Persian Music Theory

Afshin Ardalan. (2012, Spring).Persian Music Meets West


There are three theories about Persian music intervals. The first one, which was done in 1920 by Ali Naqi Vaziri, identifies Persian musical intervals based on a 24 quarter-tone scale. The second one was done by Mehdi Barkeshli in 1940 and defines Persian music intervals within a 22 tone scale. And a third one was pre- sented by Hormoz Farhat who is representing Persian Musical intervals within five intervals with which all of the Persian Musical modes are constructed and does not recognize any basic scale concept.(Farhat 1990, 7)

4.1 The 24 quarter tone scale

In fact the idea of dividing scales into equal intervals is an outcome of westerniza- tion in Persian music. Some of the musicians who studied western music have felt the absence of harmony in their music and they tried to find a solution. In western music, the smallest interval is a semitone. They were aware of the fact that it is not possible to represent Persian music with whole-tones and semitones when their music contained unmistakably some other intervals, so they represented the quartertone as the smallest unit. Western musical influences begin in Persia by the second half of nineteenth centu- ry when Naser-eddin Shah who ruled from 1848 to 1896, visited Europe on three different occasions. He was impressed by the ceremonies where military bands were performing music. After his first tour to Europe he ordered the establishment of a musical school to train musicians for his imperial military band. This school, which was organized and taught by the French instructors, was Persia’s first contact with the occidental music and led to some results such as: through the western musical theory they learnt fixed pitches, major and minor scales, and keys which had no connection with their native music. They found the advantage of music notation which had never been used. Actually there was not any written document about Persian music except of some treatises in medieval times. In the study of harmony they were impressed by the novelty of playing more than one voice at the same time and the need for a methodical pedagogy in Persian music. Among these students, Ali Naqi Vaziri was the first student who sought a music education in Europe and he studied there for eight years. After returning to Iran, he established a music school of his own and trained young musicians according to western methods. He composed numerous pieces for solo instruments as well as songs and operettas, published some methods for Tar and Setar and a book about Persian music theory known as Musiqi-e-Nazari. In this book he presented the theory of the 24 quarter-tone scale and wrote about the twelve Dasthgah in his personal manner. (Farhat 1990, 8)

4.2 The 22 tone scale

Mehdi Barkeshli was a physicist by profession. His theory is based on the theories of some medieval writers such as Abu-nasr Farabi and Safiaddin Ormavi. In the time of these medieval scholars the Pythagorean intervals of Limma and Comma were the basis for fretting the musical instruments, the octave contained two tetra- chords plus a whole tone. Each tetrachord consisted of five pitches and four in- tervals. The five pitches were named after the open string by the name of the fin- gers which press the string of the Ud. If we take the open string C then other fin- gers could be: CD?EF Motlaq Sbbabeh Vosta Bansar Xansar Between the Motlaq( open string) and Sabbabeh( 1st finger) is a whole tone, the position of Vosta is subject of controversy, but it could be a minor third (accord- ing to some research), from Motlaq, the Bansar was located on the position of a major third from Motlaq and there was a whole tone interval between Bansar and Xansar. According to Safiaddin Ormavi the intervals between the fingers’ positions could be described within limma and comma in a tetrachord were: Motlaq Sbbabeh Bansar Xansar Limma Limma Comma Limma Limma Comma Limma 90c 90c 24 90 90 24 90 The division of this terachord was duplicating for the second conjunct tetrachord and the whole tone between tetrachord was also two limmas and one comma, so, the Ormavie’s octave is: L+L+C-L+L+C–L- L+L+C- L+L+C-L+L+C-L After several centuries in which no theoretical research was taken, in 1940 Mehdi Barkeshli did a series of tests among the reputable musicians. He recorded some songs in various modes and analyzed them. From the results Barkeshli concluded that the whole tone and semi tone intervals in Persian music are stable and they are the same Pythagorean intervals. The major tetrachord is 206+204+89=499 which is the same as Pythagorean tetrachord. In other tetrachords he found three variants of Db and Eb. These three intervals were 89c, 120c and 180c. By counting them you can see how he introduced his theory of 22 tone scale. (Farhat 1990, 10)

4.3 The theory of flexible intervals

This theory, represented by Hormoz Farhat in the book the Dastgah Concept, was opposed to earlier mentioned theories. He frequently mentioned that there is no such an interval smaller than the semi tone. Unlike Barkeshli who made his tests among singers he did the measurements on the instruments: Tar and Setar. He used two Tars and three Setars which were fretted by reputable musicians. As the result, he found the relatively stable whole tone and semitone. The whole tone was approximately the same L+L+C (204 cents); the semitone was never larger than a Limma (90 cents); and intervals which are larger than a semitone but smaller than a whole tone called neutral tones are very flexible. He found the smaller neutral tone about 135 cents and larger one 160 cents. He also mentioned another unstable interval which is bigger than a whole tone as 270 cents called plus tone. According to Farhat, the scale concept is not employed in Persian music and all Persian modes can be expressed in a tetrachord or pentachord. “The octave is not significant. In certain modes a range of pitches beyond the limits of an octave is needed, as in the higher octave some notes are different from what they are in the lower octave. As you can see the fretting system of Tar and Setar in one octave below, there are seventeen frets in an octave, but no chromatic is used. (Farhat 1990, 15)

C 90 c.

Db 45 c.

Dp 70 c.

D 90 c.

Eb 45 c.

Ep 70 c.

E 90 c.

F 65 c.

F|> 65 c.

Gp 70 c.

G 90 c.

Ab 45 c.

Ap 70 c.

A 90 c.

Bb 45 c.

Bp 70 c.

B 90 c.