Evolution of Music in Iran

Evolution of Music in Iran

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About this Article

This article is a general report about various aspects of music in Iran since the founding of Iran’s National Radio in 1938. It addresses the prevalent type of instruments used, the kind of music played, the numerous training schools established and the various performers who have shaped the music of Iran during the past 80 years. In telling this story, some of the social and cultural trends and tendencies that have made certain types or styles of music more popular in Iran are also discussed.

The beginning of the Constitutional Movement towards the end of the 19th century also marks the start of an evolution in Iran’s music. Prior to that time, when the majority of the population lived in villages and their music was limited to local and folk music, classical music was only limited to affluent families who were able to afford the associated costs. As Edward Browne wrote in his book “The Press and Poetry of Modern Persia”, the effect of constitutionalist ideas on poetry and songs helped the growth and development of music. It was afterward when classical music, along with revolutionary songs, found its place among people1.

Iranian classical or modal music, which, before the Constitutional Movement, was disseminated in accordance with the oral tradition and in the person-to-person format, took the more formal written format and with it came the formalization of musical education, especially following the creation of the first radio broadcasting system in 1938. In 1941, the Music School of Art’s orchestra began holding concerts, and Ruhollah Khaleghi began the publication of a new magazine on music. Following the occupation of Iran by allied forces in the same year, musical activities became marginal against political and economic issues; nevertheless, musical performances in cinemas and theaters relatively increased. Laila Nairiz calls this period “the era of music modernity” and writes: “During the period of the second Pahlavi, music, as a significant form of art, expanded even further among different strata of society and many people from various classes became involved in it despite the fact that in 1941 following the occupation of Tehran by allied forces every music administrative affair was shut down or suspended and the Czech instructors that worked at the Music school of Arts had to leave Iran. When Isa Sedigh A’lam became the Minister of Education, Gholamhosein Minbashian was replaced by Ali-Naqi Vaziri to oversee Iran’s musical affairs. Vaziri began by creating two separate educational programs for Iranian music and western music. In fact, he was highly interested in reviving Iran’s national music, and parallel with it he also gave some attention to western music. In 1944, there were suggestions about the elimination of Iranian music from the programs of the Music School, and young musicians who were educated in Europe became officially in charge of music. Nevertheless, in March 1945 notable musician Ruhollah Khaleghi established the Philharmonic Society to support Iranian Music and held many successful concerts with the best musicians of the time. With the increase of these activities, in 1946, a magazine called Chang began publishing with Ruhollah Kalegi as its publisher and Lotfollah Mofakham as its editor.”2

Development in Music Genres

Classical music carried the same style until the middle of the 1940s. Performances were mostly solo or by trios or quintets, and the instruments largely consisted of tar, dulcimer, violin, tombak, and occasionally piano. Gradually, however, small groups of performers were replaced by orchestras, small and large, with western and Iranian musical instruments side by side to create the desired combination. This arrangement later evolved as “Golha Orchestra”, which was a forerunner of Iranian music for almost 30 years. Production of the series of Golha programs was due to the efforts of Davud Pirnia who managed the radio station at that time. The Golha Orchestra had string instruments, clarinet, flute, and piano from the family of western musical instruments, and tar and tombak from Iranian family of musical instruments, which played a prominent role in musical productions of the time.

Piano was given more importance in that period, but due to the lack of some musical intervals specific to Iranian music in the construct of the instrument, the melodies played on it had more of a western flavor, and players could only play fewer modes such as Mahur, Bayat, Esfahan and some Homayun. For that reason, Morteza Mahjubi changed tuning on the piano and enabled the instrument to play in other modes such as Avaz-e Afshari, Avaz-e Dashti, Avaz-e Bayat-e Tork, Seh-gah, etc.

In 1947, the Office of Fine Arts was established under the leadership of Ruhollah Khaleghi, who later in 1949 founded the School of National Music, where Iranian musical instruments were taught, and students starting from the 4th grade could enter the school and graduate after 8 years. The best music masters of the time, such as Abul-Hasan Saba, Musa Marufi, Hasan Tehrani, Banan, and Hodein-Ali Vaziritabar, were instructors of that school, and notable musicians such as Hushang Zarif, Arfa’ Atrabi, and Jalal Zolfonun studied there between 1949 and 1959 when Khaleghi was the head of school.

