Vietnamese Institute of Musicology Website - How to bring Vietnamese traditional music to the world

How to bring Vietnamese traditional music to the world


During the time he lived abroad, Prof. Trần Văn Khê always visited the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology whenever he came to Vietnam. He often brought us gifts, such as foreign-published books in music research, some small sound recorders, and intimate and open talks on many different themes, namely fieldwork methods, post-fieldwork procedures, means of music dissemination and Vietnamese traditional music analysis.

With his wide knowledge, inspirational voice, refined skill of playing instruments, extensive fieldwork experiences, and especially a profound love for traditional music, Prof. Trần Văn Khê transformed complicated matters of musicological research and ethnomusicology into simple and comprehensible concepts. I never heard him use western musical theories and complex analysis to expose the texture, beauty and uniqueness of Vietnamese traditional music[1], but he used purely musical terms of Vietnamese traditional music about the mode, voice, meter, cadence, ém hơi (taking the compressed breath from pharynx, not from chest), đổ hột (similar to tremolo), vibrato and the singing style of nhặt (fast), khoan (slow) to explain the texture of this kind of music.

Among many conversations with Prof. Trần Văn Khê, I was most deeply impressed by his talk at the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology in 2000 when the Institute was still located in No. 32 Nguyễn Thái Học Str., Hanoi. That talk actually became a precious lesson for me.

The conversation happened at the Institute’s humble studio in the very first years of the Country Reformation campaign. At that time, the Vietnamese government provided the Institute with some modern sound recording apparatuses, and the Japanese government offered sync instruments for fieldwork. The Institute was assigned to do research and disseminate Vietnamese traditional music worldwide.

To get the mission accomplished, I held discussions with the staff of the Institute, and together we came up with many different measures, such as producing music tapes and discs, making art performances, and building up the Database of Vietnamese traditional music and publishing music researches. Those measures would probably contribute to the effective dissemination of Vietnamese traditional music.

We strongly believed that many traditional music forms were still in existence because they are national art masterpieces and people of other nations easily understand and have interest in them. That unrealistic thought was immediately corrected by Prof. Trần’s talk. He also helped us with more dialectic insight of the measures to circulate Vietnamese traditional music worldwide.

We would like to share the talk with Prof. Trần Văn Khê to readers through this narration[2].

Starting the conversation, Prof. Trần said:

Today I feel so great visiting the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology. I remember the last time I came here: the Institute did not possess this great property and apparatuses. Magnetic tapes lay under a bed and images were displayed under no arrangement. This visit, I am glad that there are more modern machines and staff working in the area of musical instrument exhibition. Everyone is actively collecting, recording, and doing many other things. It seems to be the revival of the things that I thought were all gone; now I catch them again. I personally think that if some foreign guests come to visit the Institute, you can let them see what we have with no hesitation for fear of losing face because you are applying the collecting and preservation method accurately. Your apparatuses are not exceptionally excellent but modern enough to do good work, and that makes me really happy"[3].

After giving sincere compliments, he talked about our unrealistic thought:

That the world falls in love with Vietnamese music is not true. There is a very large number of traditional music forms in the world. Vietnamese traditional music is only one of the not-yet-known forms to westerners. Now we show it to them. If they can understand it, they would stay to hear, and if they don’t find it interesting, they would surely leave.

“You asked me: How do westerners perceive Vietnamese traditional music? How do they think about it, and why do they love it? Which characteristics of Vietnamese traditional music do they love most?

“Let me tell you that westerners initially did not know Vietnamese music then they come to it for curiosity. They often asked me to show what were the similarities and differences between Vietnamese and western music. I explained that Vietnamese music had been composed in the active and open texture, meanwhile western music had followed the stable and closed texture. I must show them the differences so that they could step into an unfamiliar musical system in which the sound moves, and it moves upon Vietnamese style. They would desire to learn about Vietnamese music and see new interesting things including the diversity reflected in not one or two but many variations of voice.

