Brief History of Persian Music 

The Iranian classical music has a profound and legendary historical background. There is abundant evidence of musical activities during the Sassanian period (226-651 A.D.). Some of the great musicians that have been mentioned through the history are Barbad, Bamshad, Nakisa, and Ramtin. The most famous musician, Barbad, is credited for the invention of a system of seven modal structures; it includes thirty derivative modes, and 360 melodies. This constitutes the basic structure of the present Dastgah system.During the medieval periods there were numerous music theorists; unfortunately no records of any of their music remains except for the few remaining books of the most famous composers such as Urmavi, Farabi, Shirazi, and Maraghei. 

Iranian music declined during the 16th to the 20th centuries and suffered a loss due to the prevailing influence of Shiite Muslim practices, to the point that any performance of this secular music was considered a serious crime and was met with sever punishment. In spite of the suppression of music under the Islamic rule for nearly three centuries, Iranian music survived and emerged through to the 20th century. During the 19th century Qajar dynasty, a new system of seven Dastgahs and five derivatives (secondary Dastgahs) was established; these are now universally accepted as the base and foundation of classical Iranian music today. Contrary to the previous centuries’ values where nobility condemned musical expressions, the Pahlavi dynasty encouraged public performances and musical activities, and promoted such arts through broadcast radio and television. Albeit, it was not sufficient to elevate and support, in particular, the classical music itself. Music education gained popularity during the same period, and music schools were established. This encouraged the involvement of the prominent classical musicians, such as Ali Naqi Vaziri, Ruhullah Khaleghi, Abul Hasan Saba, Hormoz Farhat, and many others, in the promotion and teaching of music, and establishing curriculums at such schools. 


The structure of Iranian classical music is based on a modal system. Radif is a collection of ancient melodies that have been handed down through the generations. The basic modal structure of Iranian Radif is based on seven main groups called Dastgah, and five subgroups called Avaz. 

The Dastgahs are: 

Shur, Segah, Homayun, Chahargah, Mahur, Rast-va-Panjgah, Nava. 

The subgroups are derivatives of two of the main Dastgahs, namely, Shur and Homayun. 

 The Avaz derivatives of Shur are: 

Turk, Afshari, Abu-Ata,Dashti. 

The Avaz derivative of Homayun is: 


Each Dastgah consists of several maqams, while the structure of each maqam is based on gushehs that are considered prominent and the most important. The prominent goushehs are those that create a form of a mode that changes the modal, melodic and rhythmic patterns of a Dastgah. We should take notice that there is no absolute definition of musical composition for any gousheh. This due to the fact that the foundations of the gushehs are flexible by nature and there is a vast freedom for improvisation. 

 Iranian musical instruments: 

Iranian classical music is conveyed in its essence through instruments other than avaz (vocals, chants). The instruments are strings, percussion, fiddle, dulcimer, and wood pipe: Tar, Setar, Tonbak, Kamancheh, Santur and Nay respectively. 


The following is a brief summary of each of these instruments:


A precussion tabla, is carved out of a single stock of wood and is ornamented with furrows circumscribing the shell. It has two opening at both ends. The large opening is covered usually with goatskin, while the small opening, facing toward the artist, is smaller, thus creating a resonance box. This instrument is played utilizing both hands and all fingers to achieve low and high frequency rhythms. Over the centuries Tonbak players have innovatively added knocking sound by the use of the gold rings in their playing fingers.


Is a plucked string instrument, with a two-bowl configuration, carved from mulberry wood. The bowl is covered tightly with a stretched lambskin, while the gut frets are adjustable by moving them on the neck. The Tar is tuned with two and a fifth octaves. Tar has six metal strings that are usually tuned in pairs, where the first two are tuned normally unison, with the exception of the last pair, which are tuned normally octave. The tar is played with a plectrum made of brass, embedded in a wax wad and is plucked by the right hand. The wax is soft to accommodate and mold to the fingers of the artist.


A four string instrument, is considered to be the spiritual Iranian musical instrument due to its very unique and characteristically delicate sound. It is usually the preferred instrument of the Sufi mystics. The resonating bowl and the neck are composed of a variety of woods, predominately including mulberry and/or walnut wood. The adjustable gut frets run along the wooden long neck. The tuning range of this instrument is about the same as tar two octaves and fifth. Unlike the brass plectrum used by Tar players, the right index fingernail serves as the plucking device.


Often known as the spiked fiddle, is a four metal string instrument comparable to the size of viola, but with a tuning range similar to a violin. 

Kamancheh’s strings run along the neck and utilized a spherical sound bowl for resonation. Kamancheh is played with abough made of wood and horse mane; it has a long wooden cylindrical neck with out any frets. The sound bowl is a covered with a tightly stretched animal skin with the bridge supporting the strings over the skin. 

To assist the player during play, Kamancheh is supported by a small monopod, placed right under the sound bowl. This monopod is used to easily rotate the instrument while playing; its height can be adjusted to fit the artist. The monopod is placed on the surface of chair or the floor depending on the preference of the artist. There is also a peg-box which holds the four pegs, two on each side of the neck.  

There are two kinds of Kamancheh in Iran: closed and open bowl. The closed bowl is completely continuous spherical wood, while the open bowl is similar to a venturi, with the open end facing the artist. The open-backed Kamancheh is called a Lori Kamancheh. This instrument is played by many cultures; the tuning of it, though, is determined by the music of that culture.