In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Music in Iran

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Manuscripts
  • Bibliographies/Discographies
  • Journals
  • Online Resources
  • History

Music Music in Iran
Ameneh Youssefzadeh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0250


Iran is a vast multiethnic and multilingual state with rich and diverse musical traditions. What is often called “Persian music” refers to the canonical repertoire that is also known as classical, sonnati (traditional), asil (authentic), honari (art), ʿelmi (learned), or dastgahi (dastgah is the name given to principal divisions of the modal system), and is associated with the Persian language (Farsi) and poetry. Urban popular music, formerly cultivated by professional entertainers, called motreb (from Arabic tarab, “joy”), has a variety of musical styles. The musics of various ethnic groups, such as Turkic-speaking peoples, Kurds, Lors, Baluchis, and Arabs, are referred to as mahalli or navahi (regional) or maqami (here the term implies melody or tune). Each ethnic group in Iran has a distinctive culture and language and its own musical practices that have many parallels with the same ethnic groups in adjacent countries; musicians are often bilingual or trilingual. Throughout history, Persian language and culture extended beyond Iran into South and West Asia. For centuries, Iran formed a crossroads between the Middle East and Far East. In modern times it has experienced two revolutions: the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911 and the 1978–1979 Iranian Revolution (also called the Islamic Revolution); the consequences of each were crucial to music and musical life (discussed partly in Chehabi 1999, cited under Tasnif, for the former; and in Youssefzadeh 2000, cited under History, for the latter). Persian classical music has been cultivated in the courts of Persian kings from pre-Islamic times up to the end of the 19th century. The Persian musical system, said to be one of the world’s oldest, later contributed to the Perso-Arabic system of music theory. The classical music that we know today was crystalized in the second half of the nineteenth century at the court of the Qajar king, Naser al-Din Shah (r. 1848 to 1896). It was also in this period that Western music was introduced and taught in Iran. The Pahlavi era (1925–1979) is identified with the modernization and Westernization of Iranian society and culture. The 1979 revolution that established the Islamic Republic brought many restrictions affecting music and musical life. The official religion since 1501 has been Shiʿa Islam but there are also Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities, such as Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Jews, Baha’i, and Zoroastrians. In terms of literature, the works produced on classical music by both Iranian and Western authors are far more numerous than those about regional traditions. Most of the studies of Iranian musicians in diaspora are dedicated to pop music and musicians. Only a few studies have investigated the musical practices of religious minorities. The first half of this bibliography lists mostly publications concerning Persian classical and popular music, and the second half is on regional traditions, here discussed by region, although publications for some regions are sometimes nonexistent or hard to find.

General Overviews

Blum 2002 is a very informative and scholarly introduction to the varieties of music-making in Iran, emphasizing the use of the voice in diverse contexts and venues. In During, et al. 1991, each author contributes a section examining different aspects of Persian music. Caron and Safvate 1966 is one of the first publications in a Western language on Persian music. Nettl 2006, an article in the Encyclopædia Iranica Online (with free access), gives an overview of Persian classical music.

  • Blum, Stephen. “Iran: An Introduction.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 6, The Middle East. Edited by Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds, 823–838. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Organized into three sections: “Venues and Purposes,” “Roles of Performers,” and “Musical Knowledge.” The first section treats khaneqah (a Sufi lodge) and zurkhaneh (House of Strength), ceremonial mourning, and public spaces in cities. The second describes amateurs and professionals, topics and voices, and rhythms of interaction. The third section examines attitudes toward music, instruments, and names.

  • Caron, Nelly, and Dariouche Safvate. Iran: Les traditions musicales. Paris: Édition Buchet/Chastel, 1966.

    The modal system’s twelve dastgahs and avazs and their expressive characters are explained concisely. The instruments and their tunings, as well as religious, Sufi, therapeutic, and zurkhaneh music, are treated briefly.

  • During, Jean, Zia Mirabdolbaghi, and Dariush Safvat. The Art of Persian Music. Washington, DC: Mage, 1991.

    In this beautifully illustrated volume intended for the general public, During covers the history, musical system, poetry and music, and mysticism; Mirabdolbaghi treats music and the visual arts, including a valuable section comprising accounts by prominent performers and teachers on aspects of Persian classical music; Safvat’s section gives important practical indications for students. Includes a CD, “Anthology of Persian Music: 1930–1990.”

  • Nettl, Bruno. “Iran xi: Persian Music.” In Encyclopædia Iranica Online. 2006.

    An introduction to music in Iran emphasizing the history and musical system of Persian classical music. This article is also available in print: Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. 13, Fasc. 5, pp. 474–480, (2006).

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