The traditional music of Iran is a message, a call from the artist’s innermost consciousness. Deeply intertwined with Iran’s age-old history and culture, it is an expression of the joys, loves, sorrows, efforts and struggles, all the many victories and defeats that the peoples of Western Asia have experienced over the millennia. It is something of a miracle that these people have kept their music intact despite numerous, murderous foreign invasions – in fact, imposing their own art, lifestyle and generous view of the world on their invaders.
Persian traditional music or Persian/Iranian classical music is the traditional and indigenous music of Iran and Persian-speaking countries, the science and art of music, the sound and performance of music (Sakata 1983).
Archeological evidence reveals musical instruments that were used in Iran during the Elamite era around 800BCE. Not much is known about Persian music in the ancient world, especially about the music of the Achaemenid Empire. Alexander the Great is said to have witnessed many melodies and instruments upon his invasion, and music played an important role in religious affairs. Music Active Imageplayed an important role in the courts of Sassanid kings in the much later Sassanid Empire. Of this period, we know the names of various court musicians like Barbad and the types of various instruments that were used like harps, lutes, flutes, bagpipes and others. Under Sassanid rule, modal music was developed by a highly significant court musician, Barbad, called the khosravani. While today’s classical music tradition in Iran bears the same names of some of the modes of that era it is impossible to know if they sound the same because there is no evidence of musical notation from the Sassanid period. Today’s traditional Persian music began to develop after the advent of Islam in Iran, in the Medieval era and the creation of today’s formal, classical music tradition is directly linked to the music systems of the Safavid Dynasty. Under the later Qajar Dynasty, the classical system was restructured into its present form.
Active ImageUnder the Achaemenids (550-320 BCE), music served an important function in worship as well as in courtly entertainment. Bas-reliefs from the period clearly depict groups of singers, players of trigonal harps (chang), accompanied by large tambourines, as well as long necked lutes and double-flutes. The first written evidence of Persian music is from the Sassanid Period (226-643 CE). Khosrau II was a great patron of music, and his most famous court musician, Barbod, was said to have developed a musical system with seven modal structures (known as the Royal Modes), thirty derivative modes, and 365 melodies, associated with the days of the week, month and year.
The Arrival of Islam
With the advent of Islam in the 7th century A.D., Persian music, as well as other Persian cultural elements, became a formative element in what has since become “Islamic civilization”. Persian musicians and musicologists overwhelmingly dominated the musical life of the Eastern Islamic Empire. Baghdad became the centre of Persian music, and many musicians who were once considered to be Arabs are actually now known to have been Iranians. Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Sina (d. 1037), Razi (d. 1209), Ormavi (d. 1294), Zalzal (d.791), Ziryab, and Maraqhe-e (d. 1432) are a few of the many outstanding Persian musical scholars of the early Islamic period.
The 13th Century – Theory and Synthesis
In the 13 century, Arab-Persian music theory became largely standardized into what became as the Systematist or Iraqi school (since it developed in the court of Baghdad). The pioneer of this school was Safi Al Din Ormavi (from northwestern Iran) who provided a theoretical synthesis of the many systems of intervals and scales proposed before his time. He divided the octave into seventeen notes, giving each note a name. Various juxtapositions of these notes formed the basis of twenty named modes or maqamat, which to this day provide the theoretical basis for all different kinds of Middle Eastern music.
Active ImageThe Mongol Invasion
The Mongol invasion of Persia (from 1220), drastically changed the socio-political environment of the region. During this period, Shiite theology became established, and Sufism became erfan (gnosis) and penetrated deep into Persian lyrical poetry. The musical style of Araq (western Iran) gradually adopted the structure and emotional language of ghazal (a form of Persian poetry) and poetry became the main source of avaz (vocal section). During the 16th to 17th centuries, Persian music began to follow its own course and diverged from that of its Arabic, Turkish, and Tajik neighbors.
