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dubsahara: Persian


Persian Music by Ali Zomorodi



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 engenderring 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. Click here to hear an example of tahrir. (This is a 229K WAV file. )
  • 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.

Compositional Structure

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. To hear what an ensemble sounds like, click the speaker below:

The nay, tar, santur, and setar playing as an ensemble(133K WAV file).

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 Sur is presented below:


(Farhat: 27)

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 Sur are presented below. Again, these formulae serve only as the basis for improvisation, and many dastgah-e Sur pieces have two daramads, one based on each formula.

Two Daramads in Sur

(Farhat: 28)

The daramad of Shur from Asheq’i peidast in Classical Music of Iran, Smithsonian Folkways 40039. CD #869 (498K WAV)

Click the speaker to hear a daramad to the dastgah-e-Shur, as it is renderred in a perfromance. This example demonstrates the way in which a typical performer treats the formulae that are part of the dastgah.

There are several prescribed routes to a forud in Sur. 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 Sur

(Farhat: 28)

The gushehs of dastgah-e Sur 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 below:

(Farhat: 29)

Gusheh Salmak from Asheq’i peidast in Classical Music of Iran, Smithsonian Folkways 40039. CD #869 (417K WAV file).

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, Abu Ata, Dashti, Bayat-e Tork, Afshari, Segah,Chahargah, Homayun, Bayat-e Esfahan, Nava, Mahur, andRrast, with all of their constituent gushehs.

Poetry and Music

In many ways all Persian art work springs from and works toward the reunification of man with God. The Persian belief in the ability of the arts, and music in particular, to effect the soul is seen in ancient myths pertaining to the creation of the world and humankind. It is believed that the sound of the heavenly orbs and creation resonates through living beings, and that Adam’s soul was tempted to enter his body by the music that angles created therein sama. Furthermore, Sufis for example believe that their music reflects the first words of God which elicited such ecstasy when Adam first heard them. Lastly, it is said (by the sage, Ikhwan-al-safa) that the musical system revealed to Pythagoras was meant to allow the recreation of the music of the heavenly orbs by mankind. Thus, the soul, creation, and music are intertwined.

The ultimate goal of Sufi aesthetics, is, of course, the attainment of hal, an ethereal status of the soul which can not be described by words. I can only say that it is the slight alleviation of the angst ridden yearning of the soul for a return to its place of birth, a reunification with the celestial body.

Also inherent in the aesthetics is the belief that ours is but an imperfect reflection of the archetypal world consisting of the most unfathomably perfect reality. Music, poetry, and the related forms of poetic expression, illumination and calligraphy are in themselves and in their aims, a means of catching a glimpse of this perfection.

There are thus many spiritual relationships between music and poetry. Many formal relationships also exist between the two modes of expression. For example, poems are composed of self-sufficient double-verses (beyts), while dastgahs are composed of more or less autonomous gushes. Also, as Hafez once said, “Writing poetry is like stringing random pearls”, meaning that the particular beyts, though they may shed some light on the meaning of the poem, are really not essential or sequentially specific to its essence. That is to say, the meaning of the poem would remain intact if some of the beyts were altogether omitted, or if their order were reversed. Likewise, the essence of the dastgah is the daramad, with the gushes serving an almost secondary, and unessential function. Nonetheless, just as one cannot mix random gushes together to obtain a viable dastgah, the beyts must be treated in a careful and precise manner to make for a meaningful development. Indeed, very few are well versed, talented, or presumptuous enough to take many liberties with the poetic and musical repertoire. Furthermore, in both forms, the artist resorts to a well established repertoire of devices for expanding and ornamenting ideas. Lastly, the rhythmic pattern of poetry, underlies many of the commonly used musical rhythms, and commonly used musical rhythms have served as the foundation for many a poem.

There are also many parallels between music and Persian calligraphy. Most obviously, they are both expressions of the word, of the great poetic tradition of Iran. Both in calligraphy and in the performance of a dastgah, the artist treats the underlying structure (the verse in the former, the gusheh in the latter) in a manner which individualistically yet faithfully conveys the essence of the underlying form. In both arts, ornamentation is a major tool for achieving these individualistic effects. There are two ways of ornamenting verses in calligraphy. Likewise there are two distinct types of ornamentation in music.