Pioneers of Musical Dastgah

One of the pioneers of musical dastgah in radio days was Abul-Hasan Saba, who not only had a full understanding of old music styles but was also familiar with the mechanisms of orchestral music. In later years, his students such as Homayun Khoram, Faramarz Payvar, Hosein Tehrani, Hasan Kasai, Farhad Fakhredini, Rahmatollah Badi’i, and Ali Tajvidi became the stewards of forward movements in music.

In the 1950s, solo performance, along with declamation of classic Persian poetry, attracted large audiences, and notable instrumental soloists of the time included Abul-Hasan Saba (violin), Ahmad Ebadi (setar), Ali Asghar Bahari (kamancheh), Jalil Shahnaz (tar), Homayun Khorm (violin), Parviz Yahaghi (violin), Hasan Kasai (nay), Faramarz Paivar (dulcimer), Hosein Tehrani (tombak), Amir Nasser Eftetah (tombak), Reza Varzandeh (dulcimer), and Majid Nejahi (dulcimer). This technique led to the unconditional domination of string and other western-style musical instruments in Iranian music in this period and motivated several musicians, researchers, and instrumentalists to turn to pure Iranian musical orchestration.

From 1962 a movement in Iranian music began to gradually take shape, which paid special attention to revive old, forgotten or even lost musical instruments. At that time, various experiments were performed in the construction workshop of the Ministry of Arts and Education, as a result of which a musician by the name of Mehdi Meftah put together a considerable number of available and revived Iranian musical instruments, but in practice, he was not quite successful. A few years later, however, Faramarz Paivar, who was one of Abul-Hasan Saba’s students, repeated Meftah’s experiment and succeeded in promoting ensemble performances with Iranian instruments. Instead of altering the orchestration pattern completely, Paivar put a group of string instruments next to some Iranian instruments such as tar, dulcimer, nay, kamancheh and tombak, and gradually added “oud” and a reconstructed instrument called “qeichak”.

In twenty years following this innovation, Paivar gradually reduced the presence of violins until every single instrument was Iranian. Some of Paivar’s specific designs were multi-sectional arrangements that would basically make the western sound inaudible to the listener, whereas prior to him the combination of sounds in Ali-Naqi Vaziri’s arrangements occasionally created an association with western harmony in the ears of listeners.

The formation of musical groups with a combination of purely Iranian instruments increased the desire to recreate folk songs. Using his innovative musical ensemble, Faramarz Paivar recreated some of the folk songs of Khorasan, sung by a singer from that region, which became highly popular among listeners. Sima Bina, a native of Birjand, also sang a few songs from Khorasan with Paivar’s ensemble. An outstanding feature of these folk songs was that they mostly had tuplet or irrational rhythm, which, until then, was completely unheard in the so-called “city music” of Iran.

Orchestral Music

Western-style orchestral music in Iran began to shape in the 1340s. In that period for the first time a generation of Iranian musicians appeared, whose artistic creations were sometimes completely western and sometimes in limbo between the two worlds. Among notable composers of this period were Rubik Gregorian, Heshmat Sanjari, Aminollah Hosein, Morteza Hananeh, Samin Baghcheban, Hosein Dehlavi, Hushang Ostovar and Emanuel Melik Aslanian 3.

