Persian Music Theory
persian music theory

Persian Music Theory

Table of Contents

Introduction of Persian Music Theory

Persian music, as well as Persian music theory, along with Arabic and Turkish music, is a member of a larger family whose origin dates back over a thousand years. For centuries, this music family has had relatively uniform rules and standards, and all of the cultures that comprised it have played a role in developing such rules. Since nearly three to four centuries ago, the members of this large family have chosen different ways for their evolution. Such a division has resulted in the emergence of smaller musical families, such as the eastern and western Arabic music family and the Central Asian musical family, which also share many theoretical foundations despite their distinctive characteristics. In the meantime, Iranian and Azerbaijani music make up a single family with some similarities to Iraqi music.

Most works written in the twenty-first century on Iranian music theory have focused on the theoretical foundations of European music rather than the extensive background of Iranian-Arabic-Turkish music theory. Therefore, experts believe that developing an Iranian music theory for teaching in fine arts schools that originates from this type of music is essential.

Recognizing that the modern persian music theory system differs from the previous system, this book has taken fundamental theoretical concepts from traditional theoretical sources and extracted the principles and rules of Iranian music from what is performed today. These rules and regulations correspond with Iranian classical music called “Radif.” Consequently, Radif, in its broadest sense, is the foundation of the theories presented in this book, and the authors have refrained from focusing on a particular Radif for formulating the theoretical foundations of persian music.

Melody and Interval in Persian music theory

Behavioral Objectives: After finishing this chapter, the learner should be able to:

  1.  Name the different intervals of Iranian music.
  2.  Distinguish the differences between consonant and dissonant intervals in Iranian music.
  3. Explain the concept of tetrachord and how it is formed in Iranian music.

We all know that music is, first and foremost, made of sound. In other words, there would be no music without sound. As a result, we will begin by defining of sound and its related topics.


The source of sound is the vibration of things. When an object vibrates, it also vibrates the air around it, producing a sound that is forwarded to our ears through this air.

When air touches objects, it causes them to vibrate and produce sound, for instance, when the wind blows between electric wires.

Attention: There would be no sound if there were no air or other fluid, either gas or liquid. Therefore, If no sound is produced, if an object vibrates in a vacuum vibrating or sound-producing object can be liquid, gas, or solid. This vibrating object is referred to as a sound source.

Some sounds have a consistent vibration. That is, the objects that produce these sounds, such as Tar, piano, Ney, Kamancheh, and the like, obviously vibrate several times in one second.

Frequency: Frequency is defined as the number of vibrations of an object per second and is measured in Hertz (Hz).

Let’s Experience

Make a tuning fork vibrate (the type of tuning fork that produces the “la” (A) sound in the middle of the second line in the treble clef). When this tuning fork strikes an object, it oscillates 440 times per second (its frequency is 440 Hz, the same frequency as the note “la”). The vibrations of this diapason’s prongs are so fast and small that they are barely visible.

A few sounds, such as castanets and breaking glass, do not have a standard vibration; that is, it is unknown how many times per second the objects that created these sounds vibrate.

Note (Tune)

Note or tune means “sound, song, and tone” in the literal sense. In literature, it is also used in place of hymns and songs. In music dissertations, notes have several meanings, the most common of which is a sound with a particular or fixed frequency.

The European method of notation is now used almost everywhere worldwide to record music. However, nations employ various approaches. Chinese, Indians, and Tibetans, for example, all have their own songwriting style.

persian music theory
An example of the Chinese notation system (The western system is beneath the Chinese one)

Musicologists in ancient Iran used Abjad letters as one of their notation systems. These letters are the same as the letters of the Persian alphabet, which follow each other in sequence: abjd (abjad), hwz (hawwaz), ḥṭī (ḥuṭṭī), klmn (kalaman), s’fṣ (saʿafaṣ), qrsht (qarashat), tthkh (thakhudh), ḍẓugh (ḍaẓigha)[1].

perisan music theory abjad letters
The comparison of the European system of notation and the Abjad system of notation

As you can see, from Sol or G onwards, the letter “ی” (ya) has been inserted into the beginning of the letter “ح” (“ḥ”)- which is a part of حطّی(ḥuṭṭī).

