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Essentials of Persian Music Part 1

June 9, 2008

This post is part of a three-part summary of ideas found in:

Farhat, Hormoz, The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, Cambridge Studies in Ethnomusicology, Cambridge University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-521-30542 X.

This book is based on the author’s 1965 thesis. My comments and summaries of omitted material are in square brackets. In some references I have abbreviated The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music to DCPM.

Hormoz Farhat begins by explaining how his interest in Persian music developed. Despite being a Persian by birth and living in Persia until his teenage years Farhat was initially most interested in western music. His father was an amateur musician who played the tār but despite exposure to Persian music Farhat, especially with the coming of radio to Persia, soon became more interested in western classical music by composers such as Greig, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. When, in his late teens he decided to devote his life to the study of music, his opinion of Persian music was low.

I had no feelings for Persian music other than contempt. As compared with the wealth, variety and range of expression in western music, Persian music seemed limited, frail and monotonous.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.ix

However, in 1955, having completed a BA in Music and an MA in Composition at universities in the USA, he was persuaded by Mantle Hood of UCLA to make Persian music the subject of his doctoral dissertation. There were a number of factors that helped to persuade Farhat to adopt this change of direction. He was persuaded by Hood that the musical culture of Persia must contain things of interest and value and, as a native Persian, Farhat had obvious advantages over western students of Persian music. Also, at that time very little was known in the west about Persian music, making any research of particular value. In the USA in the 1950s no books or articles on Persian music had yet been published.

Farhat returned to his native Persia in 1957 to begin research for his Ph.D. thesis. He adopted an approach that was both practical and analytical: taking instrumental lessons, interviewing musicians and recording performances. Farhat had now had a change of heart about Persian music.

By this time my earlier misgivings about Persian music and been replaced by a deep appreciation of its unique aesthetic qualities. I no longer compared it, consciously or unconsciously, with western art music. It is a very different musical expression. It is monophonic; it employs a range of sound generally not exceeding two and a half octaves; it is fundamentally soloistic but not virtuosic; and it lacks grandeur and dramatic power. But it is rich in modal variety, in melodic subtlety, and is highly personal and intimate.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.x

The music that Farhat studied was urban art music, a music that had been transmitted by rote for many centuries.

Each piece revolves around unspecified central nuclear melodies which the individual performer comes to know through experience and absorption. The manifestation of the skeletal melodic outlines into a piece of music varies greatly from one performance to another, depending on the degree of freedom assumed in extemporisation. Within certain modal restraints, the music is fluid, subjective and highly improvisatory. It is rhythmically, also generally, free and flexible. The wealth of this music, therefore, is not in complex rhythmic patterns, nor in polyphony, which it does not employ, but in the many modal possibilities and the cultivation of highly embellished melodies. It is a personal and illusive art of great subtlety and depth. It is a difficult art to study, to understand and to communicate.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.2

Persia or Iran?

Farhat discusses issues raised by the use of the term “Persian music”.

The name Persia and the adjective Persian seem to have been practically expunged from common usage in the English Language. Even the Persian Gulf has become The Gulf, as if there were no other gulfs on this planet. For the language spoken in Persia, the word Farsi is finding increasing currency. In the context of an English sentence one would not the words Deutsch or Française for language spoken in Germany and France, but Farsi and not Persian is being used the designate the language of Persia.

A curious conspiracy seems to be at work to disinherit Iran and to distance her from her past, her glories, her ancient civilisation, and her considerable contributions to world culture, all of which are associated with the name Persia. As if Persia is no more; it has gone the way of Etruria, Babylon or Lydia. As if, now, there is only Iran, a new country, an artificially created political entity of the twentieth century, like so many others in the Middle East and Africa.

Of course Iran is Persia and so it has always been. It is one of the very few ancient civilisations which has maintained its identity and individuality, with a marked degree of originality, for more than twenty-five centuries.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.1

Farhat describes how the use of “Iran” instead of “Persia” dates from the 1930s when the use of the new name was insisted on by the government. Farhat describes as “misplaced self-assertion” on the part of the government. Since that time, while the name of Iran has become increasingly familiar, the name Persia has been forgotten. Farhat regrets this and does not want to contribute to “the regrettable process of disassociating Iran with her past” (DCPM, p.1). Farhat therefore adopts the terms “Persia” and “Persian music” throughout.


There is a particular problem posed by Persian music, which is that it is an art where systems play a small role a systematic approach to analysis is therefore difficult. However, Farhat does adopt as systematic approach as is possible.

