Persian classical music can trace its history back through several millennia and it forms the basis of much of Near Eastern classical music as we know it today – indeed, the names of many of the modes and notes used in the Turkish and Arab musical traditions are of Persian origin. After the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century, Persian musicians and scholars found themselves at the heart of Islamic culture, and over the next six centuries scholars such as Al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīna and Safī al-Dīn produced texts that became standard references for musical studies throughout the Islamic world. However, with the rise of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century and the introduction of Shi'ite Islam as the state religion, music became increasingly frowned upon – what had previously been a public art performed by ensembles was transformed into largely improvised solo performances.
The decline only began to be reversed in the 19th century after the emergence of the Qajar dynasty. A new musical tradition began to be formulated based on a repertoire gathered from the leading vocalists and instrumentalists from the various provinces of Iran. This repertoire became known as the radif (ردیف), and the several hundred pieces that comprise it were designed to be memorised and to serve as a model for both new compositions and improvisation. The development of the radif probably dates back to the 18th century, but the earliest known collection that we know of is that codified by the brothers Mirzā Abdollāh and MirzāHossein Gholi in the late 19th century, based on the teachings of their father Ali Akbar Farāhāni. Since then a number of other musicians and scholars have also developed their own versions of the radif.
Each melody in the radif is known as a gusheh (گوشه) [plural: gusheh-hā (گوشهها)], and these are grouped into twelve modal systems: the title dastgāh (دستگاه) [plural: dastgāh-hā (دستگاهها)] is assigned to seven of these, while the remaining five derivative systems are given the title āvāz (آواز) [plural: āvāz-hā (آوازها)].
The performance of each dastgāh or āvāz begins with a darāmad (درآمد), an introductory piece that outlines its initial mode and melodic pattern. Various gusheh-hā are then introduced in a traditionally prescribed order, many of which require modulations from the mode established by the darāmad. The name of a particular dastgāh or āvāz therefore only refers to the mode of the darāmad, and not the modes of the whole collection of gusheh-hā that comprise that dastgāh or āvāz.
It is interesting to compare the Persian dastgāh concept with that of the Near Eastern maqam/makam. Whereas Arab and Turkish classical music centres around a maqam/makam based on a prescribed scale coupled with a melodic outline (sayir/seyir), Persian classical music places most importance on the melodies of the gusheh-hā and their underlying scale structures are secondary; in this sense it is closer to the Iraqi maqam vocal genre. Nevertheless, the names of many gusheh-hā are similar or identical to those of Arab maqamat or Turkish makamlar, which reflects their common heritage.
As with most other modal music traditions, Persian classical music makes use of microtonal intervals. These are approximated as a half-flat and half-sharp, although the exact degree by which a note is lowered or rasied varies in performance. The notation used is slightly different to that used in Arab or Turkish music, in that a half-flat is represented by while a half-sharp is written as .
An brief outline of the modal structures of the seven dastgāh-hā and five āvāz-hā, as represented by their darāmad sections, is given below. An accidental above a note indicates this note is regularly modified as indicated in descending movements. The symbol 'F' above a note indicates that it is the 'finalis' - the final note of a melody and often also the note that is most emphasised.
Dastgāh-e Shūr (دستگاه شور)
This is the most important dastgāh in Persian music and contains more gusheh-hā than any other. It is also the basis for many folk tunes from different regions of Iran. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity centres around the tetrachord above the finalis. Dastgāh-e Shūr includes the following main gusheh-hā: Salmak, Mollā Nāzi, Golriz, Bozorg, Khārā, Qajar, Ozzāl, Shahnāz, Qarache, Hoseyni, Bayāt-e Kord and Gereyli.
Āvāz-e Abu-'Atā (آواز ابوعطا)
This āvāz, which is also known sometimes as Āvāz-e Dastān-e 'Arab, is closely related to Dastgāh-e Shūr. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity occurs between the second and fourth notes above the finalis, with little emphasis on the finalis itself. Āvāz-e Abu-'Atā includes the following main gusheh-hā: Sayakhi, Hejāz, Chahār Bāq and Gabri.
Āvāz-e Bayāt-e Tork (آواز بیات ترک)
This āvāz is also sometimes known as Āvāz-e Bayāt-e Zand. It is widely used for the folk songs of the Kurds in western Iran and the Turkic tribes of the north-west and south, as well as for Dervish chants. The basic modal structure is as follows:
The melodic activity occurs in the tetrachord below the finalis when ascending, but in the tetrachord above the finalis when descending. Āvāz-e Bayāt-e Tork includes the following main gusheh-hā: Dogāh, Ruholarvāh, Mehdizarrābi, Qatār and Qarāi.
