The lute is an ancient fretted string instrument. The long lute, whose neck is longer than its body, dates back to at least 2000 BC, while the short lute, which has a neck slightly shorter than the body, dates from around 800 BC. In Europe, probably in Spain in the 14th century, the lute was transformed into the European lute, with its distinctive neck and central sound hole. The lute has a round body, shaped like a half pear, and a flat neck with seven or more frets and a separate pegbox, usually bent back at an angle, for tuning the strings.
The lute was an important part of music in Europe right up to the baroque period, being used for solo music, accompaniment, and in ensembles. The written notation for the lute was not the standard music notation but a form a tablature not dissimilar to the guitar tablature used sometimes today. Lute tablature consisted of a staff with a space for each string and small letters placed within the space to indicate the fret to be used. Small marks where placed above the staff to give the duration of each note.
In the 16th and 17th century, the lute was the most popular domestic instrument and many varieties existed like the mandola, the mandolin, the angelica, and larger, deeper lutes called archlutes. All of the varieties of lute have the characteristic round back which differentiates it from the guitar family, which have a flat back.
In the 17th century, the lute was mainly used in France, Germany, and England, while the Italian and Spanish preferred the guitar. The English composer John Dowland is probably the best known composer for the lute.
In the 20th century there was a revival of interest in early music and the lute regained considerable popularity, thanks in part to virtuosi like Julian Bream.