Women in Iran’s music scene

The effects of sexism in Iran’s music scene through the eyes of female Iranian musicians

At first glance, segregation and gender discrimination in the music scene, as a human – cultural and social phenomena that affects the entire society, might seem a non-important and imaginary issue. Throughout the entire history of human evolution, music has flowed as an identity, cultural and evolutionary phenomenon, with the participation of all members of any given society, regardless of age, gender and social status. Collected evidence of various musical products throughout history of mankind acknowledge the equal participation of both men and women in music.

Nowadays, women make up a considerable proportion of the scholars in Iran in a variety of arenas, like art schools, universities and private institutions. Women study in a variety of fields, like performance, musicology, pedagogy and composition.

The stage after studying, learning and graduation is but entering the job market. We need to see whether this gender inclusivity and strong presence of women continues into the professional scene or not. Unfortunately, our lived experiences and evidence is indicative of the deep impact of sexist cliches on the music job market and women’s involvement in it. In such an atmosphere, women do not easily enter the job market and have to suffer numerous gender discriminations in various ways, on different levels. These dimensions can be categorised as official and nonofficial (obvious and concealed/covert). In the official dimension, there are restrictions on the participation of female musicians in the cultural scene of Iran. These restrictions also affect male musicians to some extent, but the threshold of restrictions is different for men and women. Evidence shows that covert restrictions and discriminations can have an even more destructive impact on the climate of music in society.

To gauge these discriminations, and learn about their prevalence and impact, I had a chat with a number of young female musicians. To protect the personal and professional privacy of the interviewees, I have omitted their names.

One interviewee, who plays an instrument as a complementary occupation, says of the discriminations:

“From a broader perspective, everyone is paying for the restrictions on music. However, due to the general patriarchal structure of the society, as in many other fields, women naturally pay more dearly.”

Another interviewee says:

“Since I am a practitioner of Iranian music, working in Iran could be much better in financial terms, […] but the truth is that as a female soloist, I could not go on stage by myself in Iran because I play and I sing. This was not possible in Iran. Also, I only came to experience unrestrained and stress-free improvisation outside of Iran. I can say this has been one of the most important experiences in my life, which has also transformed my playing and my music.”

Another female musician living in Tehran, active in Iranian Music, says of her experiences of official performances:

“In my performances, I was constantly worried about the admonitions. In two or three instances, the performances at the university were cancelled and I had a hunch it had to do with my gender.”

Another female instrumentalist believes the following about the atmosphere of performance in Iran:

“We need to be fair. In classical music, there are many female instrumentalists and they do have a strong presence in orchestras; compared to men their numbers might be fewer and their position with regard to orchestra different: for instance, I have never seen a girl become the concertmaster or conductor in an orchestra, but women do participate.”

Although the unofficial and unseen dimension of gender discriminations are to some extent influenced by legal restrictions, they are not limited to it. Such discriminations have a silent, but palpable presence in several layers of Iran’ music community; discriminations that are carried out, knowingly or unknowingly, against female musicians.

A classical and pop musician writes: “In orchestral music, participation of women is inevitable, you cannot, easily, put together a male-only orchestra. But pop music is a different story. Those involved in the pop music scene regard female singers and players as props on the stage. When a female musician joins their orchestra, it is important to them how she looks, the way she dresses, and even her figure counts. But when these same people want to record an album, they (even the professional ones) forget all about the female players. If you take a look at studio recordings, most players are male; this has a higher pay and is more prestigious, both usually harvested by men.”

And another interviewee believes the following about these discriminations:

“These gender discriminations are aggravated by our male colleagues. How? With their silence and passivity, with their apathy. When your colleague – despite being aware of your skills as a player – chooses to work with another, male, colleague; or when women are not given permission to perform in concerts, and the male colleagues do not object or register a reaction and carry on without their female colleagues. All this is discouraging.”

A female player of rock and jazz music says of her personal experiences with discrimination and sexism of some male colleagues:

“There has been occasions when I joined a music group, and then was set aside, apparently, for no reason. Sometimes people have expectations beyond work relations and this affects the work; women might even have to give in to non-professional requests. I have other friends who have also had such experiences. This is in no way impressive and is very discouraging for me. So, I rarely approach team work.”

