Persian Classical Singing
Persian Classical Singing

Welcome to Persian Classical Singing

Official Website of Mahmoud Akbari about persian classical Singing

آموزش آواز و تصنیف آنلین



Online Persian Singing Lessons (Radif, AVAZ, Tasnif)

Gesangunterricht in klassisch persischer Musik (Online) 




From high mountain ranges to vast desert plains and fertile coastal areas, Iran is a land of contrasts. Iranians often explain the profound spirituality of their music and poetry as a response to this landscape, as well as to the country’s turbulent history, which has been marked by successive invasions from the ancient Greeks onwards. Rooted in a rich and ancient heritage, this is music of contemplation and meditation that is linked through the poetry to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam whose members seek spiritual union with God. The aesthetic beauty of this refined and intensely personal music lies in the intricate nuances of the freely flowing solo melody lines, which are often compared with the elaborate designs found on Persian carpets and miniature paintings.

Persian classical music developed at the royal courts of Iran over many hundreds of years, but we do not know how old it really is. The sparse documentary record dates back to the pre-Islamic era, before the Arabic invasion of 642 AD. Later medieval treatises written during the golden age of Middle Eastern scholarship mention names of pieces that are still performed today, but the extent to which the music has changed over time is not clear.

Until the early 20th century, Persian classical music was largely restricted to the royal courts, but with the declining influence of the monarchy following the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, this music found a new setting in small, informal gatherings at the homes of musicians and aristocratic supporters of the arts. Although still very much a private and elite affair, the music began to have an increasingly public presence, which gained momentum with the arrival of sound recording, broadcasting (Radio Tehran was established in 1939), and European-style public concerts (from the first decade of the 20th century, but regularly from the 1930s onwards). 

By the 1960s, Persian classical music had become available to a wide audience. At the same time, however, the growing pace of modernization and westernization in Iran created a demand for all things western—including western music and western-style Iranian pop, which seemed to be more in tune with people’s increasingly modernized lifestyle. Persian classical music gradually became sidelined as a minority interest. Many fine classical musicians were performing and recording at this time, but in the context of a society that seemed little interested in its own culture, it is not surprising that many of these musicians became preoccupied with trying to preserve the musical tradition rather than with exploring new ways of developing and enriching that tradition. The headlong rush into modernization and westernization reached a crisis point in the late 1970s, culminating in the Revolution of February 1979. 

One of the most interesting aspects of post-1979 Iran was a “return to roots” reawakening of national consciousness in which Persian classical music played a central role. Such was the popularity of this music that by the mid-1980s—and despite the many religious proscriptions against music-making and the long period of austerity during the Iran-Iraq war—Persian classical music had attracted a mass audience of unprecedented size, with many young people, in particular, learning the music.

Persian classical music has experienced significant changes over the last 20 years, partly due to a new confidence among those musicians willing to explore new musical avenues.

Persian classical music is deeply rooted and imbued with a sense of tradition and continuity, but at the same time speaks with a contemporary voice. The Musical Tradition Creative performance lies at the heart of Persian classical music. The importance of creativity in this music is often expressed through the image of the nightingale (bol bol). According to popular belief, the nightingale possesses the most beautiful voice on earth and is also said never to repeat itself in song. A bird of great symbolic power throughout the Middle East, the nightingale represents the ultimate symbol of musical creativity. 

To the extent that Persian classical music lives through the more-or-less spontaneous recreation of the traditional repertoire in performance, the music is often described as improvised. The musicians themselves talk freely of improvisation, or bedaheh navazi (“spontaneous playing”), a term borrowed from the realm of oral poetry and which has been applied to Persian classical music since the early years of the 20th century. Musicians are also aware of the concept of improvisation in styles of music outside Iran, particularly in jazz and Indian classical music. But as in so many other “improvised” traditions, the performance of Persian classical music is far from “free”—it is, in fact, firmly grounded in a lengthy and rigorous training that involves the precise memorization of a canonic repertoire known as the radif (“order”) and which is the basis for all creativity in Persian classical music.

