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Persian music and its history

Persian music has had a profound effect on various Eastern musical cultures, and also influenced Southern European and Northern African music.


Most of the efforts in music processing are focused on Western music while there are a variety of subtle points in the Eastern musical systems. This section provides the background material for Persian Music including a brief historical review and explanation of the musicological concepts.

A Brief History of Persian Music

The origin of Persian music traces back to the earliest written histories. According to legend, king Jamshid is credited with the Invention of music. The two Greek historians, Herodotus and Xenophon, mention the use of martial, ceremonial and ritual music in Iran during the Medes (900- 550 B.C.) and Achaemenids (559 – 331 B.C.) dynasties. Remains of an Achaemenids Clay Horn have been found recently and are held in the museum of Pars in the city of Shiraz. During the Achaemenids, Persian territory from China to Egypt and Greece made a common cultural platform. During the Hellenic era from 331-238 B.C. the Macedonians ruled over the former Persian Empire and this cultural platform remained unchanged. The Macedonians were later defeated by Iranians and the dynasty of Parthians ruled from 238 B.C. to 224 A.D. In this era, sort of popular musicians emerged who could create the poem, compose the music and perform it at once. The peak period for ancient Persian music occurred during the Sàsànids dynasty (224-652 A.D.). Bàrbod, the most brilliant musician of the court of Khosro Parviz, devised a musical system, containing seven modal structures which were called the Khosravani (Royal Modes) as the days of a week, thirty derivative modes or modulations which were called the Lahn corresponding to days of a month, and three hundred sixty melodies called the Dastàn for each day of the year. There were also music hymns with which the Gàt’hà of the Avestà (the Zoroastrian holy book) were sung. During this period, music was so important that one of the kings, Bahràm-e Gur (421-439 A.D.) invited 1200 musicians from India to contribute to the musical programmes in Persia.

The Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D. spread the Persian Instrumental and vocal music throughout the Islamic empire. Two major schools of music were developed from the Persian music: One in Baghdad and the other in Cordoba which sprang into the North African and the Flamenco music. Persian musicians and musicologists brought their musical concepts and instruments to the furthest points in the empire. An interesting event is the migration of Master Zaryàb along with his sons and daughters from Persia to Spain to teach the instrumental, vocal and dance techniques. He brought the Persian lute or Barbat (Ud) to the Spain which was then evolved to the present day Guitar. Some of the famous musicians and musicologists of Persia in the Eastern Muslim Empire are: Farabi (A.D. 950), Ebne Sinà or Avicennà (A.D. 1037), Ràzi (A.D. 1209), Safioddin Ormavi (A.D. 1294), Qotbeddin Shiràzi (A.D. 1310), and Abdol-Qàder Maràqi (d.circa 1460). This era was followed by the disastrous Mongol invasion in the 1200s, which brought the Persian Musical concepts to the East. The new golden age of Persian civilisation began with the Safavids dynasty (1499-1746 A.D.), during which the music chambers of the Àli Qàpu and the Chéhél sotun palace in the city of Esfehàn were made. In this and previous eras, musicians were patronized by nobility. However, from that time until the 1850s, Persian music lost its official significance and was frowned upon. In recent decades, Persian music has again found broader dimensions. An urge to create new traditions and an interest in the unique musical structures has emerged. However, the national music of Iran may be represented by the tradition of the past tinged with 19th century performance practices.

The Persian Dastgàh system

Persian music is based upon a set of 12 modes, called the Dastgàh system: Shur, Abu’ Atà, Bayàt-e Tork, Afshàri, Dashti, Homàyun, Bayat-e Esfehàn, Segàh, Chahàrgàh, Màhur, RàstPanjgàh, and Navà. There is a tonal centre or centre of pitch gravity for each Dastgàh, which is called the Shàhed. Each Dastgàh has a number of derivatives, called the Gushé. Moving from a Dastgàh to a Gushé is the usual way for modulation in Persian music. Most of the time, it occurs with a change in the Shàhed, but it may change the tuning too. Some of the Gushé are independent, but when called through another Dastgàh, will play the role of a Gushé. For example, the Delkash Gushé of Bayàt-e Esfehàn is absolutely a Shur from a fifth interval. Performance in each Dastgàh starts with an opening section, which is called the Daràmad. Then, modulations to other modes (Gushé) occur, during which the Shàhed note gradually moves upward. Finally, a Cadential phrase called the Forud, brings the mode back to the initial mode of the Dastgàh. In terms of the rhythm, the urban Iran music consists of either free-rhythmic pieces (Avàz) or rhythmic songs, typically in 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8. Complex rhythms like 5/8 and 7/8 are mostly used in the ethnic music.

Some of the Iranian famous musical instruments are: Santur, Tar, Setar, Ney, Kamancheh etc which are globally noted and played by a lot of Iranian and non-Iranian learners all around the world.


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