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Interdisciplinary Organology: Researching Iranian Musical Instruments

By Hannah Grantham

Since my first exposure to object-based music research and organology, I have been fascinated with the idea of using musical instruments to tell stories within human history and how music provides a commentary on social trends. Upon arriving to grad school at the University of South Dakota, I felt inclined to continue my interests in researching underrepresented musical traditions largely left out of standard organological literature and conversations. Thus, after spending a semester analyzing painted content on three Iranian musical instruments in the National Music Museum's collection, I chose to focus my thesis research on Iranian musical instruments used during the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722) and how the status of instrumental performance changed during this "renaissance" of Iranian culture.[1]

NMM 2420 (Tar) and NMM 2424 (Dombak) from the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD.

When I first began compiling a database of Iranian musical instruments, the oversight in American collecting and the impacts of sanctions against Iran became quite apparent. The unforeseen consequences are that there are only a few dozen Iranian musical instruments held in museums nationwide, and of those number, a large majority were made for western trade in the 19th and 20th centuries like the above instruments at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota. And, while there are an ample number of musical instruments in European collections, I chose to work within the limited sources available to me in the United States. In large part, this was to make a point of how politics interferes with institutions of learning and cultural heritage and their ability to present inclusive messages.

Lacking an abundance of musical instruments or music literature (with an organological focus) forced me to get creative in working in other academic disciplines such as art history, economics, fashion, literature, and even horticulture to supplement my research and gain an insight into music’s role in Safavid Iran. This journey of writing a thesis on a topic so rarely spoken about within American organology has allowed me to engage with scholars in both American museums and those abroad about Iranian culture, and ongoing issues with representation of musical cultures outside of Western Art Music traditions within organology and museum collections. I’m very hopeful to see this conversation grow and continue learning as more and more collaborations between organology and its sister fields generate resources for studying musical instruments from Iran.

The idea to incorporate and rely heavily on Persian musical iconography materialized as I approached analyzing the NMM’s three lacquer-painted Iranian instruments. The trio of instruments – a dombak, tar, and kamancheh – are striking, and have been displayed at the NMM for decades largely because of their attractive appearance featuring intertwined vegetal patterns enveloping smaller vignettes of musical activity in isolated private gardens where aristocratic figures leisurely sit entertained by musicians playing close by. Featuring Safavid-inspired imagery and style, the instruments are wonderful examples of the tourist trade industries in Iran that filled bazaars and catered increasingly to European tourists in the early 20th century. The three painted Iranian instruments at the NMM are integrally linked to conversations about the close relationships between literature, music, and the visual arts. And as objects used for visual rather than aural purposes, focusing on their painted surfaces is beneficial to fully contextualizing them.

Found in an antique shop in Tehran during the 1960s – likely a few decades after the instruments were made – by an unknown New York collector, the instruments made their way to the United States before the first sanctions against Iran were leveraged in 1979. The NMM purchased the three instruments from Wurlitzer-Bruck in 1978 and displayed them in the museum’s Beede Gallery until 2018 as the museum closed its galleries in anticipation of their building renovations. Despite being sold and displayed as a trio, the instruments were not painted by the same workshop. The tar, with a warm yellow-hued glaze, was made by a different workshop of artists from those that decorated both the kamancheh and dombak. Together the three instruments exemplify the market for lacquer-painted objects that mimicked older traditions for tourist consumption.

Lacquer-painting has been utilized in Iran since the fifteenth century and is found on objects from book covers to playing cards.[2] By the 19th century, lacquerwork was being produced by workshops throughout Iran responsible for making “exportable craft products.”[3] These 20th century workshops created pieces that were purposely aged and copied content from the old masters (like those who active in the Safavid Dynasty) to sate tourists and collectors eagerly looking to acquire antique souvenirs.[4] Those perusing bazaars could purchase lacquered boxes, rulers, playing cards, pipes, cases, and even musical instruments to take home.

On first looking at the painted content, I noted that there were numerous motifs in the paintings, including: well-dressed people sitting in gardens listening to music, birds, lions subduing their prey, and backgrounds filled entirely of flowers and vines. The tar – which also has the highest painting quality – had lovers embracing and playing a tar in different orientations on each bout of the body. To ascertain the cultural meanings behind the motifs on the instruments I began looking through digitized Persian manuscripts to gain a better understanding of Iran’s visual language.

