Iranian Classical Music

Iranian classical music is modal and monophonic. The most serious interpretations generally consist of a melodic soloist (or sometimes, a duet) and often a percussion accompanist. Orchestral combinations are becoming popular, but I will largely ignore those.

There are twelve basic modes: seven primary modes (dastgah-s) and five secondary modes (avaz-s). Each avaz is derived from a specific dastgah, but it is also able to stand by itself. Performance is based on the idea of a "suite" in a single mode, in which the artist will choose items to make a finished composition. Actual performances generally proceed largely as improvisations, incorporating and culminating in the chosen melodic patterns. Part of the artistry is to make smooth transitions between elements of the suite.

The standard melodic patterns of Iranian classical music are codified in something called the Radif, written down from oral sources at the beginning of this century. The Radif consists of a large number of melodies or sequences (gushe-s) grouped by mode. Some dastgah-s have more gushe-s than others. To form a suite, the artists will select appropriate gushe-s, along with classical poetry, improvised elements or original compositions. Some gushe-s are always present in a classical rendition, whereas others are less common; the order within the suite is also pre-determined, to some extent. Some gushe-s and compositions have specific rhythms, while others do not. When there is a percussion accompanist, he will take part in some sections but not in others. Finally, there are different versions of the Radif that different artists will use, especially for different instruments.

There is a large body of classical poetry, from medieval times to the present day, available to vocalists. This is some of the world's great literature, and the flowing, timeless intensity of an Iranian singer will really bring these fine poems to life. Most of the poems are rhythmically free (that is, sung without a time signature, but following an internal rhythm of phrasing), and are generally performed within the context of a suite of gushe-s taken from the Radif.

Although the classical poetry is largely medieval, and the codification of the Radif is modern, the musical forms are believed to date from the days of Classical Persia. Iranian music has managed to sustain itself in recent decades, despite political suppression, and looks to be undergoing a burst of creativity.

A variety of instruments are used; I'll list them in no particular order. The santur is a hammered dulcimer, similar to the santur used in Indian classical music (pioneered by Shivkumar Sharma), though of a brighter tone. The tar and setar are fretted plucked-string instruments, with sharp overtone series (the tar is the larger of the two). The ney is the reed flute common throughout the Near-east, although the Iranian technique is probably the most versatile, using both the low breathy register and the sharp higher register (held between the teeth). The kamancheh is a narrow, upright bowed-string instrument. The violin and oud (ancestor of the lute) are also used.

Iranian classical instruments are generally brighther and crisper in tone than many of those used by neighboring cultures. However, the voices are very deep and rich, although highly animated. The main percussion instruments are the zarb (also called tombak) and daf (in that order), and both tend to add a surprisingly subtle sonority to a performance. There are also solo percussion recordings, but I do not explore those.

There have been many more Iranian Classical CDs appearing in the last few years, and so I have revised this list to mention only those I consider to be highlights.

No consistent spelling is attempted; comments will follow the discs to which they apply. In all cases, the quality of the production & recorded sound are first-rate, unless noted otherwise.

I will eschew compilation surveys in favor of dedicated individual recitals.


Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 2
Mohammad Karimi / Mohammad Musavi
Ocora (Radio France) C 560025

Most of this disc consists of a duet between Karimi & Musavi, followed by two shorter suites by Musavi. The late Mohammad Karimi was previously one of the most influential teachers in Iran. This is one of my favorite recordings of any genre, with an almost unparalleled luminosity. Although it might seem a bit uninvolved to some listeners, I enjoy it very much.

The Abu-Ata Concert
Mohammad Reza Shajarian / Mohammad Reza Lotfi
Kereshmeh KCD-107

This is a duet between two of the greatest living performers of Persian music. Shajarian is known throughout the world as the leading Iranian vocalist; his strong voice easily mixes passion with tenderness. Lotfi is of the most influential tar players of the era, having contributed a more colorful instrumental technique as well as unique insights into the structure of Persian music. This performance is widely regarded as one of the greatest music concerts to be heard in Iran.

