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Essentials of Persian Music Part 2

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.

Three theories of intervals and scales

Farhat discusses three theories of intervals and scales in Persian music.

1. Persian music is based on a 24-quarter-tone scale.

2. Persian music is defined within a 22-tone scale.

3. Persian music is based on five flexible intervals from which all modes are constructed, with no concept of a basic scale.

[The three theories have their origins in distinct views of Persian music. The first is based on the idea that Persian music can be reconciled with Western theoretical concepts. The second is based on the idea that scientific measurements can prove the correctness of the systems of the medieval Persian theorists. The third draws its conclusions from scientific and empirical methods and is sceptical about the ideas of the medieval Persian theorists.]

The 24-quarter-tone scale theory

This theory was put forward in the 1920s by Ali Naqi Vaziri.

Western music theory has formulated the idea of a scale divided into equal intervals. Equal temperament makes the complex harmonies of modern Western music possible, and this impressed musicians from the Middle East who came into contact with western art music.

These musicians viewed the absence of harmony in their own music as a sign of inferiority to western music. The desired musical advancement was thought possible only through the adoption of western harmonic practice. That, in turn, required equidistant tones.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.7

One solution to the problem of irregular intervals in Middle Eastern music was to adopt the quarter-tone as the smallest unit as opposed to the semi-tone of western music. But this imposition of a western musical concept would inevitably distort the authenticity of Middle Eastern music, though it might lead to “advancement” along western lines. The nineteenth-century Syrian musician Mikhail Mashaqa was one of the first to suggest that Turko-Arabian music could be seen as based on a 24-tone scale. Similar theories began to be adopted in Persia under western musical influence. After the first western-style music school was founded in the 1860s with the aim of creating an imperial military band, Persian music was increasingly influenced by western ideas. As a result, a number of ideas were introduced that were new to Persian music.

1. The concept of fixed pitch, the major-minor key system, scales etc.

2. Playing accurately from notation with a consequent separation of the roles of performer and composer.

3. Clarity of melodic and rhythmic forms in contrast to the melodically ornate and rhythmically free Persian classical tradition.

4 The systematic use of harmony.

5 The introduction of new instruments, only some of which were capable of producing the intervals used in Persian music.

6 Western conservatoire-type pedagogical methods. Traditionally Persian music had been learnt by one-to-one practical study with a teacher.

(Adapted from The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p. 8.)

Ali Naqi Vaziri (1886-1981) was an accomplished player of the tār and the setār who was the first Persian to have a prolonged and thorough training in western music. He studied music in France for eight years around the time of the World War I. In 1922 he published Dastur-e Tār, which for the first time puts forward the theory that Persian music is based on a 24-quarter-tone-scale. Vaziri returned to Persia in the early 1920s and became the country’s most influential musician. In 1934 he published Musiqi-ye Nazari in which he elaborated on the 24-quarter-tone-scale theory. In the same book he gave his own account of the twelve dastgāhs. Despite the influence of Vaziri and his theories, Farhat does not accept the 24-quarter-tone-scale theory.

Vaziri’s quarter-tone theory…is entirely irrelevant to Persian music. it is an artificial creation devised to make possible the adoption of a kind of harmonic practice, based on western tonal harmony….[Vaziri] believed in the desirability of [intervals] being adjusted to correspond to an equidistant quarter-tone scale so that a kind of harmony may be imposed upon the music….He..regarded a monophonic musical tradition as intrinsically inferior.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.9

Farhat met Vaziri in 1958 and described him as “far more vigorous and lucid that any other musician I had interviewed” (DCPM,p.10). Farhat give this assessment of Vaziri’s achievements.

