vinh bao

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by Nguyen Vinh Bao
Dedicated to the traditional musicians of Vietnam:
“May their Art flourish and their creativity be reborn”
The Vietnamese have produced several worthwhile books about music but these have
remained buried in the relative obscurity of the Vietnamese language.
The music of Vietnam and its history are too complex to be described briefly. True, to a large
extent, Vietnamese music was handed down from one generation to another. I am spending my
life studying music of every corner of the country, and am fortunate, however, in having some
various written and oral sources on my research.
It is hoped that the present information will prove both informative and entertaining to those who
have been attracted to Vietnamese music. The exact ethnological origin of the Vietnamese
music is not clearly known. In addition to the Chinese, Korean, Mongolian and Southeast
Asian’s influences found in archeological remnants, there seems to be something that can only
be explained as indigenously Vietnamese.
Along with Chinese literature, architecture, government, and religion, Vietnam had adopted
Chinese music models and developed music of her own. However, in the process of adaptation,
the system was likely reshaped by the Vietnamese people according to their own well
established habit.
Western music is easily understood by Westerners because it is part of their own heritage. A
large part of Vietnamese music is either incomprehensible to them or greatly oversimplified for
them by convenient stereotypes provided by only partially-informed writers, who sometimes
confuse it with that of China. Therefore, before Westerners could understand Vietnamese
music, they must first have an idea of its place in the general history of Vietnam.
Because of her geographical locations, Vietnam belongs as much to East-Asia as to South-
Asia. Moreover, Vietnam was under Chinese domination for a thousand years (from the 1st to
the 10th century). Besides, at the crossroads of peoples and civilization, Vietnam was also in
touch with the people of the ancient Indianized Kingdom of Champa (The Cham still exist in
greatly reduced number as one of the ethnic minorities in Viet Nam today).
Vietnamese music, like Vietnamese culture, is primarily East Asian rather than Southeast Asian.
Its closest affinities are to China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. This combination of influences
has produced a sophisticated and multifaceted musical culture, and it is not surprising that
Vietnamese music shares many characteristics with that of China. Among the common items
are the Pentatonic (five-tone) scale, and more than a dozen instruments, some of which are
central to the music of both cultures.
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of music is of a strictly private nature to be heard by a small audience and practiced by
professional or semi-professional people as hobby for their own enjoyment with a repertoire
which includes mainly songs accompanied by one, two or three instruments. One can enjoy the
beauty of the music and the mastery of the performers. The value of the ensemble is not in the
instrumentation, but rather lies in its use.
The “Nhac Tai Tu” is a popular and virile music which that offers great pleasure to anyone who
listens to it and who also learns what to listen for in it. By understanding some of the aesthetics
and formal principles of such music, one can develop a true respect for those Vietnamese
musicians who created it.
The Ðàn Tranh – Zither
It is difficult to tell the original character of the Vietnamese Dan Tranh, which seems quite
distinct from that of imported Chinese Zheng.
The standard length of the common Ðàn Tranh is 95 centimeters. It has 16 brass or steel strings
upheld by sixteen movable bridges (also called swallows or horses) and is tuned by means of
sixteen wooden pegs. The musician adjusts the pitch of the notes by moving these bridges in
both directions.
The said common 16-stringed Ðàn Tranh had disappeared since the appearance of those with
17, 19 and 21 strings, which were Nguyen Vinh Bao’s innovation in 1950. Nguyen Vinh Bao has
spent several years in trying to improve and perfect the Vietnamese Zither without deforming or
denaturing it.
In Vietnam, the Zither is used sparingly in most traditional music, and is the ladies’ favorite lute.
The crystal clear timbre of its metal strings, its delicate movements, and subtle execution give
the instrument its feminine character.
Traditionally, the strings are plucked with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. In recent
years, many other techniques have been added.
The Ðàn Nguyêt or Ðàn Kìm – moon shaped-lute
The sound-body of this 2 nylon-stringed lute has the shape of a full moon. Its long handle bears
8 high keys in bamboo called “phím dàn”. The traditional musician can get as many as four
notes from a single keyboard which requires a natural talent backed by at least ten years of
The ñàn BÀu or ñàn Ƕc huyŠn – the monochord
This one-stringed lute is of ancient origin. Similar ones can be found under the name Ichi-genkin
in Japan, Gopiyantra in India and Sadiou in Cambodia. The manner of playing of the
Vietnamese monochord differs completely from that of the Japanese, Indian, Cambodian
musicians. The Vietnamese musician plays harmonic sound and alters its tautness by acting
upon the buffalo horn rod with the left hand to obtain modulation far superior to that of a
Hawaiian guitar.
The Ðàn Ty`Bà –
a four nylon strings pearl-shaped lute
This lute bears the name Biwa in Japan and Pipa in China. The typical tuning of these four
strings is usually:
Strings 4 3 2 1
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In order to understand and appreciate Vietnamese music, the ear must learn to distinguish
subtle nuances.
Each mode is characterized by:
1. a modal scale
2. intervals of this scale
3. specific ornamentations
4. determined mood
5. tempo
In the Music for Diversion of the South (Nha.c Tài Tu+? Nam Bô.) there are four modes:
1. BAC MODE – cheerfulness and happiness music.
There are 6 pieces:
1. Luu thuy truong
2. Phú luc chan
3. Bình bán chan
4. Xuân tình chan
5. Tây Thi vn
6. Co ban van
2. BAC NHAC LE MODE – ceremonial, religious music.
There are 7 pieces:
1. Xàng xê
2. Ngu doi thuong
3. Ngu doi ha
4. Long ngâm
5. Long dang
6. Van giá
7. Tieu khúc
3. NAM MODE – includes 3 pieces of three characters
1. Nam xuân – (serenity and tranquility)
2. Nam ai – (grievances)
3. Ðao ngu cung – (solemnity)
4. OÁN MODE – expresses profound pain.
There are 4 pieces:
1. Tu dai oán
2. Phung cau hoàng
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3. Phung hoàng cau
4. Giang nam cuu khúc
In Western music, one octave contains 7 main notes.
Which approximately correspond to Vietnamese words:
L U U# S X C C#
But only five notes
Do ré fa sol la
are considered as vital.
Vietnamese music is the music of the Far-East countries and the pentatonic scale is most
frequently used.
Do ré fa sol la
Notice that this scale has three fixed notes:
Do ré fa
and two auxiliary notes collectively known as “changing tones”.
Ré la
In Vietnamese music, there is, however a concept of “happy” and “sad” tunings or scales which
is found in major-minor concept in the West. For the instruments, there are several tunings and
scales. There is no fixed basic pitch to which the instruments are tuned. The pitch of the HÒ
fundamental tone of the scale can take any pitch. If the HÒ takes the pitch of the DO (C), the
Vietnamese pentatonic basic scale will be as follows:
Do re fa sol la
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1 tone 1 ½ tone 1 tone
In these five notes, the fixed notes are:
Do fa sol
XU(U) (ré) (D) and CONG (C) are auxiliary notes – literally “changing tones”
These two notes are to be regulated by the requirements of the Mode, specific composition and
The XU (U) (ré) (D) can be raised to the pitch of the Mi (E) and the CONG (C) to that of the Si
It should be noted that the pitch of the XU (U#) (y) and CÔNG (C#) (oan) is slightly lower –
about 1 coma – than that of the Mi (E) and the Si (B).
The pitch of the XU (U) (y) varies between the Re # (D sharp) and Mi (E) while CÔNG (C#)
(oan) varies between the Sib (B flat) and the Si (B)…
There are several scales depending on the specific composition, genre, and tradition.
BAC MODE SCALE – Scale used for playing happy melodies.
Do re fa sol la
This scale has the same aspect as the black keys Do ré fa sol la (C D F G A) on a piano
keyboard but different in pitches.
Except for peculiar cases, instruments are tuned as desired. The idea of absolute pitch is not
taken into considerations, a fact that gives a certain impression of false notes to Westerner’s
ears which are accustomed to the absolute pitch of the tempered scale notes.
1. The Vong co (longing for the past), Ly con sao (Lament of the Blackbird) …..
L U# S X C
Do mi fa sol si
2. Nam xuân (serenity), Ðao ngu cung (solemnity)
L U S X C#
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Do ré fa sol si
3. Nam ai and Oan Mode (profound sadness)
HO XU (y) XANG XE CONG (oan)
L U# S X C#
Do mi fa sol si
As said, remember that the pitch of the Vietnamese Mi (E) and Si (B) corresponds
approximately to that of the Western Mi (E) and Si (B).
As a matter of taste, if the Vietnamese HÒ (L) of the scale takes the pitch of Ré (D), the dan
Tranh (Zither) must be tuned as follows:
4. BA(‘C MODE- happy melodies
mi sol la si
L U# S X C
Ré Fa# sol la si
D F# G A B
L U S X C#
Ré mi sol la do
7. NAM AI and OÁN mode
HÒ XU (y) XANG XÊ CÔNG (oan)
L U# S X C#
Ré Fa# sol la do
D F# G A C
HÒ XU(y) (-) XANG XÊ CÔNG (oan) (-)
L U# (-) S X C# (-)
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Ré fa sol la do
Ornamentations determine the Mode. They are the predominant feature of Vietnamese music.
In speaking of Vietnamese traditional music, one must differentiate between many other styles
from the South, the Center and the North and has a correct mastery of the meaning of the note
pitches and their ornamentations.
Vietnamese music, quite sophisticated and dense in ideas presents a real opportunity for
interpretation by a range of fine musicians. The rhythm and temp may vary, but the music
always remains within the melody. In order to bring new vitality to the melody, the traditional
musician remains free to introduce different types of variations on it according to his inspiration
at the moment. The success of his performance depends on how effectively he builds up the
desired mood. Thus, each performance of a known piece so carried out takes on a different
aspect, and this counter-balances the limitation of the repertoire. This difference is similar to that
found between Jazz music as it is written and as it is performed. Very often, Vietnamese
listeners are not listening to a composition, but to the rendering of music by such or such
Before interpreting a piece of music, the musician has the habit to play some improvisation
phrases of his own invention, in free rhythm, following an original and an unpredicted design in
the Mode of the piece.
There are no definite rules governing the prelude. The prelude allows the musician to check
again the tension of the strings, finding the inspiration for him, and creates a good atmosphere
for the listeners.
The teacher’s home is usually his studio. Here, on certain days of the week, and for specified
number of hours, he is available for lesson. The problems of lesson scheduling do not bother
the traditional teacher. It is a matter of first come, first served. This has an advantage in that the
students are never late for a lesson.Usually, the students wait in an adjoining room where they
may talk or follow the course of the piece in progress.
The lesson itself consists from twenty to thirty minutes playing the particular composition under
study that week. Neither notation systems have a definite majority. The repertoire is maintained
entirely by memory and passed down through practice. Usually, the teacher also plays, or sings
as he plays, or illustrates each note of the melody on the edge of his closed fan. When all notes
have been learned in order, the rhythm is added. The entire melody is never played beforehand
so that one does not have any idea of the overall the piece.
There are some students who do not read the notation and learn the entire piece by imitating
the teacher. The exact notation system used and the resultant melody vary from teacher to
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teacher as well in different pieces. The rote teaching method sometimes is constantly in danger
of producing automatons.
The teacher has the right to expect loyalty from his student, and the student, instinctively feels
veneration towards him, and calls him « Su Phu » The word « Su Phu » in Vietnamese has far
greater implication than the term teacher does in English.
In 1956 a National School of Music was set up in Saigon. This school chiefly teaches Western
music, but does include a traditional section where pupils are taught to play Vietnamese musical
instruments; classes of Western music are far more popular than that in which traditional music
is taught. Applications for admission to the piano courses are numerous. Applicants who fall
short of the required marks are transferred to the study of the traditional section.
In recent years, however, the influence of Western music is very strong, and is usurping the
importance role of Vietnamese traditional music.
In Vietnam as in all colonial countries, the power of the conqueror leads the colonized people to
imitate the way of living, the outlook, the artistic, and literary style introduced by the conqueror.
Vietnam is called the most Westernized country in the Orient because of legitimate contacts
with the West, some traditions are dropped, and others will change their shapes. In recent
years, however, the influence of Western music is very strong and has displaced Vietnamese
The West displays to the Vietnamese young people its flawless instruments, its accurate
notation, its varied repertoire, its orchestration, and its disciplined orchestras. In contrast, in the
traditional section young people find archaic instruments, a primitive system of notation, a
restricted repertoire, no orchestration, and a complete lack of discipline within the orchestra.
Thus, Vietnamese music often takes on the figure of a clumsy old woman for whom one can
have a certain respect, but whose company is rather boring. This inferiority complex makes it
impossible for the traditional teachers to instill a high opinion of their art into a younger
generation which is attracted for the most part by the bravura, and the scientific aspect of
Western music. It is therefore not surprising that part of young generation, through
carelessness, is neglecting their own art, an art which should be the pride of their nation. Such a
state of things is to be sorely regretted.
The fact may be explained by a number of reasons, mostly psychological, social, and political
difficulties. The study of Western music offers young people a prospect of being able to continue
their training abroad, considerable esteem and a top rung of the social ladder. In the traditional
music, musicians have difficulty in earning their living, and must have a second job if they are to
make both ends meet. They never attend an international meeting to make cultural exchanges
between East and West, to establish reciprocal relations with the traditional forms of music in
the East and the Far East. A small number of young Vietnamese remain faithful to the tradition,
but been won by Western music richness in the domain of harmony and have tried to build it in
a new orientation. This evolution takes away from traditional music its character, its originality,
and leads it towards the path of hybridizing. For example there have been traditional
instruments concerto with Western orchestra.
Vietnamese music is the most independent form. The thematic and the developmental
techniques of the Western composition are no commonly found in Vietnamese music. One must
distinguishes between a superficial understanding of both Vietnamese and Western music and
learn how to apply such principles to Vietnamese music in order to produce significant
composition. In both Vietnamese and Western music, scales are expendable and compositional
principles. To the extent that Vietnamese music attempts to imitate the Western music ideal, it
will lose its own most vital elements. In such a situation, it is doomed to eventual failure.
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As a partisan of progress, and conscious of the necessity for the traditional music to evolve, I
sincerely hope that the Vietnamese traditional music can adapt itself to the new condition of
modern life without affecting its essence. Every innovation in a tradition must be brought about
willingly, and by crafted masters of the traditional music. It is indispensable and in my opinion,
that the qualified authorities must shoulder their cultural responsibility, takes steps to perpetuate
the tradition. They must also review the position of the traditional musicians, foster musical
research, encourage the study of traditional music, and reorganize the school of music. If
Vietnamese music can maintain the interest of society, it can eventually take its rightful place in
World culture. When this happens, it could provide a better living for Vietnamese musicians, and
the young generation will no longer hesitate to devote themselves to the study of their own art.
But if the music cannot survive, it is safe to say that Vietnam, and indeed the World will have
lost one of the Greatest Musical Forms.
Carbondale, October 19, 1970
Former Prof. at Saigon National Conservatory of Music -1956-1964
Visiting Prof. at Southern Illinois University – 1970 -1972
Phone: 843.0454
Email :
The Hat Boi
is a conventionalized and symbolic art form, not at all a realistic one. The
Vietnamese Hat Boi borrowed from Chinese opera the symbolic use of scenery, the costumes,
makeup, and the gestures. Its stories remain mostly Chinese or translations of Chinese
historical tales which have a Confucian moral. Musically, in Hat Boi the percussion is the most
important element. The largest drum is the “trô’ ng chiên” (battle drum), which punctuates
declamations and accompanies songs and dances, and also leads the orchestra. The second
most important musician plays the “Kèn” (oboe or sona). The “Kèn” in Vietnamese ears “rips the
heart from your intestines”, and it is therefore also used in funeral music. The “dan Co or dan
Nhi and the dan Gao” (2 stringed-fiddle) is especially used to accompany declamations.
Percussion instruments include Gongs and Cliquettes, and sometimes also the buffalo horn and
Cymbals. Today, the Hat Boi is in a period of decline
The Hat Cai luong
– The growth of the Hat Cai luong made it necessary to have a great deal
of additional music. The Nhac Tai Tu music was not enough; so many new pieces were written,
particularly shorter selections to fit particular kinds of action. Singing is the most important
feature, as 70 % to 80 % of a performance may be devoted to songs, accompanied by
instruments such as the “dan Kim” or “dan Nguyet” (moon shaped-lute), the “dan Tranh”
(Zither), the “dan Co” or “dan Nhi” and the “dan Gao” (2 stringed-fiddle), the “dan Tam” (3 nylon
strings fretless lute), the “dan Doc huyen” or “dan Bau” (monochord). The Hat Cai luong has
increased its popularity over the years compared with the Hat Bội

Vietnam traditional music and traditional instruments

Vietnam traditional music and traditional instruments

Lullaby song, folk song, spiritual song… Gongs or Cong-Chieng, lithopone, 36 string zither… Traditional music has played an important role in the lives of the Vietnamese. Currently, music still occupies a considerable position in the spiritual lives of the Vietnamese.

Have you ever listened to “Nhac tien chien”?

Thursday, 09 October 2008 10:05

“Outside on the veranda, the autumn rain is gently falling. The somber sky is quieting, suspended clouds are scattering. Amidst the muffled wind blowing past in the autumn rain, who’s crying? who’s grieving…” are the so beautiful lyrics of a popular “Nhac tien chien” song named “Autumn Rain Drops” (or “Giot Mua Thu” in Vietnamese) by Dang The Phong, that makes us feel nostalgic…  Read more >>

About Sao Truc (Vietnamese Bamboo Flute)

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 09:45

Sao Truc, which is certainly Vietnam’s most well-known wind instrument with arch-form blowing hole, has long been attached to the cultural and spiritu… Read more >>

Chau van singing

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 02:58

Chau van ( or frequently called trau van ) is a religious form of art which combines singing and dancing and used for extolling the merits of beneficent … Read more >>

Trong Com, a traditional cylindrical drum in Vietnam

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 02:47

« How joyful to have a Tr o ng C o m; and it is an honour for those who can clap it skilfully , oohh ah bong ah bong … » , are beautiful lyrics and melody of a famous song … Read more >>

Dan Nhi, Vietnamese two-chord fiddle

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 02:07

With melodious sounds, Dan Nhi becomes indispensable one in a traditional musical orchestra to express the subtle mood of man’s soul.   Dan Nhi is a sort of… Read more >>

Ca tru singing

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 01:51

Perhaps, the most important catalyst in the development of contemporary Vietnamese folkloric performance was the appearance of the call-and-response d… Read more >>

Lithophone or Dan Da

Monday, 29 September 2008 07:09

Lithophone or Dan Da is also known as a percussion instrument made of stone. The name is applied to a specific instrument made of resonant stones that p… Read more >>

Dan Bau, monochord of Vietnam

Monday, 29 September 2008 06:53

Dan Bau is a Vietnamese monochord, a traditional one-string musical instrument.   The history… According to the « Dai Nam thuc luc tien bien », the … Read more >>

Tuong singing (Classical Opera)

Friday, 26 September 2008 03:37 – Lan Nguyen

Tuong singing is one kind of Vietnamese tragicomedy and comic opera with gestures or costume. Serving an educational purpose, it is a combination of s… Read more >>

More Articles…

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The Vietnamese music has had a rather long history. Since ancient times, the Vietnamese have had a strong inclination for music. The music for the Vietnamese people is considered to be an essential need; therefore, numerous musical instruments and genres intended for various purposes have been developed. Vietnamese people use music to express their innermost feelings, to encourage themselves while working and fighting, to educate their children in good traditions and national sentiment, to communicate with the invisible, and to sublimate their aspirations for a happy life.
The Vietnamese music has had a rather long history. Since ancient times, the Vietnamese have had a strong inclination for music. The music for the Vietnamese people is considered to be an essential need; therefore, numerous musical instruments and genres intended for various purposes have been developed. Vietnamese people use music to express their innermost feelings, to encourage themselves while working and fighting, to educate their children in good traditions and national sentiment, to communicate with the invisible, and to sublimate their aspirations for a happy life.
The simple and primitive instruments, as well as the more sophisticated ones, have been preserved to form a rich musical treasure. Numerous forms of songs and music have also been created and retained. They include lullabies, children’s songs, ritual songs, festivity songs, various work songs, courtship songs, riddle songs, melodies, and poem narration. There are also songs and music for groups, as well as for traditional theatre.
The Vietnamese traditional music is diverse due to the various genres that took shape during different periods of history. Songs of the same genre often differ very much in melody and expression from ethnicity to ethnicity. As a result, lullabies, for example, of the Kinh differ from those of the Muong.
The traditional music has played an important role in the lives of the Vietnamese. Currently, music still occupies a considerable position in the spiritual lives of the Vietnamese. Some genres of music still exist in rural areas, while others were brought to the stage to meet the demands of the population.

The principles of the Vietnamese royal music came to Vietnam under the Ho Dynasty (1400-1407). The Ho Dynasty, however, only existed for a short time, so nha nhac rapidly fell into oblivion. In 1427, Le Loi defeated the Chinese Ming invaders and liberated the country. However, nha nhac only began to develop in the reign of King Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497) and reached its peak under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). The Nha nhac is genre of scholarly music. It attracted the participation of many talented songwriters and musicians, with numerous traditional musical instruments. The nha nhac will have opportunities to preserve from now on, develop and popularize to the public, inside and outside the country.

The ca tru is fortunately being restored and is more liked by the younger generation. The research scholars have traced the origins of ca tru to areas of high culture, such as the ancient imperial capital of Thang Long (present-day Hanoi), Ha Tay,… The artists of great talent have practiced the art, including Quach Thi Ho, Thuong Huyen, Kim Dzung, etc. Some of them are now in their seventies, but a successor generation has blossomed and holds great promise.
The ca tru is where poetry and music meet. People familiar with such ancient verse as luc bat (the six eight-syllable distich) and hat doi (singing tossed back and forth between groups of young men and women), and who are capable of sympathizing with the sentiments expressed in the sound of a small drum or a two-string viol, are more likely to fully enjoy a recital of ca tru. At this time, many famous poets of past centuries were great amateurs of ca tru who wrote beautiful lines to go with its melodies. One well known instance is the poem singing the enchantment of a pilgrimage to Chua Huong (Perfume Pagoda) by Chu Manh Trinh. Coming from the lips of a ca tru singer, it has bewitched successive generations of pilgrims visiting the hills and streams of the famous pagoda complex in Ha Tay Province.
The ca tru music is most enjoyable when there is complete harmony between the words being sung, the rhythm marked by a pair of small bamboo sticks held by the singer who strikes a small block of wood or bamboo called phach, and, last but not least, the appreciation shown by a man among the audience beating a small drum at the appropriate moments.
Finally , the ca tru is a refined form of art which is paradoxically appreciated and loved by audiences of all compositions. There are those who sit in small numbers in an urban auditorium to enjoy a recital. A Ca Tru Club has been founded in Hanoi where amateurs of this musical genre, young and old, local and foreign, regularly meet to enjoy its charming melodies.

The birth place of quan ho folk songs is Bac Ninh Province. During village festivals, which are held every year, particularly in spring, young men and women gather in the yard of a communal house or pagoda, on a hill or in a rowing boat, and sing quan ho. This is a style of singing where songs alternate from group to group. The quan ho singing is a folk art of a highly collective nature. Those who sing are not entertainers, but all are part of the performance, and anyone is welcome to join.

The Hat van in essence is a cantillation where the tunes and rhythm depend on the contents of the sung text. The tunes and rhythms may be linked together into a suite, used in relation to a mythical occurrence with hints of features from modern life. The breathing of a hat van singer comes from his or her midriff to nasal cavity, which works as a resonance box and creates an effect appropriate for religious subjects, particularly when heard in an atmosphere of incense and candles. The words of the chanting must be clear enough so that all those attending the ceremony are able to understand. There are two kinds of hat van: hat tho and hat len dong.
The hat tho is the chanting accompanying an act of worship. Hat tho is slow, serious, and dignified. Variations in the music are few and contain little contrasting pitch and stress.
The hat len dong accompanies psychic dancing claiming to respond to occult powers and expressing the will and orders of some supernatural being. It may contain many variations depending on the number of verses sung, often coming to a climax or slowing down to the tempo of a meditation.
The music instrument accompanying hat van plays a very important role, in emphasizing important passages or creating contrasting effects; in any event, the music enriches the content of the chant.
The main instrument used is the dan nguyet or moon-shaped lute, accompanied by the striking of the phach (a piece of wood or bamboo), xeng (clappers), trong chau (drum) and chieng (gong) marking the rhythm. Use may also be made of the 16-stringed zither thap luc and flute sao in the recitation of certain poetry, and of the eight-sound band dan bat am in certain ceremonies.
The dress worn by hat van singers, based on the cult of the « four palaces », includes a red robe for the cult of the « heavenly palace », a yellow robe for the « underground palace », a green robe for the « musical palace » and a white robe for the “aquatic palace ». The style of the robe and the headgear is related to the rank of the supernatural being honoured in the act of worship. Over time, the style of the costume may vary but the rules about the colours have remained unchanged.
The art of hat van originated in the Red River Delta and dates back to the 16th century, later spreading to the whole country. It has also adopted the essential beauty of folk songs from the uplands and highlands of the North, Center and South.
The hat van requires both a learned and a folksy character, and it has attracted musicologists at home and abroad.

The then song is the religious music of the Tay, Nung minorities. This type of song can be considered a religious performance of Long Poems which depict a journey to the heavens to ask the Jade Emperor to settle trouble for the head of the household. The long poems consist of several chapters with different contents and lengths. The longest poem ever collected was 4,949 sentences with 35 chapters. The then song is a general performance of music, singing, dancing, and making gestures in different circumstances. In the ceremony procession, not only must the artist carry out religious activities, but the actor must also sing, play music, dance, and show gestures to demonstrate the meaning of the sentence he is singing. Sometimes the artist also performs other activities.
The music is the main element that completely penetrates the performance. Sometimes the music is accompanied with song, and at other moments the music serves as a background for dance or connecting parts of a song. The main musical instruments in a then performance are the tinh tau (a traditional stringed musical instrument resembling a guitar) and a chain of shaking instruments. Sometimes the band also has a bell. Most of Tay, Nung people, regardless of their age, sex, and religion, are fond of the then song. Some groups such as the Kinh living in the same region have also incorporated this kind of art form into their spiritual lives.

The chamber music originated from royal music at the beginning of the 19th century in the Nguyen Dynasty. It was well developed by the time of King Tu Duc. This music was popularized by the end of the 19th century, and ditties were added along with other folk songs of the Binh Tri Thien people. With this foundation, the music and songs of Hue are a combination of folk and royal music. The musical characteristics of Hue music and song have developed considerably, and musicians can play all the styles common to musical instruments, including solos, duets, trios, etc. Apart from that, there is also a pair of « Senh » and sometimes there is flute accompaniment. In the latter half of the 20th century, Hue music was professionally performed in public spaces to make a landmark out of a new traditional style of Vietnamese performance art.
The Hue music and songs bear a unique feature of characterizing the lives of people living in the central regions of Vietnam. In fact, Hue music is a combination of musical factors from various groups such as the Viet, Cham, Chinese, and others.

The ly song is one of the special folk songs of the Vietnamese people. It is sung in the northern, central and southern regions of Vietnam. These folk songs, however, are much more developed in the South. The various ly songs of the South contain different subject matters, as well as unique musical characteristics. The ly songs of the South depict the activities of production, emotions, and the thoughts of the people in their daily lives. Animals, plants, flowers, love, and marriage are also described in the ly folk songs. Some folk songs describe the common aspirations of the people or criticize disgraceful practices. The ly songs of the people in South Vietnam reflect the daily lives of the local residents. Although the songs have various styles, sorrow is the prominent characteristic described in the words of the songs. The songs are considered rather modest, simple, and mischievous.

This traditional music is held at any Khmer wedding reception in the South of Vietnam. There has been much change in the wedding customs of the Khmer, traditional wedding music has been well preserved by its people. The researchers have collected some ten ceremonial songs and folk songs which used to be sung at wedding receptions. The traditional songs sang at the wedding are expressions of the feelings and characteristics of the people’s lives in the Khmer community. Each song is equivalent to a specific rite in the wedding, such as leading the bridegroom to the bride’s house, asking for the breaking of the fence to get into the house, and the beginning of the ceremony. The ceremony incorporates the rituals of the hair cut, the pounding solution for dying teeth, the cutting of betel flowers into pieces in order to scatter them on heads of the young couple, the drawing of a sword out of its sheath, the binding of thread around the wrist, the kowtowing of the sun god, the act of entering into the wedding room, the sweeping of the wedding mat, and the greeting of parents and relatives. The reception lasts until the young couple see off their wedding guests.

The Rija festivals provide the perfect opportunity to focus on the traditional music of the Cham. Typical musical instruments include the baranung (one -sided drum), kinang (pair of drums), saranai (Cham oboe), and kanhi (two-stringed bow instrument with a tortoise shell resonator). In addition to ritual melodies, saranai tunes, and the over 50 kinang beats that accompany dances, participants can enjoy vai chai tunes characterised by a robust rhythm and an attractive performance. It brings an interesting contribution to the abundant treasure of labour-related songs of the Vietnamese.

Related Travel Sites



The Music of Vietnam
All Music Guide – Fall 2001
(Used by permission – © 2001 All Music Guide)

by Bruno Deschênes

Only since the beginning of the 1980s have we on this side of the world, started to hear appropriately about Vietnam and especially about its music. Vietnam is an intriguing country, located just south of China, and east of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The music of Vietnam has had many influences. It has been influenced by China from the north, and through the south and west by its western neighboring countries as far away as India. Moreover, Vietnam has over 60 ethnic minorities, many of which have their own music and instruments, but which also influence each other. The music of Vietnam is therefore extremely diverse and can be divided into three main regions: South, Center and North, the music of each region having its own particularities.

In the following article, a general historical overview of Vietnamese music is presented, with its most particular types of instruments, few of which are unique to Vietnam. The last section will present what characterizes Vietnamese music and its musical genres.

A Short Historical Background of Vietnamese Music

Vietnam as we know the country today started in the Xth century with its first Dynasty (968-980), the Dinh dynasty. From that century on, historians have discerned four main periods in the history of its music. Previous to the Xth century, Vietnamese history is obscure; little is known about the origins of its music. Archeological findings as well as few historical texts indicate that drums, some percussions, mouth organs, and conch, were used, but little more can be conclusively told about the origins of Vietnamese music prior to the Dinh dynasty.

The first period is from the Xth to the XIVth centuries, and combines influences from India and China. This influence is clearly shown at the base of the Van Phúc Pagoda, in the village of Phât Tich, in the province of Bac Ninh, which was built in the Xth century. At the bottom of a group of columns, we still find frescos of musicians and ensembles playing instruments. These frescos give to historians a pertinent idea of how music was performed at that time. For example, some musicians sit like Indian musicians while wearing gaiter distinctively Chinese. The Chinese k’în (seven-string zither) is played alongside a drum similar to the Indian damaru.

The second period is from the XVth to the XVIII century, the influences being predominantly Chinese. In the middle of the XVth century, the king Lý Thái Tông ordered two of his advisers to establish the music of the Court. Other advisers also participated in this work later on. To a large extent, this new music was based on the music of the Chinese Court of the time, that of the Ming Dynasty. This influence could be seen in terms of instruments, orchestras, pieces, repertoires, styles and even modes and theories, although some of the advisers made sure that it suited the Vietnamese spirit of the time. Many different styles of music were then created from this base.

The third period is from the XIXth century to the beginning of World War II. The Court imposed some new rulings on music which brought along the creation of a lot of new music and theater. With these rulings, Vietnam was able to develop an original and unique music that it could finally call its own, and which forms most of today’s musical genres and styles. At the beginning of the XXth century, a new theater was created, called « reformed » theater. Additionally, Western influences discretely started to appear. A few Western instruments made their way into use in the South: mandolin, Spanish guitar and violin.

And the fourth period started around 1945 and continues to date. Because of a strong influence of Western modernization and music, there had been a sharp decline of traditional music followed by a revival, especially since the 1980s. During this period, there has also been the development of a European style of music and, as well, composers have been writing music incorporating the Western style. As this period is still ongoing, it is difficult to generalize the current style of Vietnamese music, which is still in the process of evolution.

Vietnamese Instruments

Vietnamese music uses an unusually large number of musical instruments. I list them here and then describe a few of the most important ones.