The Safavid Period
With the rise of the Safavid dynasty at the end of the fifteen century, and the increasing influence of Shiism, music in Persia declined. The court still patronized musicians, but their art became subject to the authority of Shiite clerics, who viewed it with suspicion. Musical performance was given over to illiterate ‘labourers of pleasure’. The brilliance of the Persian tradition passed to India, where the ruling Moguls were Turco-Mongols, deeply influenced by Persian court culture. In Iran, musical traditions were kept alive by Sufis and performers of taziye (Shiite passion plays).
Active ImageRevival and Western Influence
The 19th century Qajar King Nasser al-Din Shah was a great patron of music. He sponsored many great musicians, among them Mirza Abdollah Farahani who collated and organised the traditions of Persian music to form the basis of contemporary Persian traditional music known as radif. In 1862, a process of Westernization began when, Nasser al-Din Shah ordered the establishment of a military band, such as he had seen in Europe playing overtures, marches, polka, and waltzes. A French musician, Alfred Lemair, was hired to run a traditional ensemble of indigenous shawms, horns, trumpets, and percussion into a Western concert band. He was so successful that by the end of the 19th century, the music school in Tehran taught Western instruments and music theory.
Westernization gathered pace with the accession of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. The Tehran music school (now a fully-fledged conservatoire) and the National School of Music were both state funded, and, in the late 1930s, a small symphony orchestra was founded. Iranian composers began to study abroad, and to compose in nationalist and modernist styles. By the 1970s, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra consisted of 100 players, and newly built concert halls were hosting international artists; music departments were instituted in universities, and television introduced Western music to the people. Pop, rock, jazz, and Latin American music gained popularity, and in their wake, the record and cassette industry marketed local pop music and hybrid love-songs that blended Persian modes with Western harmony.
Active ImageRecords and radio, and exposure to Western light music stimulated Persian music in its popular form. The traditional tasnif was reinterpreted in popular ballads, composed in Persian modes, but following the structure of Western songs. Often, the harmonic underlay was a mixture of traditional and Western instruments. In this form, it was commonly known as tarane – a 3-4 minute long song which was suited to the 78 rpm record. Traditional dastgah performances were similarly reduced in length, fewer modes were used in performance, and many were eliminated.
Musiqi-e assil became a more common past-time for the next few decades, especially after cassettes were introduced in the 1960s. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran produced the Classic / Dastgahi singing stars Gholam Hossein Banan, Delkash, Marzeyeh, Hengameh Akhavan, Akbar Golpayegani(Golpa), Elahe, Parisa, Khonsari, Homayra, Mahasti, Iraj, Hooshamnd Aghili and instrumentalists like majid kiani , Abolhasan Saba, Asghar Bahari, Ahmad Ebadi, Hossein Tehrani, Faramarz Payvar, Ali Tadjvidi, Dariush Talai, Muhammad Heidari and Hassan Kassai.
Golha Radio Programmes
Active ImageThe Golha radio programmes (Flowers of Persian Song and Poetry) comprise 1578 radio programmes consisting of approximately 847 hours of music and poetry broadcast on an Iranian government-owned radio station over a period from 1956 through 1979.
These programmes are made up of literary commentary with the declamation of poetry, which is sung with musical accompaniment, interspersed with solo musical pieces. For the 23 years that these programmes were broadcast, all the most eminent literary critics, poetry reciters, singers, composers and musicians in Iran were invited to participate in them. The Golha programs consist of several separate series of programs having slightly different emphasis in content. The separate programs are named Golhaye Tazeh, Rangarang, Barge Sabz, Javidan, and Yek Shakheh Gol.
The programmes were exemplars of excellence in the sphere of music and refined examples of literary expression, making use of a repertoire of over 250 classical and modern Persian poets, setting literary and musical standards that are still looked up to with admiration in Iran today and referred to by scholars and musicians as an encyclopedia of Persian music and Persian poetry. They marked a watershed in Persian culture, following which music and musicians gained respectability. Heretofore, music had been practised behind closed doors. Where performed in public spaces, the performers had been tarred with the same brush as popular street minstrels. Until the advent of these programmes, it had been taken for granted that any female performers and musicians were less than respectable. Due to the high literary and musical quality of these programmes, public perception of music and musicians in Iran shifted, its participants came to be considered—virtually for the first time in Persian history of the Islamic period—as maestros, virtuosos, divas and adepts of a fine art, and no longer looked down upon as cabaret singers or denigrated as street minstrels.
