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Essentials of Persian Music Part 3

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.

Key concepts and terminology

dastgāh (organisation, system)

The central concept in Persian music is the dastgāh concept. However, this concept is not an old idea: it was probably invented during the Qajar period (1787-1925). The assumption is that before then a series of improvisations in the same mode would fill the time allotted to a performance. In contrast, one of the main features of the dastgāh is that several pieces in different modes are strung together in one continuous performance. Farhat believes than the adoption of the multi-mode dastgāh is linked to a decline is musical scholarship during the period 1500-1900, which left musicians less able to improvise in one mode for the necessary length of time. It became more convenient to switch between modes rather than develop ideas in one mode only. In order to give cohesion to this kind of performance the opening mode was referred to in cadential formulae. The new practice may have led to more interesting music. During the twentieth century the expected duration of a performance has become smaller, with a modern dastgāh rarely lasting longer than thirty minutes.

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

Radif (row, series)

The radif are the pieces that make up the repertoire of Persian classical music. These are not pieces in the western sense but “melody models” (DCPM, p. 21) used as the basis for improvisation. Despite variations in content and length each piece contains “elemental melodic figures which give the piece its identity” (DCPM, p.21). The term radif is also used to describe the group of pieces that make up each of the twelve dastgāhs.

Guše (corner, section, piece)

“The generic term for individual pieces, other than the darāmad, which make up the repertoire of a dastgāh….” (DCPM, p.22)

Darāmad (opening, introduction)

This is the piece or the group of pieces in the same mode that begin a dastgāh. “They are the most representative portion of the dastgāh.” (DCPM, p.22)

Pisdarāmad (pre-introduction, overture)

A twentieth century innovation and intended for ensemble playing, this is a composed rhythmic instrumental piece. It is played at the beginning of a dastgāh.

Čahārmezrāb (four plectra, four strokes)

A study-like solo instrumental piece in a fast tempo and using simple or compound duple metres.

Zarbi (rhythmic)

An improvised passage which uses a fixed rhythmic pattern. it is in duple, triple or quadruple metre.

Reng (dance)

An instrumental piece in duple or triple metre in medium fast tempo.

Tasnif (ballad)

A composed song in a slow metre.

Gām (scale)

The French word gamme has had to be adopted to describe this concept, which is not part of the Persian tradition.

Maqām (mode)

In Turkey and the Arabic-speaking countries maqām signifies a mode with the usual pitch functions and intervals, plus a particular melodic format. The term was also used in Persia before the development of the dastgāh system. The terms maqām, maye and mode are now used more or less synonymously.


The nearest equivalent of the tonic in western music.

āqāz (beginning)

The tone on which an improvisation in a mode usually begins.

Šāhed (witness)

A tone in a mode that assumes a particularly prominent role. Not necessarily the finalis.

Moteqayyer (changeable)

A tone that regularly fluctuates in pitch. This is a feature of some modes only.

Forud (descent, cadence)

A melodic cadence with a relatively fixed pattern that is subject to variation through improvisation. This is a strong unifying factor in the dastgāh, which consists of different pieces in different modes. The forud uses the same mode as the darāmad.

Ōj (soar, height)

The dastgāh usually moves gradually from a low pitch register to a high pitch register. The Ōj is that section of the dastgāh that uses a high pitch range.

Neutral 2nd

It is an interval larger than the semi-tone and smaller than the whole-tone. It is a very common interval in Persian music. The term was first applied to Persian music by Farhat.

Plus 2nd

An interval larger than the major second but smaller than the augmented second. The term was first applied to Persian music by Farhat.

Neutral 3rd

An interval between the minor and major third. The term was first applied to Persian music by Farhat.

Koron (p)

The flattening of a pitch by a microtone. This term was invented by Ali Naqi Vaziri.


The raising of a pitch by a microtone. [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 sori is the invention of Ali Naqi Vaziri.