PErsian music theory vs europ music theory
An example of notation in persian music theory of a melody using Abjad letters. (The letters are read from right to left, and the digits represent the number of beats in each note. In this context, we’ve defined the beat unit as an eighth note or quaver.)

An example of musical notation of a melody using Abjad letters. (The letters are read from right to left, and the digits represent the number of beats in each note. In this context, we’ve defined the beat unit as an eighth note or quaver.)

Pitch (High Pitch/ Low Pitch): When one note’s frequency exceeds another’s, the first note has a higher pitch than the second. Suppose, for instance, that one item vibrates 440 times per second and another vibrates 220 times per second. The sound generated by the first item is higher than the sound produced by the second object in this situation.

Example: If a belt is spun at various speeds in the air, the sound becomes higher pitched as the speed of rotation increases.

Note: In physics and Western music theory, high frequency and low frequency are used instead of high pitch and low pitch. That is, a note with a high frequency is referred to as a high-frequency note, whereas a note with a low frequency is referred to as a low-frequency note. In this book, these two words are used alongside the terms high pitch (Zir) and low pitch (Bam), and learners must get acquainted with both.

Have you ever noticed that Persian’s first nomenclature (high and low pitch) is the inverse of the second naming (high or low frequency)? In the first, we name a high-frequency note “Zir”, which means low in Persian, but the low-frequency sounds “Bâlâ,” which means high. Therefore, instead of referring to a high-pitched note as a Bâlâ note, we refer to it as Zir. Nevertheless, the term Bam in Persian means Bâlâ, and this is while in persian music theory, it refers to the low-frequency note, i.e., it refers to its opposite.

It is wrong to presume that one of these names is valid while the other is not. Various cultures have distinct ideas about sound pitches, which may often be fundamentally opposed.

What is the meaning of these names? There is no way to answer this question correctly. Yet, in the case of Persians, the comprehension of low-pitched sounds might be linked to the construction of the Oud, which was the most prominent instrument in Iranian music. The lower strings generate a higher-pitched sound on Oud and similar instruments than the top strings. For this reason, higher frequency has been associated with the notion of “down” or “below,” and lower frequency with the concept of “high” or “up.” These notions are also consistent with the phrases ” Pâin Dasteh” (Lower portion of the instrument’s neck)” and “Bâlâ Dasteh” (Upper part of the musical instrument’s neck)” in instruments such as Târ and Setâr.

When the new musical notation was introduced in Europe, note sheets only had one staff. Perhaps because higher frequency notes were written on the upper part of the staff and lower frequency notes were written on the lower part of the staff, the conceptions of “high” and “low” have always corresponded to higher and lower frequencies or pitches, respectively.

Note: Pitch is frequently referred to by different phrases in everyday discourse. For example, the high pitch is known as Nâzok (thin), whereas the low pitch is known as Koloft (thick).

In old Persian music theory treatises, the terminology “Heddat” (force) and “Seql” (gravity) or “Tizi” (sharpness) and “Heaviness” were used to define pitch. The first two were used for lower pitch, while the latter two were used for higher pitch.

Natural Hearing Range in Humans: Humans cannot hear all natural sounds. The ear cannot hear sounds with frequencies less than 16 Hz or more than 20,000 Hz. As a result, the typical human hearing range spans from 16 Hz to 20,000 Hz.

However, not all sounds audible to the human ear are employed in music. The frequencies of the sounds used in various types of music range from 16 to 7000.

human hearing rang

[1] ا ب ج د (اَبجَد)، ه و ز (هَوَّز)، ح ط ی (حُطَّی)، ک ل م ن (کَلَمَن)، س ع ف ص(سَعَفَص)، ق ر ش ت (قَرَشَت)، ث خ ذ (ثَخِذَ)، ض ظ غ (ضَظِغَ)

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