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Persian music

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Persian traditional music
Traditional music
Traditional music is the term increasingly used for folk music that is not contemporary folk music. More on this is at the terminology section of the World music article...

 (also known as Iranian traditional music, mūsīqī-e sonnatī-e īrānī, or Persian/Iranian classical music, mūsīqī-e aṣīl-e īrānī) is the traditional and indigenous music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

 of Iran: mūsīqī, the science and art of music, and moosiqi, the sound and performance of music (Sakata 1983).


Archeological evidence reveals musical instruments that were used in Iran during the Elamite
Elam was an ancient civilization located in what is now southwest Iran. Elam was centered in the far west and the southwest of modern-day Iran, stretching from the lowlands of Khuzestan and Ilam Province, as well as a small part of southern Iraq...

 era around 800 BCE. Little is known about the Persian music of the ancient world, least of all about the music of the Achaemenid Empire
Achaemenid Empire
The Achaemenid Empire , sometimes known as First Persian Empire and/or Persian Empire, was founded in the 6th century BCE by Cyrus the Great who overthrew the Median confederation...

. 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 played an important role in the courts of the kings of the much later Sassanid Empire
Sassanid Empire
The Sassanid Empire , known to its inhabitants as Ērānshahr and Ērān in Middle Persian and resulting in the New Persian terms Iranshahr and Iran , was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty from 224 to 651...

. 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 musical tradition is directly linked to the music systems of the Safavid Dynasty. Under the later Qajar Dynasty
Qajar dynasty
The Qajar dynasty was an Iranian royal family of Turkic descent who ruled Persia from 1785 to 1925....

, the classical system was restructured into its present form.


Iranian classical music relies on both improvisation and composition, and is based on a series of modal scales and tunes which must be memorized. Apprentices and masters, ostad, have a traditional relationship which has declined during the 20th century as music education
Music education
Music education is a field of study associated with the teaching and learning of music. It touches on all domains of learning, including the psychomotor domain , the cognitive domain , and, in particular and significant ways,the affective domain, including music appreciation and sensitivity...

 moved to universities and conservatories. The common 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), taṣnīf (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
Qajar dynasty
The Qajar dynasty was an Iranian royal family of Turkic descent who ruled Persia from 1785 to 1925....

, 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 (see Dast'gāh
Dastgāh is a musical modal system in traditional Persian art music. Persian art music consists of twelve principal musical modal systems or dastgāhs; in spite of 50 or more extant dastgāhs, theorists generally refer to a set of twelve principal ones...

). 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
United Nations
The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...

, held between 28 September – 2 October 2009 in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi , literally Father of Gazelle, is the capital and the second largest city of the United Arab Emirates in terms of population and the largest of the seven member emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi lies on a T-shaped island jutting into the Persian Gulf from the central western...

, radifs were officially registered on the UNESCO
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations...

 List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The 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. Composition
Musical composition
Musical composition can refer to an original piece of music, the structure of a musical piece, or the process of creating a new piece of music. People who practice composition are called composers.- Musical compositions :...

s 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 poet
Sufi poetry
Sufi poetry has been written in many languages, both for private devotional reading and as lyrics for music played during worship, or dhikr. Themes and styles established in Punjabi Poetry, Sindhi Poetry, Arabic poetry and mostly Persian poetry have had an enormous influence on Sufi poetry...

s, especially Hafez and Jalal-e Din Rumi.
The Radif:

Dastgah-e Shur
Dastgāh-e Šur
Dastgāh-e Šur is one of the seven Dastgāhs of Persian Music ....

 (considered the mother of all dastgah)
Avaz-e Dashti

Avaz-e Abu'ata

Avaz-e Bayat-e Tork

Avaz-e Afshari

Avaz-e Dashti

Dastgah-e Homayoun

Avaz-e Bayat-e Esfahan

Dastgah-e Segah

Dastgah-e Chahargah

Dastgah-e Rastpanjgah

Dastgah-e Mahur
Dastgāh-e Māhur
Dastgāh-e Māhur is one of the seven Dastgāhs of Persian Music ....

