E Mode

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Tombek "goblet drum"

Setar, small long-necked lute

Tar, a distinctive Persian stringed instrument

Daireh "frame drum"

"Twilight on the Water" borrows the contours of its melody from the goushe Qatar, one of the many forms within Persian music.The shapes in this melody were simplified and used as a sketch from which "Twilight" in the E mode (isartu) was devised. "Twilight" changed the mode, imposed a triple time, and simplified the florid passages, adding other instruments to the oboe's solo.

Introduced in a slow, languid tempo, the mood of this piece tries to capture the golden hour at the end of the day, as music floats out over the water from a distant shore.

Left: This image, the ladies laying music below, and background group, from "The Art of Persian Music."

The stringed instruments to the left are discussed at: http://tarschool.com/about.html, site of Ashkan Ghafouri, instructor from Tehran.

An Arab reed house from southen Iraq, similar to some early Meso-potamian temple images

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Most westerners, myself included, cannot begin to understand the subtleties and complexities of its forms, but we can hear that Persian classical music of today is very beautiful and exotic, with a tartness to some of its microtonally altered intervals that lends great depth of emotion to its melodies. Even Persian folk music, though more simple and accessible, still has that entrancing charm.

Because of our European familiarity with basically only one "major" and one "minor" scale (please allow me to over simplify here), we tend to hear a mode as either "major" = happy, or "minor"= sad. Our palette of musical colors is limited in this respect. Any deviation from these two diatonic modes is sometimes difficult for our ears to understand, especially because we are also used to hearing the equal temperament of a piano, and are unfamiliar with intervals smaller than 1/2 step, or that lie inbetween 1/2 and 1 whole step. How can these be anything but "out of tune"?

Reed house in southern Iraq, from H.W. F. Saggs, "Babylonians"

Two women playing music

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The following is a paraphrase of a discussion by Professor Hormoz Farhat at


There is no such a thing as a quarter tone in Persian music. But there are two intervals not used in Western music. One is the neutral second., which is very flexible, but always noticeably larger than the minor second (half-step) of our western scale, and smaller than the major second (whole-step). The other interval peculiar to some of the Persian modes is an interval which is larger than the major second, but not as large as an actual augmented second. In authentic Persian music the Western augmented second is not used..

H. Farhat

In other words, you have to hear this music to appreciate what he is talking about. These subtle intervals are not part of the diatonic modal tunings, and therefore we cannot put them into "Twilight on the Water." But if this same melody were treated by a Persian musician playing within his own idiom on an instrument other than the equal tempered piano, the effect would undoubtedly be very ear-opening to our western musical responses. I am personally very fond of this "E" mode, and find the interval beteen the first and second note at the bottom of its scale to have a pathetic, very poignant tension in the moment before 2 resolves down to 1. This poignancy is enhanced and very much evident in today's near eastern music, not only Persian. Unfortunately, we have no evidence from ancient times of these subtle microtonal variations.

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Tuning pins on the Silver Lyre replica. These are wrapped with strips of hide, which are somewhat pliable, but tuning is not a quick and simple job on this instrument.

We have evidence from the “Retuning Text” UET/774 , its Ur Excavation Text number (originally text U7/80), that the ancient Mesopotamians knew how to tune easily from one diatonic mode to the next, one string at a time, on the lyre. This could have determined the order of pieces played during a performance in ancient times. For instance, a song catalogue, VAT10101 col viii from Assur, gives a list of love songs in each of the seven modes:

23 love songs in isartu
17 love songs in kitmu
love songs in embubu
love songs in pitu etc.
[_] love songs in nid qabli
[_] love songs in nis gabari
[_] love songs in qablitu

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Perhaps when a program was being planned, and a specific type of song was needed in a certain spot on the program, one could have used such a list to make things easy for the lyre player by picking a song either in the same mode as the previous piece, or in a modal tuning that required only one string to be tuned upward, or another to be tuned downward.
1. Berber Wedding Song
2. The Music Class
3. Twilight on the Water
4. Hurrian Moonrise
5. Ninkasi’s Dance
6. Lament for Linus
7. Solitary Theme
8. Long Ago Lullaby
9. Fortune-Telling Song
10. Hurrian Moonset
11. Ea, the Creator
12. The Queen of Sheba
13. Hal Libba Marya


©Bella Roma Music 2002