Music of Iran

Figurines playing stringed instruments, excavated at Susa, 3rd millenia BC. Iran National Museum.
Figurines playing stringed instruments, excavated at Susa, 3rd millenia BC. Iran National Museum.
Iran has thousands of years of Persian culture and music (musiqi, the science and art of music, and muzik the sound and performance of music), which contributed a form of classical music called in Persian musiqi-e asil as well as countless literary and folk music traditions. More recently, Iran has produced pop stars like Googoosh, many of whom now perform only in exile.

Music (muzik) is often denigrated in Islamic societies including Iran, and as a consequence music is often associated with non-Muslim and Muslim minorities. However, as with the ancient Greeks, music theory is valued, though performance is not, and as a consequence there is a strong and well-respected theoretical tradition. (Nettl, 1989) One wouldnt be exaggerating to set claim to the roots of music ( as we know it today.

The attitudes described above contribute to a difference between the European-influenced concept of music and the Iranian concept (see definitions of music). For example, though to a European-influenced listener Koran chanting, such as the call to prayer or prayer formulas, is "music", it is not considered music in Iranian urban musical culture. From a European influenced musicological analysis Koran chanting is structurally similar to Iranian classical singing (even if on religious texts) that is considered music in Iranian urban musical culture, and thus ethnomusicologists study Koran chanting as music, or rather; they study the musical aspects of Koran chanting. Though musicologists find it convenient to consider Koran chanting music, for Iranians Koran chanting is able to be more highly valued because it is not music (but something better). (Nettl, 1989)

As in European-influenced culture, musical genres are considered to contain varying degrees of "musicness". For example, pop dance music may be considered "entertainment" and thus less musical than the canonical masterpieces of the common practice period. In Iranian culture Koran chanting is not considered music, but classical improvised song, classical instrumental metric composition, and popular dance music are all considered music, in order of increasing "musicality". (Nettl, 1990)

Classical Iranian musical culture is thought to be complete by its participants with new creations being variations and rearrangements of old ones or parts thereof. For example, new dastgahs are not invented. (Nettl, 1989)

Persian arts

Folk music

Main article: Iranian folk music

Iran is home to several ethnic groups, including Kurdish, Azerbaijanis, Bakhtiari and Baluchi peoples. Turkmen epic poets similar to Central Asian musicians are common in Khorasan, while Kurdish music is known for its double-reed duduk and an earthy, dance-oriented sound.


The northern province of Mazandaran has a diverse folk music culture that includes songs and instrumental and ritual music. Rhythm is usually simple in songs, which include katuli, which is most common around the town of Aliabad-e Katul; the song is sometimes said to be sung when people take a catouli cow out to graze. Because the song was originally sung while walking and working, it often has syllables like jana, hey or aye added, in order to allow the singer to breath while he was working (a work song). Another kind of song is called kaleh haal (or kal kaal or Leili's lover). The term kaleh haal may refer to its shortness of length (kale haal means short present) or to its common wingers, housewives who sang it while cooking with a kaleh, a type of oven. Amiri songs usually use long poems written by Amir Paazvari, a legendary poet from Mazandaran. There is also a type of song called najma which describes the love between Prince Najmedin of the Fars area and a girl named Ranaa. The najma is popular throughout Iran, adapted for the local cultures. The Charvadars are an ancient class of merchants who sold commodities abroad for a local village; their songs are called charvadari. In contrast to most Mazandarani music, charvadari has a prominent rhythm, which may be because it was often sung on horseback.

Pop music

Main article: Iranian pop music

Iran developed its own pop music by the 1970s, using indigenous instruments and forms and adding electric guitar and other imported characteristics; the most popular musician of this period was Googoosh. Pop music didn't last long, though, and was banned after the 1979 revolution. Many Iranians took to foreign countries, especially Los Angeles in the United States, and Iranian-in-exile pop stars include Shahram, Morteza, Hodi, Hayadeh, Homeirah, Mahasti and Dariush the King of music.

Bandari music

Bandari, is a type of pop music, indigenous to southern Iran. It has beats and rythyms that make it most suitable for dance and party occasions.

Rock music

Main article: Iranian rock

Missing image
The Rock music icon of the world Freddie Mercury of the band Queen, was an Iranian by origin.

