Musicality, Regulation, and Pedagogy in Iranian Classical Music


Iran’s classical music, known as musiqi-e sonnati (traditional music), or musiqi-e assil (original or authentic music), was historically an elite courtly tradition that expanded into the public sphere when the tradition became codified into the country’s emerging university system in the early twentieth century. While recent decades in Iran’s history have seen both the placing and easing of restrictions on many genres of music, Iranian classical music has maintained a continuous place in the culture’s public education, recording, and live performance arenas. Today, Iranian classical music comprises a central arm of Iran’s music education programs, a thriving component of the public concert scene, and—in its auditory dimensions—is commonly broadcast on Iran’s national television.

Musicians usually perform as soloists, or in small ensembles comprising a few instrumentalists and, often, a singer. Historically, female participants in Iranian classical music culture tended to take on the role of singers. However, today (and particularly in recent decades) female instrumentalists, usually performing in all-female ensembles, often perform in the public concert arena.

In the video below, a female musician is preparing for a concert in her studio in Tehran, by rehearsing her extemporization skills on the tar (meaning “string”). This is one of Iran’s traditional instruments, central to this genre of music. It is also popular in neighboring regions such as Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.



The musician’s extemporization is based on a body of some five hundred or so short motifs collectively known as the radif in Iran. The radif comprises the structural basis for performances of Iran’s classical music. Among traditionally trained classical musicians, expertise in this style of performance will have been acquired primarily by aural means, based on several years of study with an Ostād, a term connoting teacher, musician, and scholar without distinction. Highly traditional performances in the classical genre emphasize the musician’s skillful and spontaneous extemporization in the performing moment based on the radif.

In Critical Perspectives on Music, Education, and Religion, this genre of music is explored through some of the negotiations within the practice as it navigates Iran’s contemporary public sphere, with a view to providing insights on some of the central musical ideals of this art form.

-- Dr. Erum Naqvi, Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies, Pratt Institute, USA