Farhat then devotes a large portion of his book to detailed analysis of all twelve dastgāhs

Dastgāh-e Šur
Dastgāh-e Abuatā
Dastgāh-e Dašti
Dastgāh-e Bayāt-e Tork
Dastgāh-e Afšari
Dastgāh-e Segāh
Dastgāh-e Čahārgāh
Dastgāh-e Homāyun
Dastgāh-e Bayāt-e Esfahān
Dastgāh-e Navā
Dastgāh-e Māhur
Dastgāh-e Rāst (Rāst-Panjgāh)

Farhat ends his survey of Persian classical music with a closing statement, written first in 1965 and then revisited in 1990. He begins in 1965 by pointing out that until the appearance of modern media Persian classical music was the preserve of a small urban elite. However, the classical tradition is too limited and refined in expression to satisfy the demands of the mass market, so a genre of popular music emerged that blended modal schemes from the dastgāhs with features of western light music. The freedom allowed the performer in the classical tradition makes it “relatively easy to dilute it with elements which are essentially foreign to it.” He then drew the conclusion that “There is ample evidence, in fact, to indicate that the authenticity of this music is already compromised.” (DCPM, p.121)

But Persia had clearly changed a lot since 1965 and writing in 1990 Farhat notices even greater uncertainty about the future of the Persian classical tradition. The pre-revolutionary wave of westernisation has now been halted, but nearly all musical activity has been halted as well.

Currently, Persia is run by an Islamic clerical regime of fundamentalist persuasions. The Islamic clerics have always had a proscriptive attitude towards music. The fact that music moves and affects the listener is inexplicable and, as such, suspicious. Furthermore, music is often viewed as an adjunct to merriment and self-indulgence, which are abhorred by the devout of all faiths.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.121

So in 1965 Farhat was concerned about the distortion or dilution of the classical tradition; in 1990 he was asking if the tradition would be able to survive at all. By 1990 the only public music in Persia was in the service of the ideology of the state. Musicians who previously worked in radio and television and as teachers were now no longer able to make a living through music. As the classical tradition relies on a continuous tradition of performance to stay alive, and not on a written repertoire, the situation in 1990 gave serious cause for concern for those who hoped for the survival of the tradition.

The fate of Persian music – Persian culture, for that matter – may be determined solely by political events to an extent never experienced before. It is against such a bleak prognostication that I am hopeful of having rendered a service, through this book, to the perpetuation of the splendid cultural heritage of my native land.

The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, p.121


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

A performance on the tar.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2013 7:34 pm

    Interesting series of posts, thank you very much.

    Wouldn’t dastgah quite literally mean hand position? It seems rather sensible to suppose that different positions on the neck of a stringed instrument contain different notes and thus also different characteristics of sound – and thus also different characteristics of musical expression. So, why not explain those differences via the instrument – change hand position, you have a different “mode”? (Doesn’t seem hard to translate it that way.) I am unsure whether it is known what instruments were first used to play music in the region, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that Persian music was from the very beginning instrumental first and foremost – instead of being rooted in any sung form of music, a vocal tradition – and played on stringed instruments such as the tar, and maybe santur or the like, and this would accommodate its peculiarly elusive improvisatory nature. But, of course, this is mere conjecture as I do not know anything about the tradition, having merely for a while ago become fascinated with oriental music and scales – or lack thereof – and tunings and instruments different from western ones.

    However, speaking of tunings, reference made to equal temperament made me wonder wouldn’t just intonation be a better starting point for looking into the intervals of any early or traditional music? Keeping in mind the rather late introduction of the 12-tone equal temperament in western music, the adaptation of which requires somewhat sophisticated calculation (and an underlying system already based on concepts built quite differently), it would make more sense to me to make use of earlier forms of intonation and tuning; it’s by no means natural to divide the octave in any number of equal parts, whereas certain just intervals (the fourth, the fifth, the octave and perhaps the major third at least, if not the minor) are found by the ear, which of course makes for easy tuning as well. Indeed, looking at early western music in terms of 12 equal tones makes as little sense. As I gather it, those twelve tones were arrived to by going up in fifths and then transposing them downwards in octaves, but all or more than seven of them were never used together before certain advancements starting somewhere in the baroque era and onwards took place – someone, please, do correct me if I’m wrong, however, as this is all still quite new to me!

    Best regards.

    P.S. Or, if the instruments originally used merely happened to be fretless and the players on the other hand careless, wouldn’t that suffice to explain the constantly changing and somewhat vague intervals? ;) (No disrespect meant whatsoever! Just something I thought first off when I had pulled the frets out of my nylon-stringed guitar and tried playing it for the first time without frets.)

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