra-ḵāna (naqqāra “kettledrum”) refers both to the tower or gate where the ensemble performed (e.g., the naqqāra-ḵāna in the shrine of Imam ʿAli Reżā at Mashad; see ĀSTĀN-e QODS-e RAŻAWI) and to the ensemble itself.  Nawbat refers to the stages of the day when the ensemble was heard.  The presence of these ensembles is commonly noted in dynastic histories such as the Ṭabaqāt-e nāṣeri of Juzjāni (tr. , pp. 383, 619-21) and in the writings of travelers such as Evliya Čelebi, Jean Chardin, and Engelbert Kaempfer (excerpts in Harrison, pp. 125, 132, 136a-b, 143;  cf. Lambton).

At least four karnās were always sounded together in the naqqāra-ḵāna of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605, Āʾin-e akbari, tr. Blochmann, pp. 53-54 s.v. āʾin 19 “The Ensigns of Royalty”). In the early 20th century the Mashad naqqāra-ḵāna had ten karnās, three sornās, and five paired kettledrums, all played by locksmiths who had inherited their posts (Plate II).  They performed immediately before sunrise and immediately after sunset.  According to a musician attached to the naqqāra-ḵāna of Herat in the early 20th century, its music was heard from before sunrise until mid-morning and from mid-afternoon until after sunset (Baily, p. 4).

For a music sample, see Baḵtīārī karnā.


J. Baily, “A Description of the Naqqarakhana of Herat, Afghanistan,” Asian Music 11/2, 1980, pp. 1-10.

ʿAli Bustān and Moḥammad Reżā Darviši, Haft owrang: Moruri bar musiqi-e sonnati o maḥalli-e Irān, Tehran, 1991, pp. 119-21, 225-26, and audiocassette 3, item 5. 

Alfons M. Dauer, Traditionen afrikanischer Blasorchester und Entstehung der Jazz, 2 vols., Graz, 1985, esp. I,  pp. 57-60. 

Henry George Farmer, Turkish Instruments of Music in the Seventeenth Century, As Described in the Siyāhat nāma of Ewliyā Chelebi, Glasgow, 1937, esp. pp. 30-32.

Frank Harrison, Time, Place, and Music: An Anthology of Ethnomusicological Observation c. 1550 to c. 1800, Amsterdam, 1973, esp. pp. 125, 132, 140, 143, 150 and pl. F.

Menhāj-e Serāj Juzjāni, Ṭabaqāt-e nāṣeri, ed. ʿAbd-al-Ḥayy Ḥabibi, 2 vols., Quetta, 1949-54, repr., 2 vols., Kabul, 1963-64; tr. as A General History of the Muhammadan Dynasties of Asia, by Henry J. Raverty, 2 vols., London, 1881-97. 

A. K. S. Lambton, “Naḳḳāra-Khāna,” in EI² VII, pp. 927-30.

Ḥosayn-ʿAli Mallāḥ, Farhang-e sāzhā, Tehran, 1997, pp. 573-81. 

ʿAbd-al-Qāder b. Ḡaybi Marāgi, Maqāṣed al-alḥān, ed. Taqi Bineš, Tehran, 1977. 

Idem, Jāmeʿ al-alḥān, ed. T. Bineš, Tehran, 1987.  Idem, Šarḥ-e adwār, ed. T. Bineš, Tehran, 1991.

Hafez Modirzadeh, “Performance Techniques of Loristan and Bakhtiari Sorna and Karna: Analysis and Comparison of Ostads Moradi, Heydari and Mehdipur,” unpubl. paper  for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Tehran, 1995. 

Haydar Sanal, Mehter musikisi: Bestekâr mehterler, mehter havaları, Istanbul, 1964, esp. pp. 72-73. 

Katāyun Ṣāremi and Faridun Amāni, Sāz o musiqi dar Šāh-nāma-ye Ferdowsi, Tehran, 1994, pp. 161-201. 

Percy M. Sykes, “Notes on Musical Instruments in Khorasan, with Special Reference to the Gypsies,” Man 9, no. 94, 1909, pp. 161-64 and 1 pl.

K. A. Vertkov et al., Atlas muzikal’nykh instrumentov narodov SSSR (Atlas of musical instruments of the peoples of the USSR), Moscow, 1963; 2nd ed., 1975, esp. pp. 158-59, 167, 178 and illustrations pp. 583-84, 631.

Bonnie C. Wade, “Playing for Power: Drum and Naubat, the Symbols of Might,” in Marc Honegger and Christian Meyer, eds., La musique et le rite: Sacré et profane, vol. I, Strasbourg, 1986, pp. 28-32.

Idem, Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India, Chicago, 1998, esp. pp. 172-74.

Stuart C. Welch, A King’s Book of Kings: The Shah-nameh of Shah Tahmasp, New York, 1972.


Iran: Baxtyâri, nomades de la montagne, rec. with notes by Jean-Pierre Digard, Paris, Société d’Études Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France [SELAF]/Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique d’Outre-Mer [ORSTOM] CETO 747, p1974, side B, bands 2-4.

Jean Jenkins and Poul Rovsing Olsen, comp., Music in the World of Islam IV: Flutes and Trumpets, comp. Tangent TGS 134, London, 1976, side A, bands 2, 5. Music from the Shrines of Ajmer and Mundra, rec. John Levy, Tangent TSCD 911.

(Stephen Blum)

Originally Published: April 24, 2012

Last Updated: April 24, 2012

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