An introduction to Iranian Classical Music
The following characteristics are shared between Iranian and other Central Asian music:
- The music is mainly monophonic, with each instrument in an ensemble following one melodic scheme.
- The music is based upon a modal system; with each mode engendering different melodic types, called gushehs in Farsi. The execution of the melodic types are left up to the musician.
- The use of microtones divides the scales into more than twelve semi-tones.
- A priority is given to ornamentation.
- There are a number of substantial pauses in each piece.
The following are characteristics which distinguish Persian music from other Central Asian music:
- Melodies are concentrated on a relatively narrow register.
- Melodic movement occurs by conjunct steps.
- Emphasis is on cadence, symmetry, and motivic repetition at different pitches.
- Rhythmic patterns are kept simple.
- The tempo is often rapid, and the ornamentation is dense.
- Vocal parts are often decorated with Tahrir, a vocal ornamentation similar to yodeling.
- Also, Iranian music is unique in the Middle Eastern tradition in that the different melodic phrases, or gushes are supposed to model the rhythmic stamp and melodic pattern of poetry.
There are three instrumental forms and one vocal form in Persian music. The instrumental forms are pishdaramad, cheharmezrab, and reng. Pishdaramad was invented by a great master of the tar, Darvish Khan, and was inteded as a prelude to the daramad of a dastgah. It may be in duple, triple, or quadruple time, and it draws its melody from some of the important gushehs of the piece. Cheharmezrab is a solo piece, mostly with a fast tempo, and is usually based on the melody immediately preceding it. The third instrumental form is the reng, which is a simple dance piece that is usually played at the conclusion of the dastgah.
The vocal form is called tasnif. It has a design similar to the pishdaramad, and is usually placed immediately before the reng.
Iranian classical music is usually performed by small ensembles of variable size. These groups typically consist of the singer, one or two accompanying melodic instruments (either of kamanche, tar, santur, setar, or nay) and perhaps a rhythmic instrument, such as the dombak, or the now rarer daf. The most important instruments are listed below. Click on the names or pictures to read a description and to hear a sound sample.
Even though they have unique voicings, these instruments are intertwined in the ensemble to maintain a monophonic texture. The following example, in which all of the instruments play the same melodic line is typical of Persian music. See: Iranian Traditional Music Instruments
Achaemenid Dynasty (550-331 B.C.). The writing of Herodotus and Xenophon suggests that music played an important role in court life and religious rituals during this period. However, little else is known about musical activity in the Persian Empire.
Sassanid Dynasty (A.D. 224-642). Exalted status was conferred to court musicians. Barbod, the most famous of these court musicians, reportedly conceived a musical system consisting of seven royal modes, thirty derivative modes, and three-hundred sixty melodies. This was the oldest Middle Eastern musical system of which some traces still exist. Its enduring heritage is the names given to some dastgahs in the modern system of Persian music.
Arab Invasion (A.D. 643-750). Musical activity was suppressed during this period.
Abbasid dynasty (A.D. 750-1258). This increasingly secular dynasty re-established music at the courts, and Iranian musicians were scattered throughout the Muslim world. Abu Nasr Farabi, whose Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir laid the foundations of the musical tradition of the core Muslim world, for example worked at the royal court in Baghdad. Abu Ali Sina, Safiaddin Ormavi, who codified the mode into twelve divisions with six melodies also lived at this time.
Social power for the next few centuries was dominated by Shiite clerics who frowned on musical expression, and were responsible for its suppression. The imperial courts of the Safavid and Qajar dynasties did patronize the arts, however, maintaining a faint link to the traditions of the past. The modern dastgah system, a codification and reorganisation of the old modes, dates back to the late Qajar dynasty.
The Pahlavi Dynasty brought with it an intense push towards westernisation. In response to this pressure, and in a misdirected effort to "raise" Persian music to the level of Western music, two theories on the intervals and scales of Persian music were proposed in the twentieth century:
The 24 quarter tone scale
This conception of Persian music was published by Ali Naqi Vaziri in his Musiqi-ye Nazari. He proposed this reformulation to fascilitate the composition of polyphonic pieces in a system which was traditionally monophonic. His efforts also brought about the notation of microtonal raising and lowering of pitches.
