TAṢNIF (تصنیف), a type of vocal composition in classical Persian music. The term, an Arabic loanword, originally referred to literary compositions and then later also specifically to literary-musical compositions, for which it is better known today.  There is disagreement as to what constitutes a taṣnif, due in part to the multiplicity of its forms and in part to variation in the usage of terms for different song types, both historical and contemporary.

Song in the late Qajar period (ca. 1875-1925) was of several categories: religious, folk, urban popular, aristocratic, and political. For instance, in addition to taṣnif, there were also soruds (anthem), nawḥas (religious song), and tarānas (folk and popular song).  The designation taṣnif has come to be regarded as a distinct genre of composed song associated with classical music, as found in aristocratic and in certain political and mystical circles.  The late Qajar taṣnifs may continue to be thought of as a form-type, even though later composers such as Mortażā Neydāwud and Moḥammad-ʿAli Amir Jāhed have expanded the range and scope of this classical taṣnif (Caron and Safvate, pp. 144-46; Tsuge, pp. 200-205). 

The classical taṣnif is a song composed usually in a melodic type (guša) of a modal system (dastgāh) on traditional love themes and metaphors, using classical poetic meters and form-types, for instance quatrains (robāʿi), lyrics (ḡazal), or stanzaic verse (mosammaṭ).  These taṣnifs are usually stanzaic and include a recurrent refrain thematically and rhythmically distinct from the verse.  Their form may be distinguished from that of rhythmic (żarbi) pieces and classical poetry in general in that the poetic text may have, in coordination with the musical theme, sectional divisions determined by line length, rhyme, and metric scheme.

According to Nur-Ali Borumand, stanzaic taṣnif is a song type having a verse and refrain (Borumand, interview, 25 December 1974), with both the words and music composed by one person.  Its melody is based on the repertoire of Persian classical music (radif; Mallāḥ, interview, 1975).  Its rhythm is slow and regular (Farhat, p. 34), and the poetry of the verse may be from a ḡazal by a classical master of Persian poetry such as Saʿdi and Ḥāfeẓ (Loṭfi, interview, 1975) or from the old music masters of the court (Sadeghi, class notes, 1969).  Unlike the poetic forms of ḡazal and qaṣida, taṣnif as poetry was originally intended to be composed with music (Karimi, class discussion, 1975).  ʿAli-Akbar Šeydā (d. 1906), ʿĀref Qazvini (d. 1934), and Amir-Jāhed (d. 1977), the three best-known taṣnif writers of this period, composed both poetry and music of their taṣnifs.  Other examples of this period do not adhere to this standard, such as those composed by Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Darviš Khan (d. 1926) and Mortażā Neydāwud (d. 1990).

There are a number of sources concerning taṣnifs of the Qajar period.  Clément Huart and A. Lemaire published Westernized musical arrangements of taṣnifs and taṣnif excerpts; Alexander Chodzko printed translations of 50 Persian songs mostly from the harem of Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah; Vasilli Zhukovskiǐ, Jong-e tarānahā wa taṣnifhā-ye Qājār, and Ādāb-e āvāzhā wa ḏekr dar manābar contain Persian texts; and Fairchild’s work contains both texts and music.  Other works of and about the Qajar period, such as those by Yaḥyā Ārianpur and ʿAbd-Allāh Mostawfi, include smaller numbers of texts.

ʿAbd-ʿAllāh Dawāmi has stated that, during the late Qajar period, taṣnifs were in the hands of one family, the family of Ḥabib-Allāh Samāʿ Ḥożur, and that he learned taṣnifs from them (interview, 28 September 1976; Loṭfi, p. 13).  Samāʿ Ḥożur was a student of Moḥammed-Ṣādeq Khan, the head of the court musicians (Ḵāleqi, I, p. 135), and was a master in santur, tombak (goblet-shaped drum, also called dombak, żarb), and singing taṣnifs and metric tunes (Ṣafwat, p. 61).  Many of these taṣnifs have been preserved through Dawāmi, who, according to Ruḥ-Allāh Ḵāleqi, knew all of the old taṣnifs and was the “preserved tablet of old metric songs” (lawḥ-e maḥfuẓ-e naḡmahā-ye wazndār-e qadim; Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 366-67).  Dawāmi, in turn, passed on his taṣnifs to others, notably Nur-ʿAli Borumand and Moḥammed-Reżā Loṭfi.  According to Loṭfi (interview 31 May 1975) and Dawāmi, these old taṣnifs of the late Qajar period were performed only for the aristocracy.