Like other Middle Eastern traditions, Persian classical music is based on the exploration of short modal pieces: in Iran, these are known as gusheh and there are 200 or so gusheh in the complete radif. These gusheh are grouped according to mode into 12 modal “systems” called dastgah. A dastgah essentially comprises a progression of modally related gusheh in a manner somewhat similar to the progression of pieces in a Baroque suite. Each gusheh has its own name and its own unique mode (but is related to other gusheh in the same dastgah) as well as characteristic motifs. The number of gusheh in a dastgah varies from as few as ten in a relatively short dastgah such as Afshari, to as many as 44 or more in a dastgah such as Mahour.

The training of a classical musician essentially involves memorizing the complete repertoire of the radif. Only when the entire repertoire has been memorized—gusheh by gusheh, dastgah by dastgah a process that takes many years, are musicians considered ready to embark on creative digressions, eventually leading to improvisation itself. So the radif is not performed as such, but represents the starting point for creative performance and composition.

There is very little documentary information before the middle of the 19th century, so the history of the radif is quite speculative. The evidence suggests that for many generations, each ostad (master teacher) would have developed his own individual repertoire of pieces based on a broad tradition shared with other musicians. These versions of the traditional repertoire were passed down orally from one generation to the next, each generation developing its own variants. 

Around the middle of the 19th century, there were moves to standardize the repertoire, and Ali Akbar Farahani (1810–1855), master of the tar (plucked lute) at the court of the Qajar monarch Nasser-e Din Shah (r. 1848-1896) in Tehran, is credited with organizing the diverse materials of the traditional repertoire into a coherent structure in which modally related pieces (the gusheh) were grouped together into the 12 dastgah. It was also around this time that this repertoire acquired the name radif. Farahani’s work was completed after his death by his son, Mirza Abdollah (1843–1918), and this particular version of the repertoire came to be known as radif-e Mirza Abdollah (“Mirza Abdollah’s radif”). 

A proficient performer, Mirza Abdollah was also active as a teacher, and was more aware than most musicians of his day of the importance of transmitting the repertoire to the next generation. Many of his numerous pupils became prominent musicians and they, in turn, taught this radif to their own pupils. There are, in fact, a number of different radifs in existence today (including interesting regional variations), mostly rooted in a shared tradition and each one usually associated with the particular master who developed it. Indeed, students of Persian classical music are often expected to learn a number of radifs of different schools (maktabs) with a series of teachers in order to consolidate their musical knowledge. At the same time, in the course of the last century, Mirza Abdollah’s radif (as developed and transmitted, and later recorded and published by his pupils and grand-pupils) attained authoritative status, particularly in the version taught to many contemporary musicians by Ostad Nur Ali Borumand at the University of Tehran in the 1960s and 1970s.

A performance of Persian classical music is usually based in one of the 12 dastgah (although there is a technique known as morakkab navazi (Instrumental) and morakkab khani (singing) by which musicians can move between different dastgah using shared gusheh as “bridges”). The musician (or musicians in the case of a group performance) selects a number of gusheh from the learned repertoire of the chosen dastgah, and presents these in turn, using each one as the basis for improvised performance. This progression of gusheh takes the music gradually away from the opening “home” mode of the dastgah, through a series of increasingly more distant modes and usually tracing a rise in pitch until the music reaches a climactic point (owj) towards the end of the dastgah. This is followed by a release in the final cadential section known as forud (“descent”), which returns the music to the home mode of the dastgah to end the performance. The resulting arch-like shape of the complete dastgah provides the music with much of its dynamic energy. The length of a performance can vary a great deal, depending on the context, the number of gusheh selected by the musician, and the extent of the improvisations, but most performances nowadays are between 30 minutes and an hour long.

The complex detail of the solo melody line is of utmost importance in Persian classical music— there is no harmony as such and only an occasional light drone (in contrast with the constant underlying drone in Indian classical music). As such, Persian classical music was traditionally performed by a solo singer and a single instrumental accompanist—in which case the instrument would shadow the voice and play short passages between the phrases of poetry—or by an instrumentalist on his own. 