Homayoun Khorram, a violinist who was one of the Golha musicians, commented 25 years after the close of the show:
“The Golha programmes should be considered to be a veritable audio treasury of the history of traditional Persian Music. Considering the incredible efforts that went into producing these programmes and their strong influence on society, they are still considered today to be the best resource for our music. It is very appropriate and important that these programmes be preserved and passed on to future generations.”
The Islamic Revolution to the Present
Active ImageSoon after the Islamic revolution, institutions teaching Western music were closed, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra was disbanded and, in an attempt to eliminate pop and hybrid love songs, no music at all was permitted on the radio.
Many Iranian pop musicians migrated to the West, especially the United States. Los Angeles became a haven for Iranian pop music which it remains to this day. Later, the ban on traditional music was removed and restrictions were loosened. Interest and activity in traditional music have since revived, with the School of National Music back in full operation.
Many young Iranians have again become interested in traditional music and the ban on Western music and even pop music has now been lifted. Today, music is taught in state-funded universities and many private institutions and classes throughout the country. Many Iranians play musical instruments, and the social standing of musicians is now much higher than in the past.
Active ImageThe years after the 1979 revolution emerged Islamic Republic approved stars like Parviz Meshkatian, Arshad Tahmasebi, Davod Ganjeyi, Jamshid Andalibi, Kayhan Kalhor, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Hossein Alizadeh, Dariush Talai, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, and Shahram Nazeri.
Most notable living Iranian classical vocalists are: Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri,Parissa, Akbar Golpa, Iraj. Among relatively new classical vocalists we can name: Homay, Hesamuddin Seraj, Salar Aghili, Alireza Ghorbani, Homayoun Shajarian, Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh and Maryam Akhondy.
More notable Iranian progressive musicians whom at their own time have created modern and contemporary Persian classical based theories and styles include the late Ostad Parviz Yahaghi, the late Ostad Asadollah Malek, the late Ostad Mohammad Baharloo, the late Ostad Alinaghi Vaziri, the late Ostad Varzandeh, the late Ostad Hossein Tehrani, Ostad Faramarz Payvar and Ostad Bahman Rajabi whom have impacted and influenced the classical Iranian traditions with their respective innovative musical approaches.
Iranian classical music relies on improvisation and composition and is based on a series of modal scales and tunes which must be memorized. Apprentices and masters have a traditional relationship which has declined during the 20th century as music education moved to universities and conservatories. The repertoire consists of more than two hundred short melodic movements called gusheh, which are classified into seven dastgāh or “modes.” Two of these modes have secondary modes branching from them called āvāz. Each gusheh and dastgah has an individual name. This whole body is called the Radif of which there are several versions, each in accordance to the teachings of a particular master or ostad. A typical performance consists of the following elements pīshdarāmad(a rhythmic prelude which sets the mood), darāmad (rhythmic free motif), āvāz (improvised rhythmic-free singing), tasnīf (rhythmic accompanied by singing, an ode), Chahārmeżrāb (rhythmic music but rhythmic-free or no singing), reng (closing rhythmic composition, a dance tune). A performance forms a sort of suite.
Unconventionally, these parts may be varied or omitted. Towards the end of the Safavid Empire (1502-1736), more complex movements in 10, 14, and 16 beats stopped being performed. In fact, in the early stages of the Qajar Dynasty, the uṣūl(rhythmic cycles) were replaced by a meter based on the ghazal and the maqām system of classification was reconstructed into the Radif system which is used to this day.
