Language of a nation: A glimpse of traditional Persian music

January 1, 2012 - 13:20
Ostaad (Master)Farhang Sharif (born 1931) in Amol, northern Iran is a well-known Iranian musician and renowned taar (Persian lute) player who has spent more than 70 years of his life on this exclusively Persian musical instrument. Sharif performed his first ever live solo program on the radio when he was barely 10 years old. He has collaborated with notable musicians like Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Akbar Golpaigani Gholam Hossein Banan and Mahmoud Khansari and has attended numerous national and international festivals and cultural events. His style of playing the taar and his unique creativity in strumming has won him recognition as the best taar artist capable of producing the most beautiful taar tunes in the eyes of many people. 
Farhang Sharif has lectured in prestigious American universities for a few years. He was also awarded honorary doctorate in music during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. In an interview with Maryam Ala Amjadi he discusses traditional Persian music.  
Below is the abridged version translated from Persian by Ala Amjadi.

Maryam Ala Amjadi: In your opinion, what defines Persian music and sets it apart from the music of other cultures?

Farhang Sharif: Every nation has its own particular music and that music is the history and the language of that nation. Music speaks of different time periods and places and at every level it takes on a new color. Persian music which comes from the eastern part of the world has features that are peculiar to it. For example we have gusheh, which are actually short melodic movements (more than 200) and these gushehs are classified into seven music modes known as dastgah. Two of these modes have secondary modes branching from them called avaaz. Each gusheh and dastgah has an individual name. This whole body is called the radif of which there are several versions. We have microtonal intervals called rob'eh-pardeh (quarter-tone). So one should not compare this music with that of other nations because this music is as old as time. It is quite evident that it is unique. 

MAA: So, what is the main difference between performers of Persian and Western musical instruments?

FS: In western classical music, the violin is played almost similarly by everyone. The violin is held the same way and the same methods and strokes go on, but Persian music has a reputation for displaying a range of talent as the principles were passed from master to disciple as a part of our oral tradition. Every time the tone and the tune changes and every player performs according to his own taste, his own vibration which is quite unlike what you hear in the western classic orchestra where everything is predictable for the performer. This is why here artists can have their own signature style and many of these styles cannot be put in musical notations because they are the personal approaches of the artists and are passed on exclusively to their disciples. 

MAA: This also has to do with the unique features of Persian musical instruments.

FS: Yes, Persian musical instruments are very demanding and you should practice for years before you can perform perfectly. Even those performers who are more into pop music feel they can make their work more interesting by adopting some of the gushehs (subdomain of dastgahs, literally meaning “corner”) of traditional music. Persian musical instruments are not created to produce standard and fixed tunes. Of course, there are discrete ensembles but this does not mean everyone will perform the same way. When I performed at American and European universities, the reaction I received proved how distinguished Persian music is because of these very features. 

MAA: I have heard quite a few non-Iranian but avid lovers of Persian music remark that traditional Persian music more than often has a trace of longing, if not a hint of the nostalgia to it. Would you say this is true?

FS:  Persian music has rhythms that are in fact, so to speak, very happy. Consider for instance rhythms played in 6/8 pattern. If there are some people who feel other than this, then there is a reason for that. For example Persian lullabies are sung in the dastgah of Dashti system which may give one a sense of this feeling. Most Persian instruments produce high pitched tones and this also creates its own effects. Also as I said, music takes on the color and rhythm of its time and place. I remember one night at a club in the States, there was a young boy in his early twenties who did not even know the meaning of sorrow. The way music is produced and the way you feel about music is also a consequence of time and place. 

MAA: Time and place and also inspiration by other cultures. 

FS: Well, there is no problem in being inspired because there are no borders in music and in art for that matter, but it should not take the color of imitation. I used to listen to a lot to symphonies for a while and was very much inspired and intrigued. Others have also been inspired by Persian music, but our musical instruments are challenging and take years to master. They may, as you say, have signs of nostalgia but if we work in line with the original rhythms we also have very happy music.

MAA: You once said in another interview that even the sound of tuning a musical instrument by an artist could be inspirational. How do you define improvisation in traditional Persian music?