Wind instruments
· Transverse flutes: Dich, Sáo
· Straight flute: Tiêu
· Oboe: Kèn

String Instruments
· Monochord: Dàn dôc, huyên, dàn bâu
· 16-stringed zither: dàn tranh, dàn thâp luc
· 2-stringed luths: dàn kìm, dàn nguyêt, dàn doan, dàn nhât, dàn xên
· 3-stringed luths: dàn tam, dàn dáy
· 4-stringed luth: ty-bà
· Fiddles: dàn cò, dàn nhi, dàn gáo, dàn hô

· Drums: Dai cô, Tiêu cô, trông nhac, trông com
· Wood: phách, Mõ
· Metal – bells: chuông, chung; cymbals: chap, choã; gongs: chiêng, lênh, thanh-la
· European instruments: mandolin, Spanish guitar, violin.

There are also several other wind, string, skin, wood, bamboo and metal instruments not named above, but many of which have been equally contributed by ethnic minorities.

The most typical, popular and most used Vietnamese instruments are the dàn bâu (monochord), the dàn tranh (16-string zither), the dàn nguyêt (lute in the shape of the moon), ty-bà (4-string lute) and dàn cò (2-string fiddle).

The dàn bâu is a one-string instrument that is apparently at least two thousand years old. It is unique to Vietnam. It is played with the right hand. The little finger side of the hand touches the string and applies pressure to shorten it, while a pick held by the thumb and index fingers plays the note. The left hand manipulates a handle that varies the tension on the string, creating different effects and pitches. The instrument has been modernized during the XXth century.

The dàn tranh is a 16-string zither of Chinese origin. The length can be between 98 and 110 cm. Up until the XVIth century, the strings were made of silk; since then, the great majority of instruments have been made with metal strings. It is played quite similarly to the Chinese gu zheng or the Japanese koto, with picks in the right hand which play the notes, while the left hand is used to press on the strings to create effects and change their pitches.

The Spanish guitar and the violin are mostly used in the reformed music of the South. The guitar was modified to better suit the needs of Vietnamese music. The spaces between the frets are carved deeper to allow for a change of sound by pressing on the string. There are four or five strings instead of six, and it is tuned differently (do1 fa1 do2 sol2 do3). The violin is also used and tuned as follow: do2 fa2 do3 sol3. It is played similarly to the dàn cò or the dàn gáo. The guitar and violin are used only in the South as they did not attract the interest of musicians from Central or North Vietnam.

The Music

Vietnamese music is modal, the most important mode being the pentatonic scale, among 10 typical modes. The pitches of the notes of these modes are not fixed, contrary to the Chinese traditional scale. The pitches of a mode and even melodies may vary from one region to another, from one instrument to another, or from one musician to another. Moreover, an important part of Vietnamese music is improvisation (in particular an improvised introduction to a song) and ornamentations, which vary with the styles, regions, instruments and musicians. The melodies of songs, no matter their genres (folksongs, theater, court or religious music, or others), follow the intonation of the Vietnamese language.

About musical genres, there are:

1) Court Music, called Nha Nhac, with large ensembles and dances.

2) Ritual and Religious music, which includes Buddhist ceremonies as well as shamanistic rituals.

3) Entertainment music, which includes the Hát a Dào, meaning the songs of the women singers; the music from Huê, from the Center of Vietnam; and the music of the South, which has four different styles.

4) Theater music, which is divided into three types: a) Popular theater which is called Chèo, b) Classical or Traditional Theater, called Hát Tuông or Hát Bôi, c) Reformed Theater, called Hát Cai Luong.

And finally, 5) there exist in Vietnam popular forms of music, which include folk music as well as the music of the more than 60 groups of ethnic minorities.


Nowadays, the Vietnamese government shows a strong political will to support and encourage the development, preservation and restoration of all forms of traditional music and arts. An Institute of Research on music and dance has been created. The well-known Vietnamese ethnomusicologist, Professor Trân Van Khê, has been a most influential figure in this revival. He has been teaching to young people, reopening traditional music schools and much more. Furthermore, there is strong support by the Vietnamese population to encourage the broadcasting on radio and television of traditional music, as well as for concert halls to present regular concerts. Many traditional music genres which were on the verge of extinction are now being revived. And finally, song books are published and CDs are produced, and well distributed throughout the country.

Suggested List of CDs

Those who would like to broaden their knowledge of Vietnamese music are invited to read the following book (unfortunately only in French) and booklets of the CDs listed below. Each CD booklet contains plenty of information in English. Any articles, books or CD booklets written by the extraordinary Professor Trân Van Khê are the most appropriate/informative.

Trân Van Khê, Vietnam, Tradition du Sud (Ocora, 1992)

Trân Van Khê & Nguyen Thi Hai Phuong, Viêt-Nam – Le dàn tranh, Musiques d’hier et ‘aujourd’hui ( Ocora, 1994)

Trân Van Khê, Viêt-nam, Poésie et chants (Ocora, 1994)

Pham Duc Thanh, Vietnamese Traditional Music (Oliver Sudden Productions Inc., 1999)

Khac Chi Ensemble, Moonlight in Vietnam (Henry St., 1997)

Vietnam Hát Chèo, Traditional Folk Theatre (Auvidis/Unesco, 1976)

The Music of Vietnam, Volume 1.1 ( Celestial Harmonies, 1994)

Northern Viet-Nam: Music and Songs of the inorities, ( Buda Records)

Viet Nam, Traditions of the South (1984-1996) (Unesco/Auvidis)


Trân Van Khê (1967/1996), Musique du Viet-Nam (Paris: Buchet/Chastel)


© 2002-2004 Bruno Deschênes. Tous droits réservés.
Design de Kwok Minh Tran.
Gravures japonaises de Shizuko Matsunaga.
Pour toute information ou renseignement complémentaire, veuillez contacter
Bruno Deschênes à l’adresse électronique suivante :

ou encore au 5561, rue Clark, Montréal (Québec) H2T 2V5. Tél.: (514) 277-4665.


Music of Vietnam

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Performance of Ca trù, an ancient genre of chamber music from northern Vietnam, inscribed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009

Traditional Vietnamese music is highly diverse and syncretistic, combining native and foreign influences. Throughout its history, Vietnam has been most heavily influenced by the Chinese musical tradition, as an integral part, along with Korea, Mongolia and Japan.[1] The former Indochinese kingdom of Champa also exerted some influence (albeit more minor when compared to China) on Vietnam’s traditional music.


Imperial court music

Nhã nhạc is the most popular form of imperial court music, specifically referring to the court music played from the Trần dynasty to the very last Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam, being synthesized and most highly developed by the Nguyễn emperors. Along with nhã nhạc, the imperial court of Vietnam in the 19th century also had many royal dances which still exist to this day. The theme of most of these dances is to wish the king longevity and the country wealth.

Traditional orchestra performing at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Classical music is also performed in honour of gods and scholars such as Confucius in temples. These categories are defined as Nhã Nhạc (« elegant music », ritual and ceremonial music), Đại nhạc (« great music »), and Tiểu nhạc (« small music ») that was chamber music for the entertainment of the king.[2][3][4][5][6] In Vietnamese traditional dance court dances were defined as either van vu (civil servant dance) or vo vu (military dance).[7][8][9]

Folk music

Vietnamese folk music is extremely diverse and includes dân ca, quan họ, hát chầu văn, ca trù, , and hát xẩm, among other forms.


Chèo orchestra accompanies the performance of water puppetry

Chèo is a form of generally satirical musical theatre, often encompassing dance, traditionally performed by peasants in northern Vietnam. It is usually performed outdoors by semi-amateur touring groups, stereotypically in a village square or the courtyard of a public building, although today it is also increasingly performed indoors and by professional performers.


Blind artists performing xẩm

Xẩm or Hát xẩm (Xẩm singing) is a type of Vietnamese folk music which was popular in the Northern region of Vietnam but is considered nowadays an endangered form of traditional music in Vietnam. In the dynastic time, xẩm was generally performed by blind artists who wandered from town to town and earned their living by singing in common places.

Quan họ

Quan họ (alternate singing) is popular in Hà Bắc (divided into nowadays Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang provinces) and across Vietnam; numerous variations exist, especially in the Northern provinces. Sung a cappella, quan họ is improvised and is used in courtship rituals.

Hát chầu văn

Hát chầu văn or hát văn is a spiritual form of music used to invoke spirits during ceremonies. It is highly rhythmic and trance-oriented. Before 1986, the Vietnamese government repressed hát chầu văn and other forms of religious expression. It has since been revived by musicians like Phạm Văn Tỵ.

Nhạc dân tộc cải biên

Nhạc dân tộc cải biên is a modern form of Vietnamese folk music which arose in the 1950s after the founding of the Hanoi Conservatory of Music in 1956. This development involved writing traditional music using Western musical notation, while Western elements of harmony and instrumentation were added. Nhạc dân tộc cải biên is often criticized by purists for its watered-down approach to traditional sounds.

Ca trù

Ca trù (also hát ả đào) is a popular folk music which is said to have begun with Ả Đào, a female singer who charmed the enemy with her voice. Most singers remain female, and the genre has been revived since the Communist government loosened its repression in the 1980s, when it was associated with prostitution.

Ca trù, which has many forms, is thought to have originated in the imperial palace, eventually moving predominantly into performances at communal houses for scholars and other members of the elite (this is the type of Ca trù most widely known). It can be referred to as a geisha-type of entertainment where women, trained in music and poetry, entertained rich and powerful men.

« Hò » can not be thought of as the southern style of Quan họ. It is improvisational and is typically sung as dialogue between a man and woman. Common themes include love, courtship, the countryside, etc. « Hò » is popular in Cần Thơ – Vietnam.

Ritual music

Traditional musical instruments

1940s–1980s, singer-songwriters

Songwriter Phạm Duy (1920–2013)

The Vietnam War, the consequent Fall of Saigon, and the plight of Vietnamese refugees gave rise to a collection of musical pieces that have become « classical » anthems for Vietnamese people both in Vietnam and abroad. Notable writers include Phạm Duy and Trịnh Công Sơn. Singers include Khánh Ly and Lệ Thu.[10][11][12][13]

Many of these composers, in the North, also contributed Vietnamese revolutionary songs, known as nhạc đỏ « Red Music. »

Modern music

Main article: V-pop

In Vietnam, there is no official music chart across the country or digital sale, though Vietnam Idol is reflected in « sales » of pirate CD and downloads.

Pop music

The embrace of Modern Pop music culture has increased, as each new generation of people in Vietnam has become more exposed to and influenced by westernized music along with the fashion styles of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Musical production has improved and expanded over the years as visiting performers and organizers from other countries have helped to stimulate the Vietnamese entertainment industry. Such performances include international stages like the Asia Music Festival in South Korea where popular Vietnamese singers such as Hồ Quỳnh Hương, Mỹ Tâm, Hồ Ngọc Hà, Lam Trường, and others have performed along with other singers from different Asian countries. During the recent years such as 2006 and beyond, Vietnamese pop music has tremendously improved from years past. Vietnamese music has been able to widen its reach to audiences nationally and also overseas. There are many famous underground artists such as Andree Right Hand, Big Daddy, Shadow P (all featured in a popular song called Để anh được yêu) or Lil’ Knight and countless others who have risen to fame through the Internet. In addition, there are also other singers that have gone mainstream such as M4U, Hồ Ngọc Hà, Bảo Thy, Wanbi Tuấn Anh, Khổng Tú Quỳnh, Radio Band, etc. There are also amateur singers whose songs have been hits in Vietnam such as Thùy Chi. These singers tend to view singing as a hobby, therefore not being labeled as mainstream artists. Overall, the quality of recording and the style of music videos in Vietnam has improved a lot compared to the past years due to many private productions and also overseas Vietnamese coming back to produce a combination of Western and Vietnamese music.

