Music of Iran

Impact of Iranian Music on other Cultures and Vice Versa
By: Nasrollah Nassehpour


In order to examine Iranian music, that of the neighboring countries should first be tackled. Since the states which have either impressed our music or have been influenced by it have either been part of Iran in ancient times or just adjacent to it. Besides the relation between the neighboring countries, given that Iran was located in-between the east and west, the frequent crossings of various tribes left its impressions on Iran's culture. The two issues needs to be examined closely. Though a thorough discussion of the issues in question won't be possible here, but I will do my best to show such a mutual impact as far as possible.

Iran's culture is one of the world's most ancient. Given that no remarkable information and documents are available on its ancient era, nonetheless, on the basis of the existing evidences one might realize the existence of an integrated music in the ancient Iran. The oldest document is a cylindrical stamp dating back to the 5th millennium BC, which has been unearthed at Choghamish near Dezful. It shows the world's most ancient music ensemble, which is consisted of a hrapist and a drummer.

On the other hand, Iranian music might have been influenced by the Indian music, which might be linked to the music of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. This is, nonetheless, nothing new and its evident sample is Abu Reiahn Birouni's book titled "Mal ol-Hind".

The impression left on Iranian music by the Indian music since ancient times is quite evident from the common Aryan traditional music, among which the one with the well-known story about the Indian gypsies might be the most famous. It is said that Bahram Gour requested his father-in-law, who was India's monarch, to send 12,000 musicians to Iran in order to entertain the Iranian nation by playing Indian music. The consequent impression left on Iran's music has been talked about to some extent. The existence of such Indian musical instruments as "van" and "drai" in Iran marks the traces of Indian music. Besides coming across musical graces such as Ramkli in Abu-Ata, Denasari in Homayoun, Abdullah Rock, Indian Rock, Kashmiri Rock in Mahour and Rast-Panjgah are samples of such an impression. It should be clarified that Ramkli and Denasari are Indian Ragas (modes). Besides Rock is the Arabic version of Rag, which is somehow related to the Persian word Rang (color). The impression of Iranian music on the Indian music is still more evident, which is contributed to the presence of Iranian musicians specially Amir Khosrow Dehlavi, the Indian Persian-speaking poet and the famous singer and musician at Akbar Shah's court. Indian music of today is based on two styles known as Hindustani and Karnatic. Sangeet Hindustani style commonly played in northern India appeared under the impression of Iranian music. The Indian singing styles including Qavali, lyrical, melodious and fanciful are all rooted in Iranian music. The Indian sitar is taken after the Iranian tar, which has undergone some changes to produce more complicated melodies. According to the latest research, the Indian "tabla" is rooted in three instruments including the Iranian "naghareh" (timbal), the Iranian/Indian "dehlak" and the Indian "pakhavaj". On the other hand the presence of the Iranian and Arabic words such as "saz" (instrument), "mezrab" (plectrum) denote such an impression. Unfortunately, further elaboration in this respect would divert our attention from the original issue.

Given that China played a decisive role in the cultural and musical exchange, it should be mentioned as well. Several Iranian instruments, which were taken to China, were influenced by some characteristics of the Chinese music. For instance, the Chinese instrument known as "suona" is rooted in the Iranian "sorna" (oboe) and is related to some extent to the Indian "shahna". Another such example is the Iranian "barbat" that was taken to China and became known as "pipa", which should have later been taken to Japan. The Japanese called it "biwa". Another instrument quite resembling the Iranian "tonbak" (tambourine) called "shohai-gata-kataman-taiko" is also commonly played in Japan, while the instrument played in Iran's Sistan and Baluchestan province, known as "binjo" is originally Japanese.

It is interesting to note, however, that the culture of Ighuz Turks has been greatly impressed by the Iranian culture and the presence of such Iranian instruments as "tar", "khoshtar", "dap", etc. is the best evidence. Ighuri music is based on modal style and is comprised of 12 modes, which should be rooted in the well-known Iranian 12-modal.

Given that we already surveyed the common music of eastern Iran, let's tackle that of western Iran. According to the surveys conducted so far by unknown researchers, it has been revealed that the Greek music is originally rooted in the Orient. Likewise, the Turkish music has so much in common with Iranian music that they might hardly be considered independent from one another. Therefore, the Iranian music should be taken as one of the basics of the Turkish music. For instance, the Greek percussion instrument known as "tebeleki" - made from animal hide - which is from the same family as the Turkish instrument called "dombalak", should have been rooted in the Iranian percussion instrument known as "dombak" tambourine. "Dombalak" is a Pahlavi (middle Persian language) word which is a converted form of "dombak". It should be noted, however, that once the Islamic Civilization prevailed, the use of Greek texts in theoretical music became common, which might be taken as the theoretical impression of the Greek music on the theoretical music of the world of Islam.

But what is more important is to discuss the music of Arabic-speaking countries. Everything that is related to the Islamic civilization has been attributed by some biased historians to the Arabs on the mere ground that they have been written in Arabic, while the share of Iranians have either been ignored or rendered quite pale. The Islamic civilization is known to have been quite common in the world of Islam over 9th-11th centuries owing mostly to the committed attempts of the Iranian scholars. It should be mentioned that what is known today as the Arab music is rooted in the music of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Iran.

Once the governments ruling Assyria and Babylonia collapsed in the 6th century BC, the Mesopotamian and Iranian civilizations were combined to form a single much richer civilization. The Egyptian music is also impressed by Iranian music. The presence of Iranian instruments such as kamancheh and dulcimer as well as various Iranian musical modes including chahargah, sehgah, Isfahan, Nahavand, souznak, rast, basteh-negar, souz-e del in the Egyptian music is the best evidence to this end. Besides the instrument known as dulcimer is also commonly played in China, India, Iraq, Hungary, Romania and Germany.