FS: Improvisation is a specific art. Persian music is a result of our oral culture. When I play the taar, it looks as if it has been practiced and rehearsed but then there is also a sense of freshness to it. In order to improvise, you must be adept and immensely creative. Badiheh navazi (the tradition of improvisation in Persian music) happens when the artist plays music on the spot and spontaneously, but in a neat and organized fashion. It is very much peculiar to Iranian music and not everyone can be a badiheh navaz (improviser).

MAA: What about the audience? What is their impact on the improviser, if any?

FS: I believe music must come out of monotony every one or two minutes. Even the most beautiful rhythms can become flat to the ears and wear out after the initial spark. So, an improviser should also be a soloist and remember that he is playing for an audience.  In fact most traditional instruments were initially meant for solo performance.  Taar has a range of diverse sounds and I believe it brings out the best features in Persian music for a soloist. 

MAA: Is this why you chose this instrument?

FS: This and also other factors. It was probably genetics. All my ancestors had a knack for music. There was also music therapy back in the old days which was popular in their time. Also for a budding artist, there is nothing like a good audience and I already had that in my family. I was about 10 years old when I played the taar on the Iranian radio back then. I can say I have spent 76 years of my life on this instrument. When I was barely 3 or 4 years old, an Ostad (literally meaning, master or teacher, of music) would come to our house and I would fall asleep on his lap just listening to him, but when they would come to take me away, I would weep and the teacher knew that I had been listening. 

MAA: You had said also in another interview that you can bring out 30 different sounds from the taar. Could you please tell us what you exactly mean by that?

FS: Well, if you play piano, santoor or ney (an end-blown flute) in the dastgah of Shour system, change of tunes will not be visible. But with the taar, I can play each dastgah in 6-7 various tunes and all of them are different, in a way that you would think that I am playing a different magham (ensembles that showcase musical traditions from different ethnicities in Iran) altogether but it is not so. Actually, the beauty of Persian musical instruments lies in the significance of understanding where there should be a pause, where silence comes in. The instrument must have something to say after all. There are always various types of audience that the music addresses. Some tunes are beseeching in love, others are in fury or in happiness. I can transfer all these emotions to the audience and they feel it the same way. I believe if we work more on the gushehs of our music, we can get more beautiful and very diverse results. 

MAA: Do you feel technological progress has made music somewhat too accessible today and this has caused its very own repercussions?

FS: Well, look at sound synthesizers for example. They regulate music quite automatically and display an imitation of all musical instruments. It’s all about technological advances. But our music cannot even be compared to this. Traditional Persian music is meant more for live performances. So when you hear it, for example, on the radio, care should be taken that it is delivered exactly the same way. But we should also take measures to preserve it and recording it is one way of doing so. Just imagine, if you had a record of Hafez’s voice reading his own poetry, wouldn’t it have been interesting? If we do not preserve our culture, then we have opened a way for other cultures in not a very suitable way. As you see, the taste of today’s youth in music has been affected and in the long run, this could damage the prospect of our traditional music. 
MAA: I personally feel some of the new music we hear today is noise and not music at all.
FS: True. And it is the same with singers. We have to take into consideration the fact that not everyone can actually become a signer and that there are indeed prerequisites like tone, vocal control and practice. 

MAA: So, in this light, how do you see the future of traditional Persian music?

FS: The previous approaches to music will disappear gradually, I believe. It’s diminishing. But fortunately there are some young people who have good taste in music and an inclination to learn traditional Persian musical instruments. I have hope that this music will continue to grow and live on because it is the language of our nation.

MAA:  Last question, could you tell us how many taars you have at present, as this is your main musical instrument?

FS: I have 4 yahya* taars. Yahya instruments as you know can no longer be found today and are very rare. 

MAA: Is there one that you feel very special about?

FS: Absolutely. I have one which has been in my arms for 50 years (laughs) and it has a very beautiful tune. I am so intimate with it. When it is out of tune, I also feel drained, I feel almost depressed. 

* Hovans Abkarian known as Yahya, the Taar maker (1875-1931) was a renowned master of making taar in his own signature style and design. Yahya was known as the best taar maker of his time due to the unique qualities the instruments he produced had as a result of his special procedures in creating the instruments. 

