Parviz Meshkatian on the Radif of Persian Classical Music

Although music is an international language, every culture has its own musical dialect. Musical communication, like oral communication, evolves depending on the historical and social necessities of each culture.

The compilation of the essentials of classical, or traditional music of Iran has been attributed to the family of Agha Ali Akbar Farahani, and especially to Ali Akbar's sons Agha Hosseingholi and particularly Mirza Abdollah (d. 1918). This collection of all the materials which have been communicated and preserved by oral tradition, through many generations by the old masters, is called the Radif. Comparing the Radif with present-day folk music of Iran clearly shows how the scales and melodic characteristics of most goushes (melodic structures in the Radif) have many similarities to the melodies of the music of various regions of Iran.

The Radif can be divided into 5 different tonalities as follows:1.Mhur (close to Major), 2.Homyoun (close to Minor), 3.Shur, 4.Segh, 5.Chhrgh

The five tonalities of the Radif are divided into a total of 12 groups called dastgh:

1. Dastgh Mhur1. Close to Major:
1. Dastgh Homyoun

2. Dastgh Rstpnjgh

2. Close to Minor:
2. Dastgh Bayt-e Esfhn

3. Ancient tonalities:
1. Dastgh Shur

2. Dastgh Abuat

3. Dastgh Bayt-e Tork

4. Dastgh Afshri

5. Dastgh Dashti

6. Dastgh Nav

4. Segh Tonality:
1. Dastgh Segh

5. Chhrgh Tonality:
1. Dastgh Chhrgh


These 12 dastghs are subdivided into 7 principle and 5 secondary dastghs:

Principle Dastghs:1-Shur, 2-Mhur, 3-Homyoun, 4-Nav, 5-Segh, 6-Chhrgh, 7-Rstpanjgh

Secondary Dastghs:1-Abuat, 2-Bayt-e Tork, 3-Afshri, 4-Dashti, 5-Bayt-e Esfhn

The first four secondary dastghs are derived from Dastgh Shur and the fifth one, Bayt-e Esfhn, is derived from Dastgh Homyoun. All the dastghs are made up of smaller groups, the maqms (which are similar to modes in Western terminology).

The smallest elements in the dastgh are the goushes (melodies). Among the goushes there are a few which, in the sequence of playing, change the tonality of the music, and these pivotal goushes usually have the same name as the maqm (mode) in which they are played. Therefore, the melodic hierarchy in Persian classical music, goingfrom the general to the specific, is as follows:

Radif - Tonality - Dastgh - Maqm - Gousheh

The various maqms which follow each other are all connected to the main dastgh by a specific melody called foroud (literally "landing"). In every maqm (mode) in a dastgh there are three main notes which have specific functions:

1. Shhed Note - The shhed note (literally "witness") represents the center of the melody and all melodic movements revolve around this note.

2. Variable Note - The pitch of the variable note can change from a quarter to half a step. (Usually the sharpened note is played in ascending melodies and the original note is played in descending melodies.)

3. Ist Note - The ist note (literally "stop") is where the melody temporarily ends.

There are several similar goushes which are common in different dastghs, and can be used to make transitions from one dastgh to another. There are also times that such a gousheh does not exist and if there is a need to switch dastghs, the musician must improvise a melody, according to his or her own taste and ability, and such that the change is not too abrupt and sounds pleasant to the ear. Such modulations are especially useful in singing where the vocalist is free to use any gousheh in any dastgah to better express the meaning of a poem. This way of singing or playing is called Morakab-Khni (compound singing) or Morakab Navzi (compound playing).

Since spontaneous creation is an inseparable element of the music of the east, and especially of Iran, the performer who has reached a high level of virtuosity is able to perform in a vast range of expressive manners. In other words, the musician may always perform the Radif of Mhur in a generally similar form and sonic space, however, depending on one's mood and ability to create in the moment, one could give very different performances of Mhur. Improvisation is this unique interpretation of tonality which in fact is the reflection of the musician's artistic vision, and emotional and spiritual necessities. Thus, each and every musician is able to discover and develop his or her own improvising and performing style.

The music of a culture, just like its language, goes through social and regional changes. The evolution is first brought about by the necessities of the society and later analyzed. Tradition is not a concrete and predefined concept, however, the needs of a society in thepassage of history change what is perceived as old or new. Therefore, the traditional music of a region will survive fruitfully not only when it expresses the current state of its people, but also when it is capable of shedding light on future paths. This is the traditional or classical musician's responsibility.

Parviz Meshkatian, 1993
Translated by Shahrokh Yadegari
Excerpted from the liner notes of KCD-108 Dawn