In the course of the last century, it became increasingly common for musicians to perform in larger groups, usually comprising a singer and four or five instrumentalists (each playing a different classical instrument). Nowadays, one can hear both solo and group performances. The latter often follow a formula by which a performance begins and ends with an ensemble piece (with or without a vocalist), which is generally pre-composed (and often notated) rather than improvised, and which frames the largely improvised and unmeasured central part of the performance. In this section, known as avaz (“song”), it is still common practice for instruments to take turns accompanying the singer rather than play together.


The classical music of Iran is based on the Radif, which is a collection of old melodies that have been handed down by the masters to the students through the generations. Over time, each master's own interpretation has shaped and added new melodies to this collection, which may bear the master's name. The preservation of these melodies greatly depended on each successive generations' memory and mastery, since the interpretive origin of this music was expressed only through the oral tradition. To truly learn and absorb the essence of the Radif, many years of repetition and practice are required. A master of the Radif must internalize the Radif so completely to be able to perform any part of it at any given time.

The Radif contains several different maqam's which are distinguished from each other by their relationship of note intervals and the form of the movement of the melodies within them. A maqam portrays a specific sonic space. A dastgah may contain approximately from 10 to 30 gousheh's (melodies). The principle gousheh's of the dastgah specify the different maqams within that dastgah. The note, upon which the gousheh is based and often is the center of the gousheh, is called the shahead. The shahead moves when we modulate between principle gousheh's, and this movement creates a new sonic space. Rhythm in these melodies takes three different forms: symmetric, asymmetric(lang), and free form.

The rhythm is greatly influenced by the rhythm and meter of the Persian poetry. The instrumental and vocal Radif are different from the rhythmical point of view; however, their melodic structures are the same.

The name of the different dastgah's in the Radif are:

Dastgah Shur,

Avaz Abuata,

Avaz Bayat Tork,

Avaz Afshari,

Avaz Dashti,

Dastgah Segah,

Dastgah Chahargah,

Dastgah Homayoun,

Avaz Esfahan,

Dastgah Nava,

Dastgah Mahur,

Dastgah Rastpanjgah.



Persian Art - art with the texture of human experience, illuminating the humble and the commonplace, exalting the royal and the divine. From early times, although art was natural and taken for granted, the Persians consciously placed a high value on beauty. A widespread and expert appreciation sustained excellence through many centuries. Royal patronage, enthusiastic and generous was never lacking; beauty was always and in all things accorded to high status. 

One with life, the arts were also united with one another. Craft borrowed from craft. There were common themes and mutual inspiration throughout the arts. They were engaged on a common task which absorbed their uttermost, with surprisingly little thought of individual pride and glory. Scarcely one in a hundred of important Persian works of art is signed. It was an anonymous art and thereby gaining in sincerity, in devotion, and in authority.

It is primarily an art of decoration. It became in devout symbolism, and symbolism some philosophers regard as the primary characteristic of the mind. It interprets reality in a new form which clarifies and controls it. Symbolism is a method of synthesis and transformation, the beginning of intellectual and artistic life. It presents objects in abstract but yet emotional forms, and when it is sanctified by custom and religion, it can evoke the deepest response.

Persia, a place deserving respectable antiquity, is one of the very few countries where there exists today a complex culture, still capable of expressing its aspirations in literature, art and philosophy, and which can yet claim a continuos tradition going far back into the pre-Christian world. In the matter of such expressive culture, Europeans were mere upstarters and parvenus compared with the Persians. Nonetheless, when we try to define what, in the matter of artistic creation, is distinctively and exclusively Persian we find ourselves at a loss. We feel sure that there is a Persian quality in certain objects of art, we know there is quite a specific attitude to life expressed by Persian artists, and that this attitude repeats itself at various epochs, but it is almost impossible to distinguish it sharply from the expression of neighboring cultures.


Druckversion Druckversion | Sitemap
© Mahmoud Akbari