Dastgah-e Nava

Major instruments

Instruments used in Persian classical music include the bowed spike-fiddle kamancheh
The kamānche or kamāncha is a Persian bowed string instrument related to the bowed rebab, the historical ancestor of the kamancheh and also to the bowed lira of the Byzantine Empire, ancestor of the European violin family. The strings are played with a variable-tension bow: the word "kamancheh"...

, the goblet drum tombak, the end-blown flute ney
The ney is an end-blown flute that figures prominently in Middle Eastern music. In some of these musical traditions, it is the only wind instrument used. It is a very ancient instrument, with depictions of ney players appearing in wall paintings in the Egyptian pyramids and actual neys being found...

, the frame drum daf
A daf is a frame drum used as a musical instrument in popular and classical music. The term daf is used in Iran / Kurdistan for a large drum that has a series of four interlinked rings in the frame. Daf is mostly used in Middle East, Iran, Armenia, Pakistan, Turkey, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and ...

, the long-necked lutes tar
Tar (lute)
The tār is a long-necked, waisted Iranian instrument. It has been adopted by other cultures and Azerbaijan. The word tar itself means "string" in Persian, though it might have the same meaning in languages influenced by Persian or any other branches of Iranian languages like Kurdish...

, setar
Setar (lute)
Setar is a Persian musical instrument. It is a member of the lute family. Two and a half centuries ago, a fourth string was added to the setar, which has 25 - 27 moveable frets...

, tanbur
The term tanbūr can refer to various long-necked, fretted lutes originating in the Middle East or Central Asia. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "terminology presents a complicated situation. Nowadays the term tanbur is applied to a variety of distinct and related...

, dotar, and the dulcimer santur
The santur is a Persian hammered dulcimerIt is a trapezoid-shaped box often made of walnut or different exotic woods. The Persian classical santur has 72 strings. The name santur was first referenced in ancient Persian poetry...

. The European violin
The violin is a string instrument, usually with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is the smallest, highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the viola and cello....

 is also used, with an alternative tuning preferred by Persian musicians. Harp
The harp is a multi-stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicularly to the soundboard. Organologically, it is in the general category of chordophones and has its own sub category . All harps have a neck, resonator and strings...

s, "[s]," were a very important part of music up until the middle of the Safavid Empire. They were probably replaced because of tuning problems or replaced by the Qanun
Qanun refers to laws promulgated by Muslim sovereigns, in particular the Ottoman Sultans, in contrast to shari'a, the body of law elaborated by Muslim jurists. It comes from the Greek word kanon...

 (zither)and later the piano which was introduced by the West during the Safavid Dynasty of Iran. Many, if not most, of these instruments originated in Iran. Perhaps the most loved string instrument is the tar
Tar (lute)
The tār is a long-necked, waisted Iranian instrument. It has been adopted by other cultures and Azerbaijan. The word tar itself means "string" in Persian, though it might have the same meaning in languages influenced by Persian or any other branches of Iranian languages like Kurdish...

. Tar players are regurlarly chosen to function as the primary string instrument in a performance. The setar
Setar (lute)
Setar is a Persian musical instrument. It is a member of the lute family. Two and a half centuries ago, a fourth string was added to the setar, which has 25 - 27 moveable frets...

 is also loved for its delicacy and is the favorite among Mystic musicians. Some instruments like the sorna, neyanban, dohol, naghareh, and others, are not used in the classical repertoire but are used in Iranian Folk music. The ghazhak (ghaychak), a type of fiddle, is being re-introduced to the Classical field after many years of exclusion. The instruments used in the Classical field are also used in Iranian Folk Music.

The reference is Ghonyat-al-Monyah an aged old manuscript translated and published by the Late Prof. Shahab Sarmadi of AMU Aligarh India. This book describes in detail the history of Persian musical instruments.

