The European lute and the Near-Eastern oud both descend from a common ancestor, with diverging evolutionary paths. The lute is used in a great variety of instrumental music from the early renaissance to the late baroque eras. It is also an accompanying instrument, especially in vocal works, often realizing a basso continuo or playing a written-out accompaniment.
The player of a lute is called a lutenist, lutanist, or lutist, and a maker of lutes (or any string instrument) is called a luthier.
After joining the top to the sides, a half binding is usually installed around the edge of the belly. The half-binding is approximately half the thickness of the belly and is usually made of a contrasting color wood. The rebate for the half-binding must be extremely precise to avoid compromising structural integrity.
Of note are the "catlines" used as basses on historical instruments. Catlines are several gut strings wound together and soaked in heavy metal solutions which increase the mass of the strings. Catlines can be quite large in diameter by comparison with wound nylon strings for the same pitch. They produce a bass which is somewhat different in timbre from nylon basses.
The lute's strings are arranged in courses, usually of two strings each, though the highest-pitched course usually consists of only a single string, called the chanterelle. In later Baroque lutes 2 upper courses are single. The courses are numbered sequentially, counting from the highest pitched, so that the chanterelle is the first course, the next pair of strings is the second course, etc. Thus an 8-course Renaissance lute will usually have 15 strings, and a 13-course Baroque lute will have 24.
The courses are tuned in unison for high and intermediate pitches, but for lower pitches one of the two strings is tuned an octave higher. (The course at which this split starts changed over the history of the lute.) The two strings of a course are virtually always stopped and plucked together, as if a single string, but in extremely rare cases a piece calls for the two strings of a course to be stopped and/or plucked separately. The tuning of a lute is a somewhat complicated issue, and is described in a separate section of its own, below. The result of the lute's design is an instrument extremely light for its size.
The origins of the lute are obscure, and organologists disagree about the very definition of a lute. The highly influential organologist Curt Sachs distinguished between the "long-necked lute" (Langhalslaute) and the short-necked variety: both referred to chordophones with a neck as distinguished from harps and psalteries. Smith and others argue that the long-necked variety should not be called lute at all, since it existed for at least a millennium before the appearance of the short-necked instrument that eventually evolved into what is now known as the lute, nor was it ever called a lute before the 20th century.
Various types of necked chordophones were in use in ancient Egyptian (where they were introduced from Asia in the Middle Kingdom), Hittite, Greek, Roman, Bulgar, Turkic, Chinese, Armenian/Cilician cultures. The Lute developed its familiar forms in Arabia, Persia, Armenia, and Byzantium beginning in the early 7th century. These instruments often had bodies covered with animal skin, as do the modern American banjo, Persian tar, Indian sarod, West African xalam, or Chinese sanxian.
As early as the 6th century the Bulgars brought the short-necked variety of the instrument called Kobuz to the Balkans, and in the 9th century Moors brought the Oud to Spain. The long-necked Pandora/Quitra had been common Mediterranean lute previously. The Quitra didn't become extinct however, but continued its evolution, its descendants being Chitarra Italiana, Chitarrone and Colascione, aside from the still surviving Kuitra of Algiers and Morocco.
In about the year 1500 many Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese lutenists adopted vihuela de mano, a viol-shaped instrument tuned like the lute, but both instruments continued in coexistence. This instrument also found its way to parts of Italy that were under Spanish domination (especially Sicily and the papal states under the Borgia pope Alexander VI who brought many Catalan musicians to Italy), where it was known as the viola da mano.
Another important point of transfer of the lute from Muslim to Christian European culture might have been in Sicily, where it was brought either by Byzantine or later by Saracen musicians. There were singer-lutenists at the court in Palermo following the Christian Norman conquest of the island, and the lute is depicted extensively in the ceiling paintings in the Palermo’s royal Cappella Palatina, dedicated by the Norman King Roger II in 1140. By the 14th century, lutes had disseminated throughout Italy. Probably due to the cultural influence of the Hohenstaufen kings and emperor, based in Palermo, the lute had also made significant inroads into the German-speaking lands by the 14th century.
Medieval lutes were 4- or 5-course instruments, plucked using a quill for a plectrum. There were several sizes, and by the end of the Renaissance, seven different sizes (up to the great octave bass) are documented. Song accompaniment was probably the lute's primary function in the Middle Ages, but very little music securely attributable to the lute survives from the era before 1500. Medieval and early-Renaissance song accompaniments were probably mostly improvised, hence the lack of written records.
In the last few decades of the 15th century, in order to play Renaissance polyphony on a single instrument, lutenists gradually abandoned the quill in favor of plucking the instrument with the fingertips. The number of courses grew to six and beyond. The lute was the premier solo instrument of the 16th century, but continued to be used to accompany singers as well.
By the end of the Renaissance the number of courses had grown to ten, and during the Baroque era the number continued to grow until it reached 14 (and occasionally as many as 19). These instruments, with up to 26-35 strings, required innovations in the structure of the lute. At the end of the lute's evolution the archlute, theorbo and torban had long extensions attached to the main tuning head in order to provide a greater resonating length for the bass strings, and since human fingers are not long enough to stop strings across a neck wide enough to hold 14 courses, the bass strings were placed outside the fretboard, and were played "open", i.e. without fretting/stopping them with the left hand.
Over the course of the Baroque era the lute was increasingly relegated to the continuo accompaniment, and was eventually superseded in that role by keyboard instruments. The lute fell out of use after 1800.