Today, rhythmic pieces are performed in beats of 2 to 7 with some exceptions. Rengs are always in a 6/8 time frame. Many melodies and modes are related to the maqāmāt of the Turkish classical repertoire and Arabic music belonging to various Arab countries, for example Iraq. This similarity is because of the exchange of musical science that took place in the early Islamic world between Persia and her neighboring countries. During the meeting of The Inter-governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage of the United Nations, held between 28 September – 2 October 2009 in Abu Dhabi, radifs were officially registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Active ImageThe classical music is vocal based. The vocalist plays a crucial role: she or he decides what mood to express and which dastgah relates to that mood. In many cases, the vocalist is also responsible for choosing the poems to be sung. If the performance requires a singer, the singer is accompanied by at least one wind or string instrument, and at least one type of percussion. There could be an ensemble of instruments, though the primary vocalist must maintain hers or his role. In some taṣnīf songs, the musicians may accompany the singer by singing along several verses. Traditionally, music is performed while seated on finely decorated cushions and rugs. Candles are sometimes lit. The group of musicians and the vocalist decide on which dastgahs and which of their gushehs to perform, depending on the mood of a certain time or situation.
Iranian classical music continues to function as a spiritual tool as it has throughout its history, and much less of a recreational activity. Compositions can vary immensely from start to finish, usually alternating between low, contemplative pieces and athletic displays of musicianship called tahrir. The incorporation of religious texts as lyrics were replaced by lyrics largely written by medieval Sufi poets, especially Hafez and Jalal-e Din Rumi.
The Persian Constitutional Revolution in 1906 allowed some release from previous religious restrictions with regards to music. As a result, genres such as pop and rock started to become popular. This popularity was criticized by traditionalists who felt that traditional music was becoming endangered. In 1968, Dariush Safvat and Nur-Ali Borumand helped form the Center for Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music with the help of Reza Ghotbi, director of NIRT (National Iranian Radio-Television), an act credited with saving traditional music in the 1970s by other ethnomusicologists, including Nelly Caron, Tran Van Khe, and Hormoz Farhat.
Active ImageIranian Traditional Music Instruments
Daf is one of the most ancient frame drums in Asia and North Africa. As a Persian instrument, in 20th century, it is considered as a Sufi instrument to be played in Khanghah-s for Zikr music but now this percussion instrument has recently become very popular and it has been integrated into Persian art music successfully.
The dotar (literally in Persian meaning “two strings”), and it comes from a family of long-necked lutes and can be found throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and as far as the North East of China in Xinjiang too.
Active ImageIn Iran, the dotar is played mainly in the north and the east of Khorasan as well as among the Turkmen of Gorgan and Gonbad. The instrument remains the same but its dimensions and the number of its ligatures vary slightly from region to region. Two types of wood are used in the fabrication of the dotar. The pear-shaped body is carved out of a single block of mulberry wood. Its neck is made of either the wood of the apricot or the walnut tree. It has two steel strings, which in the past were made of silk or animal entrails. The dotar is tuned in fourth or fifth intervals.
The kamanche is a bowed spike fiddle. The instrument has four metal strings, and the body consists of a wooden hemisphere coverred with thin sheepskin membrane. Oddly, the instrument’s bridge runs diagonally across this membrane. The instrument is highly ornate and is about the size of a Active Imageviola. The tuning varies depending upon the region of the country where it is being played. In Tehran, the kamanche is tuned in the same manner as a violin: G, D, A, E. It is suspected that the fourth string was added in the early twentieth century as the result of the introduction of western violin to Iran. The kamancheh has been painted in Persian antique paintings.
The ney that is the Persian knotgrass reed, has five finger holes in front and one thumbhole in the back. The ney has a range of two and a half octaves. The upper end is covered by a short brass cylinder, which is anchored in the tiny space between the upper incisive of the player. Sound is produced when a stream of air is directed by the tongue toward the opening of the instrument. In this way, sound is produced behind the upper teeth, inside the mouth, which gives the ney a distinct timbre Active Imagethan that of the sound produced by the lips on the outside of the mouth.