Rock and heavy metal

Introduced by American soldiers, Rock and Roll was popular in Saigon during the Vietnam War. This genre has developed strongly in the South and has spread out over the North region after the rise of Bức Tường in the 90s. For the last 10 years, metal has become more mainstream in Vietnam. Unlimited, Ngũ Cung, Microwave, and the Black Infinity are the current top Vietnamese metal bands in the 21st century.[citation needed]

See also


  • « Southeast Asian arts Vietnam ». Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 July 2008. p. 36.
  • Vietnam – Page 95 Audrey Seah, Charissa M. Nair – 2004 « There were three categories: dai nhac (dai nyahk) or great music, chamber music for the entertainment of the king, and ritual music- accompanying important ceremonies such as the one to ensure a good harvest. The Ly kings, in particular « 
  • International Workshop on Nhã Nhạc of Nguyễn Dynasty: Huế court music – Page 201 Huế Monuments Conservation Center, Ủy ban quốc gia Unesco của Việt Nam, Viện nghiên cứu âm nhạc (Vietnam) – 2004 « … by stricter rules. That was the rule in using « Great music » and « Small music ». Great music … »
  • Tư liệu âm nhạc cung đình Việt Nam – Page 103 Ngọc Thành Tô,ön (Mounting the Esplanade-simple version), -Dàngdàn kép (Mounting the … »
  • Asian Pacific quarterly of cultural and social affairs – Volumes 3-4 – Page 67 Cultural and Social Centre for the Asian and Pacific Region – 1971 « Đại nhạc (literally : great music) or Cd xuy Đại nhạc iW&^k.1^), composed … Tiểu nhạc (literally :small music) or // true Tiểu nhạc (UYrB%:) : small group of silk or stringed instruments and bamboo flute. Ty khanh: … Traditional Vietnamese Music 67. »
  • Vietnam Institute of Musicology Court Music « He with the profound knowledge about Vietnamese Court Music not only taught the performance skill of such repertoires as Liên hoàn, Bình bán, Tây mai, Kim tiền, Xuân phong, Long hổ, Tẩu mã extracted from Ten bản ngự (Small music); Mã vũ, Man (Great music) but introduced their origin and performance environment. »
  • International Workshop on Nhã Nhạc of Nguyễn Dynasty: Huế court music – Page 152 Huế Monuments Conservation Center, Ủy ban quốc gia Unesco của Việt Nam, Viện nghiên cứu âm nhạc (Vietnam) – 2004 « What is Dai nhac (great music) and what is Tieu nhac (small music)? On basis of terminology and canon-like document, there are some notions for our deep concern: – Nha nhac is a genre of music used by Chinese emperors in sacrifices to … »
  • Selected musical terms of non-Western cultures: a notebook-glossary – Page 132 Walter Kaufmann – 1990 « Dai nhac (Vietnam). « Great music. » Ceremonial music of Temple and Royal Palace performed by a large instrumental ensemble. The instruments of a dai nhac ensemble were: 4 ken, … »
  • Visiting Arts regional profile: Asia Pacific arts directory – Page 578 Tim Doling – 1996 « Court orchestras were also organized into nha nhac (‘elegant music’) and dai nhac (‘great music’) ensembles and court dances were defined as either van vu (civil) or vo vu (military). Confucian music and dance was presented at court until … »
  • John Shepherd Continuum encyclopedia of popular music of the world: Volumes 3–7 – 2005
  • Phạm Duy. 1975. Musics of Vietnam
  • Olsen
  1. Popular Music of Vietnam 5 Sep 2010 – Popular Music of Vietnam: The Politics of Remembering, the Economics of Forgetting by Dale A.Olsen Routledge, New York, London, 2008

External links




Page history last edited by Vu Nguyen 9 years, 2 months ago

Introduction: What is Vietnamese Music?

From the Encyclopedia of Vietnamese Music at PBwiki.  

Việt Nam is the most

easterly country in

Southeast Asia.

Vietnamese music (nhạc Việt Nam) is the body of music with its origins in Vietnam, a small country in Southeast Asia. In most cases, this refers to the music originating in the culture of the ethnic majority, the « Kinh » people (người kinh), but can also be used to address the music of any of the numerous ethnic minorities including the Montagnard/Degar, Tày, Chàm, etc.. This article will deal mostly with the music of the ethnic majority, unless otherwise specified.


Geography, History, and Influences

Although Vietnam is geographically part of Southeast Asia, ten centuries of rule by the Chinese to the north have made the culture much closer to the Sino-Japanese family (typically referred to as the « Far East ») than to its Southeast Asian neighbors. Thus, early Vietnamese musical theory was either based upon or adapted to the prevailing Chinese theory, and the majority of instruments used in the royal court were of Chinese origin. 1

Nonetheless, other influences can be seen arising from contact with the ethnic minorities, such as the Chàm or Montagnard peoples. Similarly, possibly due to interaction with the other countries of Southeast Asia or even direct contact, Vietnamese music shows signs of Indian influences, prevalent in the improvisation preludes of chamber music (known as rao in the South and dạo in the north) as well as usage of onomatopeia in drum playing. 1

Unique Features

Despite early and continuous influence by China throughout Vietnam’s growth and subsequent independence, the country’s music quickly developed a character altogether unique. Although the majority of instruments used were still Chinese in basic shape, modifications separated them from their Chinese cousins. Court music began to be more influenced by the folk music of the countryside, creating new interpretations of musical theory, and the Vietnamese people also began experimenting with creating their own instruments, developing such innovations as the đàn bầu and đàn đáy.

Major Instruments

See article: instruments

Masters Pham Duc Thanh

& Tran Van Khe on đàn bầu

& đàn tranh, respectively

Vietnamese instrumentation follows the same basic categories used in examining most musical traditions, with diversity of instruments ranging from idiophones (making sounds through the vibration of the actual instrument body), membranophones (making sounds through the vibration of a membrane), aerophones (making sounds through the vibration of a body/column of air), and chordophones (making sounds by the vibration of a string). (2)

The following is a brief listing of instruments commonly seen in the Vietnamese repertoire. Please see the Instrument Listing for a more comprehensive view. Articles for individual instruments will also have more details.


See article: idiophone

  • song loan – The song loan is a small woodblock with a hollow carved into it attached by a curved stick to a small block of wood over top. It is usually placed on the ground and the two parts are struck together by tapping the smaller block with the foot, creating a loud, sharp sound. The song loan sees the most use as a rhythmic device in genres such as nhạc tài tử, cải lương, and ca huế.
  • sinh tiền – (also sênh tiền) Each pair of sinh tiền consists of two long rectangular sticks known as lá phách. One is simply a single piece of wood with a sawtooth pattern along one edge, whereas the other is actually a clapper made of a long stick attached to a shorter stick by leather or a hinge. The longer stick lies on top and has coins loosely attached by nails or screws on the open end, whereas the middle region is lined by another notched pattern. Various sounds can be made by clapping, shaking, running the notched edges together, etc.. Sinh tiền finds its most prominent use in court music and ceremonial music.


See article: membranophone

  • trốngTrống is Vietnamese for drum, and thus refers to a wide variety of percussive instruments typically made of hollow wooden bodies (typically cylindrical) covered with a membrane on one or both ends. Examples include trống chầu, trống cơm, trống chiến, etc.


See article: aerophone

  • sáo – The term sáo is used most often to refer to the family of woodwind instruments consisting of a long cylindrical hollow body, finger holes running the length of the instrument, and a blowing hole near one end. As with western flutes, the instrument is held horizontally and air is blown across the hole rather than into it. The most popular of these instruments is sáo trúc or the bamboo flute.
  • tiêuTiêu usually refers to the family of woodwind instruments consisting of a long cylindrical hollow body, finger holes, and a blowing hole at one end. They are distinguished from sáo in that they are held vertically rather than horizontally, like western recorders. As with sáo, the instrument is often made of bamboo, although the sound is typically of a deeper timbre in comparison.
  • kènKèn can refer to a diverse number of instruments. On one hand, all of the brassy instruments used by the Kinh majority, especially in court music, would fall in this category. On the other hand, the double-reeded kèn bầu, similar to the western oboe, is not a brass instrument but is not considered a tiêu. The situation is analogous to the ambiguity of the western terms « woodwind » and « brass » for aerophonic instruments.


See article: chordophone

  • đàn bầu – (also độc huyền cầm) The đàn bầu, or monochord, is a single-stringed instrument that consists of a long wooden board with one string that runs the entire length of the instrument. The string on one end is run into the instrument to a tuning peg; on the other end, it is tied to a flexible rod coming out of the wooden body and into a soundbox made from a hollowed gourd. The player uses a plectrum in the right hand, plucking while the base of the pinky is rested on a harmonic node; the left hand pushes and pulls the rod to change the tension of the string, creating intermediate pitches and ornamentation.
  • đàn đáyĐàn đáy is a three-stringed lute with a roughly rectangular body and a uniquely long neck. The upper half of the neck plays no major role in performance except to lengthen the string, giving it a characteristic sound, while the lower half is fretted and is the region used by the player. As with most lutes, the player plucks with the right using either a plectrum or fingers, and presses the string between the frets, which are high like many other Vietnamese instruments for pitch-bending. The instrument is almost used exclusively in the context of ca trù, a northern Vietnamese traditional chamber genre.
  • đàn nguyệt – (also đàn kìm in southern Vietnam) The name of the instrument comes from the Hán Việt (Sino-Vietnamese) word for moon, nguyệt, and thus it is often called a « moon lute » in English. It roughly resembles a banjo in appearance, with a round (and thus moonlike) body and a long fingerboard. Fixed to the fingerboard are tall frets over which run two strings. The instrument is held with the right hand plucking and the left hand along the fingerboard. It is used in genres throughout Vietnam, although some of the most prominent include nhạc tài tử and hát văn.
  • đàn nhị – (also đàn cò) The Vietnamese đàn nhị or « two-string fiddle » bears a striking resemblence to similar instruments both in China and in the rest of Southeast Asia. Most accurately, the label refers to a whole class of instruments constructed with a slender shaft for a body, curved at one end and attached to a resonator box at the other. Two tuning pegs are attached at the curved end, and two strings run from the tuning pegs to the resonator box. A bow made of wood and horsehair is used to play the instrument, with the horsehair running between the two strings. The size and kind of resonator box determines the specific kind, including đàn hồ, đàn gáo, đàn cò cao/đàn cò lòn, etc..
  • đàn tranh – (also thập lục huyền cầm or đàn thập lục) The đàn tranh or « sixteen-string zither » is probably one of the most well-known of the traditional instruments, experiencing a recent resurgence especially among young Vietnamese girls. The instrument body is a long, hollowed wooden box tapered at one end. Sixteen strings, traditionally of silk, pass from the broad end towards the narrow end and are held there with individual pegs. A raised bridge for each string lies approximately at its middle. A player plucks the string with the right hand to the right of tbe bridge, while the left hand presses on the left side of the string to bend the string’s pitch and provide ornamentation.
  • đàn tỳ bà – The đàn tỳ bà or pear-shaped lute is a four-string lute with a characteristic « pear » or « tear » shape, as the English name implies. The body and neck are seamlessly integrated, as opposed to other Vietnamese lutes with smaller or shorter bodies and longer necks. The four-strings have individual tuners, two jutting out of each side of the instrument head, which is often intricately carved. The instrument is either played vertically, sitting on the performer’s lap, or in recent days, horizontally in similar fashion to a guitar. Đàn tỳ bà is most often seen in nhạc tài tử ensembles these days.