As I perused illustrations, I recognized common settings for music, such as, court festivities, gardens, battle, harems, and processions. I also noticed that the garden party settings on all of the instruments demonstrated one of the Safavid stylistic influences used in Iran’s tourist-driven craft industry of the 20th century. Well-dressed figures on each instrument relax in gardens gossiping, drinking wine—from the same long-necked carafes that are so pervasive in Safavid illustrations—and listening to soft music played by a tar or setar (on the tar and dombak) and kamanche (on the kamanche). The relaxed garden settings on all three instruments emphasize the tradition of playing music in blooming pleasure gardens where Iranian rulers held court, including many of the Safavid shahs. The feasting and lounging parties are reminiscent of any number of illustrations from the Safavid era depicting passages from beloved Persian literature like the Shahname or Haft Paykar.

What remains unclear about these painted instruments is where the artists/workshops got the instruments for their work. The NMM’s three instruments are among a handful of painted instruments held within American collections, and there are also several in European museums. In addition to the NMM’s instruments, I’ve worked with a more simply painted setar located at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. All of the instruments I analyzed appear to be made for playing, and transitioned into decorative objects only after their surfaces were painted. In future studies, it would be interesting to see who was supplying instruments for artists to paint.

While I searched through Safavid illustrations for musical imagery that I could use to analyze the NMM’s instruments, I realized how scenes depicting musical performances changed from shah to shah during the two hundred and twenty-one years of Safavid rule. It was clear that the Safavids and the artists they employed were well-versed in Iran’s visual language and aware of how music played into that. Their use of music in illustrations corresponds to scenes presumably familiar to contemporary Safavid viewers, but they also tie into symbolism found in the Persian poetry being illustrated.

Of the images I used to frame my evaluations of Safavid culture, I love the portraits most of all. I found them insightful and indicative of an expressive arts industry. They were less formulaic than the many court scenes that were more commonly illustrated and seemed to spotlight the contemplative practice of Persian music as well as the rise of a middle-class in Iran. Some portraits conveyed the commonality of decorative inlays on stringed instruments and resemble musical instruments found in some collections. Other illustrations like “Young Man in European Dress Playing on a Lute” flaunt artistic freedom, and provide critical insight into the significant cultural exchange that occurred during the reign of Abbas the Great in the first half of the 17th century.

Young man in European dress playing on a lute. Freer-Sackler Galleries (F1929.77)

The illustration painted in the 1630s during Shah Safi’s reign (1629-1642) depicts a seated young man playing an oblong, waisted lute dressed in ornately patterned European clothing. The golden garden background envelopes the lushly dressed man and celebrates the Safavid’s great wealth and cosmopolitan attitudes that attracted attention from European nations eager to take part in the thriving trade routes located in Iran.

The mysterious lute in the image is a mixture of both Iranian and European elements and is a notable deviation from the depiction of traditional instruments like the setar (a long-necked lute) or barbat (a short-necked lute related to the oud). Its oblong, waisted shape seems to suggest the appearance of a viol; an idea supported by the man’s European clothing and the frequency of European guests at the Safavid court that were welcomed by Safi’s predecessor Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629). But, perhaps, the instrument could also be an interpretation of a waisted rabab-type that has been used in the eastern regions of Safavid Iran since the 10th century.[5] The rabab theory would explain the prominent “Persianate” headstock so frequently seen on barbats in Safavid illustrations.[6] It is a curious instrument that at once is both European and Iranian, but likely is not reflective of any musical instrument commonly found or played in Safavid Iran. I view the illustration as a visual commentary on European presence in Iran and music’s role in facilitating international relations.


Hannah Grantham presents at the 2018 AMIS annual meeting in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Hannah Grantham is an interdisciplinary music researcher with interests in exploring object-driven musical narratives. She has an educational background in jazz, musicology, and organology with degrees from the University of North Texas and the University of South Dakota. While completing her master’s degree she worked at the National Music Museum on a cataloging project of musical instruments dating from the 16th century to the present day. Her primary research interests center on twentieth-century African American music and other musical cultures underrepresented in museum collections. Currently, she is working on projects focused on the role of African American women in music history.


[1] Jean During, “The ‘Imaginal’ Dimension and Art of Iran” The World of Music 19, no. 3 (1977): 26.

[2] B.W. Robinson, “Qajar Lacquer,” Muqarnas 6 (1989): 131, accessed March 3, 2017.

[3] Jay Gluck and Sumi Hiramoto Gluck, A Survey of Persian Handicraft: a Pictorial Introduction to the Contemporary Folk Arts and Art Crafts of Modern Iran (Tehran: The Bank Melli Irna, 1977), 13.

[4] L. Diba, “Lacquerwork,” in The Arts of Persia, ed. R.W. Ferrier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 243 and 249.

[5] Jean During, “Rabab,” Grove Music Online, 2001.

[6] Bonnie C. Wade, Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 157.


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