Guide to Persian Music - Persian Classical Music

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Iran has a very long national and political history. Persia was already a great empire, a meeting-place of diverse cultural elements. Still, it never lost its own individuality. In Islamic musical tradition mixture, the Persian element has been dominant and this tradition was mostly based on pre-Islamic Persian musical practices. The Turkic – or Arabic – music terminology is largely Persian, and musical instruments mostly used in these regions stem from Persian music instrument prototypes.

Iran traditional music is modal and improvisational. Dastgahs, which find their roots in the modes described by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) provide the basic material for the music-making in Persian music. Dastgah is tended to be equated to makam(or maqam) in Turkish music. However it is wider and it signifies a set of system composed of makam and melodic materials. Makam is the mode, the particular set of pitches from which the composers or improvisers make selections and each has a unique configuration of interval.

There are twelve dastgahs in Persian music each of which has a particular melodic contour (mayeh). A dastgah comprises gushehs, which are anonymous melodies performed one after the other. Their length is different from each other and they are in conformity with the dastgah’s tone. The twelve dastgahs in Persian music are: shur, abu atã, dashti, bayat-e tork (or bayat-e zand), afshari, segah, chahargah, homayun, bayat-e esfahan, nava, mahur and rast (or rast-panjgah). The performance of a dastgah usually begins with a section called daramad (introduction), where the mode (makam) and the mayeh of the dastgâh are signaled. Daramad is followed by the gushehs, some of which are exclusive to a specific dastgah.

The group of pieces forming each twelve dastgah is called radif. On the other hand, this word is also used to indicate the pieces constituting Iran traditional music repertory.

The intervals between the pitches of Iran music is different than the Western music. In addition to major and minor seconds in consecutive intervals, there are three-quarter notes, slightly larger than the western half-note and five-quarter tones, slightly larger than the western whole-tone.

Persian musical instruments are designed so as to make possible that such intervals can be played. Each musical instrument in Iran generate beautiful tone colors reflecting the moods and emotions of those lands. Iran is also the source of several musical instruments found outside its lands. For instance, santur, the Persian dulcimer is found in North India and Greece.

Iran has a wide range of string, bowed, percussion and woodwind instruments. Among those, setar (a long-necked lute), tar (another long-necked lute), santur (a hammer dulcimer), kamancheh (a spike fiddle), ney (a rim-blown flute) and tombak (or dombak which is a vase-shaped wooden drum) are the most widely used instruments of Iran classical music.

The rhythmic structure of Iran music is as sophisticated as its harmonic structure; it is somewhere between metric and non-metric. Some songs have metric structure whereas some other do not use any meter.

Persian music is traditionally learned through private lessons from a master-musician. The pupil concentrates on mastering an instrument, even the singers study with an instrumentalist and learn to sing as the teacher plays on the instrument. The improvisation is inseparable from the process of learning.

Besides Persian classical music, regional, rural or tribal music emerges in Iran benefiting from rich traditions. Both in classical and regional music, the use of voice is prominent besides the use of instruments. Tahrir is the unique vocal technique of the Persian classical music; it is a type of ornamentation with quasi-yodeling effect and high falsetto notes. Other vocal styles are used in traditional and spiritual ceremonies such as zekr (where poetry is sung and instruments are played by the members of Sofi orders). A type of responsorial singing called Nowheh, in which the leader sings in variable meter against the group’s short, more metrical response is used in villages.As you see, music is in the tradition, the culture, the daily life of Iran. The above explanations are just to provide you an overview of Persian music and to call you to explore the mystical and rich sounds of Iran in detail.

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