An interviewee has this to say of her experiences as a student and after graduation:

“The majority of female entries to our courses at university were more experienced in terms of music. They thrived in their studies. But it is interesting that, out of all those girls, very few entered the market as performing musicians in Iran, while most of the boys did: some even became university lecturers, while the total number of the girls who ended up being a lecturer, of the entire number of entrants, is less than five.”

A female music instructor says:

“I kept hearing from the male colleagues that the girls are not willing to put in the work and they lag behind in technique and capability. This attitude discouraged me and affected my self-esteem. As a result, I, gradually, let go of my work as a player and performer and focused on teaching music instead.”

This article has only dealt with some of the important issues raised in the interviews, and the difficulties, especially for women, in Iran’s current music scene, and reflects a fraction of the daily concerns of the female musicians. Of course, the passage of time, developments in learning and the attitude of the new generation will have an impact. Through engagement with the global music scene, it is possible that the new generation can (or already have) put some of these culture specific restrictions and discriminations behind them. However, for the total eradication of such discriminations, there is a need for deeper probing into the underlying cultural predispositions and closer attention of all strata of the society, regardless of their gender.

Originally published on Underline Magazine.


Musical Identity Crisis of the Confused Generation in Iran

In the past decades Iran has gone through several social, cultural and ethical changes including constant changes in the policies regarding music production, education and performance. Aida Khorsandi is a musician and music instructor who considers herself as belonging to a confused generation of young Iranians. She tells us about the effects of Iran’s social changes on her generation and the status of popular music in Iran.


Cultural factors are influential in different stages of identity formation. Regarding the advent of technology and ease of access to music and production, music—as an art and a cultural factor—has become highly influential in people’s individual and private life, and their identity-related development and social life. Recently many studies have explained the function of music in everyday life and mood regulation, but the study of music from socio-psychological approach is not very well-developed yet. Based on previous studies, musical taste and identity is dependent on various factors which are most affected during adolescence and youth. As studies suggest individual’s musical preference (taste) forms between the ages of 11 and 22. The family’s musical background, prior musical education, peer-group musical preferences, society’s norms and also personality characteristics influence the formation of musical preferences and identities.

Explanations of the influential factors in the formation of musical identity are numerous and this article is not the place for it. There are detailed accounts out there explaining them. This article aims to propose one of the Iranian society’s issues related to music, which has been criticised by sociologists, musicians, and musicologists: the musical preferences and identity crisis of the younger generation. This generation was born during the mid-70s to mid-90s and I will call it the ‘confused generation’. One would argue that the numerous criticisms of the musical taste, identity and education of Iranian youngsters might be justified, even though the confused generation shouldn’t take all the blame. This crisis can be due to inappropriate policies, problems and barriers in music production, education and performance.

Nowadays popular music plays a crucial role in the construction of a society’s identity. This is because of the development of the media and modern communication methods in 20th Century. Although the impact of popular music might not seem appealing to music educators and professionals, there is no escape from the great influence of the media, commercials and investments. Thus popular music has huge cultural and commercial functionality and benefits and it has a pervasive role in youth cultural identity construction.

Back to the main topic, the mentioned generation in Iran spent their childhood and adolescence in a time that the policies regarding music production, education and performance were changing and uncertain, and were undergoing different social and political streams. If we put musicians and enthusiastic families aside, we see children and adolescents that were confused about their cultural identity. This generation had experienced many changes in society, cultural and ethical uncertainties and paradoxes during their adolescence and youth. They had little access to cultural and, especially, musical products and this limited access was not only because of a lack of resources but also the restrictive policies. In the absence of popular music production, no proper musical material existed that played an iconic role in the formation of young generation’s taste.

The alternative resource for this generation was older popular music that belonged to their parents’ generation. This music consisted of concepts, concerns, stories and nostalgia of an older generation, who had lived their youth in a different time with a different political and social system. Some of those concepts were different and dissimilar to the present day’s concerns and issues. As a consequence this retro identity construction resulted in the emergence of a retrograde musical and emotional identity. The confused generation took refuge in their parents’ fears and ideas. The lyrics and literature in the older popular music was also retrograde. The confused generation yearned for anything musical; any type of unknown music became attractive, even if it didn’t fit the present day realities. In addition to that and because of the same restrictions, music education was also being ignored and neglected. Even though music education was accessible privately, it was not accessible and pervasive enough for most people. Thus it could not fulfil the needs of the confused generation. When music became more accessible (because of the access to the Internet), the confused generation desperately approached the resource, yearning for something new, regardless of its quality and neglecting its consistency.

