Old Persian Rhythm Cycles

A brief introduction to old Persian rhythm cycles discussed in Persian manuscripts on the theory of music 

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The educational curriculum outlined by Plato in "The Republic (Book VII)", influenced the formation of the "trivium" and "quadrivium" in ancient times. In such education, seven major subject areas, also known as the seven liberal arts, were taken into consideration, which consisted of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (known in Roman times as the "trivium") and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (referred to as the "quadrivium"). The tradition of four mathematical sciences, i.e. quadrivium, can be seen in different old treatises written by some Persian and non-Persian scholars. Music, as the fourth subject area of mathematics, was divided into two major topics: melody and rhythm. In the following, we introduce the rhythm cycles of old times. The main resource for this article is a book written in Persian by the Persian musicologist, "Kamal al-Din ebn Mohammad Banai کمال الدین ابن محمد بنایی".

For symbolization of the old rhythm cycles, I use the following modern notation:

In the past, the rhythmic blocks of 2,3,4, and 5 beats, known as "atanin اَتانین", used to configure a rhythm cycle, were as follows, respectively:

"Tan تَن", "Tanan تَنَن", "Tananan تَنَنَن", and "Tanananan تَنَنَنَن", though the last one was rare. It is quite interesting that Banai in his manuscript written by himself introduces and uses longer blocks. Rhythmic blocks introduced above can be transformed into our modern notation as follows:

Note that this kind of symbolization, either in its old form using the "atanin" method or in its modern X-x-o method is introduced in the book with the title "The modal system of Arab and Persian music A.D. 1250–1300" written by Owen Wright and it gives only the time structure and accents of the rhythm cycles of the past but not the finger patterns used in ancient times. Now, it is up to the drummer how to interpret them on the drum.

Banai puts the rhythm cycles into three categories as we proceed to explain:

1) Seghal ثقال. The category of 2-beat rhythm cycles, i.e., in 4, 8, 16, and ... beats.

Khafif-e-saghil خفیف ثقیل (4 beats, division: 2+2) X o X x

Remark. Note that Tana تَنَ - which is in 2 beats and in the modern symbolization has been written as X x - was not considered a new rhythmic block as it was considered to be equivalent to Tan تن.

Longer version (16 beats, division: 2+4+4+4+2) X o X x x o X x x o X x x o X x 

Saghil-e-Sani ثقیل ثانی (8 beats, division: 3+3+2) X x o X x o X o (In Persian prosody, this is equivalent to mafa'elaton مَفاعِلاتُن.) 

Ghuriyaneh غوریانه (8 beats, division: 2+4+2) X o X x x o X o. Once, Ostad Abdollah Anwar explained to me that this rhythm cycle must be attributed to a rhythm cycle performed in Persia's ancient city called Ghur (located in Afghanistan). According to etymologists, ghur غور means kuh کوه which is the Persian term for mountain.

Mokhammas-e-Osat مخمس اوسط (16 beats, division: 3+3+2+2+4+2) X x o X x o X o X o X x x o X o 

Varashan or Saghil-e-Avval ورشان یا ثقیل اول (16 beats, division: 3+3+4+2+4) X x o X x o X x x o X o X x x o 

2) Ramal رمل. The category of 3-beat rhythm cycles, i.e. in 6, 12, 24, ... beats. 

Torki-ye-Zarb-e-Far ترکی ضرب فرع (6 beats, division: 3+3) X x o X x o 

Khafif-e-Ramal خفیف رمل (6 beats, division: 2+4) X o X x x o 

Hazaj-e-Saghir هزج صغیر (6 beats, division: 4+2) X x x o X o 

Hajaz-e-Kabir هزج کبیر(12 beats, division: 4+3+3+2) X x x o X x o X x o X o 

Another version (12 beats, division: 2+4+3+3) X x X x x o X x o X x o 

Ramal رمل (12 beats, division: 2+2+2+2+4) X o X o X o X o X x x o 

Doyek دویک (12 beats, division: 2+2+4+4) X o X o X x x o X x x o

Shadiyaneh or Saghil-e-Ramal شادیانه یا ثقیل رمل (24 beats, division: 4+4+2+2+2+2+2+2+4) X x x o X x x o X o X o X o X o X o X o X x x o 

Chahar-Zarb-e-Saghir چهار ضرب صغیر (24 beats, division: 4+2+6+2+2+2+2+4) X x x o X o X x x x x o X o X o X o X o X x x o 

Osat-o-Nim-Saghil اوسط و نیم ثقیل (24 beats, division: 4+4+2+6+8) X x x o X x x o X o X x x x x o X x x x x x x o 

3) Favakht فواخت. The category of 5-beat rhythm cycles, i.e. in 5, 10, 20, ... beats. 

Fakhti-ye-Saghir فاختی صغیر (5 beats, division: 3+2) X x o X o 

Fakhti-ye-Osat فاختی اوسط (10 beats, division: 2+4+4) X o X x x o X x x o 

Torki-ye-Sari فاختی سریع (10 beats, division: 2+3+2+3) X o X x o X o X x o 

Torki-ye-Zarb-e-Asl ترکی ضرب اصل (20 beats, division: 5+2+3+10) X x x x o X o X x o X x x x x x x x x o 

Another version (20 beats, division: 5+5+10) X x x x o X x x x o X x x x x x x x x o 

Fakhti-ye-Kabir ترکی کبیر (20 beats, division: 2+8+10) X o X x x x x x x o X x x x x x x x x o

The atanin in Persian poems. As far as I am aware, there are no documents having or explaining a kind of symbolization and/or notation for the rhythm cycles performed in ancient Persia belonging to the pre-Islamic era. However, after Islam, many Persian scholars started to apply a kind of syllabic notation for notating Persian rhythms. This system of notation was called the "atanin اتانین" method, explained above, though today it is not used in music. Anyway, I add that rather the same method has been used in Persian prosody, discussed in detail, by Parviz Natel Khanlari in his book with the title "Vazn-e Sher-e Farsi وزن شعر فارسی". The atanin blocks have been included in Persian poems. For example, Rumi brings an ancient rhythm cycle notated by atanin in the following poem of his:

مطربِ جان بیا بزن «تننن تن تنن تنن»     کاین دل مست از بِگَه یاد نگار می‌کند 

Definitely, those musicians who are interested in the recreation of the ancient music of Persia, have tried to discover how to play the ancient rhythms on today's drums. 

Today's notation for the drums in Iran. The first notation for the tonbak was suggested by the late Ostad Abolhasan Saba, a very famous Iranian multi-instrumentalist. However, the first book which used western notation and special symbols for the finger patterns of the tonbak was the book by Ostad Hossein Tehrani titled "The Rudiments of Tombak", co-authored by a couple of Iranian musicians including Ostad Farhad Fakhreddini who composed some pieces in music using Persian ancient rhythm cycles. Ostad Saba's method was a one-lined system, and perhaps for the first time, it was used and developed by Ostad Amir Nasser Eftetah in his book. Note that the method used in Ostad Tehrani's book for notating the rhythms was a three-lined method. Today both methods are popular.


[B] Kamal al-Din ebn Mohammad Banai: Resaleh dar Musighi. A Treatise on Music (in Persian). Tehran: Markaz-e-Nashr-e-Daneshgahi Publication (1989).

[W] Owen Wright: The modal system of Arab and Persian music, AD 1250-1300. London Oriental Series, Vol. 28. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ix, 320 p. (1978).

Date of publication: May 17th, 2003.

Online Tonbak, Ghaval, and Daf Lessons

Also, see my note on Persian mathematics.

Kereshmeh rhythm cycle (Igha')