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The Modal System in Persian Music


By: Jean During



Dastgâh, Modal system in Persian music, representing a level of organization at which a certain number of melodic types (gûšas) are regrouped and ordered in relation to a dominant mode (mâya). Each dastgâh takes its name from this dominant mode, which is always played in the introductory parts. For example, dastgâh-e Chahârgâh comprises not only several gûšas belonging to the mode Chahârgâh but also gûšas in modes that are both closely (Zâbol, Hesâr) and distantly (Mokhâlef) related, which are played before the conclusion (forûd) in the initial mode. The term dastgâh is thus somewhat ambiguous: "The expression dastgâh-e chahârgâh . . . means either the major unitary modal complex chahârgâh or a whole set of gushes traditionally performed with chahârgâh at their head as the principal modal nucleus" (Powers, p. 426). Theoretically Chahârgâh can be correctly labeled a dastgâh only to the extent that it is composite, that is, comprises a minimal number of varying modal elements; without these elements it must be considered either a maqâm (as Khâleqî suggested, pp. 127-28) or a simple mode (mâya).


According to some practicing musicians (personal communication), the etymology of the term dastgâh can be associated with the idea of "the position (gâh) of the hand (dast) [on the neck of the instrument]," that is, the scale, for a similar idea of position appears in the names of modes like Dogâh and Segâh. It is more appropriate to translate it as "system," however, for the dastgâh is first and foremost a collection of discrete and heterogeneous elements organized into a hierarchy that is entirely coherent though nevertheless flexible.


The defining features of the dastgâh are thus a certain modal variety subjected to a course of development (sayr) that is determined by the preestablished order of sequences, or gûšas. This order can, however, vary within certain limits, depending on the repertoire or the taste of the interpreter. This definition is equally applicable to the â (q.v.), which is, however, less developed and can itself be included in a dastgâh (e.g., Bayât-e Kord, which can be played separately or as part of dastgâh-e Šûr). The extended version of a dastgâh like Šûr may encompass as many as fifty gûšas (During, 1991), a dozen of which are the most important; an âlike Bayât-e Kord, on the other hand, may include only about seven gûšas, of which three are essential. Other âes, like Bayât-e Esfahân in its extended versions (Marûfî, s.v.), could theoretically also be labeled dastgâh.

The overall structure of a dastgâh consists of three main parts corresponding to blocs of gûšas: the introductory sequence (darâmad, q.v.) or sequences, which are developed in the fundamental mode (mâya, maqâm); the sections comprising modulations or transpositions; and the rapid return (forûd) to the initial mode. In general there is a gradual progression up the scale, while the return is more rapid, and the ambitus of the melodies is progressively expanded within each section (Nettl, pp. 21-22). In principle the interpreter is always free to determine the content of each dastgâh and to modify, up to a point, the order of the gûšas, but in practice certain dastgâhs (or âes), like Šûr and Homâyûn, seem to permit greater liberty than do others, like Chahârgâh and Râst-Panjgâh, which are more standardized (Nettl, pp. 105-06).


Although there are twelve dastgâhs and âvâzes, they represent only six or seven scales (During, 1984, p. 105; idem, 1991, passim), in Rûh-Allâh Khâleqî's view only five (p. 127). In certain instances the features distinguishing dastgâhs are purely structural (pauses, î; variable notes; concluding notes; etc.) and connected with motifs (conclusion, or forûd; introduction; etc.). Dastgâhs can also be distinguished by such other characteristics as the sequence of modulations, the diapason, or the dominant chord (e.g., in the lower register for the dastgâhs, in the upper register for the âes). All these elements are involved in the definition of "mode" in the broad sense, particularly in eastern music (Powers, pp. 434, 437). Despite their differentiating features, the dastgâhs are by no means closed systems but share certain gûšas among them: For example, the gûša Jâmadarân is played with different adaptations in Bayât-e Esfahân, Afšârî, Homâyûn, and Bayât-e Tork (During, 1984, p. 142). In principle each dastgâh has an expressive coloration, an individual ethos (Joneydî, pp. 218-22), but it cannot always be characterized in a consistent manner. The definition thus remains more fluid and general because the ethos depends in large part on the interpretation. It is nevertheless agreed that Navâ is rather serene and meditative, Chahârgâh martial, Mâhûr cheerful or majestic, Šûr melancholy, and Homâyûn pathetic; the characters of the other dastgâhs are less settled.