Taṣnif composers of the late Qajar period are representatives of both traditional forms and of stylistic and thematic changes.  One of the developments in the Iranian poetic style of the 19th century was the simplification of language, designed to appeal to a new mass audience outside the circles of the court and aristocracy.  The taṣnif composers, ʿAli-Akbar Šeydā and Abu’l-Qāsem ʿĀref, both used language common to the people.  While Šeydā’s works were lyrical in their subject matter, ʿĀref composed both lyrical and topical taṣnifs, and was influenced, as were other poets and composers, by the events of the Constitutional Revolution (Badiʿi, pp. 81-103).   

After songwriters in the environment of the court, the most important taṣnif composer was ʿAli-Akbar Šeydā (ca. 1843-1906) whose taṣnifs are considered in Iran by classical musicians as the best examples of the classical taṣnif of the lyrical tradition.  He drew on both court (Dawāmi, interview, 28 September 1976) and popular tradition (Badiʿi, p. 92).  Borumand and Karimi felt that Šeydā’s works were the best examples of old taṣnif, in both poetry and music and in the relationship between the two.  Badiʿi states that the language of his taṣnifs was close to the language of the common people and for that reason was easy for them to grasp (Badiʿi, pp. 84-85;).   

During the period of the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11), taṣnif and tarāna played an important role in the process of struggle.  Many poets of this period wrote both in conventional poetic forms, particularly the ḡazal, and in songs.  They published the texts of taṣnifs and soruds in their journals and in separate song-sheets, as well as performing them or having them performed.  The taṣnifs were performed in revolutionary societies (anjoman), at informal gatherings, and in concert halls in the major cities, particularly in the theater of the Grand Hotel on Lālazār Street in Tehran (Caton, pp. 82-83, 90-91).

The most popular poet of this time, who also wrote taṣnifs, was Sayyed Ašraf-al-Din Ḥosayni Qazvini (1871-1934), publisher of, Nasim-e šemāl (1907-11), a literary paper containing both serious and satirical poems (Ārianpur, II, pp. 61-77; Ṣadr Hāšemi, IV, pp. 295-302). Second to him in popularity was Abu’l-Qāsem ʿĀref Qazvini, mainly known for his taṣnif composition, but who also composed ḡazals, some of which he himself sang in his musical performances.  It was in ʿĀref’s taṣnifs that Ṣeydā’s lyrical taṣnif joined with topical popular song and was used in the exhortative manner of the rest of the body of nationalistic, revolutionary poetry.  What is more, it is mainly in ʿĀref’s taṣnifs (e.g., “Hangām-e mey/“Az ḵun-e javānān-e waṭan,” and “Če šurhā”) that some of the major events following the granting of the Constitution in 1906 may be followed (Caton, pp. 83-86, 112-17; Qazvini, pp. 358-60, 382-85). ʿĀref was the most influential taṣnif composer and performer of the period of the Constitutional Revolution.  He remains a nationalist symbol to the Iranians, and as such his taṣnifs are venerated and performed as part of the continuing classical and national tradition of Persian music (Ārianpur, II, pp. 146-68, 349-61; Badiʿi, pp. 95-103; Ḥosayni Dehkordi, pp. 514-16). 

As both Šeydā and ʿĀref had done, Moḥammad-ʿAli Amir-Jāhed (1894-1977) composed both words and melody himself.  His numerous taṣnifs include both nationalistic and lyrical themes.  He accompanied himself on the tār (a string instrument) and taught his taṣnifs to others (Ḵān-ʿAli, p. 24).   Many of them, including “Amān az in del,” were recorded by the distinguished female vocalist Qamar-al-Moluk Waziri.  Borumand estimates (interview, 6 May 1975) that this taṣnif was composed around 1935.  Amir-Jāhed’s works are not considered by Persian musicians as having either the high qualities of those of Šeydā or the charisma of the ones by ʿĀref.  They do, however, include many performable taṣnifs that are also included in classical performances of the modal repertoire (radif).

