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 wonderfu