National-Patriotic Music

Iran’s occupation by the allied forces brought another development in music:

“…Artists of Iranian music and poetry showed reaction and their initial protest was manifested as a national patriotic anthem. This anthem, composed by Ruhollah Khaleghi on a poem by Dr. Hosein Gol-e Golab, was first performed in 18 October 1944 in Tehran’s Military School in the presence of several foreign occupiers, and since its melody and words were very attractive the minister of culture asked for a recorded copy to be broadcasted on the radio every day for the public. The famous “Ay Iran” anthem was initially performed by a chorus group, but later many singers including Gholamhosein Banan, Hosein Sarshar, Esfandiar Qarabaghi, and Rashid Vatandoost sang it either solo or with chorus accompaniment. After many years and several major political and social developments this anthem has till kept its integrity…”4

Popular Music

At first, the combination of instruments in popular music was the same as dastgah music, which used tar, violin and tombak, and it lacked any popular flavor other than its lyrics that were drastically different. Singers of popular music mostly worked in cafes, but occasionally singers of artistic music sang popular songs as well, among whom Javad Badizadeh was the most well-known. Next to Iranian popular music, another form of popular music was formed, which was inspired by a variety of western music. Among notables in that genre were Mohammad Nuri, Viguen Derderian, and Hasan Golnaraqi. This type of music was fully in conformity with western music and none of the melodies contained any Iranian tonal flavor, and even if they did, singers would perform them with drastic changes. Next to these western-like examples, other pieces of popular music were created with more elements of dastgah and use of Iranian and occasionally western instruments. Singers such as Akbar Golpaigani (Golpa), Hayedeh, Mahasti, Homeyra, and Hasan Khajeh Amiri, known as Iraj, belonged to this genre. From the early 1970s, with composers such as Manuchehr Chaeshmazar, Varujan Hakhbandian known as Varujan, and Babak Bayat, Iranian popular music was reformed with use of western music mechanisms and very little connection to the specifics of traditional music of Iran. This genre of music gradually became known as pop music among the masses and years later many popular Iranian songs came to be known in the same category. The most renowned singers of this genre of music were Faeqeh Atashin known as Googoosh, Ebrahim Hamedi known as Ebi, Fereydoun Forughi, Kurosh Yaghai, and Farhad Mehrdad. The Islamic Revolution in 1978 closed the door to Iran’s western-style pop music in the country for 15 years. Pop music came back to life in later years, but this time with new criteria and occasionally affected by music of former periods.

Folk Music

On compiling folk music, Dr. Sepanta writes:

“Abul-Hasan Saba took one of the initial steps to compile local music of Iran. In his trip to Guilan and his follow up the mission as the head of Rasht School of Fine Industries, Saba started collecting folk songs from that region. He traveled to the impassable mountains of Amarlu, Deylaman and Espeyli on mule or horseback, and wrote the notes of the music played by shepherds or other local players. Feyzollah, a local kamancheh player in Amarlu, said that Saba spent all his time writing notes of the local music he heard and played them with his own personal style on his violin.”

The next step was the work put forth by Lotfollah Mobasheri, who spent years compiling local music. In 1944, Mobasheri published the songbook of Caspian Sea melodies with an introduction by Ruhollah Khaleqi, and in 1959 he published 15 folk songs from Guilan, along with several related articles. Around 1956, an archive for collecting and safekeeping folk songs was set up by Mobaheri in the Office of Fine Arts.
The following musicians have contributed to the compilation and use of Iranian folk songs: Abul-Hasan Saba, Ruhollah Khaleqi, Lotfollah Mobasheri, Hosein Nasehi, Fereydun Farzaneh, Sameen Baghcheban, Gholam Hossein Gharib, Ali Mohammad Khadem Misaq, Amin Shahmiri, Fozieh Majd and Dr. Mohammad Taqi Masudieh.”5

Islamic Revolution’s View of Music

Following its victory, the Islamic Revolution, based on its religious doctrines, put an end to every musical context in Iran. About the situation of music and musicians during the first two decades of the Islamic Revolution, Leyla Neyriz writes: “Following the victory of the Islamic revolution in February 1979, rapid changes began to affect the administrative and constructive cultural entities of society, and parallel with the changes in government production, research and performance of music came to a halt. At this time only Sheida Music Group, headed by Mohammad Reza Lotfi, in collaboration with musicians like Hosein Alizadeh, Parviz Meshkatian, Shahram Nazeri, and Mohammad Reza Shajarian, had some activities. These musicians also produced revolutionary music, a basically dying genre, in collaboration with Aref Music Group. For ten years music educational centers were closed, during which time many instrumentalists either retired or emigrated 6.

