by Roya Arab

The final scene of a film: three comic looking musicians are getting ready; we hear the violin playing the plaintive strains of Sultan Ghalbha in a garden. The female protagonist begins to sing outside as we cut to the wedding scene inside (aghd – a pre-Islamic traditional Iranian marriage ritual when the couple are wed, before the big party – arousi). The groom stops the proceedings: ‘God, this is her voice’. Saeed moves to the window and sees that indeed it is his love from whom he was separated by his family. He runs from the room as his horrified mother and jilted bride look out through the window, the mother faints at the reappearance of her son’s lost love. We then join the musicians, the singer and a child outside. The man and woman are in shock, not believing that the other is alive, Saeed is thankful for finally being reunited with his love and thanks the child, Khorsheed (sun), for bringing her to him. His love Setare tells him that Khorsheed is their child. We see his joyful surprise as we hear the most rousing version of Sultan Ghalbha. Justice has been done and the lovers are united at last.

Whenever I watch this scene my eyes fill with tears. At a recent concert I played this song in London and was greeted with a wall of voices when the audience, young and old – some not even born when the film came out in 1968 – sang along. A decade after the film’s release, as the revolution of 1979 was won by the Islamic faction, Iranian cinema was all about documentaries and historical dramas, and during the war with Iraq war films increased. There were no more sung musical numbers as the arts became sanctioned and subject to strict laws, even prohibiting the image of musicians playing instruments, until Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), when slowly the arts and music became more visible and audible, with rules loosening gradually, but always within interpretations of Islamic laws and mores.

Music has a corporeal, inexplicable and unquantifiable impact on human beings (and indeed on plants and animals to varying degrees depending on sound frequencies used). Over many millennia and at various times, religious leaders, intellectuals and policy makers have debated, tried to control and harness music’s power. There are early depictions of musicians, etched on Mesopotamian and Egyptian walls, bearing many a story as yet to be fully understood. Later in time, Plato advocated concepts of the highly restricted use of music for serving the state and Aristotle promoted more generous ideas about teaching and sharing this phenomenological art, yet with certain strictures in place, including the discouragement of professional musicianship (Weiss and Taruskin, 2008, p. 5-10). In early Christian writings music used for pleasure including at weddings and other celebrations was looked down on; instruments were shunned in churches and there were even debates about the level of ornamentation of the voice when chanting holy hymns – so that there was no detraction from godly words (Mckinnon, 1998; Pickstock, 1999). Likewise, the use of music within secular and religious contexts has been the subject of study, discourse and in some cases, prohibitive laws, within the Islamic world (Nasr, 1997; Danielson and Fisher, 2002). This ever-changing landscape of musical sonority within the Islamic world is represented vibrantly in Iran, which has been subject to abrupt political and religious vagaries over a very short period of time.

The Lor Girl, 1932
The Lor Girl, 1932

Iranian cinema has, over the past decades, garnered international attention and plaudits, leading to an increase in scholarly work on modern Iranian cinema outside Iran, including conferences and publications across Europe and North America, largely covering history, politics, identity and religion. Examples include Dabashi (2001), Tapper (2002), Sadr (2006), Nacim (2011) and Naficy’s four volumes (2011, 2012) – all with little or no mention of music in films. Meanwhile, academic articles and books have continued to be written about Iranian films within Iran by academics and practitioners since the 1960s, when intellectuals in Iran began reviewing their art forms and critically assessing disciplinary developments in literature, art, music and film. A cursory review of publications on Iranian films, including compendiums and historical overviews such as Vol I and II of Baharlou’s Daneshname Cinemaye Iran, or his Film-shenakhte Iran: Film-shenasayiye Cinemaye Iran (2005) and Jamal Omid’s two volumes on Farhang Filmhaye Cinemaye Iran (1987) or his 2008 Tarikhe Cinema-ye Iran, highlight a dearth of references to music or film composers, other than a very brief article on the Iran Chamber Society website and a chapter by Mehrabi (Mehrabi, 1991). Western academic literature likewise suffers from the lack of data available, with self -admitted generalisations (Kalinak, 2010). In correspondence with Parviz Jahed, Iranian film critic and scholar – checking that I had not missed any articles covering music in Iranian film – he recounted his own problems in locating any literature, and wrote, ‘I think the subject remains unexplored and deserves to be investigated’.

During my research in Iran during December of 2015, I was able to locate a series of books and journals and magazines with articles on the subject of music in film written by Iranian scholars over the past couple of decades. There are a series of weekly and monthly film magazines; the monthly Mahnameye Cinemaye Film has a regular piece entitled ‘One film, one song’. Academically, a wide spectrum of subjects are covered from composer biographies, to the role of music with moving images and essays on Iranian film requiring Iranian music. The Iranian publications have clearly not made it into the international literature on film music, which is reflective of the language and socio-political/economic barriers that can halt the flow of information across the academic world.

Taking an overview of the changing use of music in Iranian cinema since the growth of the Iranian film industry in the 1940s through to the modern day, it is clear that production, creation, style, dissemination and the performance of music in film, as well as its absence (as indeed in the public and private spheres), tells us something about the socio-political context of the time.