Major Genres

See Index: Genres

Traditional & Folk Music

See article: cổ nhạc, dân nhạc

Vietnamese traditional music can be separated into a few major categories, divided predominately by the way in which they are (or were) used in the people’s cultural lives. Typically, the term « traditional music » itself refers to music with a purely Vietnamese origin, but because of the ability of Vietnamese music to adapt other traditions or cultures for its own use, it can also be used to refer to newly created music with a tendency towards a traditional or folk sound. An example of this behavior might be nhạc tài tử, a southern Vietnamese chamber style that in modern days incorporates a modified western guitar with deep grooves cut between the frets, called lục huyền cầm, as a principle rhythm instrument.

The following is a brief listing of major genres with descriptions1:

  • court music – Court music of Vietnam was highly formalized based on Confucian ideals and Chinese philosophy in general, showing a tendency in the royal court to consider Chinese culture more refined and sophisticated than the native music. Nonetheless, Vietnamese court music developed in a unique manner and integrated many aspects of Vietnamese folk music as well, making even traditions imported from China definitively Vietnamese.
  • chamber music (entertainment music) – Each region (north, central, and south) had its own form of chamber or small ensemble music, drawing together the people in celebration of their cultural heritage. In the north, ca trù, a style that emphasized poetry recitation and a minimalistic percussion section, became the predominant style of the teahouses and upper class. In central Vietnam, the music of the royal court heavily influenced the singing styles there, creating ca Huế, referring to the traditional royal city, Huế. Southern Vietnam sees the tradition that has the strongest following to this day, nhạc tài tử, instrumental ensemble music heavily used in the cải lương theater tradition that continues to be popular.
  • folk songs – Folk music might be considered the music of the people, the songs being sung by the untrained ears. Despite the amateurish origins of folk music, or dân ca, each region and even village has clear and distinct sounds and embellishments. These folk songs thus tend to be categorized geographically,and are typically performed without musical accompaniment.

Modern Music

See article: tân nhạc

Modern Vietnamese music is heavily influenced and inspired by the pop culture of the West. The term tân nhạc itself means « new music, » and is indicative of a movement away from strictly traditional sounds.

Post 1975, the musical cultures of overseas Vietnamese and those remaining in Vietnam went in markedly different directions. Under the direction of the Communist government, popular music in Vietnam was high nationalistic for a time, although Vietnam’s recent economic growth has influenced its commercial music industry, which now boasts trendy stars and strong influences from international pop styles, notably Chinese and Korean.

Modern music can be broadly categorized into songs that are strictly pop, closely following the conventions of modern Western rock, pop, hiphop, etc., or the nostalgic songs known as nhạc quê hương3 (« music of the homeland »). These songs, especially popular among the older generation of overseas Vietnamese, utilize a folk sound within a modern Western framework. Such a folk sound can be emphasized in a number of ways, including the use of a regional dialect (songs such as Dem Tan Ben Ngu sung with a Huế accent), folk themes (such as harvesting grain or leaving home to get married), and traditional instruments in the arrangement.

Furthermore, many classic songs are constantly being remade or remixed in new styles 3. Therefore, popular songs from the older eras might be given various « treatments » by new composers and arrangers into dance music such as rumba, tango, cha cha, etc. New composers also experiment with R&B, hip-hop, and pop-ballad remixes.

Traditional/Modern hybrids

See article: tân cổ giao duyên

Although nhạc quê hương can be seen as a kind of hybrid musical style, the definitive meshing of traditional and popular music comes from the genre known as tân cổ giao duyen (tân meaning « modern » or « new, » cổ meaning « old » or « ancient, » and giao duyên meaning « to exchange charms or graces »).

The creation of tân cổ giao duyên can be attributed to Bẩy Bá in Sàigòn in 19643. It combines vọng cổ, the central piece of cải lương opera with popular music. Therefore, whereas a more traditional cải lương piece might begin with a folk song such as « Lý Con Sáo » before entering into the first phrase of vọng cổ, a tân cổ song would begin with a song written in a pop style, such as a pop-ballad, before transitioning into vọng cổ.


See Also

Contributors: Mạc Vũ


1. The Object of Inquiry

The aim of this essay is to examine briefly the nature and history of tân nhạc, a kind of music that has been very much at the center of Vietnamese public life from the time of its first strong emergence in the country in the late 1930s up to the present day. The syllables that make up the expression tân nhạc come from Chinese. Tân (pronounced xīn in Mandarin Chinese) means « new, » and nhạc (yuè in Mandarin) means « music. »[1] Tân nhạc, or « new music, » is characterized by its creators as music based on procedures used in the West, but the term covers a broad spectrum of styles, including many which evolved from Southeast Asian and Chinese, as well as Western, sources. Its best singers use techniques, such as off-tone quavering and microtonal adornment, that cannot be represented on a Western five-line staff, and its instruments are just as likely to be monochords (đàn bầu), vertically held Chinese violins (erhu), or bamboo flutes as they are to be cellos or saxophones. Pentatonic scales are as common in tân nhạc as diatonic scales, and the pentatonicism one encounters there is often characterized by unstable or distinctively pitched notes that one doesn’t hear in pentatonic music from other regions, such as China. Tân nhạc is frequently less wedded to binary phrase patterns—tunes made up of groups of eight, sixteen, and thirty-two measures—than either Western popular or Chinese popular music. Tân nhạc is widely accessible in live performances, CDs, audiotapes, videos, and printed scores. To procure examples in the U.S., one has only to go to any Vietnamese grocery store and pick through the display of CDs and videos inside. Hundreds of composer-lyricists and thousands of singers have devoted their careers to the production of tân nhạc.

Tân nhạc shades off into many other areas of cultural activity, such as folk music, traditional opera, spoken drama, movies, journalism, poetry, fiction, historical legend, religion, philosophy, and politics. Its significance, both as an outlet for the views and feelings of the populace and as an instrument through which those views and feelings can be influenced, is generally recognized. In the early 1970s, for example, President Thiệu of the Vietnamese Republic in South Việt Nam made it illegal to give public performances of a particular song about an extinct nationality[2] because he believed that it possessed a malign supernatural influence that might lead to the loss of the republic to the forces of the North. His thinking was in accord with the Chinese concept of wáng guó zhī yīn (vọng quốc chi âm in Vietnamese), « music that causes the downfall of a state. » Việt Nam’s Northern Communist rulers, on the other hand, were convinced that the performance of sad, sexy love songs with long, winding melodic phrases in minor tonalities (referred to as nhạc vàng, « yellow music »), would weaken the moral fiber and fighting spirit of the citizenry, and so they banned the performance and publication of such music and insisted that « happy comrade songs » (my term) be promulgated instead. People continued, however, to cultivate nhạc vàng in private settings, because this music was the true voice of the perceptions and feelings of most Vietnamese people.

Tân nhạc consists almost entirely of vocal music organized in the form of single, titled songs, or in the case of a few composers, most notably the prolific and multifaceted Phạm Duy, as cycles of songs on particular themes. Such instrumental pieces as do exist are almost all arrangements of songs, though in some cases a reasonable attempt is made to enrich the texture of an arrangement so as to give it a more instrumental character. That tân nhạc should be predominately vocal is entirely what one would expect, as the sources of tân nhạc—indigenous folk music, Vietnamese traditional opera, Western popular music, etc. were all predominantly vocal as well.

Tân nhạc songs are in general the result of the combined creativity of four people: the tune composer, the lyricist, the arranger, and the singer, though it is of course possible for two or more of these functions to be combined in a single figure. The tune composer and the lyricist are in fact usually the same person (though composers may also set existing poems to music, or rely on others for lyrics). The lyrics are thought to make an important contribution to the effect of a song, and much effort is expended on their cultivation. Most tân nhạc composers are thus poets as well as composers, and two of the most well-known, Phạm Duy and Trịnh Công Sơn, are as admired for their verbal inventions as for their melodies. As in Western popular music, the instrumental arranger is usually a person different from the tune composer, and his sensitivity, or lack of it, can have a profound influence on the artistic value of the outcome. Examples of very distinguished and very vulgar arrangements both abound in tân nhạc. Singers also are of prime importance to the artistic outcome of a performance, as the nature of their ornamentation and the way they adjust the rhythm of their delivery to the pulse of the accompaniment can greatly enhance the value of a song.[3] The people involved in the production of tân nhạc tend to approach their work in an extremely focused and serious—even a quasi-religious—manner, as if it were high art. The refinement and sensitivity to which this seriousness gives rise are often pleasing in the extreme. Audiences also tend to attribute high artistic value to various periods, genres, and composers within tân nhạc.

Thematically, the three most common types of songs in tân nhạc are (1) songs that express a cosmic yearning for a homeland that is tragically inaccessible, (2) songs that express a cosmic yearning for a love relationship that is tragically inaccessible, (3) songs that express a cosmic yearning for a beautiful time in the past that is tragically inaccessible.[4] Vietnamese listeners, one sometimes feels, are never totally content until their music is totally tragic.

In addition to the above types there are two smaller thematic categories: (4) songs that consist of morose or terrifying reflections on the human condition viewed from a cosmic perspective,[5] and (5) nhạc vui or fun music. Within this last category are three subtypes: (a) humorous songs—these typically feature rural horseplay, akin to slapstick, and borrowings from folk culture, though there are also a few humorous songs in urban settings, (b) TEAC5t or Lunar New Year songs celebrating the return of spring, and (c) party or razzle-dazzle music.[6] Tân nhạc songs that have nothing to do with any of the aforementioned categories are rare enough to be viewed as interesting exceptions.

2. Phases in the Development of Tân Nhạc

The first known piece of tân nhạc was written in 1911 by Ðoàn Quang Ðạt, a Vietnamese Catholic priest; it was called « Nửa Ðêm Mừng Chúa Ra Ðời, » or « Feelings of Gratitude in the Middle of the Night at Our Lord’s Appearance in the World. »[7] I have not yet had an opportunity to hear this piece; I am told by Vietnamese informants, however, that it is a well thought-out composition that is still performed from time to time, particularly during the Christmas season.

