Persian traditional music is Iran’s indigenous music, which is alternatively referred to as Iranian classical music. It involves the art and science of music – musiqi – and the performance and sound of the music – moosiqi.
Relatively little is known about the ancient Persian music. According to the writings of Xenophon and Herodotus, however, music played a central role in religious rituals and court life during the Achaemenian Dynasty between 550 and 331 BC.
During the Sassanid Empire (AD 226 to 642), music was largely used at the kings’ courts. Some of the musical instruments used during this period included bagpipes, flutes, lutes and harps. A few court musicians of the era are also known, such as Barbad who developed modal music known as ‘khosravani.’ The musical system was composed of 360 melodies, 30 derivative modes and seven royal modes. It is the oldest system in the Middle East.
Iranian classical music of the present still bears similar names but it is not known whether they sound the same as the earlier music. Musical notation from the era has so far not been found. The present Persian traditional music developed during the medieval era after the introduction of Islam.
One of the popular musicians during the era was Abu Nasr Farabi who helped to shape the musical tradition in the Muslim world through his ‘Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir.’ Abu Ali used to work at Baghdad’s royal court. Safiaddin Ormavi then codified the musical mode into 12 divisions having six melodies.
Music was largely suppressed during the Arab invasion between AD 643 and 750. The Shiite clerics who dominated social power for a few centuries looked negatively upon musical expression.
However, the largely secular Abbasid Dynasty that ruled between AD 750 and 1258 re-established musical activity at the courts. Traditional musicians were scattered in all parts of the Muslim world.
The present formal Iranian classical music takes after the music system played during the Safavid Dynasty. However, its present ‘dastgah’ form was restructured during the Qajar Dynasty.
The Pahlavi Dynasty introduced significant western influence to the Persian traditional music. The leaders exerted a lot of pressure in the mistaken belief that they were raising the traditional music to the same level as Western music. During the twentieth century, two theories were proposed on the scales and intervals of Iranian classical music. These were the 22 tone scale and 24 quarter tone scale.
Mehdi Barkesli proposed the former theory that was based on the earlier theories of Ormavi and Farabi of the Abassid Dynasty. Ali Naqi Vaziri gave the latter proposal, which was aimed at facilitating composition of polyphonic notes into the traditionally monophonic system. He contributed towards the microtonal lowering and raising of pitches.
However, Hormoz Farhat studied Persian musical repertoire extensively and concluded that octaves and scales were foreign to the traditional music. The notion was an artificial construct meant to make the music similar to Western notions of what music should entail. According to Farhat, the ‘maye’ or melodic type is the most important concept in Persian traditional music.
Iranian classical music is based on composition and improvisation through a series of tunes and modal scales that the musicians must memorize. The apprentices and their masters used to have a traditional relationship that has waned over the centuries with the introduction of music education in conservatories and universities.
What Does Persian Traditional Music Involve?
The Iranian classical music uses a lot of vocals, which means the vocalists play a major role in expressing the relevant mood. In case there are singers, they are often accompanied by either string or wind instruments and some type of percussion. Although the classical music may include a number of instruments, the vocalist still plays a central role in the performance. Both vocalists and musicians decide on the compositions to choose with the vocalists having a lot of say.
One composition may vary greatly from its beginning to the end. It may include athletic displays known as ‘tahrir’ that alternate with low, contemplative pieces.
Persian traditional songs are normally performed while the musicians are seated on rugs and cushions with fine decorations. In some cases, candles are lit.
Iranian classical music involves the use of different musical instruments, including:
• Kamancheh: a bowed spike-fiddle
• Ney: an end-blown flute
• Tombak: a goblet drum
• Daf: a frame drum
• Santur: a type of dulcimer
A variety of lutes were also used, such as the tanbur, tar, dotar and setar. ‘Chang’ or harp likewise played an important role but it is thought that tuning problems led to its replacement.
Iranian classical music still plays a crucial role in spiritual matters, as it has done since time immemorial. It is rarely regarded as a recreational activity. However, the use of religious texts has largely been replaced by lyrics that were mostly composed by Sufi poets.