  • Ornamentation of the underlying form:Shekaste calligraphyAs seen in the above example of shekaste calligraphy, in one style of ornamentation, the words themselves are ornamented. The text loses its archetypal form, and is restated in the manner of the artists choosing. In fact, in this style, the ornament and the essence of the word become one and the same. In the realm of music too, one observes instances in which the artist separates the music from its underlying form; recreating it in his/her own idiosyncratic and ornamented vision (e.g. in the cheharmazrab).
  • Ornamentation superimposed over the form:Illuminated calligraphyAs seen in the above example, another style of calligraphy presents the poem in a rather straightforward manner, the underlying form being readily discernible and intelligible. Interwoven through and around this statement of the text are a myriad of arabesques, curls, cartouches, and even fully detailed backgrounds. Though the text is sometimes obscured for artistic effect, the degree to which this happens is minor at best, and the uderlying form is always clear. The analogue of this style in music is the artist’s treatment of the gushe in which he/she merely surrounds the music with optional figures that help to add to its meaning.


  • During, Jean. The Art of Persian Music. Washington D. C.: Mage Publishers, 1991.
  • Farhat, Hormoz, The dastgah Concept in Persian Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1990
  • Safvate, Dariouche. Nelly Caron. Iran, Les Traditions Musicales. Corra: Buchet/Chastle. 1966

Created 4/22/96 By Ali Zomorodi


PERSIAN MUSIC WAV: source http://persia.org/audio/

[   ] Aroussieh_Bandar.Readme 04-Jun-1995 18:53 45
[SND] Aroussieh_Bandar.wav 04-Jun-1995 18:57 2.7M
[SND] KCD101.wav 09-Aug-1995 14:59 444K
[SND] KCD102.wav 09-Aug-1995 15:01 386K
[SND] KCD103-1.wav 09-Aug-1995 15:03 455K
[SND] KCD103-2.wav 09-Aug-1995 15:04 213K
[SND] KCD104.wav 09-Aug-1995 15:05 400K
[SND] KCD105.wav 09-Aug-1995 15:06 214K
[SND] KCS127.wav 09-Aug-1995 15:07 414K
[TXT] Kurdish_Song.Readme 20-Feb-1995 01:32 403
[SND] Kurdish_Song.wav 20-Feb-1995 01:36 3.1M
[TXT] Readme.rodaki 14-Mar-1994 04:59 143
[   ] Readme.soufi 10-Mar-1994 15:11 93
[   ] Shirazi.Readme 04-Jun-1995 18:57 43
[SND] Shirazi.wav 04-Jun-1995 18:59 2.3M
[TXT] Sousan_Gole_Pamchal.Readme 03-Mar-1995 05:12 394
[SND] Sousan_Gole_Pamchal.wav 03-Mar-1995 05:19 1.9M
[SND] Tehran_Tehran.wav 05-Mar-1995 00:29 2.2M
[TXT] Two_Azarbayjani_Songs.Readme 04-Jun-1995 18:59 114
[SND] Two_Azarbayjani_Songs.wav 04-Jun-1995 19:02 2.6M
[SND] avayeh1.wav 22-Sep-1995 15:45 471K
[SND] avayeh2.wav 22-Sep-1995 15:46 513K
[SND] beyond1.wav 22-Sep-1995 15:48 482K
[SND] beyond2.wav 22-Sep-1995 15:49 486K
[   ] catlomod.zip 03-Nov-1994 19:47 41K
[   ] googoosh.hqx 06-Aug-1992 09:51 302K
[SND] mojdeh1.wav 22-Sep-1995 15:57 482K
[SND] mojdeh2.wav 22-Sep-1995 15:58 506K
[DIR] music_modes/ 06-May-2003 14:43 -
[TXT] readme.peerzan 15-Sep-1994 10:00 1.0K
[SND] rodaki.wav 12-Jan-1995 13:12 1.9M
[SND] rohozee.au 25-Jul-1995 10:08 1.6M
[SND] soufi.wav 06-Jan-1995 08:24 2.9M
[SND] tcw2.wav 22-Sep-1995 16:04 464K