Since the late 90s, Iran has witnessed a unique blossoming of an indigenous breed of rock and hard rock musicians. The growth has been an explosion that has been accelerating ever since. What separates this movement from its Los Angeles pop counterpart is the young age group and the fact that it is almost entirely homegrown, and mostly underground. These are the children born after the revolution.

One of the first rock concerts ever to take place was that of an anonymous but incredibly talented band, "Pezhvak" ( The event was so significant that it even drew a Newsweek reporter to the concert. (.wma sample 1) ( (2) (

Soon there were bands superimposing the poetry of Hafez as their lyrics on top of a Bryan Adams-ish style music (mp3 sample) ( The rock band O-Hum ( was even permitted to play in freely mixed concerts for Christian minorities in Tehran. Today, there are even underground competitions ( and even music critics ( writing of these bands. And once in a blue moon, the government allows rock concerts to take place in very limited conditions. Bands like 127 ( and The Technicolor Dream have performed live, with English lyrics.

For a country like Iran that until a few years ago banned all forms of modern western music, it is surprising to hear bands now in Iran producing rock music with female vocals, or even heavy metal music.

Examples of homegrown Iranian rock bands in Iran:

  • Sarakhs ( (ra)
  • Pezhvak ( (2) (
  • Piccolo ( (wma)
  • Amertad (
  • O-Hum ( (mp3) ...Hafez meets Rock'n Roll!

Last but not least, it must be noted that Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen was also Iranian by ancestry.[1] (

Musiqi-e assil: Iranian classical music

Main article: Musiqi-e assil

This wall painting depicts a scene from 17th century Persia.
This wall painting depicts a scene from 17th century Persia.

The long-standing Persian Empire produced royal classical music called musiqi-e assil (pure or noble music). Its origins are unknown, and may stretch back thousands of years, though its first documented evidence of existence came much more recently.

Compositions can vary immensely from start to finish, usually alternating between low, contemplative pieces and athletic displays of musicianship called tahrir. Lyrics are largely written by medieval poets, especially Hafez and Jalal-e Din Rumi.

Musiqi-e assil instruments include the bowed spike-fiddle kamancheh, the goblet drum zarb, the end-blown flute ney, the frame drum daf, the long-necked lutes tar and setar and the dulcimer santur.

Much of musiqi-e assil is improvised and is based on a series of modal scales and tunes which must be memorized. Apprentices and masters (ostad) have a traditional relationship which has declined during the 20th century as music education moved to universities and conservatoires. A repertoire of more than two hundreed series (radif) are each divided into short melodies called gusheh, which are themselves divided into twelve dastgah. Each gusheh and dastgah have an individual name, and many are related to the maqams of Turkish and Arabic music.

See also daf.


Missing image
Ancient Iranians attached great importance to music and poetry, like today. Post Sassanid era silver plate. 7th century. The British Museum.

Until the early 20th century, musiqi-e assil was heard almost entirely at the royal courts of the monarchy. The Qajar dynasty ruled until 1925, with their influence declining since the turn of the century. Musiqi-e assil became a more common past-time for the next few decades, especially after cassettes were introduced in the 1960s. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran produced the singing star Gholam Hossein Banan and instrumentalists like Abol Hassan Saba, Ahmad Ebadi and Faramarz Payvar.

The 1979 revolution launched a renaissance in Persian classical music, from which emerged national stars like Parisa, Parviz Meshkatian, Jamshid Andalibi, Kayhan Kalhor, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Hossein Alizadeh, Shahram Nazeri and, most famously, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian. Though the revolution created classical music's popularity, music and Islam have not always meshed well, and many Iranian conservatives disliked even the simple melodies and lyrics of classical music. The role of women in music was restricted, though they were allowed to continue performing as instrumentalists though not vocalists.

Western Classical music

Iran is not alien to western classical music either. Many radio stations in Tehran play Mozart's concertos on a daily basis, and many Iranians even make it to world fame and fortune. The best examples of these Iranians are perhaps Shardad Rohani ( (LA Symphony Orchestra conductor), and Lily Afshar (world class classical guitarist and student of Andrs Segovia).

Electronic music

Many of the expatriate Iranians in North America or Europe are involved in electronic music. The best known band is the Washington-based Deep Dish which consists of Ali "Dubfire" and Shahram.

Known personalities

Missing image
Says Classical Guitar Magazine in 2002:
"Lily Afshar is a guitarist of the highest order."


Further reading

  • Nooshin, Laudan. "The Art of Ornament". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 355-362. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0.



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