Tân nhạc was first produced in quantity in the years following 1936, when French popular songs, perhaps due to the advent of radio, began to exert a strong influence on Vietnamese urban culture. In the later 1930s it suddenly became fashionable for Vietnamese singers to perform French songs with Vietnamese lyrics. Contemporary French songs that were given this treatment included « Un Bateau, » « Santa Lucia, » « Guitare d’Amour, » and « Une Chanson Pour Nina. » The singers were generally stars of traditional opera who hastily acquired new sets of skills and habits so as to sing the new music. Within a year of the appearance of this phenomenon, intellectuals who were alarmed at the prospect of Việt Nam turning into a mere cultural appendage of the West began calling upon native composers to write songs in the new style, so that popular music might continue to serve as an embodiment of the national soul. Vietnamese musicians were not backward in responding to this call to action, and the result was the first great flood of creativity in this medium; it lasted from 1936 to 1945 and is now referred to as nhạc tiền chiến or « prewar music. »[8]

Many Vietnamese have such a strong emotional attachment to music of this period that in their vocabulary the phrase nhạc tiền chiến has virtually the same meaning as « good music. » It is certainly true that a remarkably high number of fine songs date from that era. This may be due to the fact that, in the late thirties and early forties, tân nhạc was not yet a widely popular medium; old people and rural people were still more comfortable with folk music and opera. Thus composers and consumers of tân nhạc in that era tended to be people with unusually finely attuned musical antennae. One result of the later popularization of tân nhạc in the fifties and subsequent decades was a flood of trashy songs, but the existence of this trash has never inhibited the production of good work, which has continued steadily to the present day.

Composers in the prewar period wrote songs of many types, including love-and-separation songs, songs expressing local patriotism, and treatments of popular legends and myths. The music tends to be delicate and introspective and to have metaphysical overtones. A prototypical prewar composer was Ðặng Thế Phong, a man from Nam Ðịnh who died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. He wrote two songs in 1940, both in natural minor modes and with unusual stanzaic structures, that have remained securely in the repertoire: « Thuyến Không Bến » (« A Boat without a Landing ») and « Giọt Mùa Thu » (« Raindrops in Autumn »). Another important figure who got his start in this era was Dương Thiệu Tước, a Hawaiian guitar virtuoso from Huế who in the late 1930s ran a musical instrument shop in Hà Nội. He wrote two songs based on folk melodies that have remained touchstones of the melisma of the central region in Việt Nam: « Ðêm Tàn Bến Ngự » (« Night Dispersing at the Boatlanding at Ngự ») and « Tiếng Xưa » (« Sounds of Former Days »). The central style favors major tonalities, long floating phrases, and a feeling of cosmic serenity, even when dealing with tragic themes. Another very fine early composer was Văn Cao, who in the tiền chiến period wrote long, ambitious pieces imbued with nature mysticism, such as « Suối Mơ » (« The Dim Spring ») and « Thiên Thai » (« The Other World »). Many often-sung songs from this period (such as « Mẹ Tôi, » « My Mother, » by Nhị Hạ and « Tình Quê, » « Feeling for One’s Native Land » by Phạm Ngữ) seem to be the only surviving examples of the work of the now-unknowable figures who wrote them.

The prewar period was followed by the French resistance period, lasting from 1945 to the defeat of the French at Ðiện Biên Phủ in 1954. In this period, patriotic tân nhạc songs became an important means of motivating students to leave their studies in the cities and join the Việt Minh forces in the countryside. Love songs became rare and expressions of patriotic and military fervor came to the fore, along with songs on the tragedies and suffering of warfare. In the first half of this period particularly, Vietnamese throughout the country were quite unanimous in their adoption of these themes; there was no division of outlook, as later appeared between the North and the South; people in all segments of society considered it their duty to join or assist the Việt Minh in ousting the French. It was during this period that the songs that later became the national anthems of the Northern and Southern regimes were written: « Tiến Quân Ca, » « Song of the Advancing Troops, » by Văn Cao became, with some adjustment of lyrics, the anthem of the socialist regime, while « Tiếng Gọi Thanh Niên, » « A Call to Youth, » by Lưu Hữu Phước became, with altered words, the anthem of the Southern republic under the title « Công Dán, » or « Citizens. »[9]

It was also in this period that Phạm Duy (b. 1921), the most prolific, varied, and influential of all the tân nhạc composers, came into his own, with a series of famous examples of resistance music produced while living in primitive Việt Minh base camps. These included such songs as « Chiến Sĩ Vô Danh » (« The Unknown Warrior ») and « Xuất Quân » (« Sending Forth the Troops »). Phạm Duy grew up in Hà Nội but came to hear and study the folk music of all the regions of Việt Nam during his years of touring the land with an opera troupe in the early 1940s. His music is too diverse in style and mood to be amenable to descriptive labeling; one can say, however, that his music very often is imbued with a strong, affirmative, optimistic spirit that one can recognize as belonging more to the composer himself than to the tân nhạc tradition as a whole. Disdaining to write music of an exclusively military or political character, Phạm Duy also wrote love songs during the resistance period, and songs in folk idioms about the suffering and sacrifices of the people in wartime. When Phạm Duy noticed in 1950 that the Việt Minh were preparing to control and channel the output of artists and intellectuals, he ran away to Hà Nội with his family and then settled with them in Sài Gòn. The Việt Minh and its successor, the present government of Việt Nam, has never forgiven Phạm Duy and continues to forbid public performances of his music, which is nevertheless known, loved, and sung by the entire population of the country. Now a resident of Orange County, California, Phạm Duy has produced a four-volume set of memoirs that is filled with information about the history of tân nhạc.[10]

The « Resistance War » era was followed by the period of internal North-South division, lasting from 1954 to 1975. The history of tân nhạc followed separate courses in the two regions during this period. Some composers who had fought or worked with the Việt Minh during the Resistance era remained in the North, while others who wished to avoid ideological control, such as Phạm Duy, settled in the South. In the north, music on themes related to ethnic or national patriotism was promulgated, while romantic and nostalgic music was strongly discouraged. Văn Cao, one of the finest composers of the prewar and resistance eras, responded to the new environment by becoming an alcoholic and lapsing into artistic inactivity. On the positive side, the Northern government gave opportunities to some musicians to study at conservatories in the USSR and Eastern-bloc countries. One Northern tân nhạc composer, Hoàng Việt, spent about eight years studying composition, theory, and orchestration in Sophia, Bulgaria, and in 1965 completed the first Vietnamese symphony. In four movements, the work was entitled « Quê Hương » (« Homeland »). The composer died in battle in 1968, before he could complete a second symphony. During the period of intensified fighting with American and ARVN forces, there came into being a type of music aimed at raising the spirits of Northern fighters in the South; this was known as nhạc Trường Sơn, after the Trường Sơn mountain range that Northern soldiers had to cross on their way to the South. Songs in this genre enjoyed considerable popularity and are still listened to in Việt Nam as a nostalgic reminder of a former era. The quality of this music is in general not high, but a number of composers who later did distinguished work (Hoàng Hiệp, Ðỗ Nhuận) were involved in its production.

The musical environment in the South during the Division era was much richer than in the North. It can be subdivided into three phases: the Ngô Ðình Diệm years (1954-1963), the mid-sixties (1963-1968), and the « American years » (1968-1975). Teahouses in which tân nhạc singers were the main attraction proliferated in the late fifties and early sixties in the South; that was in direct response to an edict of Diệm’s banning the dance halls (vũ trường) that had previously been one of the prime venues for tân nhạc. Many forms of Western popular music were introduced or adapted in this period, including jazz and such dance genres as the cha-cha, the tango, the mambo, the samba, and so on. New composers such as Hoàng Thi Thơ and Lam Phương appeared, who wrote both folk-inspired and Western pop-inspired music. Many operatic singers began doubling as tân nhạc singers. There was a flourishing tân nhạc recording industry that had begun in the late 1940s with 78-rpm recordings. A vigorous cinematic industry appeared, in which the actors and actresses were all singers and tân nhạc songs were prominently featured.[11] Phạm Duy completed the first of his song cycles, « Con Ðường Cái Quan » (« The Mandarin Road »), consisting of nineteen songs in three sections headed « Từ Miền Bắc » (« From the Northern Region »), « Qua Miền Trung » (« Crossing through the Central Region »), and « Vào Miền Nam » (« Entering the Southern Region »). Begun in Paris in 1954, it was finished in 1960 when Phạm Duy made a trip from Sài Gòn to Quảng Trị, the northernmost of the southern provinces. The idea behind it was to affirm the cultural unity of Việt Nam and protest the political division of the country into North and South.[12]

The mid-sixties were marked by the appearance of many new singers and composers, the return of the dance hall as a venue for tân nhạc performances, the beginnings of tân nhạc on TV, an increased emphasis on romance (mainly romantic loss), the efflorescence of songs about the sacrifices and sadness of soldiers (called nhạc yêu lính, « love-soldier music »), experimentation with new Western genres such as rock and roll and folk-rock, and by a certain tendency toward hedonism. Singers were much idolized and written about in the media. The listening public wanted to know every detail, especially the scandalous details, about the private lives of the singers they admired. When the singer Thái Thanh lost her voice for about a year due to a throat illness in the mid-fifties, the public followed her condition day by day and offered prayers for her recovery.[13]

During the American years in the South (1968-1975) a new generation of singers appeared who got their start entertaining American military personnel. One such singer, a tenor with the stage name of Elvis Phương, began in this period as a rock-performing Elvis Presley imitator but has since evolved into a serious and refined performer of romantic music and indigenous folk music, with no hint of rock in his style. The greater part of the singers and composers who appeared in this era escaped or emigrated from Việt Nam to the West and are still professionally active. It was in this period also that the music of Trịnh Công Sơn (1939-2001; from Huế), who began composing in the late 1950s, became widely known. Trịnh Công Sơn is widely regarded as the inventor of a new genre, nhạc phận, or « songs on the human condition, » and is celebrated as well for the anti-war songs that he wrote during the American years. Khánh Ly, a semi-hoarse contralto now residing in California, is widely regarded as the finest interpreter of his music. Trịnh Công Sơn chose to remain in Việt Nam after 1975 and was eventually able to resume his activities as a musician. His music is very popular in Việt Nam today—people throughout the country spend entire evenings singing his songs to the accompaniment of guitars, and studies of his life, thought, and music appear by the dozen in bookstores.

After the Paris Peace Conference of 1972, there was a brief period in which people of the South entertained some hope that peace might return to Việt Nam. This hope was memorably reflected in the compositions of several tân nhạc composers. Phạm Duy wrote a set of ten « Bình Ca » or « Songs of Peace » that he published together with ten « Bé Ca » or « Children’s Songs » and ten « Nữ Ca » or « Women’s Songs » under the collective title « Hoan Ca, » or « Songs of Celebration. » Nhật Ngân wrote a happy piece in a minor-key folk idiom called « Ngày Ðá Ðơm Bông » or « The Day the Rock Puts Blossoms Forth, » and Trịnh Công Sơn wrote an upbeat, breathlessly expectant song called « Ta Ðã Thấy Gì » or « What Have We Seen? » It soon became plain that war would go on, but musical life in the South nevertheless continued normally almost until the day of the fall of Sài Gòn (April 4, 1975).