“For example: I let them listen to Hát Bội and tell them what is láy rúc, láy nhún, láy đắp bờ and láy sa hầm (styles of trillo). Actually, our instrumental language is very mutable. Gradually, foreigners understand and like it ".

After giving theoretical explanations, Prof. Trần told the stories about his lectures and performances of Vietnamese traditional music in some other countries. The stories are also lessons of methods to disseminate Vietnamese traditional music to the world. Each story is on a particular theme and brings a measure to make foreigners curious about Vietnamese music, want to learn about it and listen to it.

The first story: In Persia (Iran) 

 “When I attended Vaudeville Shiraz in 1967, the Organizing Committee had no idea about Vietnamese, Japanese and Indian music. Their Persian music is the only form they knew. I was given fifteen minutes to perform and the same duration was provided to the Japanese representative (Ms. Kishibe) and the Indian artist (Ms. Sharan Rani played Sarod). The three countries’ performances lasted for a total of forty-five minutes, whereas the Persian music band played for one hour. It meant that they invited other countries to attend the vaudeville just because of curiosity.

In 1968, they invited me again, but I did not meet Ms. Kishibe there. Ms. Kiashibe was an excellent Koto artist, but her performing style was too solemn and her manner was so grave that she depressed the Persian people, who are emotional and often talk passionately with eyes closed. Thus, for this time, they invited Ms. Sharan Rani and me (I went there with my son, Trần Quang Hải) and sent no invitation to Ms. Kashibe. My performance lasted for half an hour and so did the performance by Ms. Sharan Rani.

In that event, I performed the recitative of a poem on the Desert tune. The breath used in Desert tune was similar to that of the Persian Segah tune. They immediately paid attention to Vietnamese music.

On the occasion of the vaudeville, I came to visit Persian music master Hossein Omonmi and listened to his playing. I follow a principle that giving first then asking for what I want. Likewise, I brought my long board zither and told him: Dear Master, before listening to your playing, I would like to perform a song of Vietnam with this instrument. He said yes to me, and I performed the song Lưu thủy and the Desert tune. When I performed the Desert tune, he was startled and asked: “What is the tune you are performing”? I answered that it was the Desert tune.

Oddly, there is no desert in Vietnam, but we have a tune called Desert. Suddenly I remembered that Vietnamese music had a medium third interval between major third and minor third but when playing musical instruments or singing, we stressed the above pitch, not the below "[4].

Example 1:

When singing lullaby, people stressed the note Sol of the third interval Sol-Si (Si non). The same thing happened to Ca trù but only in the Desert tune, the above pitch was stressed. In the verse: Thuyền ai thấp thoáng cánh buồn xa xa, people stressed the word xa xa in the above pitch. Catching a similar point of Vietnamese and Persian music, the Master exclaimed: How strange it is! I said: Dear Master, how is the Segah? He picked up his instrument and performed the Segah tune. 

Example 2:

In 1975, they invited me again, and let me perform the whole programme. I was surprised, since it meant that Vietnamese music would be performed during two hours. If Persian people had not enjoyed Vietnamese music, there would have been empty seats.

The one who invited me was Mrs. Sheherazade, wife of Mr. Khotbi, the Director of Persian Television. Mrs. Sheherazade played piano excellently but could not do the same thing with Persian traditional music. Once she moved to France for six months to take care of her son during his illness treatment, and she visited me at Sorbonne University and said: “I came here to take care of my son, and this time is so boring. Can I come here to attend your classes. What subject are you lecturing”?

I responded: “You make me glad but scare me at the same time, because in this school year, I am lecturing about Persian music”.

She exclaimed: “You have no idea how delighted I am to hear that, because I asked many Persian artists but no one has ever appropriately analysed Persian music for me. Maybe it is because I am a fool who cannot understand what they say. Another point is that Persian music is too hard to understand. I would be very grateful if I can attend your lecture today”.

