An Introduction to Persian Traditional Music

Introduction Persian Traditional Music

Before introducing Persian traditional music, it’s important to consider certain facts. The music of every nation is like a mirror where we can see the social situation, the change and the decline of society. Fine arts represent the emotions and the morals of people and nations and as the nations have different preferences, their arts are different from each other.

The original Persian music, also known as Persian traditional music and Persian classical music, includes Dastgah (musical modal system), melody, and Avaz. This kind of music has existed before Christendom and reached us mainly by word-of-mouth. The more enjoyable and easier parts have remained up until now.

Persian music influenced the music of the major parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and Greece. Also, each one of them has also contributed to the formation of this music. Barbod, Nagisa (Nakisa) and Ramtin are the famous Persian musicians in ancient Iran.

Radif (meaning order in Persian, a collection of many old melodic figures) was inscribed as the first independent Iranian legacy in the Intangible World Heritage List in October 2009.

The carvings on the ancient cave walls show Iranians interest in music since the earliest times. The traditional Iranian music, as mentioned in the books, has influenced world music. The basis of the new European musical note is according to the principles of Mohammad Farabi, a great Iranian scientist and musician.

The Persian Traditional Music of Iran is a collection of songs and tunes created over the centuries in this country and reflects the moral of Iranians. On the one hand, the elegance and special form of Persian music persuade listeners to think and reach the immaterial world. On the other hand, the passion and the beat of this music have roots in the ancient and epic spirit of Iranians, which conducts the listener to move and make efforts.

The traditional Persian music is composed of twelve sets. Among them, seven sets are more independent and are called Dastgah. The five other sets that are dependent come from Dastgahs, which are known as Avaz. In addition to the seven Dastgah and five Avaz, 228 Gushehs are the models of musicians and singers.

Traditional Persian Music through History

Introduction & History of Traditional Persian Music

There could be two major eras during which Iranian music has developed.

  • The First Era of Iranian Music Development:

The music artworks of prominent Iranian scholars such as Avicenna, Farabi, Qutb al-Din Shirazi and Abdul Qaher Maraqe’i show that Iranian music has had a scientific aspect until the mid-fifteenth century, but after that, due to the specific social and religious situation in Iran, music was not duly attended to. In this period, no one created significant work in music and the artists were discouraged.

This situation continued until the end of the Safavid era, whose government was based on strict religious ideas. Due to the anarchy following the fall of the Safavids, the situation of music was not yet significant in the Afsharid era.

Of course, historical evidence proves that Nader Shah was interested in musicians, but the music mostly played during this period was not original and traditional and had a dominant purpose of recreation. In the Zand period, when there were more public safety and welfare in Iran, people paid more attention to music again. Moshtaq Ali Shah and Parikhan are the prominent music scholar of this period.

In the Qajar era, the music developed in various aspects, including religious. Among the artists of this period, we can mention Seyed Ahmad Khan. He was the first singer to record his vocals on the gramophone. Qoli Khan is the other artist who performed Taziyeh (Iranian passion play) and, in addition, sang Avaz-e Dashti.

After the establishment of the Academy of Sciences (Dar ul-Funun) and the recruitment of European teachers and trainers of music, Iranian music got a theoretical and scientific form. Dar ul-Funun Publication published the theoretical courses of music taught by European professors in two languages, French and Persian.

  • The Second Era of Iranian Music Development:

The next period of Iranian music is the modern era. In the Pahlavi era, the foundations of western culture were introduced to Persian music and new forms of music were born. The distance between the people and the traditional music increased to the extent that in the early 1960s, people forgot the traditional Persian music.

According to the musicians, Reza Shah preferred the national music of Iran to European music but believed that European music is better for the country’s progress. Reza Shah changed the musical systems, and this led to the creation of a lot of military music in his era.

Iranian Folk Songs

Traditional Iranian Folk Singers

The most valuable sources of music in any country are music, melodies, and songs performed in different parts of the country, especially in remote villages and by local people. Since this kind of music influenced the thoughts of the urban people less, it is more natural and closer to the original and ancient Iranian music. The songs, in fact, constitute a criterion for thought system, culture, and civilization of a country.

As there are various ethnic groups and cultures in Iran, this kind of music has a variety of speech and melody features. For example, the folk music of Azerbaijan, Gilan, Khorasan, Bakhtiari, Kurdistan, Shiraz, and Baluchistan are very different not only in melody but also in dialect. The local songs of Iran are very rich from the musical point of view.

Musical Instruments of Iran

Traditional Instruments of Iranian Music

Iranians have used various musical instruments in different periods of history. Here is the categorization of Iranian instruments:

  • Wind instruments such as Ney, Sorna, Karnay, Bagpipes, etc.
  • String instruments such as Kamancheh, Oud, Robab, Tar, etc.
  • Membranophones such as Dohol, Dayereh, Drum, Tonbak, etc.
  • Stringed-Struck instruments such as the unique Iranian Santoor.

Different Kinds of Persian Traditional Music

  • Radif

First, it must be mentioned that Radif (a collection of many old melodic figures) music of today has remained from the time of Ali Akbar Farahani, a well-known Tar and Setar player. Amir Kabir, the grand vizier (chancellor) of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, invited Ali Akbar Farahani to the court for the propagation of Persian music.