The 22 tone scale
A 22 tone scale was proposed by Mehdi Barkesli. This system is grounded in the origininal theories of the Abassid dynasty theoreticians, Farabi and Ormavi.
After extensive laboratory studies of the Persian musical repertoire, Hormoz Farhat has come to the conclusion that the notion of scale or octave is entirely foreign to Persian musical performance, being no more than an artificial construct imposed on the system to make it agree with certain Western notions of what is essential to the concept of music. Mr. Farhat insists that the more important concept in this music is that of the mayeh or melodic type. These are melodic formulas through which the music is articulated, and they transcend the notions of octaves or scales.
The Dastgah System
Like other Middle Eastern music, the music of Iran is modal in nature. Initially (before the Qajar dynasty) each of the major modes had an associated formula for melodic invention (mayeh). The mayeh included rules for cadences, a heirarchy of tones, and acceptable melodic patterns. Using the mayeh as a guideline, the musician was expected to improvise within a single mode for the duration of the performance, much as is done with Indian raga.
Gradually, this method became cumbersome for the musicians and for the listeners. As a result, during the Qajar dynasty, the old modes and mayehs were restructured and the dastgah system was developed. The modes were replaced by the twelve dastgahs. Each dastagah has an associated eight note scale, and each tone in the scale has a special significance, with one note being designated the analogue of the tonic in Western diatonic music. The dastgah also has its own repertory of melodies, each of which is called a gushe. A gushe is actually a melodic type which usually spans only four or five tones, and serves as a model for improvisation. Generally the gushe are played in an order which fills the lower, middle, and upper portions of the dastgah scale. Aside from that, the order and mode of each gushe may not have a logical relationship to that of the dastgah itself. The different gusheh are bond together by melodic fragments known as foruds, which inevitably resolve to the finalis of the dastgah. Within each dastgah are also encoded the rules for achieving that resolution. The initial gusheh in a dastgah is called the daramad, and it lends its name to the dastgah. Thus the dastgah-e-Shur is that dastgah which has the modal melody Shur as its daramad.
These points may be illustrated by examining the layout of the dastgah-e-Shur. The modal structure (the eight tone scale) of Shur is presented in figure 1:
Note that the scale does not span an octave per se, as it is bound by a b semi-flat on its lower end and by a b-flat on the upper end . Also, the 5th above finalis is played as an A during ascending melodic movement, while it is lowerred by a microtone in descending melodies. The bracketted whole notes show the tetrachord within which the main melodic activity takes place. Melodic movement is strictly diatonic, and leaps larger than a perfect 4th are not made within a phrase. The 2nd below finalis is the aqaz, or the point from which improvisation is initiated.
Two formulae for the daramad of Shur are presented below. Again, these formulae serve only as the basis for improvisation, and many dastgah-e Shur pieces have two daramads, one based on each formula.
Two Daramads in Shur, see figure 2:
There are several prescribed routes to a forud in Shur. The finalis may be approched from (a) the 2nd below, (b) the 3rd then 2nd below, (c) the 2nd above, or (d) the 4th above. Again these rules serve as the basis of improvisation and the foruds may therefore vary in length and type from performer to performer.
The four routes to a forud in Shur: figure 3:
The gushehs of dastgah-e Shur are: Salmak, Molla Nazi, Golriz, Bozorg, Xara, Qajar, Ozzal, Sahnaz, Qarace, Hoseyni, Bayat-e Kord, and Gereyli. The order of gushes within a dastgah is not fixed, and some gushes may be omitted altogether.
The melodic formula of Salmak is presented in figure 4:
As is demonstrated in the above example, these formulae serve only as a basis for improvisation, although the musicians are expected to render each gusheh in such a way that it remain identifiable.
Finally, the combiantion of all pieces that make up the repertory of Persian music is called the radif (row). Thus, the radif of Persian music contains the twelve dastgahs: Shur, Bayat-e Kord, Dashti, Bayat-e Tork, Abu Ata, Afshari, Segah, Nava, Homayun, Bayat-e Esfahan, Chahargah, Mahur and Raspanjgaht, with all of their constituent gushehs.