Both the term dastgâh and the musical form itself are indigenous to Iranian (incl. Persian, Azarî and Arrani) music and were no doubt elaborated during the revival of traditional music in the 19th century. The term is found in an Azarî work of 1301/1884 (Safarova) and, in about 1287/1870, in an unpublished list of terms compiled by Malek-Mansûrzâda in Baku. The older term that comes closest to it is â (Safî-al-Dîn Ormavî, 13th century), and, according to Khâleqî (p. 125), when these âes were expanded they were called dastgâhs. The twelve were thus assembled: seven dastgâhs (Šûr, Segâh, Chahârgâh, Mâhûr, Homâyûn, Navâ, and Râst-Panjgâh) and five âes (Abû Atâ, Bayât-e Tork, Afšârî, Daštî, Bayât-e Esfahân). The first four of these âes (to which Bayât-e Kord is sometimes added) are considered to have been derived from Šûr and the last from Homâyûn. Among all the dastgâhs and âes Šûr is the most significant, both because of its scope and because it is the most familiar (Khâleqî, p. 129).


In the Arran tradition, which is a derivative of the Persian tradition in this respect, twelve dastgâhs (or principal maqâms) were recognized, seven of them essential (Râst, Šûr, Segâh, Chahârgâh, Mâhûr, Bayât-e Šîrâz, Homâyûn), the rest less important (Šûštar, Bayât-e Kord, Bayât-e Qâjâr, Navâ-Nîšâpûr, Rahâb). To these should be added about ten modes (moqâms) and fifteen subsidiary modes (šobas; During, 1988, pp. 38-39; cf. pp. 193-98 for information from earlier periods).


Despite all the changes that Persian music has undergone (and despite internal modifications in the dastgâhs), the system of twelve dastgâhs and gûša has remained generally the same as when it was codified by the masters of the last century, in particular Mîrzâ Abd-Allâh (d. 1337/1918, q.v.). No new dastgâh or large gûša has been devised since that codification. When an âvâz or dastgâh has been further developed, it has almost always been through borrowing materials from other dastgâhs, rather than through invention, and the rare gûšas that have since been added to the traditional corpus (radîf) are only melodies or variations that present no novelty from a modal point of view. From this remarkable stability it can be deduced that the system has achieved "canonical" status in Persia, comparable to that of the twelve maqâms and twenty-four šobas that prevailed between the 14th and 17th centuries; the breaking down and reassembling of that material produced the present system of dastgâhs.





N. Caron and D. Safvate, Iran, Paris, 1966. J. During, La musique iranienne. Tradition et e‚volution, Paris, 1984. 

Idem, Le re‚pertoire-modeàle de la musique persane. Radif de târ et de setâr de Mirzâ Abdollâh, Tehran, 1370 Š./1991. 

Idem, Z. Mirabdolbaghi, and D. Safvat, The Art of Persian Music, Wahington, D.C., 1991. 

Mohammad-Nasîr Forsat Sîrâzî (Forsat-al-Dawla), Bohûr al-alhân dar elm-e mûsîqî wa nesbat-e ân bâ arûz, ed. M.-Q. Sâleh Râmsarî, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1354 Š./1975. 

F. Joneydî, Zamîna-ye šenâkht-e musîqî-e îrânî, Tehran, 1361 Š./1982. 

R. Khâleqî, Nazar-î be mûsîqî, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1362 Š./1983. 

K. Khatschi, Der Radif, Regensburg, Germany, 1962. 

M. Marûfî, Radîf-e haft dastgâh-e mûsîqî-e îrânî/Les systeàmes de la musique traditionnelle iranienne (radif), Tehran, 1352 Š./1973. 

M.-T. Masûdîya, Â, Regensburg, Germany, 1968. 

Idem, Radîf-e âvâzî-e mûsîqî-e îrânî/Radif vocal de la musique iranienne, Tehran, 1357 Š./1978. 

Nettl, The Radif of Persian Music. Studies of Structures and Cultural Context, Champaign, Ill., 1987.

H. Powers, "Mode," in S. Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, 1980. 

Z. Safarova, "Traktat Mir Mohsen Navvaba 'Vizuhul agram'" (The treatise of Mîr Mohsen Nawwâb "Vizuhul agram"), in Traditsii muzykalnykh kultur. Narodov Blizhnego Vostoka i Sovremennosti (Traditions of musical culture. The peoples of the Near East and the present), Moscow, 1987, pp. 124-28.





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Source/Extracted From: Encyclopaedia Iranica


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