Music in Pre-Islamic Iran (Persia)

Little is known about the many aspects of life during the Pre-Islamic time, also known as the Ancient Ages; and music is no exception. However, the few available seals, narratives, poems, and books show that music flourished during the Sassanid (Sâsânian) dynasty, gaining more and more significance by time and that musicians were among the highly respected members of the royal courts.

In the Ancient Ages, music was not considered a separate form of art; it was rather intertwined with other social traditions, the most important of which being religious rituals, celebrations, battles and performing folklore songs (A Perspective on Persian Music, Sâsân Sepantâ).

The Gathas (made up of 17 rhymes) are among the oldest and most sacred texts of the Avestâ1. They are said to have been composed by Zoroaster himself and date back to more than a thousand years B.C. At times, these verses bear a close resemblance to Vedic rhymes and are believed to have been performed with a set of rituals as means of praising the Creator Ahura Mazdâ2 (A Perspective on Persian Music, Sâsân Sepantâ).

Songs are considered to be among the oldest forms of producing music. Nakisâ (also spelled Nagisa) was a singer and a master harpist of the royal court during the reign of King Khosrow II, also known as Khosrow Parviz (590 to 628 A.D.). There have been mentions of his name in Nezâmi Ganjavi’s3 renowned work, Khosrow and Shirin 4 (A Perspective on Persian Music, Sâsân Sepantâ).

Based on the scripts, songs were one of the most important means of producing music during the Ancient Ages. Improvisations using instruments such as the lute, a kind of tanbur, harp, and some percussion instruments were also quite widespread. Among the singers and composers of the Sassanid dynasty, most of whom lived during the reign of King Khosrow II, are such renowned masters as Nakisâ, Bârbad, Bâmshâd, and Râmtin (A Perspective on Persian Music, Sâsân Sepantâ).

In his book, A survey of Music (Nazari be Moosighi) Ruhollâh Khâleghi explains how important music was to the Sassanians:

“Ardashir had divided people into different social classes, among which musicians had a class of their own, enjoying a very high social status. Bahrâm V, also known as Bahrâm-e Gūr, is said to have had a keen sense for music and literature. Based on the scripts, he, in a sense, imported over four hundred musicians from India. During his reign, musicians were highly respected and enjoyed his special attention. Persian Music reached its zenith during the reign of Khosrow Parviz. Bârbad, whose name has been mentioned in many a text such as Nezâmi’s Khosrow and Shirin and Ferdowsi’s Shâhnâmeh was his most esteemed court musician. Based on these texts, he was famous for orchestrating a set of songs exclusively for Khosrow Parviz’s ear, in which there were 360 melodies for each day of the year, so as not to bore the king. He was so close to the king that everyone needing a favor would first seek him out and ask for his help. It was Bârbad who, through a song, informed Khosrow of the death of his most beloved horse, Shabdiz (P. 171).”

  1. “Avesta” is the name the Mazdean (Mazdayasnian) religious tradition gives to the collection of its sacred texts. The etymology and the exact meaning of the name (Pahlavi ʾp(y)stʾk/abestāg) can not be considered established. See: “AVESTA i. Survey of the history and contents of the book”, Encyclopaedia Iranica:
  2. Old Persian: Ahuramazda, Parth: Aramazd, Pahl: Ohrmazd/Hormizd, NPers: Ormazd, the Avestan name with the title of a great divinity of the Old Iranian religion, who was subsequently proclaimed by Zoroaster as God. See: “Ahura mazdâ”, Encyclopaedia Iranica:
  3. The great Persian poet (1141-1209) whose narrative poems are famous worldwide.
  4. Khosrow o Shirin, the second poem of Nezâmi’s Khamsa, recounts the amorous relationship between the Sasanian king Khosrow II Parviz (590-628 CE), and the beautiful princess Shirin. See: “Khosrow o Shirin”, Encyclopaedia Iranica: