Dastgah Mahur – Persian Music Continued

by Majnuun Music & Dance on December 2, 2013, no comments

Back to Persian music and the Persian musical tradition called the “Radif”. I want to begin by introducing you to a Persian Dastgah called Mahur. Mahur sounds very familiar to Western ears because it includes a theme that is almost exactly the Western major scale BUT with the ABSENCE of equal temperament.

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Mahur has about five characteristic modulations expressed in different gushe from the radif. Most express the major scale quality, but others impart a shur quality, a minor scale quality, and a Rast-like quality.

 Major scale quality

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Shur quality

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Minor Scale Quality

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Rast/Shur Quality

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The major scale aspect of Mahur differs in the upper range of the scale. When playing notes such as g, a, and b. B flat is used especially if the melody descends again before resolving around the tonic ( C ). Mahur likes to stay in the upper range for some time before either returning to the lower range or proceeding to the upper C tonic.


There are more gushes that use only these notes to develop melodies without proceeding to the upper C tonic. Mahur likes to play with your brain that way. It likes to fake it when ascending the scale by only going up half a step to B flat rather than a whole step to B natural.


So how do you know when to use a B flat or a B natural? That depends on the direction of your melody in relation to its movement towards the tonic ( C ). This becomes the fundamental quality of Mahur, because the shahed (King note, or tonic) is C. Dastgah systems usually resolve or conclude melodies on their shahed (tonic). Likewise, when playing in the upper octave if we want to move to the C above g, a, and B flat, we modulate from B flat to B natural. A gushe where this happens is called Arak, (Iraq).

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From this we can assume a few rules or general principles to approach Mahur.


1. Mahur’s fundemental quality is described as “happy” or “major scale” in feeling.

2. When the melody is moving toward the tonic C, you use the major 7th note, which is B natural.

3. When the melody is moving away (descending) from the upper C tonic use a flat 7th note, which is B flat.

4. Mahur modulates to three different scales.


The modulations that are encompassed in Mahur provide windows into other dastgah. You can think of it like this:


The natural major notes C D E F G A B are the notes we start out with in melodic development. If we add an accidental by changing A natural to A quarter flat, we have entered another dastgah. We can choose to go back to the original A natural after, or we can even add another accidental, say change E natural to E quarter flat and keep the A quarter flat. Then we have entered another dastgah, or a niche of the dastgah. Gushe is Farsi means “niche” or “corner”. Going to into different corners or niches of a larger tapestry of sound is what is actually happening. After going and coming from one dastgah to another you can ultimately return to the dastgah you started with.


This is the art of improvisation in Persian music. You can choose to do this however you wish. But some ways are more conventional than others. The traditional ways of improvisation are learned after many years of listening and repetition.


In Persian music, over the last two hundred years, a few people decided to compile many different traditions and transcribe them. This became the Radif, or “order”. There is some ancient logic to the order of the gushe within a Dastgah. The logic is either determined both by musicality of the melodies, and the poetry which accompanies the melody. In ancient times, it was more likely the poetry that determined the order of melodies as well.


There are other musical systems like this. Take for example and Uighur maqamat. They too have a type of Radif, and order to which songs and melodies go. But they use the Arabic term for dastgah which is maqam. I would like to research this in the future and see what I can discover about Persian music through learning their music because ultimately, those musical systems find their origin in Persian music too.


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