Rhythmic Forms of Persian Art Music

by Peyman Nasehpour


There are various rhythmic compositions in Persian art music, sung by vocalists and played by instrumentalists, including percussionists, usually tonbak players. Some of the compositions are traditional, while others have been composed quite recently.

Traditional rhythmic compositions of Persian instrumental music can be found in radif. The repertory of Persian art music together with traditional order of classification is called radif. Radif can be divided into two important parts: Zarbi, and Avaz. Zarbi here means rhythmic and is a generic term for any kind of rhythmic composition. Avaz literally means vocal but here means "non-rhythmic", the opposite of zarbi. Radif is of two kinds: vocal radif and instrumental radif.

Rhythmic compositions of Persian vocal music are very variegated. I should explain that in the past vocalists were of two kinds. The job of the avazkhan was to sing the non-rhythmic compositions of vocal radif, while the tasnifkhan was to sing the rhythmic compositions of Persian art music, i.e. tasnifs. Two famous tasnif composers of the past are Ali Akbar Shayda and Aref Ghazvini. It should be mentioned that most of the tasnifkhans were tonbak players, e.g. Ostad Abdollah Davami who established the vocal radif repertoire of Persian art music and Reza Gholi Khan Noruzi.

The Famous Rhythmic Forms of Persian Art Music

This means, "before entering". It can be compared with the European prelude. A 20th century invention, it consists of a measured piece written for group performance, to be played at the beginning of any traditional performance. The melody of a pishdaramad usually contains hints or references to the upcoming gushehs in the performance (Gusheh here means a piece of music). The pishdaramad was invented by the great tar and setar player of 20th century, Darvish Khan, who wrote the first such piece for a public concert in the early 1920's. It can be composed in various rhythms, but almost always in slow tempo.

Audio Sample of Pishdaramad

Literally Chaharmezrab means "four plectra". The origin of this name is not clear, since it refers to an improvised or composed piece, which is almost always in 6 or 12 beats and fast tempo. Chaharmezrab is usually performed by a single instrument, although it does not have to be. It is a musical form well suited to demonstration of virtuosity. The development of chaharmezrab is attributed to Darvish Khan, Habib Sama'i and Abolhassan Saba.

Audio Sample of Chaharmezrab

This is the principal dance form in Radif music. It can be improvised or composed, performed by one or more instruments. A reng usually occurs towards the end of a radif performance. Some famous rengs are included in the radif repertoire, while others have been composed later. It is almost always in 6 beats and medium tempo.

Audio Sample of Reng

This means "song". It is a composed piece to be performed by a one or several instruments and vocals, which can be placed anywhere in a performance. Tasnif is of two kinds. The first kind is sung in a Gusheh of radif e.g. Tasnif-e-Rak that is sung in the Rak or Tasnif-e-Zabol that is sung in the Zabol. It should be mentioned that Rak and Zabol are Gushehs of radif. The other kind is sung in different Gushehs of radif. Most of the traditional tasnifs are in 6 beats and almost always in slow tempo.

Audio Sample of Tasnif (Vocals by maestro Nasrollah Nasehpour)

Important Zarbis

The rhythmic compositions (zarbis) of Radif Repertoire of Mirza Abdollah (a very skillful setar player of the Ghajar period) are:

Dastgah-e-Shur: Gereyli, Gereyli-ye-Shasti, Reng-e-Hashtari, Reng-e-Shahr-ashub and Zarb-e-Osul.
Dastgah-e-Segah: Reng-e-Delgosha.
Dastgah-e-Nava: Nastari and Reng-e-Nava.
Dastgah-e-Homayun: Reng-e-Farah.
Dastgah-e-Chahargah: Lezgi, Matn, Hashiyeh and Reng-e-Shahr-ashub.
Dastgah-e-Mahur: Harbi, Yekchubeh, Reng-e-Shalakhu, Saghinameh, Koshteh and Sufinameh.

In Radif Repertoire of Mirza Hosseingholi (a very skillful tar player of Ghajar period) there are a few rhythmic compositions. The son of Mirza Hosseingholi, Ostad Ali Akbar Shahnazi (a very skillful tar player) composed a master course for tar and named it Radif-e-Dore-ye-'Ali. In this radif he has composed a pishdaramad and a reng for every Dastgah (except Dastgah-e-Nava and Dastgah-e-Rast-Panjgah).


Avaz: It literally means vocal, but here non-rhythmic composition.

Avazkhan: It literally means vocalist but here avaz performer.

Dastgah: Dastgah is the most important structural element of radif, and formed by combination of various gushehs with their own melody-lines and varied rhythmic patterns. Usually a Dastgah consists of several gushehs of witch the first gusheh is of special importance and named daramad. Daramad that is the first gusheh of a Dastgah, contains the first tetra-chord of the Dastgah to witch the musical composition must return. This return to the first tetra-chord of the Dastgah is called forud that literally it means landing.

Gusheh: It literally means corner and angle but here a piece of music. A special combination of some gushehs in its traditional order makes a Dastgah of a radif.

Radif: The repertory of Persian art music together with traditional order of classification is called radif. Radif literally means row.

Tasnifkhan: Tasnif performer.

Tonbak: Persian goblet drum. For more info click here.

Zarbi: Rhythmic composition.

Acknowledgement. The author wishes to thank Eric Stuer for his edition.


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