What is Radif? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ostad Mohammad Reza Lotfi   
Thursday, 25 December 2008 06:28
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Artistic creations are the result of material and spiritual constructs that each nation creates in its lifetime. Many such creations, such as historical buildings, books, and works of art, weather the ravages of time and remain with us today. The rate of survival of older art is much higher in the west because of the propensity of the respective governments both to support and to preserve works of art.

In countries such as Iran, however, the preservation of the art has depended more so upon the people's desire and commitment than upon government support. This is especially true of religious shrines and art which have fared much better than many other forms of art.

Iranian music has had an especially tortuous survival because of its prohibition in the post-Islamic period. Many of our musicians (who pursued art as a family vocation) had to immigrate to domains where the rulers were non-Muslim or less fundamentalist in their attitude towards music. For example, the famous Zalzal musical family left for Spain (where the king allegedly celebrated their arrival by proclaiming a public holiday). Another famous emigration involved Rumi's father who moved his family to Ghounieh in today' Turkey.

This chronic exodus of musicians throughout the centuries has caused a break in the continuum of the art. Even though the Abjad alphabet (numerical system) had been used to transcribe music, the rhythmic freedom of Iranian music has made complete transcription impossible. Iran's rich musical tradition was handed down personally and orally from master to student.

At many junctures of history, great men of belief and commitment have given most of their lives to the preservation and transmission of Iran's musical treasure, the Radif. One such great man, Mirza Abdullah Farahani was able to reconstruct, to transcribe and to pass on the Radif to his students. Fortunately, the permissive attitude of the later kings in the Qajar dynasty, especially after the Constitutional Revolution, made his endeavor more fruitful. Mirza Abdullah believed that one should train students that the Tar could be passed from hand to hand at parties and gatherings as if it were a huka (the traditional water pipe). People such as Abdolhassan Saba, Ismai'l Ghahramani, Montazam al-Hokama and many others who later developed their own schools and styles were Mirza Abdullah's students.

Definition of Radif

Even though the Radif predates Islam in Iran (7th Century AD), it is difficult to say how closely the original melodies have been preserved. Based on research carried out by this author, on the music of Ahl-e-Haq (Kurdish Mystics) and the music of Khorasan province, it appears that the Radif's essence has survived, though it has been adapted to the geographic, historical, and political conditions particular to each region. The study of above indigenous music reveals very strong traces of what we call the traditional Radif, albeit with name changes for various Gushehs or made changes or mode changes for the same Gushehs.

The art of performing the Radif, as opposed to improvisation, forces the soloist to reproduce the work of his predecessors without interpretation. Until recently, such musicians, known as Radif Masters have done much to preserve and to pass on the Radif.

Mirza Abdullah and his brother, Mirza Hosseingholi, passed the Radif on to their students including Ali Akbar Shahnazi (Mirza Hosseingholi's son), Ismail Ghahramani (Mirza Abdullah's top student and carrier of his mantel), Darvish Khan, Abolhassan Saba, and Noor Ali Boroumand. These students transcribed the Radif for Tar and Setar. This work still continues by the new generation of Iranian classical performers.

As for vocals, Mr. Abdullah Davami (a friend of Mirza Abdullah and Mirza Hosseingholi and an equal to Darvish Khan) developed the Radif for human voice with help from Mirza Hosseingholi and based on the vocal Radif of Ali Khan Nayeb al-Saltaneh.

This complete vocal Radif was recorded on tape by Mr. Davami and his student Mr. Karimi and is the only one of its kind, containing seven Dastgahs and five Avaz and their appendices.

In short, mastery of the Radif is essential if one wants to become a performer of Iranian classical music, just as it is essential to know the collected poems of great poets by heart to become a great poet.

Just as the word Radif (row) implies, it represents an ordered succession of melodies with a logical connection within each Dastgah or system. The melodic content of the Radif in each Dastgah (i.e. Shoor, Mahoor, Segah, etc.) depends on the master to whom the particular Radif is attributed. For example, there is a difference between the Radif in Shoor between what is attributed to Mirza Abdullah, Mirza Hosseingholi and Mr. Abdullah Davami, a difference based on their personal preferences.

Another factor in determining the exact melodic content of the Radif is the musical instrument for which the Radif is composed. The Radif in a certain Dastgah is different for tar, kamancheh, santoor or nay (shepherd's flute), even though their basic melodic content is the same.

The Radif, subject to interpretation by each master, has also been expanded upon and extended by the various masters and new melodies have been improvised, composed or discovered and then added to the Radif by each master and later their musical heirs.

The knowledge of this considerable treasure of Radif sustaining our classical music is essential for innovation within and advance of our music.



Contemporny Radif in Iran:

The eleven Radifs below form the basis of musical creativity and

improvisation in Iran today: 1- Radif of Mirza Abdullah as interpreted by Ismail Ghahramani.

2- Radif of Mirza Abdullah as interpreted by Noor Ali Boroomand.

3- Radif of Mirza Abdullah as interpreted by Musa Ma'roofi.

