Skip to main content

Persian Classical Music: System of Modes


Persian Classical Music: System of Modes

Barbad, the court-musician of the great Sasanian king, Khosrow (Chosroes in the Western annals), is said to have invented the Persian system of modes; more likely he introduced modifications to complete and organize them. The musical system consisted of seven Khosravani, thirty modulation forms and three hundred and sixty systems (dastan) which correspond to the days of the week, the month and the year respectively. This is very similar to the Indian idea of “ragas” for different times of day and seasons of the year.

Seven Primary Modes


The seven primary modes or dastgah are: Shur, Mahur, Homayun, Nava, Segah, Chahargah, and Rast-Panjgah. The five secondary modes or avaz are: Abu-Ata, Bayat-e Tork, Afshari, Dashti and Esfahan. Avaz is derived from dastgah, and hence is shorter in length of composition. These twelve modes comprise the entire “radif” or the collection of modes dealt with in Persian classical music today.

Each dastgah reflects a certain mood or emotion. Mood in Western music is usually limited to active or passive according to its two main scales, major and minor. But Persian music, like other Eastern music, provides a wide range of shades and grades of emotion. The mode Shur has an intense, fiery quality, but also may be used to express a tranquil mood. Esfahan, a minor mode, is endowed with a feeling of romantic nostalgia.

Five Secondary Modes


Persian Vocal Styling

Vocal music, like the rest of Persian music, is learned by heart from a master, the definitive form of the traditional style being handed down from generation to generation. Musically, the voice is classed in three registers or dongs (tetrachords): Do Dong (long), Chahar dong (middle), and Shish dong (high). This last can sometimes reach higher than a normal soprano.

A characteristic of Persian vocal styling is voice crackling called tahrir which is used as an ornament or trill. It is similar to the Swiss yodel, the Slavic voice cracking, or what we hear in Japanese or Korean singing. The tahrir is known by laymen as “chah-chah”, but for the more informed, there are various types, such as “tahrir bolbuli” or “tahrir chakoshi.” The tahrir ornament is used in phrases which have long syllables, and it usually falls at the end of a hemistiche, but never in the middle.

The experienced performer often chooses from a renowned poet such as Hafez or Sa’adi a poem or a verse extract sympathetic to the character or mood of the accompanying gusheh.


Associations of Each Mode

Chahargah (Dastgah)
Chahargah could be associated with the color yellow or maybe white. It is best played in the morning from six to eight o’clock and might be associated with steam. The mystic connotation of Chahargah is tariqat (the path). This mode is full of excitement and action which is mainly caused by the contrast of the intervals between the notes in the Chahargah scale. The festive and heroic nature of Chahargah makes it perfect for signing the national epic, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh which is used by gymnasts of the Zur-Khaneh to accompany their excersizes.
Rast-Panjgah (Dastgah)
Rast-Panjgah brings to mind a light tan color and seems to fit the later morning hours from about eight until ten o’clock. The element which matches Rast-Panjgah is refined earth or dust and the mystic connotation is shariat (the law). Rast-Panjgah seems to set a mood conducive to thinking, concentration and enlightenment. It is an intellectual mode which could be associated with external reasoning. It presents a variety of emotion and denotes mixture and expansion.
Shur (Dastgah)
Shur is fire red in color and is best played from late morning until noon. The element associated with Shur is fire and its mystic connotation ranges from tariqat (the path) to marafat (gnosis). Shur demands concentration on the part of the listener and is good for meditation. It is one of the most important dastgah and was called the “mother of modes” by the ancients. Five auxiliary modes are associated with Shur.
Segah (Dastgah)
Segah seems to go with dark blue or lapus lazuli and is best played from late afternoon until sunset, at which time its true character really comes out. The element which best characterizes segah is water, either turbulent, placid or in the form of undulating waves.
Homayun (Dastgah)
Homayun could be associated with dark green and seems appropriate to the early morning hours of the day. Homayun brings to mind the flame of fire and its spiritual connotation is haqiqat (truth). A transcendental or ecstatic state is required on the part of the player to correctly interpret Homayun and to bring out its special magnetic attraction.
Nava (Dastgah)
Nava seems transparent and is best played in the late evening hours, after bedtime. It could be described as a combination of wind and fire and it is associated with marafat (gnosis). Nava is like the advice or recommendation.
Mahur (Dastgah)
Mahur is sky blue and best playe after sunset. It is like the breeze or the wind and can be associated with shariat (the law). Mahur moves smoothly and is penetrated. It is lappy, gay, and can be preformed in most circumstances.
Bayat-e Esfahan (Avaz)
Esfahan is light green and its time could be fixed in the early morning hours before sunrise. It is the light of the fire and could be associated with haqiqat (truth). It has the feeling of romantic or spiritual love and can set a devotional mood.
Dashti (Avaz)
Dashti seems brown, and its time might be in the afternoon from noon until four o’clock. Its element is earth and its mystic connotation ranges from shariat (the law) to tariqat (the path).
Bayat-e Tork (Avaz)
Bayat-e Tork seems to be smoke color or black and fits the hours from noon until four in the afternoon. Its element is earth and its mystic connotation is shariat (the law).
Afshari (Avaz)
Afshari is burnt brown and fits the hours from noon till four in the afternoon. Its element is earth and its mystic connotationranges from shariat (the law) to tariqat (the path).
Abu-Ata (Avaz)
Abu Ata is purple or bright coffee is color and seems to be best played from noon until four in the afternoon. Its element is earth and its mystic connotation ranges from shariat ( the law) to tariqat (the path).
Bayat-e Kord (Avaz)
Bayat-e Kord is a section of Shur which has a personality of its own and could be described as pink and associated with the mystic conotation of shariat (the law).

The Modal Scales

I. Shur: G Ap Bb C Dp Eb F G and its four derivatives.

II. Avaz-e Abu-Ata: G Ap Bb C D Eb F G

III. Avaz-e Bayat-e Tork: F G Ap Bb C D Eb F

IV. Avaz-e Afshari: F G Ap Bb C D (p) Eb F

V. Avaz-e Dashti: G Ap Bb C D (p) Eb F G

VI. Homayun: G Ap B C D Eb F G

VII. Avaz-e Bayat-e Esfahan: G Ap B D Eb F G

VIII. Segah: F G Ap Bp C Dp Eb F

IX. Chahargah: Dp E F G Ap B C

X. Mahur: C D E F G A B C

XI. Rast-Panjgah: F G A Bb C D E F

XII. Nava: D Ep F A Bb C D

Note: The underlined letters have approximately the function of a tonic. Small ‘b’ means “flat”; small ‘p’ indicates pitch approximately a quarter-tone lower than the indicated note or, in other words, a half flat.