Developments of Iran’s music during the Islamic Republic regime must be divided into two periods of before and after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa in 1968 on the legitimacy of the type of music that does not deter one from spirituality. Since then the doors to music education and expansion were opened and artists became more active. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance published its first quarterly publication on music called “Ahang”, and from 1990 to 1991 music production experienced unprecedented dimensions of growth with the support of Hoseh Honari Andisheh Hall. Special festivals including those of nay players, dulcimer players, Fajr festival, Musiqi Javan, Haft Orang, Ayeneh and Avaz, and epic music festivals were held. Music schools reopened and young musicians formed music groups. In that period, the number of printed books on music and music scores matched that of sixty years prior. The music department of the College of Fine Arts reopened in 1988, followed by the inauguration of Honar and Azad universities with the efforts of Sharif Lotfi and Dr. Hasan Riahi.

Religious Music

Under the rule of the Islamic Republic, religious music has gone through substantial changes. At first, it was mostly connected to the dastgah music of the past, but gradually various local religious styles of music, especially from southern parts of the country and from Iran’s Arab and Turkish neighbors, left their impact on it, and the imposed war of 1980 with Iraq also added new meaning to this genre of music…

“There was always a tendency to use the flavors of Arabic music in Iran’s religious music mostly in border areas. However, at this time, due to the expansion of cultural and media relations as well as political developments of the country that emphasized further closeness to Arab countries, the use of Arabic music in religious circles increased. For example, a maqam in Arabic music, called Saba, which resembles Dastgah-e Shur in Iranian music, has been a favorite of religious music performers. Saba maqam is also known as Arabic Shur.”7

War with Iraq also greatly affected the religious music of Iran and gravitated it towards common epic-religious contexts: “Two notable personalities of this period, Sadiq Ahangaran and Gholam Kowaitipur, considerably affected shaping and leading this genre of music with numerous performances of religious Noha. In fact, what they performed were pieces of music with epic religious context that not only had a direct relationship with religious mourning of the heroes of Islam, but also encouraged warring forces to fight with enemies in western borders of the country.”8

Various Genres of Music in the Century’s Last Three Decades

Since 1989, the development of music in various genres may be categorized as follows:

  • Dastgah music ensemble followed almost the same framework of the past, but the only difference was that the number of players were significantly higher and the bass sounds were more dominant with adding instruments such as low-pitched or bass tar, oud, gheychak, and occasionally cello. Most Iranian music groups gravitated towards polyphony and composers of that period added harmony to the main melody.
  • Popularity of old music and gradual decline in the composers’ skills of this period led to recreation of old compositions as a dominant trend, so much that even musicians of western-style education created various arrangements of old compositions performed with a combination of Iranian and western instruments.
  • Fusion music, which began in the west, found its way to Iran and made it possible for Iranian musicians to collaborate with Indian, Turkish and Chinese artists. There were also efforts to fuse Iranian music with some European renaissance, jazz, and classical music of the romantic musical period. The most famous fusion musician of this period is Keyhan Kalhor, a kamancheh player, who has been performing with Chinese, Indian and Turkish players.

Following setbacks and closures, orchestral music in this period took a different course:

  • In this period, the tendency to Iranian-ize orchestral music became more dominant. National anthem that had already changed after the Islamic Revolution was replaced once again with a very short symphonic piece by Dr. Hasan Riahi. This is one of the shortest national anthems in the world.
  • One feature of this period is a gravitation towards orchestral music with religious, nationalism, mythical and occasionally epic nature. In fact, some government entities asked for composition of various symphonic music, which led to the creation of several pieces such as Ashura Symphony, Payambar [Prophet] Symphony, Isar [Sacrifice] Symphony, etc.
  • Parallel with the creation of religious symphonies, there was also a desire among some musicians to compose and perform mythical pieces inspired by Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and similar works of art. Among such pieces was Rostam and Sohrab opera, composed by Loris Tjeknavorian.
  • Interest in the modern style was another orchestral musical movement in that period, and the notable musician of this movement was Alireza Mashayekhi, a student of Hans Yelinik (and highly inspired by Arnold Schoenberg) who composed numerous pieces for orchestra and piano solo.
  • Another offshoot of orchestral music in this period was the recreation of folk melodies accompanied by traditional instruments and western orchestra. In this type of music, one or more Iranian instruments played the main melody with western instruments’ accompaniment. The most notable artist of this type of music is Kambiz Roshanravan.

