Persian Classic Music: An Alternative Sense of Melody and Rhythm

  July 13, 2021   Read time 2 min
Persian Classic Music: An Alternative Sense of Melody and Rhythm
For the past thousand years, Persian music has rarely been at a loss for theoretical explanation. Indeed, this music has been analyzed in inordinate detail by some of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages.

Since art is an ordering of nature, and music is an ordering of sound, a study of a music aims first to discover that order and then to explain it. One asks what system is organizing the sound that he experiences as music, or, more technically, what is the form of the music? To answer these questions, analysis is used, a process that requires us to examine the music closely and search for its order, a process that, if successful, will reward the analyst with a greater understanding and appreciation of the musical system.

When approaching a new music, especially an Oriental music so vastly different in style and structure from Western music, a Western musicologist soon finds his customary methods of analysis insufficient. This music cannot be profitably analyzed in terms of eighteenth-century tonal harmony; likewise, searching for forms common to recent Western music, for example, sonata and rondo or even simple binary and ternary forms, would be relatively futile. Certainly harmonic and formal analogies do exist, but they are clearly of minor importance. Therefore, the Western musicologist must work out a new methodology for analysis that considers the music's own particular logic and organization. He is fortunate if a music has been studied by theorists native to its country of origin and if a utilizatile framework and a terminology already exist.

For the past thousand years, Persian music has rarely been at a loss for theoretical explanation. Indeed, this music has been analyzed in inordinate detail by some of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages. Moreover, in contemporary Persia, theoretical speculation continues. Yet, from the viewpoint of a non-Persian musicologist, the work of Persian theorists is too greatly isolated from practice. Native systems have not come to grips with the music's primary methodological problem, which is this: how can one analyze a music that changes with each performer and even with the same performer on different occasions? Because Persian music is improvised, the form of any given performance, that is, that order or organization of sound, is far less certain than the order of a given piece of Western music, which, with certain reservations stemming from interpretation and slight differences in the sources, is the same each time it is played. But whereas improvisation is such a natural and almost intuitive procedure for the Persian theorist that he does not feel the need to explain it, for the foreign musicologist, an analysis that omits the subject of improvisation is quite an incomplete one.

One solution to the problem of analyzing an improvised music is to set aside the complete performance and study the material used as a basis for improvisation. By isolating the relatively stable and unchangeable part of the performance, that is, the dastgah, or melody type, one can deal with a body of music stable enough to analyze. Then, after the investigator becomes familiar with this basic material, it can be studied within the context of the total performance. In other words, once the model for improvisation has been clarified, the way the model is used in performance can be investigated.