Fortunately, she got all of my analysis of Shur, Mahour, Chahargah and Segah in Persian music, and was so impressed that she let me and my son perform for an entire hour in this third Persian musical event that I was invited to.

However, I freaked out, because at that time my son, Trần Quang Hải, could not sing. Singing was indispensable to Persian people. They did not expect to listen to music without singing.

My one-hour show was broadcast and radiocast live. Mrs. Sheherazade told me later that the television and radio audiences watched and listened to my entire show. Hearing that news made me extremely elated, and it proved that Vietnamese music had an artistic essence and scientific substance that may seduce people.

But we are responsible to present our music in a way that will help people listen. We need to find a proper duration for each performing item. If we were to perform the whole songs Lưu thủy trường and Phú lục chấn, the audience would probably fall asleep. Similarly, if we were to perform the entire long song Trường tương tư or Tứ đại oán, no one could resist sleeping. That is why we must be concerned about the duration. Let us introduce the audience with something simple and move on to more complex things. It is just like offering Vietnamese cuisine to foreigners. Though Vietnamese cuisine generally tastes good, foreigners’ appetite would still be spoiled if we gave them seasoning sauce first. Instead, that should be gỏi cuốn (rolls of raw ingredients) first, then spring rolls and eventually seasoning sauce.

Thus, foreigners come to us for their curiousity. They should be taken to our beautiful fertile music garden with thousands of flowers, colours and scents. To do so, we must give them the key to open the door of that fantastic music garden. If we stopped them at the garden gate and just told them that it was amazing inside, they could hardly perceive the beauty of our garden. We are the key giver, which means we have to tell them about the content, but not making a speech. If we talked too much, they would complain: We come here to listen to music, not to hear your wording. But if we did not say anything, the audience could not understand our music.

The quote of Romain Rolland[5] in the novel Jean Christophe that is: "Music, whatever people say, is not a universal language; the bow of words is necessary to send the arrow of sound into the hearts of all men" is my motto. The bow is the brief introduction to help people understand our music. This visit was a precious experience.

The second story: In Hungary

When I was invited to teach at Franz Liszt Academy in Hungary, Prof. Cruz was in charge of music at the Radio Station.

He told me: “You come here to hold lectures attended by around twenty other professors and two hundred students. Because you can not usually come to Hungary, I hope you agree to talk on radio this time. There will be millions of listeners.”

I replied: “Yes, I’m pleased and willing to.” And I asked him for how long I could talk. He said: “forty-five minutes, please talk about Vietnamese music for forty-five minutes.”

This was how I started the radio show:

Dear friends, I am about to introduce Vietnamese music for forty-five minutes. Talking about Vietnamese music in that little time is just like I take you to visit Vietnam on an airplane, pointing my fingers down through the windows and telling you that this is Ho Chi Minh City and that is Hanoi. You can only see them from a very far distance. Likewise, I take you to our garden and tell you: My dear friends, this garden is extremely beautiful, so please be on your horseback and enjoy magnificent flowers. That is literally "horse riders glancing flowers" and actually catching nothing.

Today I am about to talk to you about a small part of Vietnamese music. I sincerely hope that you do not find it narrow. There are two lines of Vietnamese music, namely folk music and classical music. If I had more time, I would tell you about it all: from the lullabies, children singing verses, songs sung in the fields, shanties, lý tunes to Quan họ, Đúm singing, Xoan singing, Ghẹo singing, royal court music and even how is the stage. That is the legacy that we inherit from our forefathers. Kinh is not the sole group of people in Vietnam; there are 54 ethnic minorities, each of which treasures unique ethnic tunes. Besides that, revolutionary tradition in music has lately been formed. Though this tradition is not ancient, it possesses a system of songs, starting with marches, since the early revolutions of Vietnam.

Some editors asked me: Can you show us what is Vietnamese ethnomusicology? I said: I know it but it is not my expertise. I can just be an introducer telling you what it is but cannot explain, because Vietnamese ethnic minorities have many different shades, dialects, music forms and dances.

