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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


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