During the period of Constitutional Revolution, a number of poets, such as Ṣādeq Khan Adib-al-Mamālek Farāhāni (1860-1917), Hāji Mirzā Yaḥyā Dawlatābādi (1864-1940), Moḥammad-Reżā Mirzāda ʿEšqi (1893-1924), and Moḥammad-Taqi Malek-al-Šoʿarāʾ Bahār (1886-1951), wrote nationalistic songs (see Machalski; Ārianpur, II, pp. 123-46, 271-74, 361-81; Panāhi, pp. 192-212; Badiʿi, pp. 109-13).  Bahār, an outstanding literary and political figure, wrote the lyrics to a number of taṣnifs, the most famous of which is the revolutionary song “Morḡ-e saḥar.  The music was composed by Neydāwud, a master tār performer and teacher in the court music tradition (Badiʿi, pp. 112-13; Panāhi, pp. 206-11; Ḥosayni Dehkordi, pp. 10-13, 236-38).

Symbolism in classical taṣnif poetry resembles that of the classical ḡazal, using the same themes of the lover, beloved, wine, and springtime.  Borumand has stated that taṣnifs are based mainly on the theme of love, whether it is love for a person, for God, for music, or for the homeland.  Both Franciszek Machalski (p. 71) and Mojtaba Khoshzamir (p. 26) concur that the great majority of taṣnifs are lyrical, the rest being divided among topical, satirical, and other themes.  Ārianpur (II, p. 153) has compared the amatory taṣnif to the mystical ḡazals in its adoring emphasis on flowers, wine, beauty, and the unfaithfulness of the beloved.   Like the older taṣnifs, those of Šeydā also continue the tradition of love-oriented poetry using traditional symbols and metaphors.  The taṣnif was used as a format for writers like ʿĀref and Bahār to educate their audience politically.  They drew upon traditional poetic symbols and themes, sometimes altering them to suit their purposes, and made open propaganda in ways not at all in accordance with the tradition of veiled allusion.  Classical literature presents metaphors and abstractions in such a way that one is never sure, for example, if wine represents actual wine or serves as a symbol for something else.  In the taṣnifs this was true also.  In some taṣnifs, particularly those of ʿĀref, there also appeared more concrete images.  ʿĀref, in his political taṣnifs, left the world of veiled allusion and classical turn of phrase to address current issues and conditions directly. This directness of ʿĀref provides a contrast between the taṣnif and the ḡazal

Starting in the time of Reżā Shah Pahlavi (r. 1924-41), the composition of critical or satirical taṣnifs expressing individual views was suppressed in Iran, although Persians in other countries continued the tradition.  Types that were encouraged were nationalistic or instructional soruds and lyrical taṣnifs, although continuing experiments and influences from the music of other cultures and from the folk music tradition within Iran have changed some of the musical appearance of the taṣnif.

Since the taṣnif is a compositional form cultivated particularly by musicians associated with the court, it shares many of the characteristics both of classical poetry and of classical music, that is, the music of the radif or dastgāh system.  It has been placed, however, in a flexible category between popular and classical.  The taṣnifs that more closely approach the classical norms have become accepted by the classical musicians and included in their repertoire.  These taṣnifs can be performed separately or in groups or can be incorporated into a dastgāh performance.  Borumand has stated that the taṣnif is usually performed in a series from slow to fast; two to four taṣnifs are followed by a dancing tune (reng; Interview, 3 December 1974).

In the past, performance styles were solo-oriented and non-standardized (Tsuge, p. 194).  Traditionally speaking, the taṣnif was performed by a singer accompanied by a small ensemble, usually consisting of one or two melody instruments (e.g., tār and kamānča) and a drum (tombak or dāyera).  Although Šeydā, ʿĀref, and Amir-Jāhed all performed their own taṣnifs, only ʿĀref became known as a public performer.  Among the most famous of singers of Šeydā’s taṣnifs in former times was Jamāl Ṣafawi (Badiʿi, p. 83).  One of the earliest performers of ʿĀref’s taṣnifs was ʿAbd-Allāh Dawāmi (1891-1981).  Later singers learned taṣnifs from him with a view to preserving and reviving them.

In the 20th century, the performance of a modal system (dastgāh) evolved into a combination of improvised and non-improvised forms in the following order: piš-darāmad (preamble), čahār-meżrāb (rhythmic instrumental), āvāz (nonmetric vocal), taṣnif, and reng (Tsuge, pp. 192-95; Zonis, pp. 137-48).  With the nonmetric āvāz as the core of a dastgāh performance, metric pieces (čahār-meżrāb, żarbi, and taṣnif), which may be placed between some of the gušas (pieces) of the āvāz, add variety.  Both Gen’ichi Tsuge (p. 191) and Manoochehr Sadeghi (p. 165) have stated that the taṣnif changes the mood and creates motion and excitement that contrasts with the nonmetric rhythm of the āvāz