Iran’s first public cinema in 1905 was met with dismay by socially conservative sectors in Iranian society, largely showing foreign films. It was three decades before Iranian films started to be made. The first Iranian movie with a soundtrack was produced in Bombay in 1931-32 (Chelkowski, 1991, p794); Lor Girl (1932) included songs written for the film. Then, after WWII in 1948, Ali Daryabeyghi’s film The Storm of Life used ‘quasi-musical’ songs (Kashefi, 1994). Dr Kushan, an early pioneer involved with dubbing and film production, cast the distinguished vocalist Delkash as the lead female role in his film Sharmsar in 1952, which, whilst bemoaned by the conservative sectors, seemed to encourage more musical inclusion in film. Throughout the 50s the only original film score was in Farrokh Ghaffari’s 1958 film Downtown. Dabashi points to the 1950s as being a time of improvements in the ‘technical and aesthetic’ aspects in film and to progress in acting (Dabashi, 2001, p.39).

During this early phase of Iranian cinema, film music composition took a back seat, as sound technicians were employed to select Western and Iranian classical and popular compositions and music heard in other films to insert into Iranian films (Pourahmad, 2014 per voca), in what came to be known as bricolage. Otherwise it was over to popular performers such as Mahvash who sang and danced her way through many films in the 1950s; ‘even foreign films….were interrupted…to cut in a song and dance routine’ (Dabashi, 2001, p. 39). In his chapter, ‘Lording of dance and song’, Mehrabi writes about the almost illogical insertions of music into scenes, due to popular public demand (Mehrabi, 1991, p. 59-63).

Brick and Mirror
The Brick and the Mirror, 1965

By the mid-1960s one can hear an advance in music in the wonderfully composed songs in films such as Ganj-e Gharoun (Dir. Siamak Yasemi, 1965) and Sultan Ghalbha (Dir. Mohammad Ali Fardin, 1968). The 1960s was also the decade in which the New Wave of Iranian cinema delivered masterpieces such as The House is Black by Faroukhzad in 1962, Golestan’s 1965 The Brick and the Mirror and The Cow by Mehrjui in 1968. The 60s and 70s became a prolific time in Iranian cinema, which saw Film Farsi and thriller genres being supplemented with creative, poetic, and innovative films. At the start of this explorative phase in Iranian cinema, Morteza Hannane wrote an original score for Siyamak Yasamis’ Sahele Entezar (1963); this film contained a couple of songs sung by two of the female protagonists (as ever, lip-synching to professional singers), with acousmatic music in classic musical style presentation. The first non-musical film with a score was Masoud Kimiai’s 1969 Gheysar, which signified a seismic shift with music by Esfandiar Monfaredzadeh powerfully enhancing the film, allowing the music to find its own voice and texture for the first time (Pourahamad, per voca 2014). Mr Pourahmad (film and television writer and director) and many others have told me that Gheysar’s musical score heralded a new and important era in the use of music in Iranian film, after which some directors forged long term working relationships with film composers.

This productive phase of Iranian cinema was interrupted by the 1979 revolution and the rise of the Islamic Republic with its strict codes governing the use of music in society. This era heralded austere rules, which have been subject to the ebb and flow of religious and political tides – all artistic endeavours have to be vetted by institutions created to ensure that the Islamic Republic’s values are upheld. Intriguingly, changing attitudes to the expression, production and performance of music have added a further intricate layer of meaning to the use of music in the private and public domains, film included. Conversely the era encouraged and nurtured a return to classical instruments and music of Iranian and Eastern origin, which has since generated a new interest and virtuosity in this genre.

Gheysar, 1969
Gheysar, 1969

Within Iran, the Khaneh Cinema ‘House of cinema’ started working as the Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds in 1989. It serves as a professional and educational hub, offering ‘social and job security’ for all its members. Currently, there is a thriving television and film industry served by half a dozen private and public higher institutions. There is Daneshkadeye seda va sima run by the main television channel; the highly reputable state run Daneshgah Honar Tehran and Tehran University, Karname, a private film school, Soureh, a public/private university, and the private university Daneshgahe Honarhaye Namayeshi Daneshgah Azad. Between them they cover in part or whole: acting, directing, marketing, lighting, filming, make-up, scene design and editing alongside some aspects of composition for moving images within composition modules.

Since the Iranian revolution it is clear to see the part played by socio-religious modalities in the visual arts and music in Iran. Yet one cannot deny that the 1979 revolution — with all its religious, social and political limitations — has spawned an internationally acclaimed cinema, with the new wave of the Sixties seeming to blossom and an increase in women making and performing in film. Iran’s cinema seems to have developed a distinctive texture and tone (as noted widely) through circumnavigating, in spite of, and in reaction to, governmental pressures. Much like Czech cinema after the Russian invasion when the USSR enforced constraints created alternative and subtly crafted films.

It is clear to see that the arts have always been vulnerable to social and political vagaries around the world. The Middle East and North Africa have had an ever increasing struggle going on between secular and religious elements since the 1950s, perhaps in reaction to perceived western influence and interference, sadly heightened by the current tragic unrest sweeping the region.