4- Radif of Mirza Hosseingholi as performed by his son, Ali Akbar Shahnazi.

5- Radif of Mirza Hosseingholi as interpreted by Habibollah Salehi, a renowned Radif expert and Student of Shahnazi.

6- Radif of Abdullah Davami (for voice) as sung by him.

7- Radif of Abdullah Davami as interpreted by Mahmoud Karimi.

8- Radif of Abdullah Davami as interpreted by Nasrollah NasehPour and sung by him.

9- Radif of Darvish Khan as interpreted by Morteza Nay Davood. 10- Radif of Darvish Khan as interpreted by Musa Ma'roofi.

11- Radif of Abolhassan Saba written by him for violin.

The suffix "Gah" which exists in most Asian countries' music including that of Iran is an adverb indicating time or place. It could therefore mean placement of hand" since Dast = hand. However, the definition of Dastgah in Amid's dictionary, i.e. it all the means and instruments gathered in one place to accomplish a certain task" is the more appropriate definition. In a Dastgah, all the related melodies and songs are present. For example, Dastgah-e-Shur consists of all the songs, moods and Gushehs (corners, about which more below) belonging to it. One can also say that Dastgah is a whole which contains all its parts such as its Gushehs and its moods. In common parlance, the reference to homes and cars is prefaced with th word dastgah which provides us with another hint to the meaning of the word in music. If we liken a Dastgah such as Shur to a house, then the entrance is the Daraumad (see below), the courtyard and rooms around it are the Gushehs (see below) and the room decorations constitute the mood (Haulat).


In Iranian music, Daramad denotes beginning, appearing or coming out. The musician, by playing the Daramad is trying to orient the listener to the Dastgah that the musician is attempting to perform in. In colloquial usage, Daraumad also means appearing.

Daramad is used to introduce both Dastgahs as well as songs and Gushehs, such as Daraumads of Amiri, Shahnaz, Segah, Shur, etc.


just as the word Gusheh (comer) implies, it forms an integral part of the Dastgah and is in close relation to it. Gusheh is not able to stand on its own since it has neither Daramad nor Foroud (descent or return to the beginning of the melody).

The Gushehs of Basteh-Negar and Hazin are two examples.


Tikkeh or piece is a piece of the Dastgah and is more complete than the Gusheh because it has both Daraumad and Foroud. Shahnaz is the name of a well known Tikkeh with its own Daramad and Foroud.


"Form " in the Radif of Iranian Music:

"Form" is a western term designating conformity of the musical piece with predefined notions, such as sonata, symphonic and concerto forms in the western classical music, or peeshdaramad, reng, tasneef, chaharmezrab, and finally classical solo performance forms in the Iranian traditional music.

The Iranian classical solo performance form

Before the invention of peeshdaramad, or the advance of tasneef and chaharmezrab forms by the contemporary musicians, the performance of Iranian music was based on avaz where the main emphasis was on the poetic rhythms that in the framework of the musical performance were rendered in free rhythmic patterns. However, the monotony in the performance of this kind of music goaded the musicians to invent separate pieces that were nevertheless unified under the structure of the solo performance.

This, in a way, revolutionized the manner in which music used to be performed. The peeshdaramad form and the evolution of the tasneef and the reng forms were the offsprings of this major change.

The innovators of these forms, such as Darveesh Khan and Mokhtari, who were influenced by the military music of their time were able to compose valuable pieces that promoted and developed those forms. Finally, the classical solo performance form assumed the following structure:

1. Peeshdaramad (a slow rhythmic piece lasting between 5 to 8 minutes),

2. Daramad and movement along the general melodies of the dastgah or gusheh,

3. Chaharmezrab (a fast rhythmic piece lasting between 3 to 5 minutes and melodically following the general mood of the performance),

4. Continuation of the avaz and modulation,

5. Zarbi-khani (rhythmic vocal piece) or zarbi-navazi (rhythmic

instrumental piece ) after the modulation (lasting between 5 to 8 minutes),

6. Continuation of the avaz and other modulations,

7. Owje (a movement to the highest degree of the mode),

8. Foroud-e-avaz (return to the home key),

9. Tasneef-e-bargardan (a song in the original mode),

10. Reng-e-khatemeh (a dance-like piece marking the end of the performance).

The above form was followed in nearly all of the performances and sometimes would take up to two hours to culminate (the times quoted in the parantheses are only approximate guidelines and can be significantly different from the above in an actual performance; however, the length of the rhythmic pieces should in no way disrupt the flow of the vocal or instrumental rendition of the avaz).

Using the above form the solo performers could logically expand the duration of their performance. One of the most important features of the classical solo performance form is in the way the listener is guided along, not unlike being taken on a journey. Different moods and emotions such as fear, sorrow, and happiness are experienced throughout this journey; however, the final goal is to free the listener from her (his) worldly shackles and bring her (him) closer to her (his) spiritual self.

M. R. Lotfi
Translated by Behzad Towhidi
As appeared on Name-ye-Shayda newsletter

Last Updated on Saturday, 09 May 2009 14:52