Scales of Persian Music

By Ali Rezai , MD



Classic Persian music is a delightful spiritual experience adored by millions of Iranians but is largely unknown outside its homeland. This may be in part due to the unique nature of its tonal elements that are not readily playable on western musical instruments.

Persian music is embodied in a large number of melodies and tunes (mayeh's) carrying their own sets of notes that have come down the pike of history from masters to pupils by oral tradition. In  nineteenth century it was organized into discrete ensembles called dastgah (system) which in turn contain sub domains called gusheh (corner). Major dastgah's of Persian music include sehgah, chahargah, shoor, mahour, homayoon, rastpanjgah, and nava. Each dastgah is thought to be conducive of a specific mood and carries with it a specific set of notes embedded in its main mayeh. Here in lies the complexity as well as the strength of the Persian music, as compared to western music. Whereas in western music there is only a major and a minor scale, both of which have regular note intervals at 100 or 200 cents, Persian music has many different scales (modes) with varying pitch intervals that are not necessarily regular. The graph below compares the pitch intervals of western scales with those of Persian scales. Notes depicted in red are most deviant from a tempered scale.

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. The effort was only partially successful, as it did not address the important issue of scale variations in different dastgahs. The issue in fact has remained moot to this very date. There are no universally agreed upon  records published anywhere of what for example constitutes the proper scale for chahargah, or shoor, or any other dastgah ecxept for mahour which approximates western major scale.  In the process they had to resort to microtonal intervals called rob'eh-pardeh (quarter-tone) in order to accommodate some notes approximately. The system at any rate remains oblivious to the scale variations amongst the different dastgahs. Prior to playing each dastgah, a maestro has to rely on his innate memory to kook (tune) his instrument properly for the new playing a snippet of its main mayeh while also tweaking the strings until it sounds right.

For piano it is quite impractical to tune and retune the instrument manually each and every time a new dastgah is to be played. As such a powerful musical instrument like piano is left almost idle in most Persian orchestras. The advent of electronic keyboards and synthesizers, however, has ushered in a new era. These devices can be readily tuned and be made to render any desired set of Persian notes by merely applying a set of offset values to their native pitches. The process is precise, simple, and effective. What is needed though is a reference system that should be established and adopted by everyone precisely defining the notes operative in each dastgah.  Such a system can only emerge from a collective effort and the authority of maestros involved in the field of classical Persian music

I have been privileged to know Mr. Jahangir Abadi in Iowa City, Iowa for many years and I am aware of his efforts in this field spanning more than a decade. Through him I have also made the acquaintance of Mr. Ramin Zoufonoun who is both a theoretician and an accomplished instrumentalist of Persian music. Mr. Abadi has asked me to render my assistance in setting up this web site and to develop a computer program to generate and test Persian notes for electronic keyboards. This page and the program 'Persian Pardeh' presented in a subsequent section are the results of my first round efforts. Unfortunately, I have no musical talents of my own to contribute in any other manner.

Jahangir Abadi and Ramin Zoufonoun will collaborate on this page and will systematically explore the scales involved in major dastgah's of Persian music. Their introductory contributions are already in place on the following pages. It is my hope and my sincere desire that this site will also attract  the attention and the collaboration of many more experts and enthusiasts so that we can have a healthy and vibrant forum about Persian music. We invite all interested parties to oblige us by contributing their input to enrich this site whether it be commentary, music, critique, or technical data.

Thanking you in advance for your interest,

       Ali Rezai MD

        Nowruz, 1385