Although Vaziri’s theoretical views must be unequivocally refuted, the importance of this musician in the twentieth-century developments of Persian music cannot be overestimated. He was a man of unquestionable integrity and his devotion to the “cause” of Persian music, as he saw it, was boundless. His innovations in the notation of Persian music have become the standard and, in the present book, I have used the two signs koron (ρ) and sori which he invented to indicate the microtonal lowering and raising of tones, although, as used by him and his school, they are meant to lower and raise a pitch by an exact quarter-tone.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.10

[The sori is represented by a sign consisting of a V on its side with the sharp end pointing to the right and trisected by two parallel vertical lines.]

The 22-tone scale theory

This theory was formulated in the 1940s by the physicist Mehdi Barkešli and published in the article ‘La gamme de la musique Irannienne’. Barkešli aimed to find a scientifically accurate basis for the scale used in Persian music using as a theoretical basis the writings of the medieval theorists Abu-Nasr Fārābi and Safiaddin Ormavi. In order ot understand Barkešli’s theory it is necessary first to understand the ideas of the medieval theorists. Farhat gives a detailed account of these theories, ending with a discussion of the 17-tone scale of Safiaddin Ormavi, and draws this conclusion.

This neatly organised 17-tone scale became the universally accepted basis for the theory of music throughout the Islamic world for many centuries…however,…such an exact scale system may have been, in practice, highly flexible….It is my belief that musical performance must have been far more fluid and variable. There were no instruments of fixed pitch in use and vocal music is notoriously unreliable as to the maintenance of any scale division requiring great precision….It is quite reasonable to assume that comparable variability was in evidence in medieval times.

The 17-tone scale does not contain the interval of a quarter-tone or anything approximating it. The comma, which is close to an eight of a tone, was never used by itself; it was merely added to or taken from a larger interval. It is also important to stress that no piece of music and no mode has ever made use of all the seventeen tones. The music was conceived within modes containing a limited number of pitches from the available seventeen tones. The majority of modes were heptatonic, a few had less or more than seven tones in the octave. The 17-tone scale was only as meaningful to the practice of music as the 12-tone chromatic scale would be to the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It would therefore be misleading to overemphasise the significance of this scale in so far as the practical art of music was conceived.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, pp.12-13

This was the theoretical background to the ideas of Mehdi Barkešli, who in the 1940s began his researches by attempting scientific measurement of the size of the intervals used in Persian music. He used vocal music for this research.

[Farhat discusses in detail the technicalities of Barkešli’s research.]

Barkešli concluded that there were twenty-two tones in the octave. However, Farhat is critical of Barkešli’s conclusions.

Barkešli’s most serious flaw in determining the intervals of Persian music is his commitment to the premise of the octave-scale and the fact that he measures intervals against imaginary points of reference. In so doing he takes an octave containing five whole-tones and two semi-tones as a point of departure. The pitches he has found are fitted into this seemingly inevitable container. As such he used the same container as did Safiaddin and other medieval theoreticians…its irrelevance to the practices of today can be established.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.14

Farhat discusses what he sees as the problem of the “false container” used by Barkešli. Barkešli has used a scale of the western Mixolydian mode, i.e. c-d-e-f-g-a-b flat-c and taken the intervals of this scale as a reference points, with other pitches fitted around them. This results in a 22-tone scale. But using this Mixolydian scale as a reference point is “arbitrary and misleading”. (p.14). Farhat also criticises the idea of the division of the whole-tone, which plays a part in Barkešli’s theory. He points out that in Persian music if, for example, a D flat is used, it is a substitute for a D natural; the progression D flat to D natural is never found in Persian music. It is therefore wrong to consider a D flat to be produced by the subdivision of the whole-tone C-D. Farhat concludes

The whole confusion arises from the fact that, in accordance with western musical theory, flat or sharp notes are seem as altered versions of a natural tone. It would be far more satisfactory to have a separate identification for each pitch, as was done in medieval Islamic tradition.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p. 14

Unlike Vaziri’s theories, the theories of Barkešli made no impact on Persian music theory and practice, at least partly because Barkešli published his findings [in the paper ‘La gamme de la musique Irannienne’] in a French Journal and was not a practising musician. Farhat points out that both the theories of Vaziri and Barkešli share these defects

1. a tendency to accommodate western concepts

2. they ignore the fluidity and flexibility of Persian intervals.