Then, Qolam Hossein Khan, brother of Ali Akbar, taught this kind of music to Mirza Hossein Qoli and Mirza Abdullah, the two sons of Ali Akbar Khan. Mirza Hossein Qoli and Mirza Abdullah categorized the music in the form of melodic figures. This categorization is known as “Radif of music” in Persian.

Radif is, in fact, a collection of melodic figures in traditional Persian music, approximately similar to the repertoire in Western music. A set of Radifs is a collection of melodic figures organizing the melodies (Goosheh) in a number of different tonal spaces called Dastgah.

The preparation and edition of Radif in the present form have begun since the late Zand era and the early Qajar period. In the early Qajar period, a melodic system of Maqam gave place to Radif system and Haft Dastgah (Seven Dastgah) and Panj Avaz (Five Avaz) took the place of multiple maqams.

We can mention the Farahani family (Ali Akbar Farahani, Mirza Abdullah, Hossein Qoli) as the first narrators of Radif.

Today, Radif has two principal functions:

  1. As a pedagogical model allowing students to break down the repertoire into its elemental Gushehs, and
  2. As a pattern on which a musician can improvise many creativities. Persian traditional music is mostly improvisational.
  • Dastgah
Dastgah in Classical Persian Music of Iran

Each Dastgah is a sequence of the different major seconds, or whole tones, of Persian music inciting a special emotion of the listener. In fact, a Dastgah is a melody type that a performer uses as the basis of an impromptu piece. Each Dastgah contains many Gushehs.

Most scholars divide the traditional Persian music to seven Dastgahs, although some divide them to 12. Which is more common is seven Dastgahs and five Avazes. Here are the seven Dastgahs of Radif of the traditional Persian music:

  • Dastgah-e Shur
  • Dastgah-e Segah (third place)
  • Dastgah-e Chahargah (fourth place)
  • Dastgah-e Rast Panjgah (fifth place)
  • Dastgah-e Homayoun
  • Dastgah-e Mahour
  • Dastgah-e Nava
  • Avaz
Avaz in Persian Music
Salar Aqili, a well-known Iranian singer performing Avaz

It is an unmetered vocal section of a mode in Persian music and is usually a part of Dastgah. So, we can call it sub-Dastgah or secondary Dastgah. For example, Avaz-e Dashti is an attachment of Dastgah-e Shur. The traditional Persian music consists of five Avazes including:

  • Avaz-e Abou Ata, dependent on Dastgah-e Shur
  • Avaz-e Bayat-e Tork (Bayat-e Zand), dependent on Dastgah-e Shur
  • Avaz-e Afshari, dependent on Dastgah-e Shur
  • Avaz-e Dashti, dependent on Dastgah-e Shur
  • Avaz-e Bayat-e Esfahan, dependent on Dastgah-e Homayoun

Today, traditional Persian music continues its spiritual role, as throughout history, and belongs for the most part to the social elite, as opposed to the folkloric and popular music.

Some Luminaries of Persian Music

Iranian musicians are the identity of Persian music. Here is a list of some prominent Iranian musicians:

Gholam Hossein Darvish Khan
He was a Setar and Tar player and the Pioneer of composition art. He spread the music among the people.

Ali Naqi Vaziri
He was also a Setar and Tar player, who initiated modernity movement in Persian music. He established a music high school and was the head of music affairs of Iran for a long time.

Seyed Jalal Taj Esfahani
He was the greatest singer of the Isfahan School.

Habib Soma’i
He was the greatest Santoor player in the recent century.

Abolhassan Saba
He was the greatest contemporary Setar player and the best pupil of the Setar School of Darvish Khan.

Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri
She was the greatest Iranian female singer in the last century. Her works are the masterpieces of Persian music.

Rouhollah Khaleghi
He was a composer, musician, violinist, orchestra leader, and author of musical books.

Hossein Tehrani
He was the greatest Tonbak player in the contemporary era. He performed the first concert of Tonbak in Iran.

Qolam Hossein Banan
He was one of the most popular singers of his era. He was a student of Rouhollah Khaleghi and Ali Naqi Vaziri.

Javad Maroufi
He was the first pianist who blends the technics of Western music with Iranian music. He was also a student of Ali Naqi Vaziri. Anoushiravan Rohani is one of his pupils.

Mohammad Reza Shajarian
He is one of the prominent Iranian singers who won the Picasso Award for his works. He is well-known as “Iran’s greatest living maestro of Persian classical music”.

Shahram Nazeri
He won the Best Mystic Music Award of Morocco in 1998. In October 2007, he received the Order of Légion d’honneur of France.

Parviz Meshkatian, Hossein Alizadeh, Qorban Soleymani, and Alireza Soleymani are other famous Iranian traditional musicians.

Eventually, one must admit that Persian Traditional Music owes its development and status to the above people and several more who have played a pivotal role in keeping this art alive among Iranians.

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Rahman Mehraby

Rahman Mehraby is the founder and owner of Destination Iran. He plans quality tours and provides advice for tour customization. You can rely on his itineraries to get an exclusive tour to Iran.

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