Persian music refers to the traditional music that originated from the country that is known today as Iran, which used to be Persia until 1935.
Excavated evidence shows that Persian music can be traced as far back as the Elamite Empire―which ruled Persia from 2,500 to 644 BC. Not a lot is known about the music of this period, apart from the fact that a number of instruments were devised and played, such as flutes, lutes, guitars, as well as an instrument known as the 'barbat'.
According to Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, music was given great importance during the period of the Achaemenid Empire. He states that music played a vital role during religious ceremonies in which the ancient Persian god of light and truth, Mithra, was worshiped.
During the Sassanian Dynasty―which ruled from 226 to 642 AD―court musicians were given an exalted status. Amongst these, it is said that Barbod, who was the most famed, conceptualized a musical system that was made up of 360 melodies, 30 modes, and 7 royal modes. This musical system is said to be the oldest in the Middle East, traces of which are still in existence. Some of the names of the dastgahs of modern Persian music come from this period.
Music was suppressed in the region during the period of the Arab invasion from 643 to 750 AD.
Then, during the Abbasid Dynasty―which ruled from 750 to 1258 AD and had a comparatively secular outlook―music was restored in the courts, and famous Iranian musicians spread all over the Muslim world, such as Abu Nasr Farabi―whose creation 'Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir' formed the basis of the musical traditions of the Muslim world―Safiaddin Ormavi, and Abu Ali Sina.
After the Abbasid era, Shiite clerics dominated social power, which resulted in music being suppressed once again. However, there was some patronization of the arts in the courts of the Safavid as well as Qajar dynasties, thereby sustaining a tenuous link to the musical traditions of previous times. The dastgah system that is played today―a codification and reorganization of the ancient modes―can be traced back to the latter part of the Qajar dynasty.
The highly westernized Pahlavi Dynasty―which ruled Iran from 1925, when Reza Shah Pahlavi was crowned, until 1979, when it was overthrown by the Iranian Revolution―gave a westernized push to the music of Persia, in an effort to "lift" the music to the standards of Western music. Accordingly, two theories on the scales and intervals of Persian music were put forward: the 24 quarter tone scale, and the 22 tone scale.
However, according to the famous Persian composer and musician, Hormoz Farhat, who made extensive studies of the entire range of Persian music, the notion of octave or scale is completely foreign. He opined that it was just an artificial construct that was foisted on Persian music in order for it to conform to Western ideas about what is necessary in music. Hormoz Farhat declared that this music genre is based on melody. These are melodic systems through which the music is expressed, which surpass any system comprising scales or octaves.
- A modal system forms the basis of Persian music, and each mode produces different types of melodies, known as gushehs.
- This music type is chiefly monophonic, with a single melodic theme followed by each of the instruments that make up an ensemble.
- The musician is in charge of how the melodic types are executed.
- Ornamentation is given a lot of importance.
- Symmetry, cadence, and the repetition of motifs at various pitches is emphasized.
- Usually, the tempo is rapid.
- Vocalization is usually embellished with 'tahrir', an ornamentation that is akin to yodeling.
- The various melodic phrases are modeled on the rhythmic pattern of poetry.
Main Instruments Used
Some of the instruments that are used to produce the distinctive sounds of Persian music are: the tombak, a goblet-like drum; the ney, a kind of flute; the daf, a frame drum; the kamancheh, a violin-like instrument; and a number of lutes such as the dotar, tanbur, setar, tar, and santur.