In 1955, Iranian radio began to present the Golhā programs (“Orkestr-e Golhā,” p. 26), aimed at illustrating the perennial thematic and aesthetic relationships between poetry and traditional music in Persian culture. A number of vocalists became identified with singing the old taṣnifs in this program.  For instance, Marżia, who began singing on the radio in 1948, rejuvenated public interest in the works of Šeydā by performing them in this program (Majalla-ye musiqi 6/3, 1957, p. 22).  Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Banān (1911-1986), a prominent vocalist who began singing for Tehran Radio in 1942 (Mallāḥ, 1/11-12, p. 9), later on started performing in the Golhā programs, particularly the taṣnifs of ʿĀref. 

The taṣnif may also be sung outside of the dastgāh format.   Choice of taṣnif and performance style may vary according to whether the singer specializes in āvāz (vocal improvisation on the gušas of the radif) or taṣnif (Caron and Safvate, pp. 159-60).  Traditionally the distinction is made that an āvāz singer is able to perform the taḥrir (melisma) and a taṣnif singer has a strong sense of rhythm and often is an accomplished tombak (goblet-shaped drum) player as well (Caron and Safvate, pp. 15-60; Ḵāleqi, I, p. 357).

The performance of a taṣnif may vary according to the individual performer, the audience, the medium of performance, and whether it is live or recorded.  A performance for an intimate gathering of aristocrats in the Qajar court differs from a re-orchestrated version of the same piece for the radio program “Golhā-ye rangārang,” first broadcast in the 1950s.  Before the development of the modern concert, the classical taṣnif was sung within the environment of the court and aristocratic circles.  Performers were hired to be part of the retinue of princes and played and sang at private parties and celebrations and picnics, and within the private quarters (andarun) of the family. 

The classical taṣnifs draw on formal elements that are found in folk, urban, popular, and classical poetry.  They are difficult to place in any one category due to their variety and the extent to which classical poetry was influenced by folk elements during the time of composition.  Persian musicians and musicologists have not known exactly where to place the taṣnif in importance or in quality or genre.  There has been a tendency to group taṣnif with tarāna and sorud into one category as “song.”  Since the quality and style of taṣnif varies, as does its melodic and poetic similarity to the radif, it is understandable that attitudes would be mixed.  Some musicians, such as Borumand, have felt that the taṣnif is an important form and that there are many taṣnifs of high quality, particularly those composed by Šeydā and ʿĀref (Caton, p. 33).

Some of the late Qajar taṣnifs form a part of the contemporary classical repertoire.  These and later taṣnifs may be sung as part of a dastgāh performance or be performed in a context of similar types of taṣnifs.  Of the classical taṣnifs, there is a consensus of those that would be included in a dastgāh performance.  These are the works of  Šeydā, ‘Āref, and other composers of classical taṣnif, particularly Amir-Jāhed.  Šeydā, ʿĀref, and Amir-Jāhed represent the ideal in taṣnif composition, since they composed both lyrics and music themselves and also performed them (ʿĀref for a public audience).  Most of these taṣnifs were composed before 1925 (the conclusion of the Qajar era). 

These standard, accepted, classical taṣnifs went through periodic revivals in popularity, underwent new arrangements, and were presented in different ways.  In the late 1970s, particularly, the classical musicians, in their efforts to reactivate traditional music, made considerable efforts to learn additional taṣnifs from old masters or from recordings in order to be able to re-present and re-record them.  The classical taṣnif continues to be an enduring part of the classical tradition and has found its place with the other composed forms that are now part of a dastgāh performance.

For a music sample, see Tasnif (balākeš) – Dastgāh šur
Tasnif-e Mobtalā



Ādāb-e āvāzhā wa ḏekrhāʾi ke dar manābar, Manuscript no. 2830/2, Malek Library, Tehran. 

Mirzā Abu’l-Qāsem ʿĀref Qazvini, Koliyāt-e Divān-e ʿĀref Qazvini, Tehran, 1968.  Yaḥyā Ārianpur, Az Ṣabā tā Nimā, 2 vols., Tehran, 1971. 

Nādera Badiʿi, Tāriḵča-i bar adabiyāt-e āhangin-e Irān, Tehran, n.d.  Moḥammad-Taqi Malek-al-Šoʿarāʾ Bahār, Divān-e ašʿār, 2 vols., Tehran, 1957.

