Persian classical music, or musiqi-e assil"pure" or "noble" musichas a long and rich history in Iran. (The terms "Persian" and "Iranian" can be used interchangeably in speaking about this tradition.) Although dates for its early development cannot be pinpointed exactly, it seems clear from early sources that music was a highly developed aspect of Persian culture since well before the 7th century B.C.
Although it has links and some commonalities to classical music of the Arab, Byzantine, Turkish and Indian traditions, Persian classical music is a self-contained system. In Iran, poetry and music are deeply intertwined traditions; much of the repertoire contains settings of poems by medieval Sufi mystic poets such as Jalaluddin Rumi (12071273) and Hafez (13251389). Although there is quite a bit of metered, percussion-accompanied music within the tradition, many works instead follow the rhythmic lead of speechor, more specifically, the recitation of poetry.
Until the 1900s the almost exclusive purview of the royal courts and small, wealthy audiences, Persian classical music is at its heart all about melody and the art of improvisation. Practitioners must memorize the canonical collection of Persian classical melodies that are called the radif ("series"); the radif in turn is organized into 12 modes, or dastgahs ("systems"), each of which is thought to have a specific character and mood. Each of the dastgahs are themselves made up of smaller melodic forms called gushehs ("corners"), arranged by modal relation. A performance will usually be in one of the 12 dastgahs. Once mastered, the radif becomes the springboard for the highly developed and sophisticated art of improvisation.
Along with the voice, typical classical instruments include plucked lutes called the tar and setar; the end-blown flute known as the ney; the bowed spike fiddle called the kemancheh; the santur, a hammered dulcimer; and the goblet drum called the tombak.
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Persian classical music has been on a roller-coaster ride of official encouragement, condemnation and grudging tolerance. However, today there is an extraordinary flowering of master artists performing both within Iran and touring internationally who have persevered in maintaining and extending their country's rich traditions; they include vocalists Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri and Parisa; composer and tar and setar players Hossein Alizadeh and Mohammad Reza Lotfi; composer and kemencheh player Kayhan Kalhor; and the Kamkar family.