Music in Pre-Islamic Times
We know from written records, pictures of musicians on ancient silver dishes and sculptures, and more recent Islamic period paintings, that Persians have always enjoyed music. Herodtus, the 5th century B.C. Greek Historian, mentions chanting Zoroatrian priests among the Achaemenids, who ruled Persia until 330 B.C. During the time of the Sasanians, whose empire lasted from the third to seventh centuries C.E. (Christian era, same A.D.), one musician, Barbad, was particularly famous for being both a great preformer on his instrument, but also for composing huge quanities of music. Musicologists (people who study music) in Iran give credit to Barbad for developing the idea of modes (sets of musical scales and rules for their performance) which is still used in Iran today.
Music Since the Advent of Islam
After the Arabic conquest of the Sananians, it seems clear that Persian musicians had considerable influence on the musical tastes of their conquerors. Persian musicians were famous in the Abbasid court at Baghdad and the Umayyad court at Cordoba. It also seems clear, however, that after the Arabic conquest, there was a general sharing of musical ideas among musicians all over the Muslim world, as far away as Muslim Spain and the West and the Moghul empire in India.
Twentieth Century Music
Today several types of music are preformed in Iran: classical music, regional music, and popular music. Classical music comes from the ancient tradition of music preformed for the rulers of Persia. The music was preformed for court anquets, and sometimes accompanied by singing and dancing. Singing and dancing also formed a part of some Sufi rituals (See unit on Islam in Iran). Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present day Persian classical music was orgaized into suites called dastgahs. Each dastgah has a particular modal orientation. The pieces were arranged and taught in a specific order, called radif (literally "row"). The radif now has several different versions depending on who taught it and for which instrument it was intended. Originally, this music was all taught orally; that is, the teacher played music and the student imitated the teaher until he learned his lesson perfectly.
Today many people believe that the oral method is still the best way to learn this music. Duing this century, however, a great deal of this music has been written down using western notation.
Typically, Persian classical music is performed by a small group of musicians and often one singer. The instruments are stringed instruments. Two of these are plucked: the setar and tar; one bowed: the kermanche; and one played with two delicate mallets: the santur. The one wind instrument is a kind of flute called a nay. The rhythm-keeper for the group in a drum called tonbak. The illustrations in piture 1 show what some of these intsruments look like. Today the western violin is frequently added to this group. The ud (an instrument closely related to the western lute), clarinet, piano, and even accordian, may sometimes be found in these ensambles (groups). Examples 1 and 2 on the tape in this unit are examples of Persian classical music.
Each region of Iran has its own favorite music. The music is often associated with the ethnic group that lives in the region. Along the western border of Iran in and around the cities of Hamadan and Kermanshah, Kurdish music is most common. In the northwest provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani music is the most common. Near Isfahan you may hear music of the Bakhtiari tribe and farther south, near Shiraz, you may hear music of of the Qashqai, another tribe. You could find a unique kind of regional music in almost every province of Iran. Musicians in these regions have their own traditional musical instruments. In Azerbaijan, village and townspeople enjoy listening to a special knd of singer called an ashiq. He sings accompanying his his songs on a stringed instrument called a saz. Picture 2 shows a Azerbaijani ashiq.
Example 3 on the tape is a folk song featuring Monir Vakili.
All over Iran weddings, particularly those in small towns and villages, may have musicians performing for people to dance. The musicians most often play a kind of double-reed instrument (a distant relative of the oboe) called zuma and some kind of drum , called davul. Obviously, this music has to be loud to carry over the noise of the wedding celebration and the sounds of dancing. Picture 3 shows the two musicians playing zurna and duval and the dancers ready to dance.
Of course, there are many musicians who sing and play popular songs. In their songs they may combine elements of western popular music (using electric guitars and rum sets, for instance) with their own popular music or regional music styles. People all over the country listen to this music, but it is very popular with young people in the big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. Persian pop music performed by andy and Kouros is Example 4 on this tape.
Maqam: Music of the Islamic World and its Influences. New York: The Alternative Museum, 1984
Zonis, Ella. Persian Classical Music. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1973.