The western musical instruments are mostly rooted in or taken after the oriental ones. Almost all European instruments were taken to Europe by Muslims from Asia through the southeast of Byzantine and northern Africa in the Middle Ages. The Iranian "barbat" known as "oud" (lute) among the Arab states was called lute once it arrived in Europe. Later on, it underwent changes and was converted into guitar and mandolin. It should be clarified, however, that guitar is not quite unlike the Iranian string instrument known as Tar and that the occurrence of the word "tar" in guitar is not accidental.

It is already evident that the basics of piano should be looked for in dulcimer and that the Turkish and Arabic "sornas" have also been derived from similar Iranian instruments. It should be noted that even the percussion instruments have mostly been taken to the West from the Orient. The French word "tabor" is proved to have been derived from the Persian word "tabireh". "Tabor" was an instrument which was played in Europe in the Middle Ages. Besides the history of the western music shows that the percussion instrument made of hide and known as "naker" is the father of its present version known as timpani. Naker is derived from the word "naghareh" which was taken to Europe through the Ottoman martial music. All types of frame and goblet drums are rooted in the Middle East. For instance, the north African instrument called "bendayer" also referred to as "bendir" is of the same root as the Iranian instrument known as "dayereh" (tambourine), which was taken to Spain and Portugal by Muslims, whence it was taken to Brazil and became known as "pandeiro".

Let's now survey the impression left on the Iranian music by the western music over the recent two centuries. It can be definitely said that such an impression dates back to the Qajar era. Under the rule of Fathali Shah Qajar, once Iran's ruling system and army was introduced to the new European system and the army was equipped with cannons and guns, the martial musical instruments - mainly played in naghareh-khanehs (special centers where timbals were played) - were also replaced. Since then the naghareh-khanehs were replaced by new martial musical arrangements. In-between the two world wars, when Iran and the Tsarian Russia were apparently in good terms, the ambassador plenipotentiary representing the Russian government heading a delegation arrived in Tehran via Tabriz. A 30-member orchestra accompanying the visiting delegation performed tunes in Tabriz for the crown prince Abbas Mirza and for Fathali Shah who resided in Soltaniyeh, Zanjan for an indefinite period of time. Once Abbas Mirza heard the played tunes, he became inquisitive about their instruments and after getting enough information about them, he decided to form an orchestra of martial music according to the new style. This was the very time when the Iranian music got impressed by the western music. Then a new department was added to Darol-Fonoun School, where modern martial music was to be taught in order to train experts of martial music. A music master called Loumer was employed. In 1918, a music school was established at the proposal of General Gholam-Reza Minbashiyan.

The book called "Western Theoretical Music" was translated into Persian for the first time ever by Mirza Ali Khan-e Naqqash-Bashi, known as Mozayanoddoleh, who used to teach French and painting at Darol-Fonoun. It was published at the school's printing house. Piano was brought into Iran under the rule of Fathali Shah. Mohammad Sadeq Khan Sorour ol-Molk, the well-known dulcimer player, tuned it in accordance with Iranian intervals for the very first time.

Violin is also one of the European instruments, which became common in Iran under the reign of Nassereddin Shah after the establishment of Darol-Fonoun. Then it was adopted by Iranian orchestras and taking it as a model, a fourth cord was added to the Iranian string instrument known as Kamancheh.

It should be noted, however, that Iran's music gradually became more and more impressed by the western music, so that its traces are evident even in the most traditional type of Iranian music. The most significant cases of such impression might be summarized as follows:

  • Devised forms of the late Qajar era such as "pish-daramad" (overture), etc.
  • Singing and playing styles
  • Various styles of performing in ensemble
  • Imitation of western styles including martial music, waltz, polka, etc.
  • Chamber and Symphonic orchestras
  • Opera and ballet groups
  • Music schools and western teaching methods
  • Writing music and notes
  • Survey and research on music


  • Since elaborating on all the above is out of question, some of the cases will just be briefly pointed out. At the music courses proposed by Salar Moazzez besides martial music, other branches of western music were also taught. Thus civil trainees were also attracted to the said music school.

    In 1923 the Higher Music School was established under the supervision of Ali-Naqi Vaziri, who was trained on Iranian traditional music by Iranian masters. He also studied western music in Germany. Under the impression of western educational music books, Vaziri complied and published in Berlin his book on playing both European and Iranian music with `tar'. He compiled a musical theory on the Iranian music with a western outlook on the basis of which, for instance, the 24-part scale might be redesigned. Such a theory was earlier brought up and proposed for the oriental music by Michael Moshaqeh, the Arab mathematician. He meant to moderate the intervals of Iranian music similar to the 12-part western scale so that they would correspond to rules of harmony.

    As concerns formation of orchestras, one might recall the orchestra of Okhovvat Society, which was the first orchestra of Iranian instruments formed under the impression of western music. The orchestra included such western instruments as violin and piano, which eventually led to the establishment of the orchestra of Vaziri's music school.

    The idea of initiating opera in Iran might have occurred to the mind of some Iranian artists around 70-80 years ago. In the outset of the constitution era, when stage performances became common, the idea of musical dramas also popped into the minds of the artists. As a matter of fact, the idea of operas and operettas was introduced by the Caucasian musicians residing in Iran. One may actually talk about writing harmonized melodies on the basis of Iranian music.

    The brief reference made above calls for multilateral survey in order to further introduce the connection of Iranian music with the cultures of other states. Fortunately, dialogue among civilizations can assist researchers across the world, once the principles and the nations' votes are respected.