The first tendency is found much more in Vaziri’s ideas than in Barkešli, who had no ambitions to westernise Persian music. Farhat argues that the defects of the theories of Vaziri and Barkešli are avoided in his own theory, the theory of flexible intervals.

The theory of flexible intervals

Farhat states at the outset one of the bases of his theory, which involves scepticism about medieval theories of Persian music. Middle Eastern musical instrument is capable of producing intervals of such precision [as found in the theories of the medieval theorists]; and vocal music is even more unreliable in producing accurate intervals.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.15

Farhat is critical of Barkešli’s decision to measure intervals from vocal music, where pitch is very variable. His own methodology involved studying the music produced using fretted instruments, two tārs and three setārs, all fretted by reputable musicians and used for real performances. Farhat also made measurements of intervals from a large body of recorded music. He used a stroboconn and a melograph for these measurements. As a result of these measurements he concluded that the whole-tone and the semi-tone are relatively stable, with the whole-tone being slightly larger than that tempered whole-tone and the semi-tone significantly smaller than the tempered one. Other intervals larger than the semi-tone but smaller than the whole-tone are very flexible. Farhat’s study identified three intervals which can be added to the whole-tone and the semi-tone

1. A small neutral tone, 125-145 cents, mean 135 cents.

2. A larger neutral tone, 150-170 cents, mean 160 cents.

3. An interval larger than the whole-tone but not as large as the augmented tone, mean 270 cents. Farhat calls this the “plus tone”.

Intervals 1 & 2 are usually combined to make a minor third. Interval 3 is the least common of the basic intervals, used only in a few modes; it is always preceded by the small neutral tone to make a major third.

Farhat summarises his ideas on the classification of Persian intervals

1. Semi-tone or minor 2nd (m) ca. 90 cents.
2. Small neutral tone (n) ca. 135 cents.
3. Large neutral tone (N) ca. 160 cents.
4. Whole-tone or major 2nd (M) ca. 204 cents.
5. Plus-tone (P) ca. 270 cents.

Farhat emphasises that there is no concept of “scale” in Persian music and musicians simply do not see the point in playing the notes used in a mode as an ascending or descending series. Such a series is described as “alien to the music” and “artificial and irrelevant” (DCPM, p.16).

Most Persian modes, in their elemental forms, can be expressed within a tetrachord or a pentachord. In some cases as many as seven or more tones are needed to convey the mode adequately. The octave is not significant. In certain modes are range of pitches beyond the limits of an octave is needed, as in the higher octave some notes are different from what they are in the lower octave.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.16

[Farhat ends this exposition of his theory with a discussion of the fretting system of the tār and the setār.]


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

Barkešli, Mehdi, ‘La gamme de la musique Irannienne’, Annales des Telecommunications, 5 (May, 1947)

A performance on the Persian tar.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2009 2:58 pm

    I am really…eager to know how u find …one comma bemol…
    becouse i can not see it in iranian notes…but I can see it in turkish notes….
    so don,t u useing one comma bemol..or how

    • November 2, 2009 3:15 pm

      Thanks for your comment, but I’m not sure what the answer to your question is. You will need to consult a more specialised source such as a dictionary for the answer to your question I suspect.

  2. naddim permalink
    May 7, 2010 2:00 pm

    i want to ask
    in what dastgah and goshes,can I find the interval which is round 112 cents (limma +comma)

  3. naddim permalink
    May 7, 2010 2:02 pm

    and in what dastgah and goshes can I find 180 cents…mean limma+limma

  4. naddim permalink
    June 29, 2010 11:43 am

    why u don,t anser my questions

    • June 29, 2010 11:50 am

      I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to this question, but I hope that someone else will leave a reply for you. It is quite a while since I did the posts on Persian music and I’ve lost touch with the ideas a bit. But I hope someone else will know.


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