Here is an example of where the links are:
Prof. Shahâb Sarmadî of Aligarh Muslim University, due to his specific expertise in Persian and Indian Classical Music, translated a section called “Roots and Branches of Music,” which is a part of Volume II. When he was in Chicago for the 1987 conference he graciously agreed to stay over for a month and translated this chapter on music. This translation exposes AmÊr Khusrau’s expertise in music although he seems to attempt to avoid any credit to himself. The special feature of this translation is Amîr Khusrau’s description of a Pardah System, without mentioning the invention of sitar as an instrument. In the sitar design there are 12-13 mizrÉb, a typical form of plectrum made of steel wire played with a zamzama held in one hand that strikes against mizrÉb in a pattern creating a system of music. This system of music makes unlimited Pardah System by placing the 12-13 plectrums in various positions, thus exposing numerous potentialities. Amîr Khusrau’s ingenious definition of the Pardah System described in this section of Volume II, and equally ingenious effort by Prof. Shahâb Sarmadî in catching these in his translation enumerates value of this work. This Pardah System of music may have been easily transformed into the design of mizrâb and zamzama in sitar, when played together creating a Pardah System of music, thus providing a proof of Amîr Khusrau’s invention of sitar. It is reasonable to imagine that, because of his Turkish/Lachin (in the following introduction to I’jâz-i-Khusravî he calls himself Khusrau-Lachin) heritage, Amîr Khusrau may have been exposed to the Maqam System of Muslim Music, merging with the Sanstân System or Thât System of Music in north India and the Mela-Karta System in south India, provided a new scope of invention for Amîr Khusrau. The section on music in Vol. II is highly technical, which necessitated writing detailed footnotes by Prof. Shahâb Sarmadî resulting from our discussions. Translators

Major ensembles

  • Aref ensemble
    Aref Ensemble
    The Aref Ensemble was a Persian classical music ensemble. It was founded by maestro Parviz Meshkatian, Hossein Alizadeh, and Mohammad Reza Lotfi in 1977. The group was named after Aref Ghazvini, the 18th century Iranian poet and composer. Aref was dedicated to the promotion and advancement of...

  • Sheyda ensemble
  • Masters of Persian Music
  • Hamavayan Ensemble
  • National music ensemble (Shahram Nazeri
    Shahram Nazeri
    Shahram Nazeri is a contemporary Iranian tenor of Kurdish ancestry who sings classical Persian music from Kermanshah. He is one of Iran's most respected vocalists...

    's group)
  • Dastan ensemble
    Dastan ensemble
    Dastan ensemble is a Persian classical music ensemble. Founded in 1991 by Hamid Motabassem, Dastan has performed concerts throughout the world.-Members:*Hossein Behroozinia *Hamid Motebassem *Pejman Hadadi...

     (winner of Grand Prix du Disque for World Music
    Grand Prix du Disque for World Music
    The Grand Prix du Disque for World Music is one of a number of prizes awarded by L'Académie Charles Cros as part of the yearly Grand Prix du Disque. The following is a partial list of winners :-2003:...

  • The Kamkars
  • Shakila's group (winner of Persian Academy Awards International)
  • Chemirani ensemble
    Chemirani ensemble
    Chemirani ensemble is a notable Persian classical music ensemble.The group is made of Chemirani family:*Bijan Chemirani*Djamchid Chemirani*Keyvan Chemirani*Maryam Chemirani...

  • Lian ensemble
    Lian Ensemble
    Lian Ensemble is a Persian classical music ensemble based in Los Angeles, California, USA.- History :The Lian Ensemble was established in 1997 by Pirayeh Pourafar, Houman Pourmehdi and Mahshid Mirzadeh. The group has performed throughout the U.S. and internationally...