In less than a hundred years in Iran, we have seen multiple changes in the use of film music, intensifying in pace and depth with the arrival of the Islamic Republic. It is remarkable to think that since 1979 the world of Iranian film went  from a state of flux as the Islamic faction gained ascendancy and founded organisations for establishing and enforcing religious moral codes for society, art and culture, to the establishment of the Khane Cinema (Iran’s Motion Pictures Guild) in 1989, which went on to play a key role in the government’s cultural policies during Khatami’s presidential term. By 2006 cinema was hailed ‘as key to the success of the country in the international cultural scene’ by the new spiritual leader Seyyed Ali Hussein Khamenei. This was before Khane Cinema was shut down for two years during Ahmadinejad’s presidential reign, thankfully reopened by Rouhani in 2013. That’s some rollercoaster for any creative force to survive and operate within. Music in Iranian films fills a special largely unexplored space; as Slobin puts it, this vital sphere of cultural life receives ‘scant attention compared to the intense visuality and innovative narrative style of (its) exposition’ (2008, p. 358).



Baharlou, Abbas. 2004. Daneshname Cinemaye Iran. Entesharat-e Ghatreh, Tehran.

Baharlou, Abbas. 2005. Film-shenakhte Iran: Film-shenasayiye Cinemaye Iran 1309-1357. Entesharat-e Ghatreh, Tehran.

Baharlou, Abbas. 2005. Film-shenakhte Iran: Film-shenasayiye Cinemaye Iran 1358-1372. Entesharat-e Ghatreh, Tehran.

Chelkowski, Peter. 1991. Popular Entertainment, Media and Social Change in Twentieth Century Iran in The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 7 (ed. W. B. Fisher et al). Cambridge Press, Cambridge.

Dabashi, Hamid. 2001. Close up, Iranian Cinema: Past Present and Future. Verso Books, New York.

Danielson, Virginia and Fisher, Alexander J. 2002. History of Scholarship: Narratives of Middle Eastern Music History, in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 6: The Middle East, ed. V. Routledge New York.

Elton. L. Daniel and Ali Akbar Mahdi. 2006. Culture and Customs of Iran. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut & London. House of cinema 2015. Accessed 11/11/2015.

Jahed, Parviz. 2015. Email correspondence 25/03/2015.

Jahed, Parviz. 2013. Bargozide-ye Gharn Mooseghi-ye Film. Entesharat-e Negah, Tehran.

Jahed, Parviz. 2012. Directory of World Cinema: Iran. Intellect, Bristol.

Jamal, Omid. 2008. Tarikhe Cinema-ye Iran, Entesharat-e Negah, Tehran.

Jamal, Omid. 1987. Farhang-e Film-ha-ye Cinema-ye Iran (1309-1365) (2 volumes). Entesharat-e Negah, Tehran.

Kalinak, K. 2010. Film Music: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Kashefi, Saeed. 1994. Film Music in Iranian cinema. Iran Chamber Society. . Accessed 1/11/ 2015.

Mckinnon, J. 1998. The Meaning of the Patristic Polemic Against Musical Instruments in Variorum Collected Studies: CS609, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, GB and USA.

Mehrabi, Massoud, 1991. Haakemat-e Raghs va Avaz in Tarikhe Cinemaye Iran. Entesharat Mehrabi, Tehran.

Nacim, Pak Shiraz. 2011. Shi’i Islam in Iranian cinema: religion and spirituality in film. I.B. Tauris, London & New York.

Naficy, Hamid. 2011 and 2012. A Social History of Iranian Cinema (4 Volumes). Duke University Press, USA, Durham and London.

Nasr, S.H. 1997. Islam and Music: The legal and spiritual dimensions in ‘Enchanting Powers: Music of the world’s religions’ (ed. L.E Sullivan). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Centre for the Study of World Religions.

Pickstock, C. 1999 Soul, City and Cosmos after Augustine in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. (ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward). Routledge. (p243—277).

Poorahmad, Kiumars. 2014. Personal conversation in Tehran, Iran.

Sadr, H.R. 2006. Iranian Cinema: A Political History. I.B. Taurus, London and New York.

Slobin, M. 2008. Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Wesleyan University Press. (p358)

Sultan Ghalbha, final scene:

Tapper, Richard. (ed). 2002. New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity. I.B Tauris, London and New York.

Weiss, P. and Taruskin, R. 2008. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Thomson/Schirmer, Australia.


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Roya Arab is a musician, archaeologist, cultural curator and consultant. Currently Honorary Research Assistant at the IoA at UCL researching the disappearance of heritage in the MENA region, whilst promoting the region’s culture. She is also a PhD candidate at City University studying music in Iranian film.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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One thought on “The changing use of music in Iranian films reflects a complex culture in flux

  1. Fascinating article. as a Nigerian, music has informed all aspects of my life as it is integral to the culture. Although music has never been officially censored in Nigeria, it has been used by both politics and religion to influence peoples behaviour and choices, so reading about its use in Iranian cinema and culture is really edifying. I have never, to my shame, seen an Iranian movie, but I certainly will seek some out now!


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