Persian taar, in tune for all seasons

As one of the most important Persian musical instruments, the long-necked taar plays a great role in traditional Persian music and one could say that the general trends of Persian classical music have been deeply influenced by taar players. 
The body of this musical instrument is a double-bowl shape carved from mulberry wood, with a thin membrane of stretched lamb-skin covering the top. Every string has its own tuning peg and they are tuned independently. Previously, the Persian taar used to have five strings. The sixth string was added to the taar by the Persian musician, Darvish Khan (1872-1926). This string is today's fifth string of the Iranian taar.
In olden times, the melodies performed on taar were considered useful for headache, insomnia and melancholy, as well as for eliminating nervous and muscle spasms. Listening to this instrument was believed to induce a quiet and philosophical mood, compelling the listener to reflect upon life. Its solemn melodies were thought to cause a person to relax and fall asleep.
The author of Qabusnameh (major work of didactic Persian literature from the11th century) recommends that when selecting musical tones (pardeh), to take into account the temperament of the listener (The four temperaments: Sanguine, Chloric, Melancholic and Phlegmatic). He suggested that lower pitched tones were effective for persons of sanguine and phlegmatic temperaments, while higher pitched tones were helpful for those who were identified with a choleric temperament or melancholic temperament.
Taar (literally meaning, string) has been adopted by other cultures and countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and other areas near the Caucasus region.


1- Archeological evidence reveals musical instruments were used in Iran during the Elamite era around 800 BCE. Music played an important role in the courts of the kings of the much later Sassanid Empire (224 CE to 651 CE).
2- Apparently, today's traditional Persian music began to develop after the advent of Islam in Iran in the medieval era, and the creation of today's formal, classical musical tradition is directly linked to the music systems of the Safavid Dynasty (16th century A.D).
3- Iranian classical music relies on both improvisation and composition, and is based on a series of modal scales and tunes which must be memorized.
4- Apprentices and masters (Ostad) have a traditional relationship which has declined during the 20th century as music education moved to universities and conservatories.
5- A typical performance consists of the following elements: pishdaraamad (a rhythmic prelude which sets the mood), daraamad (rhythmic free motif), aavaaz (improvised rhythmic-free singing), tasnif (rhythmic accompanied by singing, an ode), chaharmezrab (rhythmic music but rhythmic-free or no singing), reng (closing rhythmic composition, a dance tune). A performance forms a sort of suite. Unconventionally, these parts may be varied or omitted.
6- The classical music is vocal based. The vocalist plays a crucial role: she or he decides what mood to express and which dastgah (mode) relates to that mood.
7- Traditionally, music is performed while seated on finely decorated cushions and rugs. Candles are sometimes lit.
8- Iranian classical music continues to function as a spiritual tool as it has throughout its history, and much less of a recreational activity.
9- Traditional Persian music employs lyrics largely written by medieval Sufi poets, especially Hafez, Sa’di and Rumi.
10- Unlike European music, Persian music has no notes. Music is composed of modes or harmonious phrases, which take their name from persons or places and which serve as stereotypical models for the production of the imagination of the composers.
11- In early twentieth century the Western method of writing musical scores was adopted by a number of Persian scholars in an effort to bequeath for posterity the grand heritage they had received by oral tradition. 

Bizarre Buzz!
World’s oldest musical instrument to be revived 

The oldest stringed musical instrument, the Persian harp is to be revived and reconstructed in the city of Qazvin, Iran. 

Seyfollah Shokri, Iranian musical instrument maker and in charge of reconstruction of the 6000 years old harp, said that restoration of the instrument which was anciently known as ‘gheish’ and dates back to four thousand years before the Christ, actually began after a period of 7 years of research.  
He further clarified that the musical instrument was discovered by a research team from University of Chicago on the ancient hills of Khuzestan, southwest Iran who found seals, one of which bore the image of the world’s oldest music orchestra on it. 
Shokri further commented that the Persian harp had not become extinct completely to this day and has gone through evolution during second and third centuries. 
“Almost 500 years before the Christ, this instrument was used in different tune and shape and later it evolved into the famous right angled Sassanid harp,” he said.

Shokri stated cultural transmission and relocation of this harp to the Persian music scene as his main objectives in revival of the musical instrument.