A ‘Musicless’ generation immerses itself into any type of music and hangs onto an insufficient out-of-tune popular music. Confused and needy for a collective identity, forming its identity with retrograde popular music, this generation doesn’t know music. High quality preferences cannot be expected from an uneducated and confused generation. The Musicless generation is not capable of evaluating the badly produced music. It has been poorly nurtured, and it has immersed itself in anything called ‘music’, regardless of its generation’s concerns and needs.

Originally published on Underline Magazine 

Infants and the musical beat

If you are living in a big family, or you just adore children, you might have noticed some of these phenomena:

• Infants pay attention to the music on TV.

• Everybody talk to infants like a Soprano Opera Singer, in a high pitch and with exaggerated expressions.

• Infants attentively react to these types of communication and look very interested

• If the infant senses aggression in the tone, they might start to cry. Some may even respond with a disapproving outcry.

• If held close to the sound of music or that of somebody singing, the infant starts to actually ‘dance’!


Parents might have noticed and experienced all of these reactions and assumed that their child was very talented and smart. This is correct in some ways and wrong in others: the ability to communicate and respond to the environment shows that the infant is probably healthy and possesses an appropriate level of comprehension and understanding. But the assumption that the infant, who reacts and dances to the music, has talent in music is a myth. Why? The answer is as follows.

In the mother’s womb, in addition to the chemicals and food from her body, a foetus receives stimuli from the outside environment. The physical stimuli that the infant receives are movement and sound. They feel the movement, and move themselves, and they ‘hear’ voices from inside and outside of the mother’s body— the heartbeat and the mother’s voice from inside (due to the vibrations of her speech within her body), and environmental sounds and other people’s voices from the outside world. Sound is an infant’s only non-chemical connection to the outside world. Vision and tactile senses appear after birth. Therefore, infants show significant reactions to sound: they move their head to find the source of sound; they react to their mother’s voice and every sudden sound. The auditory sense is normally more sensitive in infants than adults and they can hear a wider range of frequencies. Although this ability decays as they become older.

Infants react to music. Some types of music can make them cry and with some they start to move and enjoy themselves. What is the process? Has the infant actually learned to dance during 9-10 months or a year or is it because they receive social rewards and encouragement when dancing to music?

Indeed, to move to music is a human instinct. Although social rewards and encouragement do have influence on an infants’ reaction to the beat of music, it is not the primary reason for them to move and tap to the beat. A study* which investigated this phenomenon can be summarised as follows:

Infants between 5 to 24 months and from two different nationalities were chosen to take part in an experiment along with their parents. The infants were sat on their parent’s laps to avoid separation anxiety and also for them to move the detectable parts of their body (e.g. hands, upper body) so the researchers would be able to track the infant’s movements accurately. The parents were wearing headphones so that they were prevented from hearing the music and avoid any possible unconscious tapping and moving to the music. The infants were exposed to excerpts of classical music, children’s music, rhythmic patterns and also two types of speech: normal adult speech and infant-directed speech.

The results showed that infants detect the beat in music and move to the regular beat of the music. Although the complexity of rhythmic changes and also the speed can influence their reactions, they do it without any help or actual learning. In addition, it was suggested that the infants’ attention and reaction to music was higher than that to mere speech (even their own parents’ speech). Indeed, the infants dancing to the beat is related to a human’s innate ability of entrainment, in which we ‘sync’ our movements with others. To understand this ability, imagine being at a rock concert; is it only the music forcing you to move or is it also the flow of the crowd? You can detect entrainment in rituals as well. If you have taken part in the Shiite Moharram ritual, you will have noticed that people, tapping on their heart, is a form of entrainment, it is formed by the beat and the synchronisation is extraordinary. This example can also be seen in Kurdish ritual dances, in which very large crowds dance around a circle, people are in sync with the music and most importantly with each other, and this is rooted in the instinctive synchronisation with the environment, they have never been taught how to do this.

