Persian Music: Sahba Motallebi, tār

Sahba Motallebi performs classical and original music for Iranian lutes as part of the Freer|Sackler’s Persian New Year celebration. She is one of the few women worldwide who plays these instruments in major concert halls. Motallebi specializes in Persian classical music, a tradition of virtuoso improvisation based on melodic modes chosen to reflect the mood of the musician and the occasion.


Persian Music: Classical and New

Sahba Motallebi, tār (lute)
Naghmeh Farahmand, tombak and daff (percussion)
Recorded at the Freer | Sackler on March 5, 2017

Pieces on this podcast are performed in māhūr, one of the twelve melodic modes (dastgāh) of Persian classical music. Using approximately the same pitches as the major scale of Western music, māhūr is distinctive among the dastgāhs for its bright mood.

  1. Chahār mezrāb, by Darvish Khān (1872‒1926)
  2. Improvisation in māhūr
  3. Improvisation on kereshmeh (rhythmic realization of a classical Persian gūsheh, or melodic theme)
  4. Improvisation on āvāz (a classical theme)
  5. Pīsh darāmad (Before Entering), by Yousof Froutan (20th century)
  6. Improvisation on shekasteh (a classical theme)
  7. Daff solo
  8. Morghe sahar (Dawn Bird)
    This tasnīf, written by Morteza Neydavoud and Mohammad-Taqi Bahar in the early 20th century, was first recorded by Moluk Zarrabi.
  9. Traditional rengs (dances) in māhūr
  10. Bahare delneshin, by Rūhollāh Khāleqi (b. 1965)
  11. Birth, by Sahba Motallebi


Sahba Motallebi began studying music as a young girl in the seaside city of Sari in northern Iran. At age fourteen, she was invited to study at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, where she was named Best Tar Player at the Iranian Music Festival four years in a row. After graduating in 1997, she helped found the women’s ensemble Chakaveh. Two years later she joined the Iranian National Orchestra, which launched her international career. Now living near Los Angeles and teaching Persian music, she continues to perform, publish, and record, including her 2014 CD A Tear at the Crossroad of Time.

Naghmeh Farahmand, the daughter of percussionist Mahmoud Farahmand, started playing tombak at age six. She studied santur (hammered dulcimer) under Faramarz Payvar and Pashang Kamkar as well as Sufi and Kurdish rhythms on the daff under Bijan Kamkar and Masoud Habibi. For several years, she accompanied ney (flute) master Hassan Nahid and vocalist Hengameh Akhavan. Naghmeh has performed with Iranian ensembles in Iran, Kuwait, Europe, and Japan. Now living in Canada, she works with ensembles of Arab, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Indian music, and she founded the percussion ensemble Sharghi. Her book Helheleh includes pieces for the daff. She is currently completing her percussion CD Drums and Dreams.


Improvisation in Persian Music

Persian classical music is based in part on gūshehs, short melodic phrases or themes that have their own set of notes, typical phrases, and mood. Nearly four hundred gūshehs have been created over the centuries using classical melodic modes, folk music, the singing of heroic tales, and religious repertoires. These gūshehs are now grouped into twelve melodic modes (dastgāhs). This podcast is based on a specific dastgāh (māhūr) that utilizes a unique set of gūshehs.

These Persian modes are somewhat like scales in Western music, but each one is also known by its most important notes, melodic gestures, and mood. Gūshehs vary in number from five to forty or more in any one dastgāh, or mode. Only when the entire repertoire has been memorized―a process that can take many years―are musicians able to hone their improvisational skills and to express the powerful emotions that are inherent in Persian classical music.

The Radīf

The complete body of longer compositions in Persian classical music is collected into the radīf, a traditional set of melodies that classical musicians strive to master. Playing a set of melodies from the radīf in one mode (dastgāh) is somewhat comparable to playing a European baroque suite by Johann Sebastian Bach (with movements in different meters). In Persian music, however, the movements remain in a fixed “key” (dastgāh) and include both measured and unmeasured sections.
Reng is the primary dance form in the radīf. It can be improvised or composed and performed by one or more instruments. A reng usually occurs toward the end of a radīf performance.

Elements of a Performance

Two of the items heard in this podcast come from the movements of a traditional recital of Persian classical music. A chahār mezrāb (literally, four plectra) is a strictly instrumental form that can be inserted at various points in a concert. Meant to demonstrate the performer’s virtuosity, it utilizes repeated rhythmic figures (ostinatos) in a six- or twelve-beat pattern. A pīsh darāmad (from the Persian pishrav, “coming before”) is a stately, metered genre. Developed around 1900 for instrumental ensembles, it was used to start a recital.

Pieces by Sahba Motallebi


The artist notes, “I composed this piece after the delivery of my second child in 2014, and the theme came to mind while I was in labor at the hospital. This piece talks about the contrasts between happiness and sadness, the joy of giving ‘birth’ and its spiritual facets, combined with lots of pain, worrying, wondering, and more. I also elaborate musically on rebirth after death. It is a combination of being at peace when the spirit is flying freely, but at the same time appreciating the pain experienced by the people that will miss the one who passed away.”

Chahār mezrāb

The artist notes, “I composed this piece when I was sixteen years old and living in Iran. It is about female musicians in Iran and their enduring struggle to keep secular Persian music alive even under the threat of governmental persecution for simply being a female musician.”


This podcast was recorded on March 5, 2017, as part of Nowruz: A Persian New Year Celebration, made possible by the Jahangir and Eleanor Amuzegar Persian Cultural Celebrations Fund.
Podcast coordination by Michael Wilpers, F|S manager of performing arts. Thanks to Andy Finch for audio recording, SuMo Productions for audio editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Ryan King for web design, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web production, Hutomo Wicaksono for photography, and especially the artists for granting permission to share their performances at the Sackler Gallery.