Iran: Masters of Traditional Music, Volume 3
Shâhrâm Nâzeri / Dariush Talâ'i
Ocora (Radio France) C 560026

Shahram Nazeri is a singer in the sufi tradition, and incorporates some Kurdish folk compositions into a classical context. This is a very energetic performance.

Parisa: Live in Concert, USA Tour
Tale of Love: I. Esfahan
Parisa / Hossein Omoumi
Kereshmeh "Quarter Tone" QTCD-1005
Parisa: Live in Concert, USA Tour
Tale of Love: II. Nava
Parisa / Hossein Omoumi
Kereshmeh "Quarter Tone" QTCD-1006

This is a quality series of live recordings continuing the vocal-ney duet theme. Parisa is the leading student of Karimi, and has re-established her reputation after a forced silence during Iran's revolutionary period.

There are other recordings, especially of Nazeri & Shadjarian, singing various combinations of material, frequently with larger ensembles in accompaniment.


Classical Music of Iran
Faramarz-e Payvar
Al Sur (Media 7) 164

Faramarz Payvar (b.1932) is one of the leading senior Iranian musicians, and regarded by many as the greatest santur player of our time. Santur is often played by ensemble leaders, and Payvar has been conductor for the National Radio & Television; he has also composed extensively. The present performance is unaccompanied and establishes a robust solo idiom, without the ordinary echo effect.

Parviz Meshkatian
Kereshmeh KCD-108

Parviz Meshkatian directs the ensemble accompanying Shadjarian on the Ocora disc above, and here he plays santur accompanied only by percussion. This is a haunting performance which introduces dialog effects between the santur and itself.

The Classical Tradition of Iran, Volume III
The Santur: Majid Kiani
Harmonia Mundi HMA 190395

Majid Kiani plays full suites on this recording, as opposed to less standard sequences he plays on the Ocora disc above. He is a leading figure in the Iranian musical establishment, and known for his closely controlled expositions. Although his style tends toward the ascerbic, the precise treatment on this disc is rewarding.


Masters of Persian Traditional Music, Volume 2
Ahmad Ebadi
Caltex Records 2070

The late Ahmad Ebadi was one of the most admired performers in Iran. His playing on this disc is the most supple and vocal-style performance on Iranian setar/tar that I've heard. There is a tremendous lyrical depth here, as well as the lightning fast sequences for which setar playing is known.

Intégrale de la musique savante Persane: Radif
Dariush Tala'i
Al Sur (Media 7) ALCD 116-120 (5 CDs)

The above set is a particularly worthwhile item on this list, illustrating as it does a complete Radif by a leading instrumentalist. Tala'i (b.1952) has an approach based on a sensitive classicism and a genuine expressiveness. He has a fine lyrical sense, and is able to maintain linear continuity throughout. This set is highly recommended for anyone who is serious about Iranian classical music.

At present, no solo recordings on the tar are included on this list. The same performers tend to perform on both tar and setar.


Hassan Kassaï: Le Ney
Playasound 65051

Hassan Kassai is perhaps the most highly regarded master of the ney. His performance is very strong, showing deep formal insight and strong phrasing. This recital exhibits the most traditional and intense side of Iranian classical music.

Iran: Le Ney de Mohammad Mousavi
Buda Musique du Monde 92645

There is just something about the sound of the Persian ney, something which I do not really feel with the other instruments, despite enjoying them. Mousavi (b.1946) is a fine performer, and we're lucky to have so many recordings available.


Persian Music
Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh
Al Sur (Media 7) 112

Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh (d.1997) was one of the younger generation of multi-faceted performers, but this performance is strictly classical, both intense and lyrical. Since the kamancheh is otherwise under-represented, this is an even more significant recording; European vielle players will likely find it intriguing.

The traditional music of Central Asia is also partly Iranian, and highly recommended. In some cases, I have rather arbitrarily allocated a recording to that list rather than the present one which I have reserved for the more "classical" Iranian music (not necessarily older in tradition).

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T. M. McComb
Updated: 3 February 2004