* Zentner, M., & Eerola, T. (2010). Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(13), 5768-5773.

This article is originally published on Underline Magazine

What do we think of music education?

To this day, music education is not a mandatory part of the educational curricula in schools around the world. However, it differs from one country to another; it has a more active role in the European education system where children can ‘choose’ to learn and play music if they wish to. Music professionals and teachers around the world are trying to justify the necessity of including music lessons in school programs, like other mandatory fields such as geography, mathematics, literature and history. This might seem merely in favour of musicians. But even if it is, it is based on scientific studies and educational demands. Considering the advent of technology in recent years, there has been a massive breakthrough in studying and analysing human’s brain and the mechanisms of limbic and cognitive systems. Psychological studies with the help of recent discoveries have investigated and demonstrated the importance and benefits of music and music learning in cognitive and emotional development.

Learning and playing music is not a one-dimensional activity for the body and mind and it does not solely happen in auditory organs and brain parts. Music is a multi-dimensional process for body and mind in all the aspects of listening, learning and playing. During musical processes different parts of the brain and body are involved,  such as limbic, sensory and emotional parts and organs. Engaged in learning and playing music, the visual and limbic organs and different brain parts work alongside the auditory organs.


The subject of music-related processes of body and mind goes further from the present discussion. This article explores people’s and parents’ expectations and views on their children’s music education. What happens if music is included as a mandatory lesson in schools, what should parents expect as the result of this type of education?

In recent years in Iran, extra-curricular music lessons have been greeted and welcomed by upper and middle class parents. Parents consider music learning as a valued activity, they seek teachers and music institutes and spend on musical instruments and consequently expect to ‘see’ results and achievements. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with parents expecting results from their investment on their children. The unrealistic view is to expect all children to become ‘professional musicians’ after attending music lessons: to be able to perform and play popular and well-known songs. This expectation often is far from reality.

To clarify the problem here, I have to bring some examples: children learn mathematics at school for years, is it the case that all parents expect their children to become mathematicians? Or a historian as a result of studying history, or an author as a result of studying literature? The answer is probably no. Learning mathematics, history, literature, arts and other fields has a very different objective: to achieve the necessary abilities and knowledge (or at least the important ones) to survive and communicate and live in the world. And to be informed about one’s own and others’ culture. Even in the long run, children will choose different jobs and professions, sometimes irrelevant to their childhood talents and education. It is definitely not the case that every talented child in mathematics ‘will’ become a mathematician!

It is the case about music as well; the goal of music lessons (once a week for an hour!) is ‘not’ to become a professional musician. Music education in the first place should be considered as an educational tool for improving motor and mental skills and nurturing children with culture and arts. To perform music cannot be the ultimate goal for learning music, and children with different backgrounds, abilities and potentials should not be expected to fulfil the unrealistic goal of becoming a perfect performer. Finally music as an ancient and evolutionary phenomenon cannot be reduced to just another form of performing art.

Nowadays in Iran parents evaluate the quality of their children’s music lessons and learning based on their musical performances. This is when this quality can be evaluated with ways other than mere performance abilities. The improvement of children’s mental and motor skills, their ability to sync their movements in playing, being focused, attentive and accurate, as well as memory improvement could be some of the results which parents can look for. These musical skills are somehow similar to the skills one can obtain from sports—synced mental and physical actions and reactions. In music learning and playing children learn to sync their visual and auditory processes consciously and attentively. They learn harmony and synchronisation and anticipation of the resulted sound. Last but not least, music is a human and cultural phenomenon, which transcends culture and promotes cooperation. During the process of learning and playing music, children learn to cooperate, empathise and synchronise themselves with others. They learn to express their feelings through a non-verbal medium and to understand other feelings in the same way. Music can be effective in children’s creativity as well as narrative abilities. It might be better if we—especially parents—reconsider the music learning’s ‘how’ and ‘why’. We should realise that music is far more than playing an instrument, it is about evolution and survival, and it is an effective tool to improve and develop our children’s perception and cognition, and to teach them tolerance and empathy.

Originally published on Underline Magazine:
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