Nelly Caron and Dariouche Safvate, Iran: Collection der l’Institut international d’études comparatives de la musique, Les Traditions musicales, Paris, 1966.

Margaret Caton, “The Classical Taṣnif: A Genre of Persian Vocal Music,” 2 vols., Ph. D. Diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1983. 

Alexander Chodzko, Specimens of the Popular Poetry of Persia: As Found in the Adventures and Improvisations of Kurroglou …, London, 1842. 

Blair Fairchild, collector, Twelve Persian Folk Songs, London, 1904. 

Hormoz Farhat, The Dastgāh Concept in Persian Music, Cambridge and New York, 1990. 

Mortażā Ḥosayni Dehkordi, Hazār āvā, Winter Park, Fl., 2008. 

M. Clément Huart, “Musique Persane,” in Albert Lavignac and Lionel de la Laurencie, eds., Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionaire de conservatoire, Paris, 1922, V, pp. 3065-83. 

Moḥammad-ʿAli Amir-Jāhed, Divān II, Tehran, 1970. 

Jong-e tarānahā wa taṣnifhā-ye Qājār, Majles-e Sanā, Index 101, MS 12838.

Ruḥ-Allāh Ḵāleqi, Sargoḏašt-e musiqi-ye Irān, 2 vols., Tehran, 1956-74. 

Yusef Ḵān-ʿAli, “Amir-Jāhed: Šāʿer-e taṣnifhā-i ke šur-e waṭan dāšt ,” Majalla-ye tamāšā 7, May 1977, pp. 22-27. 

Mojtaba Khoshzamir, “Aspects of the Persian Tasnif,” M.A. thesis, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1975.  A. Lemaire, Âvâz et tesnîf Persans, Tehran, 1900. 

Moḥammad-Reżā Loṭfi, Musiqi-e āvāzi-e Irān: Dastgāh-e Šur: Radif-e Ostād ʿAbd-Allāh Dawāmi, Gutenberg, Tehran, 1976. 

Franciszek Machalski, La Littérature de l’Iran contemporain I, Warsaw, 1965. 

Ḥosayn-ʿAli Mallāḥ, “Taṣnif čist?”  Majalla-ye musiqi-e Radio Irān, nos. 39-46, 1961 (nos. 39, pp. 5, 22; 40, p. 23; 41, pp. 19, 23; 42, p. 23; 43, pp. 19, 23; 44, p. 23; 45, p. 23; 46, p. 23). 

Saʿid Meškinqalam, Taṣnifhā, taranahā wa sorudhā-ye Irān-zamin, Tehran, 2004. 

ʿAbd-Allāh Mostawfi, Šarḥe-e zendagāni-e man: Tāriḵ-e ejtemāʿi wa edāri-e dawra-ye Qājār, 3 vols., Tehran, 1945-57; repr., Tehran, 1964. 

“Orkestr-e golhā,” Majalla-ye Rādio-Irān, no. 64, December 1961, p. 26.  “Orkestr-e šomāra 1-7 Rādio-Tehrān,” Majalla-ye muzik-e Irān 6, nos. 1-7, 9 June 1957-February 1958.

Panāhi Semnāni, Tarānahā-ye melli-e Irān: Sayr-i dar tarāna wa tarāna-sarāʾi dar Irān, Tehran, 1985. 

Resāla-ye musiqi, MS 1974: Central Library, Tehran University, 1856. 

Manoochehr Sadeghi, “Improvisation in Nonrhythmic Solo Instrumental Contemporary Persian Art Music,” M.A. thesis, California State University, Los Angeles, 1971. 

Moḥammad Ṣadr Hāšemi, Tāriḵ-e jarāʾed wa majallāt-e Irān, 4 vols., Isfahan, 1984-85. 

Dāriuš Ṣafwat, Ostādān-e musiqi-e Irān wa alḥān-e musiqi-e irāni, Tehran, 1971. 

Gen’ichi Tsuge, “Āvāz: A Study of the Rhythmic Aspects in Classical Iranian Music,” Ph.D. Diss., Wesleyan University, 1974. 

Vasilli Andreevich Zhukovskiǐ, Obraztŝy Persidskago Norodnago Tvorchestva, St. Petersburg, 1902. 

Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music, Cambridge, Mass., 1973.


(Margaret Caton)

Originally Published: March 9, 2016

Last Updated: March 9, 2016

Cite this entry:

Margaret Caton, “TAṢNIF,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/tasnif-music-term (accessed on 09 March 2016).