The period of North-South division was followed by a period of in-country/expatriate division that began in 1975 and is still going on. Tân nhạc has naturally developed differently in the two halves of this split. Within Việt Nam there was a period of heavy government control from 1975 to 1988, followed by an era of considerably relaxed control, during which many new fashions and artists have appeared. While traditional melisma and ornamentation survive in the work of a number of composers and singers (Ngọc Sơn, Thu Hiền, Ngọc Huyền), it has become fashionable within Việt Nam to sing in a studiously tough, loud, macho manner, with little ornamentation. This style is inherently inferior to what preceded it, but some singers (Cẩm Vân, Hồng Nhung, Mỹ Linh, Trần Thu Hà) manage to use the style to advantage. Jazz singing, and much work of a boldly experimental nature, has made a strong appearance as well. Trần Tiến, currently about sixty years old, is the author of about half a dozen or so excellent and very popular songs (« Tóc Gió Thôi Bay, » « Hair No Longer Flying in the Wind »; « Sao Em Nơ Vội Lấy Chồng, » « How Can You Bear to Take a Husband Hurriedly? »), in many of which he shows a remarkable ability to compose in phrases of irregular length. An Thuyên, who sometimes writes in the central style (« Ca Dao Em Và Tôi, » « A Folk Song For You and Me »), is another strong and varied composer. A male singer, Quang Linh, has achieved tremendous popularity in spite of a relatively traditional approach to his art. A master of ornamentation, he is a consummate interpreter of songs in the central style. Another singer, Ánh Tuyết, who has a fine high soprano voice, also eschews modern pop styles but is nevertheless popular. Ngọc Sơn is a special case; a composer and singer of much exquisitely delicate music in traditional melismatic styles, he also sometimes composes and performs loud, vulgar, aggressively offensive disco music.

In the expatriate world, singers and composers have on the whole been more faithful to indigenous traditions than their counterparts within the country. Even people within Việt Nam readily admit that most of their finest singers and a good many of their best composers reside abroad. The history of tân nhạc outside of Việt Nam falls naturally into two periods. In the first, lasting from 1975 to about 1985, much energy went into the production of music expressing feelings of loss, nostalgia, or defiance provoked by the émigrés’ loss of their homeland. From the mid-eighties to the present, there has been a certain return to emotional normalcy, coupled with a great surge of creativity spurred by CD, video, and, most recently, DVD technology. Throughout the 1980s, the preferred home entertainment of most Vietnamese émigré families were videos of Chinese historical dramas produced in Hong Kong with dubbed-in Vietnamese sound tracks. Beginning in the early 1990s, however, videos of tân nhạc shows began to surpass Chinese historical dramas in popularity. These were originally simply produced, single-cassette videos without show hosts, the songs and singers being introduced merely by floating captions. They have since turned into elaborately managed multi-cassette productions with lavish stage settings and musical arrangements, often involving ballet and modern dance elements, interspersed with interviews, commentary, and comic skits. The leading company in the field is Thúy Nga Productions in Paris. Since 1984, this company has produced seventy-one editions of their main tân nhạc show series, which is called « Paris By Night. » The two MCs in this series, the novelist Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn and the lawyer Nguệyn Cao Kỳ Duyên (the daughter of General Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, former President of the Republic of Việt Nam), provide commentary that is funny, entertaining, and sometimes educational; they are welcome presences in the homes of expatriate Vietnamese people. The series is also widely watched and appreciated in Việt Nam, even though distribution of these videos is technically illegal there.

In the midst of these developments, Phạm Duy in southern California has been raising tân nhạc to new heights of seriousness and sophistication through the creation of such song-cycles as « Trường Ca Hán Mặc Tử » (« A Suite of Songs on the Poems of Hán Mặc Tử »), « Thiền Ca » (« Zen Meditation Songs »), and « Minh Hoạ Kiều » (« Illustrations of the Kiều »).[14] In 2004, at the age of eighty-two, Phạm Duy remains confident and creative and is seeking ways to mend the rift between him and the government of Việt Nam caused by his flight from the Việt Minh half a century ago. Among other highly significant figures (some now deceased) in the world of expatriate tân nhạc are Anh Bằng, Trầm Tử Thiêng, Nhật Ngân, Hoàng Thi Thơ (all residents of California), and Lam Phương (in France).

In response to economic reforms and relaxed ideological control in Việt Nam, some expatriate singers are now beginning to return to Việt Nam to pursue their careers, and it is likewise becoming more common for in-country artists to make professional visits to California and other places outside the country. These tendencies will no doubt grow stronger in the coming years.

3. Concluding Remarks

I wish to suggest in conclusion that anyone involved in the study of Việt Nam would be well advised to pay some attention to tân nhạc, for, quite apart from its considerable inherent attractiveness, it is a body of work that provides multiple avenues into Vietnamese history and culture. A knowledge of tân nhạc will enable the researcher to strike up a conversation that lasts for hours with almost any Vietnamese, and an ability to sing a few well-known songs from memory with appropriate stylistic blandishments will make him the object, in Vietnamese circles, of intense curiosity and affection.

According to a traditional Chinese account, the collection of ancient poems known as the Shijing or Book of Songs came into being when a Zhou dynasty king sent a group of officers into the countryside to make transcriptions of the songs the people were singing. The king hoped to discover by this means what the people were actually thinking and feeling. This method is still highly applicable in East Asia today.


I am grateful for a course-development grant from the Freeman Foundation that enabled me to spend a month in Vietnam and ten days in California’s Little Saigon (Orange County) in the summer of 2003. These expeditions enabled me to interview many musicians and collect a wealth of materials relating to tân nhạc.

1. Tân nhạc or xīn yuè was also a factor in Chinese culture in the twentieth century. It began there about ten years earlier than in Vietnam, but then suffered extreme forms of government suppression and control, with the result that much Chinese creative work in the new genres has had to take place in peripheral enclaves, chiefly Hong Kong and Taiwan. See Andrew F. Jones, Yellow Music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) and Nimrod Baranovitch, China’s New Voices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).return to text

2. « Hận Ðồ Bàn, » (« Regret for Ðồ Bàn ») by Xuân Tiên and Lữ Liên, lamenting the fall of the Cham capital to Vietnamese troops led by Lê Thánh Tôn in 1470.return to text

3. Aficionados place much weight on the fluency and skill with which singers adorn their lines. There was a singer with the stage name of Ánh Ngọc, popular throughout the 1950s, who had a rich baritone voice and a finely musical way of delivering a phrase, but who always sang the notes as written, with no adornment. He was said to sing in a manner that was giỏi (skillful) but not hay (interesting, artistic).return to text

4. These themes are evidently very prevalent as well in a type of Japanese popular music known as enka. See Christine R. Yano, Tears of Longing (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002).return to text

5. Examples include « Một Cõi Ði Về » (« A Region of Return ») by Trịnh Công Sơn and « Nước Mắt Mùa Thu » (« The Tears of Autumn ») by Phạm Duy.return to text

6. A number of well-known songs dealing with life in Sài Gòn belong to this subtype. An example is « Ghé Bến Sài Gòn » (« Stopping Off at the Sài Gòn Boatlanding ») by Văn Phụng.return to text

7. See « Paris By Night 56 » (video; Thúy Nga Productions, 2001); opening remarks by the master of ceremonies, Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn.return to text

8. Nguyễn Văn Thương (1919-2002) from Huế was among the very earliest figures to write tân nhạc. Beginning at age nine, he taught himself guitar and music theory by studying French books and in 1936, the year of his graduation from high school, wrote the song « Trên Sông Huương » (« On the River Huương »; 1940s Polyphone recording performed by Minh Diệu). In 1939, while stranded in Hà Nội with no means of getting home for Tết; he wrote the song « Ðêm Ðông » (« Winter Night; » early performances by the cải lương opera star Kim Thoa). This is a fine, evocative piece, still widely performed. He traveled and studied in Rumania, Russia, and Germany after 1975 and served for a time as the director of the Hà Nội music conservatory. return to text

9. The Southern national anthem is still regularly sung at public functions by Vietnamese in other countries. Another song, « Việt Nam Việt Nam, » written in the mid-sixties by Phạm Duy, enjoys the status of a second, unofficial national anthem among these groups. « Công Dân » calls upon Vietnamese to make blood sacrifices for the nation; « Việt Nam Việt Nam » calls upon Vietnamese to unite in love and build a free and democratic nation.return to text

10. Phạm Duy is also the author of Musics of Vietnam (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977), which is the best, most comprehensive account in English of indigenous musical traditions in Vietnam.return to text

11. I have collected titles of more than eighty films produced in the South before 1975. Some of these films are now being reissued in DVD form.return to text

12. The suite was published in the magazine Sáng Dội Miền Nam, edited by Võ Ðức Diên, and was performed in the Anh Vũ teahouse. The first arrangement was done by a German musician resident in Sài Gòn, Otto Soellner. See Phạm Duy, Hồi Ký, vol. III (P.D.C. Musical Productions, Midway City, California, 1991), chapter 11, 151-53, 156-58. return to text

13. This singer, the sister-in-law of Phạm Duy, supplied the voice for many Chinese singers in dubbed versions of Chinese movies and also sang in the background in the introductory sections of many other films. She currently lives in southern California and has ceased performing. return to text

14. Phạm Duy has been much assisted in the creation of these works by his son Duy Cường, a master of harmony and orchestration. « Illustrations of the Kiu » refers to Truyện Kiều (« The Tale of Kiều ») by Nguyễn Du, the national poem of the Vietnamese, written c. 1812-1820.return to text

Giáo sư TRẦN VĂN KHÊ & Nguyên Lê ngẫu hứng Jazz « CHIỀU TIỄN ĐƯA » (the 2nd time)

Giáo sư TRẦN VĂN KHÊ & Nguyên Lê ngẫu hứng Jazz « CHIỀU TIỄN ĐƯA » (the 2nd time)

Mise en ligne le 5 avr. 2011


Em đâu là Chiêu Quân
Của một thời mỹ nhân triều cống
Mà nắng hạ Sài Gòn
Chiều nay mòng mọng vàng thu

Em không là Huyền Trân
Vì hai châu Chiêm quốc
Mà sao tình Khắc Chung
Còn thổn thức mãi đến giờ?

« Cánh bằng » em khóc chiều xưa
« Khói liêu trai » chắp cánh thơ đi tìm
Tuyệt mù tưởng lạc dấu chim
Mênh mông đáy bể mò kim dại khờ!

Bỗng em về như cơn mưa
Ðổi thay sắc lá vườn thơ một chiều
Phút giây gần có bao nhiêu
Nước non còn có bao điều chưa trao

Em đi, đi thật rồi sao?
Mây tha phương lặng vẫy chào cao xanh
Em đi thân gái một mình
Cánh bay trổi sáo ly đình chiều nay…


(Video tư liệu Trần Văn Khê)

Khánh Vân quay phim