  • Shams Ensemble
  • Shahnaz Ensemble


The Persian Constitutional Revolution in 1906 allowed some release from previous religious restrictions with regards to music. As a result, genres such as pop
Persian pop music
Persian pop music refers to pop music with songs in the Persian language or other regional languages of Iran and Afghanistan...

 and rock started to become popular. This popularity was criticized by traditionalists who felt that traditional music was becoming endangered. In 1968, Dariush Safvat
Dariush Safvat
Dariush Safvat is an internationally renowned and well-respected Persian music master and ethnomusicologist. Along with Nur-Ali Borumand, Dr. Safvat was the co-founder and a former director of the Center for Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music. Some credit Dr. Safvat with saving...

 and Nur-Ali Borumand helped form the Center for Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music with the help of Reza Ghotbi
Reza Ghotbi
Reza Ghotbi Gilani is a former Iranian politician who currently lives in the United States. He was head of NIRT from 1967 to 1979.Reza Ghotbi is a son of Mohammad Ali Ghotbi, cousin of Farah Dibah.-References:...

, 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
Hormoz Farhat
Hormoz Farhat Born 1929 Tehran, is a significant Iranian composer, ethnomusicologist and University lecturer.- Musical career :...


See also

  • The book of great music
  • Golha
    The Golha radio programmes 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....

  • Music of Armenia
    Music of Armenia
    Armenia is situated close to the Caucasus Mountains, and its music is a mix of indigenous folk music, perhaps best-represented by Djivan Gasparyan's well-known duduk music, as well as light pop, and extensive Christian music, due to Armenia's status as the oldest Christian nation in the...

  • Music of Azerbaijan
    Music of Azerbaijan
    Music of Azerbaijan builds on folk traditions that reach back nearly 1,000 years. For centuries Azerbaijani music has evolved under the badge of monody, producing rhythmically diverse melodies. Azerbaijani music has a branchy mode system, where chromatisation of major and minor scales is of great...

  • Music of Iran
    Music of Iran
    The music of Iran has thousands of years of history, as seen in the archeological documents of Elam, one of the earliest world cultures,which was located in southwestern Iran...

  • Music of Turkey
    Music of Turkey
    The music of Turkey includes diverse elements ranging from Central Asian folk music and has many copies and references of Byzantine music, Greek music, Ottoman music, Persian music, Balkan music, as well as more modern European and American popular music influences...

  • Persian literature
    Persian literature
    Persian literature spans two-and-a-half millennia, though much of the pre-Islamic material has been lost. Its sources have been within historical Persia including present-day Iran as well as regions of Central Asia where the Persian language has historically been the national language...

  • Persian Piano Music
    Persian piano music
    Persian piano music refers to piano pieces which have been composed based on Persian music. It can be also refer to pieces by Persian composers for the piano....

  • Persian Symphonic Music
    Persian Symphonic Music
    Persian symphonic music generally refers to the pieces by the Persian composers which have been composed for Western ensembles and orchestras, mostly based on the Persian folk and classical melodies...

  • Radio Golha
  • Sassanid music
    Sassanid music
    Sassanid music refers to the golden age of Persian music that occurred under the reign of the Sassanid dynasty.Persian classical music dates to the sixth century BC; during the time of the Achaemenid Empire , music played an important role in prayer and in royal and national events...

  • Dastgah
    Dastgāh is a musical modal system in traditional Persian art music. Persian art music consists of twelve principal musical modal systems or dastgāhs; in spite of 50 or more extant dastgāhs, theorists generally refer to a set of twelve principal ones...

  • List of Iranian musicians

Further reading

  • Selected Bibliography of Persian Music (Iran Heritage Society website, Los Angeles - in English)
  • Farhat, Hormoz. "The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music". Cambridge University Press, Camridge, 1990. (English)
  • Miller, Lloyd. Music and Song in Persia : The Art of Avaz. Salt Lake City University of Utah Press, 1999. (English)
  • Sepanta, Sassan. "Outlook on the Music of Persia,", Mashal Publications, Isfahan, 1990. (Persian)
  • Khaleghi, Rouhollah. "The History of Persian Music". Safiali-Shah Publications, Tehran, 1956. (Persian)
  • Akbarzadeh, Pejman. Persian Musicians, VOL. I, Navid Publications, Shiraz, 2000. (Persian)
  • Akbarzadeh, Pejman. Persian Musicians, Vol.II, Roshanak Publications, Tehran/Los Angeles, 2002. (Persian)

External links