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The lute is a round-backed plucked-string instrument, developed in the Middle East and related to the Arabic oud (Al-'ud became 'lute'.).

The lute (its name is a corruption of the Arabic) was brought to Europe in the Middle Ages, but its heyday was the European Renaissance. The lute at that time usually had 6 courses of (gut) strings, with 2 strings per course. These were usually tuned to the same intervals as a viol, in fourths with a major third in the middle (so, for a lute in G, the tuning was GCFADG). This tuning is similar to the standard guitar tuning, except that the third is moved down a string. Some lutes use a single string for the first (treblemost) course. Lutes were made in a variety of sizes and played at different pitches.

The fingerboard of a lute is fitted with frets, traditionally made of catgut string going around the entire neck of the instrument.

The lute was particularly suited for the harmonies of the period, and was used as a solo instrument no less than as an accompaniment to singers or other instruments (sometimes as a basso continuo instrument). Lutes were made larger and more complex (see archlute, theorbo) over the course of the seventeenth century, and had 7, 8 or even more courses of strings. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, musical tastes changed and the instrument was largely abandoned until the original instruments movements of the twentieth century brought about a revival.

Notable composers of lute music include Francesco da Milano, John Dowland, John Johnson, Denis Gaultier, Johann Sebastian Bach, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Philip Rossiter ,Thomas Campion, Frederick the Great.