The dastgāh concept

The term dastgāh is difficult to translate accurately. The nearest term in western musicology is “mode”. Equivalents in other musical traditions are the raga of Indian music and the maqām of Turko-Arabian music. Farhat argues that none of these is an exact equivalent of dastgāh.

There are two ideas found in the dastgāh concept.

1. It identifies a set of pieces most of which have their own individual modes.

2. It stands for the modal identity of the initial piece of the group. This dominant mode is brought back frequently in the guise of cadential melodic patterns.

Put another way, “a dastgāh signifies both the title of a grouping of modes, of which there are twelve, and the initial mode presented in each group”. (DCPM, p.19)

Farhat further explains this concept with the use of an example.

When we say, for example, dastgāh-e-Homāyun, we mean a group of pieces under the collective name Homāyun; as a mode, however, Homāyun only identifies the initial piece of that collection. It would be wrong, therefore, to conclude that there are only twelve modes in Persian music; there are twelve groupings of modes, the totality of which represents some sixty modes. Each mode has its own proper name, but the opening section of the dastgāh has no specific name and is called darāmad (entry, introduction). The proper name of this opening section is that of the dastgāh itself.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.19

Farhat limits his study to the contemporary tradition of the twelve dastgāhs with an initial account of historical and theoretical matters. Each chapter devoted to the study of a dastgāh adopts the same approach

1. Analysis of the mode of the dastgāh.
2. Discussion of the cadential pattern of the dastgāh.
3. The opening pieces.
4. Discussion of the main pieces within the dastgāh, including:
a. Modulation to and from a piece.
b. Analysis of the mode of the piece.
c. Nuclear theme of the piece.
d. Transcription of an improvisation on the nuclear theme.

(adapted from DCPM, p.2)

Historical perspective

The first significant document on Persian music dates from towards the end of the Sassanian period (AD226-642). One of the first musicians we know something about is Bārbod, a musician at the court of Chosroes II who ruled from AD 590-628.

[Bārbod] is credited with the organisation of a musical system containing seven modal structures, known as the Royal Modes (Xosrovāni); thirty derivative modes (Lahn); three hundred and sixty melodies (Dastān). The numbers correspond with the number of days in the week, month and year of the Sassanian calendar, but the implications are not clear.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.3

The names of these modes suggest considerable diversity of musical types and expression, but there is no knowledge of the theories on which they were based. However, the music of the Sassanian period was a seminal influence on the development of Islamic music, an influence that was greatly aided by the Arab conquest (AD 642). For the next six centuries Persia was part of the Moslem Empire and the influence of Persian musicians spread throughout the Moslem world. Farhat argues that it is important to recognise the Persian scholars of the Abbasid period as being Persians, not Arabs, a point that has not always been recognised by Western writers.

One important factor in the history of Persian was (and still is) the attitude of Islamic religious leaders to music. They regarded it as “a corrupting frivolity” (DCPM, p.4), but under the relatively secular rule of the Abbasids music flourished. Farhat lists some famous musicians of the period, some of whose writings have survived. One of the most important is Abu Nasr Fārābi (872-950) who laid the foundation for Moslem musical theory. Fārābi covered topics such as scales, intervals, modes, rhythm and instrument construction. His scientific theories were derived from the Classical Greeks. His major work Ketab al Musiqi al-Kabir has survived.

During the period of Shiite supremacy (c. 1500-1900) no major work of music scholarship was produced, probably because of the attitude of Shiite clerics to music. However, the system of the twelve dastgāhs discussed by Farhat was developed during the Qajar period (1785-1925). The period 1925-1979, under the rule of the Pahlavi dynasty, saw increasing modernisation and westernisation. By the mid-1930s Tehran had a western-style symphony orchestra and several choral groups. At the same time, there were concerts of Persian music. The process of westernisation continued during the post World War II period with the result that the musical life of Tehran became comparable to that of any major European capital. Since the revolution of 1978-79 that has once more renewed the supremacy of Shiite clerics, this situation has changed in line with their attitude to music.

A certain amount of musical activity, mainly in the service of the state’s ideological promotion, is being encouraged. All other activity is suppressed. The fate of music, both native and international, in Persia remains a matter of serious concern. Should the present regime remain in position and the current reactionary attitude be maintained, lasting damage to the musical culture of a venerable civilisation could be the inevitable outcome.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.6


Farhat, Hormoz, The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, Cambridge Studies in Ethnomusicology, Cambridge University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-521-30542 X

2 Comments leave one →
  1. yahyaaa1 permalink
    August 30, 2014 6:36 am

    Your video “A performance on the Santur” is no longer available on YouTube, due to a copyright claim. Perhaps you’d like to link to some other performance instead?

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