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Persian Traditional Music

Persian Traditional Music

History | Before Islam | 13th Century | Mongols | Revival & Western Influence

Introduction to Persian Music

The traditional music of Iran is a message, a call from the artist's innermost consciousness.

Deeply intertwined with Iran's age-old history and culture, it is an expression of the joys, loves, sorrows, efforts and struggles, all the many victories and defeats that the peoples of Western Asia have experienced over the millennia.

It is something of a miracle that these people have kept their music intact despite numerous, murderous foreign invasions - in fact, imposing their own art, lifestyle and generous view of the world on their invaders.

A Brief History of Persian Music

Overall, the history of Persian traditional music - like the history of Iran itself - can be divided into two eras, Pre-Islamic and Post-Islamic.

Traditional Persian musical instrument, Tehran.

Traditional Iranian musical instrument

Before Islam

Under the Achaemenids (550-320 BCE), music served an important function in worship as well as in courtly entertainment. Bas-reliefs from the period clearly depict groups of singers, players of trigonal harps (chang), accompanied by large tambourines, as well as long necked lutes and double-flutes. The first written evidence of Persian music is from the Sassanid Period (226-643 CE). Khosrau II was a great patron of music, and his most famous court musician, Barbod, was said to have developed a musical system with seven modal structures (known as the Royal Modes), thirty derivative modes, and 365 melodies, associated with the days of the week, month and year.

The Arrival of Islam

With the advent of Islam in the 7th century A.D., Persian music, as well as other Persian cultural elements, became a formative element in what has since become "Islamic civilization". Persian musicians and musicologists overwhelmingly dominated the musical life of the Eastern Islamic Empire. Baghdad became the centre of Persian music, and many musicians who were once considered to be Arabs are actually now known to have been Iranians. Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Sina (d. 1037), Razi (d. 1209), Ormavi (d. 1294), Zalzal (d.791), Ziryab, and Maraqhe-e (d. 1432) are a few of the many outstanding Persian musical scholars of the early Islamic period.

The 13th Century - Theory and Synthesis

In the 13 century, Arab-Persian music theory became largely standardized into what became as the Systematist or Iraqi school (since it developed in the court of Baghdad). The pioneer of this school was Safi Al Din Ormavi (from northwestern Iran) who provided a theoretical synthesis of the many systems of intervals and scales proposed before his time. He divided the octave into seventeen notes, giving each note a name. Various juxtapositions of these notes formed the basis of twenty named modes or maqamat, which to this day provide the theoretical basis for all different kinds of Middle Eastern music.

The Mongol Invasion

The Mongol invasion of Persia (from 1220), drastically changed the socio-political environment of the region. During this period, Shiite theology became established, and Sufism became erfan (gnosis) and penetrated deep into Persian lyrical poetry. The musical style of Araq (western Iran) gradually adopted the structure and emotional language of ghazal (a form of Persian poetry) and poetry became the main source of avaz (vocal section). During the 16th to 17th centuries, Persian music began to follow its own course and diverged from that of its Arabic, Turkish, and Tajik neighbors.

The Safavid Period

With the rise of the Safavid dynasty at the end of the fifteen century, and the increasing influence of Shiism, music in Persia declined. The court still patronized musicians, but their art became subject to the authority of Shiite clerics, who viewed it with suspicion. Musical performance was given over to illiterate 'labourers of pleasure'. The brilliance of the Persian tradition passed to India, where the ruling Moguls were Turco-Mongols, deeply influenced by Persian court culture. In Iran, musical traditions were kept alive by Sufis and performers of taziye (Shiite passion plays).

Tazieh, Tehran.

Taziye Passion Play Performed in Tehran



Traditional Persian musical instrument, Tehran.

Traditional Iranian music is enjoying a revival

Revival and Western Influence on Iranian Music

The 19th century Qajar King Nasser al-Din Shah was a great patron of music. He sponsored many great musicians, among them Mirza Abdollah Farahani who collated and organised the traditions of Persian music to form the basis of contemporary Persian traditional music known as radif. In 1862, a process of Westernization began when, Nasser al-Din Shah ordered the establishment of a military band, such as he had seen in Europe playing overtures, marches, polka, and waltzes. A French musician, Alfred Lemair, was hired to run a traditional ensemble of indigenous shawms, horns, trumpets, and percussion into a Western concert band. He was so successful that by the end of the 19th century, the music school in Tehran taught Western instruments and music theory.

Westernization gathered pace with the accession of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. The Tehran music school (now a fully-fledged conservatoire) and the National School of Music were both state funded, and, in the late 1930s, a small symphony orchestra was founded. Iranian composers began to study abroad, and to compose in nationalist and modernist styles. By the 1970s, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra consisted of 100 players, and newly built concert halls were hosting international artists; music departments were instituted in universities, and television introduced Western music to the people. Pop, rock, jazz, and Latin American music gained popularity, and in their wake, the record and cassette industry marketed local pop music and hybrid love-songs that blended Persian modes with Western harmony.

Kayhan Kalhor playing a setar, Tehran.

One of Iran's most famous musicians, Kayhan Kalhor, playing a setar

Records and radio, and exposure to Western light music stimulated Persian music in its popular form. The traditional tasnif was reinterpreted in popular ballads, composed in Persian modes, but following the structure of Western songs. Often, the harmonic underlay was a mixture of traditional and Western instruments. In this form, it was commonly known as tarane - a 3-4 minute long song which was suited to the 78 rpm record. Traditional dastgah performances were similarly reduced in length, fewer modes were used in performance, and many were eliminated.

The Islamic Revolution to the Present

Soon after the Islamic revolution, institutions teaching Western music were closed, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra was disbanded and, in an attempt to eliminate pop and hybrid love songs, no music at all was permitted on the radio.

Many Iranian pop musicians migrated to the West, especially the United States. Los Angeles became a haven for Iranian pop music which it remains to this day. Later, the ban on traditional music was removed and restrictions were loosened. Interest and activity in traditional music have since revived, with the School of National Music back in full operation.

Many young Iranians have again become interested in traditional music and the ban on Western music and even pop music has now been lifted. Today, music is taught in state-funded universities and many private institutions and classes throughout the country. Many Iranians play musical instruments, and the social standing of musicians is now much higher than in the past.

Aryan Rahmanian

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Traditional Persian musical instrument, Tehran.

Traditional Iranian musical instrument



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