The lute enjoyed a revival with the awakening of interest in historical music around 1900 and throughout the century, and that revival was further boosted by the early music movement in the Twentieth Century. Important pioneers in lute revival were Julian Bream, Hans Neemann, Walter Gerwig, Suzanne Bloch and Diana Poulton. Lute performances are now not uncommon; there are many professional lutenists, especially in Europe where the most employment is to be found, and new compositions for the instrument are being produced by composers.
During the early days of the early music movement, many lutes were constructed by available luthiers, whose specialty was often classical guitars. Such lutes were heavily built with construction similar to classical guitars, with fan bracing, heavy tops, fixed frets, and lined sides, all of which are anachronistic to historical lutes. As lutherie scholarship increased, makers began constructing instruments based on historical models, which have proven on the whole to be far lighter and more responsive instruments.
Lutes built at present are invariably replicas or near copies of those surviving historical instruments that are to be found in museums or private collections. They are exclusively custom-built or must be bought second hand in a very limited market. As a result, lutes are generally more expensive than mass-produced modern instruments such as the guitar, though not nearly as expensive as the violin. Unlike in the past there are many types of lutes encountered today: 5-course medieval lutes, renaissance lutes of 6 to 10 courses in many pitches for solo and ensemble performance of Renaissance works, the archlute of Baroque works, 11-course lutes in d-minor tuning for 17th century French, German and Czech music, 13/14-course d-minor tuned German Baroque Lutes for later High Baroque and Classical music, theorbo for basso continuo parts in Baroque ensembles, gallichons/mandoras, bandoras, orpharions and others. Lutenistic practice has reached considerable heights in recent years, thanks to a growing number of world-class lutenists: Robert Barto, Eduardo Egüez, Edin Karamazov, Nigel North, Christopher Wilson, Luca Pianca, Pascal Monteilhet, Lex van Sante, Ariel Abramovich, Evangelina Mascardi, Luciano Contini, Hopkinson Smith, Paul O'Dette et alia. Singer-songwriter Sting has also played lute and archlute, in and out of his collaborations with Edin Karamazov, and Jan Akkerman released two albums of lute music in the 1970s while he was a guitarist in the Dutch rock band Focus.
Modern and Contemporary (also see the Index of Contemporary Lute Music by David Parsons and Lynda Sayce)
Many historical lute pieces were published, but great many more are found only in manuscripts, perhaps belonging to the composer or perhaps belonging to some amateur lutenist who would copy unpublished pieces, or have a renowned guest inscribe a new composition while visiting.
The modern repertoire is largely drawn from historical publications and manuscripts, though quite a few modern compositions do exist. The historical corpus is vast, consisting of over 40,000 pieces, and about half of it exists only in the original manuscripts and has never been published. Much material circulates among lutenists in facsimiles of the manuscripts or as photocopies of handwritten copies. Historical lute music is most commonly written in tablature, though sometimes in ordinary musical notation instead. Several computer programs now exist designed specifically for the editing and printing of lute tabulature of many types.
Ottorino Respighi's famous orchestral suites called Ancient Airs and Dances are drawn from various books and articles on 16th- and 17th-century lute music transcribed by the musicologist Oscar Chilesotti, including eight pieces from a German manuscript Da un Codice Lauten-Buch, now in a private library in northern Italy.
For lutes with more than six courses the extra courses would be added on the low end. Due to the large number of strings lutes have very wide necks, and it is difficult to stop strings beyond the sixth course, so additional courses were usually tuned to pitches useful as bass notes rather than continuing the regular pattern of fourths, and these lower courses are most often played without stopping. Thus an 8-course tenor Renaissance lute would be tuned to [(D'D) (F'F) (G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)], and a 10-course to [(C'C) (D'D) (E♭'E♭) (F'F) (G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)].
However, none of these patterns were de rigueur, and a modern lutenist will occasionally be seen to retune one or more courses between performance pieces. Manuscripts bear instructions for the player, e.g. 7e choeur en fa = "seventh course in fa" (= F in the standard C scale).
The first part of the seventeenth century was a period of considerable diversity in the tuning of the lute, particularly in France. However, by around 1670 the scheme known today as the "Baroque" or "d-minor" tuning became the norm, at least in France and in northern and central Europe. In this case the first six courses outline a d-minor triad, and an additional five to seven courses are tuned generally scalewise below them. Thus the 13-course lute played by Weiss would have been tuned [(A"A') (B"B') (C'C) (D'D) (E'E) (F'F) (G'G) (A'A') (DD) (FF) (AA) (d) (f)], or with sharps or flats on the lower 7 courses appropriate to the key of the piece.
Modern lutenists tune to a variety of pitch standards, ranging from A = 392 to 470 Hz, depending on the type of instrument they are playing, the repertory, the pitch of other instruments in an ensemble and other performing expediencies. No attempt at a universal pitch standard existed during the period of the lute's historical popularity. The standards varied over time and from place to place.
The art of playing the lute formed a major part of instrumental music making in the Renaissance before keyboard instruments assumed central significance. It was a refined, soft, and at the same time colorful art, in sharp contrast to the agitated times in which it was practiced.
— Karl Schumann 
This style knows nothing of the otherwise usual requirements and prohibitions of voice-leading; it can only be understood in relation to the fingering technique; it frequently applies the sound of open strings and in no way avoids the otherwise so despised parallel 5ths and octaves or unisons. The dissonances and other conflicting sounds which appear so often...strike me as exciting and revealing.
— Carl Orff 
 Quotation taken from the liner notes to the Wergo edition of Orff's Kleines Konzert, with English translations by John Patrick Thomas.