The santur is a struck zither in the form of a shallow, regular trapezoidal box. There are several sound posts inside the box, and two small rosettes on the top panel which help to amplify the sound. The santur has 72 strings, arranged in groups of four, i.e. each of four closely spaced strings are tuned to the same pitch. Each group of four strings is supported by a small,movable, wooden bridge; the bridges are positioned to give the instrument a range of three octaves.
The santoor can be made from various kinds of wood (walnut, rosewood, betel palm, etc.) depending on the desired sound quality. The front and the back of the instrument are connected by sound posts Active Imagewhose positions play an important role in the sound quality of the instrument. Although the santoor is very old, it was neither depicted in miniatures, nor presented in any other medium until the nineteenth century. The secret of making the trapezoid-shape sound box lies in the quality and age of the wood, as well as in the arrangement of the sound posts which connect the table of the instrument to its back. Santoor is played in India, Iraq, Egypt and some other countries.
The ancestry of the setar can be traced to the ancient tanbur of pre-Islamic Persia. It is made from Active Imagethin mulberry wood and its fingerboard has twenty-five or twenty-six adjustable gut frets. Setar is literally translated as “three strings”; however, in its present form, it has four strings and it is suspected that setar initially had only three strings. Because of its delicacy and intimate sonority, the setar is the preferred instrument of Sufi mystics.
Two of the strings are made of steel, two are of brass, and they are tuned to c, c semi-sharp, g, and c semi-sharp, respectively. The average setar is 85 cm long, 20 cm wide, and has a 15 cm deep gourd, and is made entirely of wood. (Unlike the tar which has a membrane streched across the body.) Also, unlike the tar, the player plucks the strings with the nail of the index finger, instead of using a plectrum. It is believed that setar is the ancestor of the Indian sitar.
Tar is a plucked stringed instrument (a long-necked lute) that is played in Iran (Persia), Caucasian Active Imagecountries (like Azerbaijan, Armenia and so on) and central Asia (like Tajikistan). It exists in two forms now, the Persian (that is named Tar-e-Shiraaz or Irani) and Caucasian (that is named Tar-e-Ghafghaaz). The Persian tar is carved from a block of mulberry wood and has a deep, curved body with two bulges shaped like a figure 8. The upper surface is shaped like two hearts of different sizes, joined at the points. The sound box consists of two parts. The small part is called Naghaareh and the large part is called Kaasseh (that means bowl (sound box)). The sound box is covered with lambskin. On the lower skin, a horn bridge supports six metal strings in three courses. The long fingerboard has twenty-two to twenty-eight movable gut frets. The strings are plucked with a brass plectrum coated on one side in wax. Its range is about two and a half octaves. The tunings of the strings are changed according to the dastgah that is being played, and the twenty six frets are movable. Finally, the strings are plucked with a plectrum.
Active ImageThe most popular percussion instrument in Persian music today is a goblet drum known as the Tonbak. The Tonbak is a large wooden instrument with a goatskin head. Unlike other goblet drums, this drum has a much more squared-off shape and produces lower-pitched and softer tones due to its size and skin being put on with less tension. Other names for this drum are Donbak, Tombak, Dombak, Tompak and Zarb. Maybe the name Zarb has its origins in the Arabic word darb, meaning to strike, as mentioned above. The other names have a more interesting origin. The two main strokes played on this drum are known as Ton, for a bass tone played in the center of the drum head, and Bak, for a treble tone played on or near the rim. Combining the terms results in the name Ton-Bak. It is highly likely that the American name Dumbek is derived from one of the Persian names.
The barbat, in Arabic courtiers and Iran known as the ud, is a short-necked fretless lute with five double-courses of strings and traditionally played with an eagle’s quill. The barbat is the ancestor of the European lute, and functions as a bass instrument. The barbat is the ancestor of the Chinese pipa too. The pipa brought to Japan and was named biwa.
The ghanoon is the Persian zither. It is a flat trapezoidal wooden box, with twenty-four strings in Active Imagetriple fastened at its rectangular side on one end and to pegs on the oblique side on the other. The player to make slight changes in pitch manipulates small levels lying below each course of strings. The strings are plucked with two horn plectra, one on each index finger.