Classical Persian Music: Background

Iran is one of the most important centers in the vast realm of non-Occidental music. In fact, Persian music and its musical concepts greatly influenced the music of all the nations which have come into contact with it since the days of antiquity. The music of Classical Greece, for instance, owed much to Persia for many of the basic concepts systemized by Pythagoras. The musical system of ancient Persia was freely adopted by the Romans, the Latin two-toned pitch being the simplified version of the original Greco-Persian modal concept that flourished in the Seleucid period (330 B.C. -187 B.C.). When chanted in the round, it accidentally gave birth to harmony, which was then passed on to central and northern Europe, and which continues to be central to the Western Classical music to this day.

The Sasanian period (224-652 A.D.) was considered the “Renaissance of Persian music" in its rich, long and continuous history. According to Ferdowsi, the poet who composed the “Shahnameh” (The Epic of the Kings), some 10,000 instrumentalists were invited from India to the Sasanian court. Although this figure may be exaggerated, it reflects the important role music played in the life of people.

The music of Sasanian period formed the foundation for the musical systems of most of the Islamic world today. When Islam came to Iran with the Arab conquerors, musical activity in public and secular life diminished; however, Iranian musicians were quick to detect the Arab’s love of music and propagated their art by promoting the exchange of musicians between Iran and the Arab cities for vocal and instrumental training. Among the names of the twelve modes mentioned by early Arab musicologists, seven are in Persian. With the spread of Islam over three continents, two schools of Arab music developed. The school of Baghdad maintained close ties with the Persian heritage, while the Cordoba school began to evolve into what later became Flamenco and North African music. Iranian masters, such as Zaryab, traveled to Spain, and we can hear the traces of Persian techniques in Flamenco guitar and vocal styling. In fact, Persian vocal singing techniques can be detected today wherever the Qur'an is formally recited and the mu’azzin’s melodic call to prayer is heard, from Andalusia to Indonesia.

Even though the Islamic orthodoxy restricted the use of music for popular entertainment, refined people continued to practice music in private. There were many renowned poets who were versatile singers, instrumentalists and composers. Nonetheless, Islam can be considered to have had favorable effects on Persian music also insofar as it brought music to a very high metaphysical and mystical level. This spirit is preserved as one of the most valued traditional aspects of the Persian classical music.

Persian Classical System of Modes