Underground Music

For many years now, many groups of young musicians in Iran have turned their attention to the more modern and post-modern global music. This tendency, due to its prohibition by the regime, is known as underground music. In the movie, “No One Knows About Persian Cats”, Jafar Panahi has portrayed some of these activities. Some musical genres of the current period in Iran include rock, metal, and similar styles. With the popularity of the Internet and social media, which has helped musicians to bring their knowledge and information up to date, new styles and forms for expression of social and political issues are appearing. However, the future of Iranian music, both classical and modern, is unclear. This is mostly due to the government imposed censorship and ideological ratings of artistic works and performances– a situation that makes the future of Iranian music somewhat oblique.


  • بزرگان موسیقی معاصر: http://www.aftabir.com/art/music/iran_music_history/contemporarymusic_musician.php
  • چشم انداز موسیقی ایران، ساسان سپنتا، تهران، نشر ماهور، 1382.
  • سبک شناسی موسیقی ایران- دوره رادیو http://hyperclubz.com/Main/Club.aspx?qClub=golestan&qCat=home-entertainment-gr3&qId=7217
  • سرگذشت موسیقی ایران، روح الله خالقی، تهران، نشر ماهور، 1390.
  • شرح بی نهایت- خاطرات مشترک آزرم (همسر فرهاد فخرالدینی) و فرهاد فخرالدینی، تهران، نشر قطره، 1392.
  • گفت و گو با فرزانه نکواصل تک، محقق تاریخ موسیقی در ایران، 1393.
  • گفت و گو با سودا خانم، محقق و خواننده اپرا و مدرس موسیقی، 1393
  • لیلا نیریز، «نگاهی به تاریخ تحول موسیقی ایران از دوران پهلوی تا کنون»، پایگاه انجمن علمی مدیریت فرهنگی هنری، دانشگاه آزاد اسلامی، واحد تهران جنوب.
  1. E.G. Browne, The Press and Poetry of Modem Persia, Cambridge University Press,1914, P.xvi. ↩︎
  2. لیلا نیریز، «نگاهی به تاریخ تحول موسیقی ایران از دوران پهلوی تا کنون»، پایگاه انجمن علمی مدیریت فرهنگی هنری، دانشگاه آزاد اسلامی، واحد تهران جنوب. نگاه کنید به سایت: http://kcam.blogfa.com/post/80 ↩︎
  3. نگاه کنید به: پایگاه مدرسه فارابی به نشانی: farabisoft زیر عنوان: سبک شناسی ایرانی، نمونه های 46 و 47 ↩︎
  4. همانجا، زیر عنوان موسیقی حماسی و میهنی، نمونه های 48، 49 و 50 ↩︎
  5. چشم انداز موسیقی ایران، ص365 ↩︎
  6. لیلا نیریز، «نگاهی به تاریخ تحول موسیقی ایران از دوران پهلوی تا کنون»، پایگاه انجمن علمی مدیریت فرهنگی هنری، دانشگاه آزاد اسلامی، واحد تهران جنوب. ↩︎
  7. نگاه کنید به: پایگاه مدرسه فارابی، زیر عنوان سبک شناسی ایرانی، موسیقی ایرانی به سبک بازگشت، نمونه 65. ↩︎
  8. همانجا، نمونه های 70 و 72. ↩︎
Researcher | + posts

Ali Asghar Haghdar is a researcher, writer and editor. He used to be the secretary of the “Andisheh-hay-e-Iran (Iranian Thoughts)” compilations in Kavir Publishing House and the secretary of the “Andisheh Emrooz-e Iran (Today’s Iranian Thought)” collections in Cheshmeh Publishing House. He has written philosophical, mystical, theological, and historical manuscripts and published 36 books on Iranian historical and literary fields. 

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