Āvāz-e Afshāri (آواز افشاری)
In many ways this āvāz is close to Dastgāh-e Shūr, with the final gusheh-hā often modulating to Shūr and the āvāz actually finishing in that mode. The basic modal structure is as follows:
The finalis is generally avoided during improvisation and used only as the final note, with most melodic phrases ending on the third note above the finalis. The scope for the darāmad section of Āvāz-e Afshāri is very wide, whereas there are relatively few gusheh-hā, and these are mostly from the repertoire of other dastgāh-hā: Bayāt-e Rāje', Rohāb, Masihi, Nahib and Masnavi Pich.
Āvāz-e Dashti (آواز دشتی)
This mode underlying this āvāz is believed to have originated in the Persian Gulf region of south-west Iran, but more recently it has become associated with the popular music of Gīlān on the Caspian Sea. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity occurs betwen the third and seventh notes above the finalis. Āvāz-e Dashti includes the following main gusheh-hā: Bidagāni, Chupāni, Dashtestāni, Qamangiz, Gilaki, Kuchebāqi and Oshshāq. There is a similar āvāz to Dashti known as Āvāz-e Bayāt-e Kord, which is based on the music of the Kurds.
Dastgāh-e Segāh (دستگاه سهگاه)
This dastgāh is based on a mode that is common throughout the Middle East. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity centres around the tetrachord above the finalis, with the third above the finalis being the most prominent note (after the finalis itself). Dastgāh-e Segāh includes the following main gusheh-hā: Zang-e Shotor, Zābol, Muye, Hesār, Mokhālef and Maqlub.
Dastgāh-e Chahārgāh (دستگاه چهارگاه)
Dastgāh-e Chahārgāh is almost identical to Dastgāh-e Segāh in terms of the way it is developed and its gusheh-hā, although the fundamental modes of the two dastgāh-hā are completely different. The basic modal structure is as follows:
The finalis connects two tetrachords of identical structure. Dastgāh-e Chahārgāh includes the following main gusheh-hā: Zang-e Shotor, Zābol, Muye, Hesār, Mokhālef, Maqlub, Hodi, Pahlavi, Rajaz and Mansuri.
Dastgāh-e Māhur (دستگاه ماهور)
This dastgāh is also based on a mode that is common throughout the Middle East, and is similar to the Western major scale. It contains a large number of modulations into Shūr, Homāyun and Esfahān. The basic modal structure is as follows:
The finalis connects two identical major tetrachords. Dastgāh-e Māhur includes the following main gusheh-hā: Dād, Khosrovāni, Tusi, Azarbāyejāni, Feyli, Abol, Delkash, Neyriz, Shekaste, Nahib, Arāq, Āshur, Rāk, Rāk-e Kashmir and Rāk-e Hendi.
Dastgāh-e Homāyun (دستگاه همایون)
This dastgāh is based on a mode that is also used in Turkey and Azerbaijan. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity occurs betwen the third note below and second note above the finalis. Dastgāh-e Homāyun includes the following main gusheh-hā: Chahārgāh, Movāliān, Chakāvak, Abolchap, Tarz, Leyli-o Majnun, Bidād, Ney Dāvud, Nōruzhā, Nafir, Zābol, Bayāt-e Ajam, Ozzāl, Shushtari, Mansuri, Bakhtiāri and Moālef.
Āvāz-e Esfahān (آواز اصفهان)
Also known as Āvāz-e Bayāt-e Esfahān, this is often considered to be a derivative of Dastgāh-e Homāyun. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity occurs betwen the fourth note below and third note above the finalis. Āvāz-e Esfahān includes the following main gusheh-hā: Bayāt-e Rāje', Oshshāq, Shāhkhatāi and Suz-o Godāz.
Dastgāh-e Navā (دستگاه نوا)
This dastgāh is very old and is considered to be the most gentle and meditative of all the dastgāh-hā. It is found only in classical music, and is not used for popular or light genres. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity focuses on the tetrachords above and below the finalis, with more emphasis on the former. Dastgāh-e Navā includes the following main gusheh-hā: Gardāniye, Bayāt-e Rāje', Nahoft, Gavesht, Neyshāburak, Khojaste, Arāq, Oshshāq, Hoseyni, Busalik, Neyriz, Rahāvi, Nāqus and Takht-e Tāqdis.
Dastgāh-e Rāst-Panjgāh (دستگاه راستپنجگاه)
This is the least performed of all the dastgāh-hā, perhaps because its scale is identical to that of Dastgāh-e Māhur and most of its repertoire is taken from other dastgāh-hā. The basic modal structure is as follows:
Most of the melodic activity occurs above the finalis, with the second note above being particularly emphasised. Dastgāh-e Rāst-Panjgāh includes the following main gusheh-hā: Parvāne, Khosrovāni, Ruhafzā, Neyriz, Zābol, Panjgāh, Qarache, Mobarqa', Sepehr, Nahib, Arāq, Āshur, Abolchap, Tarz, Leyli-o Majnun, Nōruzhā, Nafir, Māvarāonnahr and Rākhā.
During, J., Mirabdolbaghi, Z. and Safvat, D. (1991) The Art of Persian Music, Washington, DC: Mage.
Farhat, H. (1990) The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.