An Introduction to Persian Classical Music: Continuity and Change

An Introduction to Persian Classical Music: Continuity and Change

Leila Piran, Ph.D, Director of Research and Development

Historical background

The Persian classical music has roots in both ancient Persian history and Persia’s post-Islamic history. The written historical records, etchings on silver dishes, and sculptures as well as paintings during the Islamic period indicate that Persians have always appreciated music. As early as 5 B.C during the Achaemenid dynasty’s rule, the Zoroastrian priests used chanting in their religious ceremonies. In the aftermath of the Achaemenids’ decline, the Sassanid dynasty that ruled from the 3 C.E. to 7 C.E. served as a benevolent patron for the arts. During that era, King Bahram V commissioned many musicians from India to perform for ordinary Persians, explains Majid Mir, an expert on Iranian history. As a result, Indian music influenced Persian classical music to some extent. The Sassanid kings valued the court musicians and treated them as though they were aristocrats. One court musician, Barbad, who enjoyed vast popularity, both performed and composed an impressive body of music. Many music theorists in Iran attribute the invention of the Persian system of modes (sets of musical scales and guidelines for their performance) that are still followed by contemporary masters and students to him. Barbad’s system of music consists of seven Khosravani, thirty modulation forms, and three hundred and sixty systems (dastan) which correspond to weeks, months, and years, resembling the Indian system of “ragas” for days and seasons of the year.

After the Arab invasion and introduction of Islam to Sassanid Persia, musicians of Persian origin enjoyed wide popularity in the Abbassid court in Baghdad, Iraq, and the Umayyad court in Cordoba, Spain. There is a consensus among historians that the advent of Islam increased the popularity of the Persian classical music tradition from China to Spain, presenting an opportunity for musical exchanges between the Persian classical music and other types of musical traditions.

Modal Scales and Rows

Although the Persian classical music has ancient roots, it was not until the eighteenth century that two brothers Mirza Abdollah and Agha Hosseingholi, both masters of Persian classical music, arranged the repertoire of Persian classical melodies and lyrics into radif (row). Each radif comprises of a major modal system called dastgah (shur, Mahur, Homayoun, Segah, Chahrgah, Rastpanjgah, and Nava) and five vocal melodies (Bayat-e Turk, Afshari, Abu-Atta, Dashti, and Esfahani). Each dastgah represents a mood or emotion. In Western classical music, emotions are considered either passive or active. In contrast, Persian classical music similar to other Eastern bodies of music allows the possibility for different types and degrees of emotions. For example, the mode, shur, represents intense and passionate sentiments. However, it can also be used to convey a soothing melody. Composers and performers tend to use Isfahan to create a feeling of romantic nostalgia. Moreover, each radif is comprised of several gusheh ormelodic variations.

In contrast to Western musical compositions that are created solely by one composer, the Persian radif embodies a multitude of several composers and musicians’ contributions, inspired by Iran’s rural and urban musical traditions. The creation of radif marks a significant transformation in the Persian classical music world, leading to creation of modern compositions and systematic training of composers and performers. Pioneering composers including Gholam Reza Minabashian, Mehdigholi Hedayat, Alinaghi Vaziri, and Mousa Ma’roufi contributed to the arrangement of radifs into musical notes significantly.

Prior to modern arrangements of Persian classic music in the eighteenth century, students had to learn musical pieces orally, meaning that the master played and the students had to remember the lesson by ear and practice it until the master approved. In contemporary Iran, many masters still argue that the oral method of teaching is the best way.

Usually, small groups of musicians accompanied by a singer perform Persian classical music. The musicians use string instruments including tar and setar that are plucked. The kamanche is a common bowed-instrument, while santur has to be played using two delicate mallets. A wind instrument called nay and a drum called tonbak often accompany the other instruments in various performances. After the introduction of Western instruments to Iran, many music ensembles have begun using the violin, the piano, the clarinet, and the accordion to play classical pieces of music.

In contemporary Iran, many Iranians listen to a various types of music including regional music and popular music in addition to different types of Western music. However, classical Persian music can be heard in public spaces more frequently because the Islamic Republic’s government has recognized this body of music as indigenous to Iran and religiously permissible within the confines of the Islamic tradition. Overall, the Iranian state supports the promotion of both classical and popular Persian music within the guidelines set by the ruling system.

Originally published at on February 22, 2015.

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