An Introduction to Persian Music
“Persian Music” by Hormoz Farhat
Catalogue of the Festival of Oriental Music,
University of Durham, UK, 1976
AN INTRODUCTION TO] PERSIAN MUSIC
By Prof Hormoz Farhat
The artistic gift of the Persian people has produced a
staggering literary heritage, an exquisite tradition
of decorative arts and handicrafts, a superb legacy in
architecture, and a refined musical culture whose
influence is evidence as far away as Spain and Japan.
The history of musical development in Iran [Persia]
dates back to the prehistoric era. The great legendary
king, Jamshid, is credited with the “invention” of
music. Fragmentary documents from various periods of
the country’s history establish that the ancient
Persians possessed an elaborate musical culture. The
Sassanian period (A.D. 226-651), in particular, has
left us ample evidence pointing to the existence of a
lively musical life in Persia. The names of some
important musicians such as Barbod, Nakissa and
Ramtin, and titles of some of their works have
With the advent of Islam in the 7th century A.D.,
Persian music, as well as other Persian cultural
traints, became the main formative element in what
has, ever since, been known as “Islamic civilization”.
Persian musicians and musicologists overwhelmingly
dominated the musical life of the Eastern Moslem
Empire. Farabi (d. 950), Ebne Sina (d. 1037), Razi (d.
1209), Ormavi (d. 1294), Shirazi (d. 1310), and Maraqi
(d. 1432) are but a few among the array of outstanding
Persian musical scholars in the early Islamic period.
In the 16th century, a new “golden age” of Persian
civilization dawned under the rule of the Safavid
dynasty (1499-1746). However, from that time until the
third decade of the 20th century Persian music became
gradually relegated to a mere decorative and
interpretive art, where neither creative growth, nor
scholarly research found much room to flourish.
Since the early 20’s, once again, Persian music began
to find broader dimensions. An urge to create rather
than merely perpetuate the known tradition, and an
interest to investigate the structural elements, has
emerged. Fundamentally, however, what can be still
recognized as the national music of Iran [Persia] is
the tradition of the past with marked imprints of 19th
century performance practices.
This traditional or classical music represents a
highly ornate and sophisticated art whose protagonists
are professional city musicians. Prior to the present
century, such musicians were patronized by the
nobility. Today, in a progressively modernizing
society, they are generally engaged by broad casting
and television media. They are also active as teachers
both privately and at the various scholars and
conservatories of music.
Perpetuated through an oral tradition, the classical
repertoire encompasses a body of ancient pieces
collectively known as the “radif” of Persian music.
These pieces are organized into twelve groupings,
seven of which are known as basic modal structures and
are called the seven “dastgah” (systems). They are :
Shur, Homayun, Segah, Chahargah, Mahur, Rast-Panjgah,
and Nava. The remaining five are commonly accepted as
secondary or derivative dastgahs. Four of them:
Abuata, Dashti, Bayat-e Tork and Afshari are
considered to be derivatives of Shur; and , Bayat-e
Esfahan is regarded to be a sub-dastgah of Homayun.
The individual pieces in each of the twelve groupings
are generally called “gushe”, but each gushe has a
specific and often descriptive title. A gushe is not a
clearly defined musical composition; rather, it
represents modal, melodic, and occasionally rhythmic
skeletal formulae upon which the performer is
expected to improvise. Thus, the radif submits an
infinite source of musical expression. The flexibility
of the basic material and the extent of the
improvisatory freedom is such that a piece played
twice by the same performer, at the same sitting, will
be different in melodic composition, form, duration
and emotional impact.
The principle involved in the construction of Persian
modes is based on the concept of conjunct and disjunct
tetrachords comparable to the ancient Greek system.
Chromaticism is not used and an octave never contains
more or less than seven principal tones. Contrary to
a persistent popular notion no such a thing as a
quartertone exists in Persian [Iranian] music. A very
characteristic interval, however, is the neutral,
second. This is a highly flexible interval; but, in
all its variations, it is noticeably larger than the
minor second (half-step) and smaller than the major
second (whole-step). Another interval peculiar to some
of the modes is an interval which is larger than the
major second, but not sufficiently large to be an
augmented second. In authentic Persian music the
western augmented second is not used.
Rhythmically, the majority of gushes are flexible and
free and cannot be assigned to a stable metric order.
However, in every dastgah, there are a number of
metrically regulated gushes which are played among the
free meter pieces in order to provide periodic variety
in rhythmic effects. Both, double and triple meters
are common; asymmetric meters, found in the folk
music of certain regions, are rare in the classical
As in the case of many non-western musical cultures,
Persian music has not evolved a systematic harmonic
practice. The development of this music has been
primarily melodic. As such it has attained a far
greater measure of melodic refinement and subtlety
The musical instruments which have been known in the
long history of Iran (Persia) are too numerous to name
here. The following are those instruments, which are
widely used at the present time:
Tar: A plucked string instrument with six strings and
a range of two octaves and
Setar: An instrument related to the tar with the same
range, but with four strings. The
setar is strummed by the nail of the right index
Ud: The Arabian name for the ancient Persian
instrument called barbat. It is also a plucked string
instrument with nine to eleven strings. The European
lute is a derivative of the ud.
Kamancheh: A bowed instrument with four strings,
played in the fashion of the violoncello, but with a
size and tone range comparable to the violin.
Santur: A dulcimer played with delicate wooden
mallets, with a range exceeding three octaves.
Nay: Generic name for numerous verities of flutes.
Tombak: The principal percussion instrument in the
[Persian] classical music. It is vase shaped drum open
on the narrow and end covered with a tightly stretched
skin on the other side.
Folk and Popular Music
The modal concepts in Persian folk music are directly
linked with that of the classical music. However,
improvisation plays a minor role as folk tunes are
characterized by relatively clear-cut melodic and
rhythmic properties. The function of each folk melody
determines its mood. The varying aesthetic
requirements of wedding songs, lullabies, love songs,
harvest songs, dance pieces, etc., are met with
transparent and appropriate simplicity.
The majority of the classical instruments are too
elaborate and difficult for the folk musicians.
Instead, there are literally dozens of musical
instruments of various sorts found among the rural
people. In fact, each region of the country can boast
instruments peculiar to itself. Three types of
instruments, however, are common to all parts of the
country. They are, a kind of shawm called surnay (or
zorna), the various types of nay
(flute), and the dohol, a doubleheader drum.
A discussion of Persian music must necessarily include
the new hybrid of mixed Persian-Western music which is
functioning as a popular-commercial music. The use of
western popular rhythms, an elementary harmonic
superimposition, and relatively large ensembles
composed of mostly western instruments, characterize
this music. The melodic and modal aspects of these
compositions maintain basically Persian elements. On
the whole, it would be something of an understatement
to say that the artistic merit of such a melange as
this is rather questionable.