Fortunately, Mr. Hà Huy Giáp[6] brought some music tapes to France, including tapes of Ê-đê, Thái (khèn Thái) and Mường music (gongs). Thanks to Giáp’s tapes, I talked about them on five shows and each lasted forty five minutes. The shows were recorded and edited then broadcasted on radio.

When I left Hungary to come back to France, they told me: “Because you talked in French, we need some time to translate the shows into Hungarian. We will inform you when they are broadcasted so that you may listen to them".

In March of that year, I received a letter written as follows: “Dear Professor, We are very sorry to tell you that in this March we cannot broadcast your five talk shows.” I wondered if I might have done something wrong. The next phrases are: “That is because there is no remarkable event in this March. We hope you agree to wait until this September. Your five talks will be broadcasted in the National Day of Vietnam.” I was elated for their respect. Yes, the shows must be broadcasted in Vietnamese National Day. How solemn!

When the talks were on air, the Vietnam Embassy in Hungary recorded them and sent them to me with joy. On that occasion, I also received the letter from Prof. Cruz, in which there was an excerpt as: "Dear Professor, after broadcasting your five talks consecutively, one hundred and seventy letters were sent to us. They complained not you but us the show makers, because after listening to your talks, they wanted to find Vietnamese music documents in Hungarian, came to libraries but collected nothing. A listener wrote that: “What have you the researchers been doing when I cannot find even one article of Vietnamese music? I listened to a strange kind of music for several hours and now still do not even know what it is”. To meet the audience’s expectations, Prof. Cruz suggested: “Prof. Trần, please write me sixteen pages that briefly introduces the Vietnamese music in your five talks. We will translate them into Hungarian for the people here”.

Thus, if we suddenly talked about Vietnamese music in Hungary, the native would not be eager to listen. But they would not only listen carefully but also want to learn more about it if we could find the right time and right means to share, delicately telling, leading them to our traditional music library.

I want to emphasize that when we perform our traditional music to foreigners, we need to be careful of what should be introduced, how it can be shown to an audience, and how long it should take to perform a particular item. We would probably win if we determined those three matters reasonably. There is a principle that states: “We have to start talking from simple to complex. Never break the ice with an incomprehensible idea.”In my experience, I often perform the Bắc (northern) tune first because it is plain then move to the Nam (southern) tune. The Nam tune is a little more difficult to get because the Xuân tempo and Ai tempo are fairly complex.

When we go to other countries, knowing what musical elements they appreciate, we should show them the same thing in our music as much as possible that correspond to their music form. For instance, performing in India or Arabia must give a special prelude singing. Indian people sing for four or five minutes before they start to play musical instruments. The prelude is the creativity, the interesting part of music in these nations.

That is the similarity between Indian, Arabic music and Vietnamese music, but there are differences as well. We need to show them that our music playing method is both basic and complex. We learn the basic rules but use embellishments when performing. Playing drum basically in duple meter as follows:

Example 3:


If we just repeat Rụp tùng cắc like that, the audience will get bored. Hence, it needs the addition of note táng. With this ornament, the duple meter becomes quadruple meter:

Example 4:

Example 5:

Likewise, people can see from the basic to the complex, meaning from the plain to the developed.

If we sing a shanty of Central Vietnam, such as Hò xư xang xê cống / líu công xê xang xừ hò, without informing the audience that the scale is special because it includes the notes xự flat, xang sharp and cống flat, the audience may think that we are singing incorrectly. When the listeners are familiar with their own musical scale, it may appear to them that we sing in the wrong pitches. For that reason, we need to tell them first about the differences in our traditional music scale from their traditional scale so that they can trust our singing later.

The explanation lets them know that , xự, xang are musical words representing musical notes, pitch, duration, weight and tonal colour. Thus, they are only thanh, not âm. Thanh is the pure sound with physical factors but not considered music yet. When there are musical elements added to thanh, it turns to tone. For that reason, we translate Thanh học as Acoustic and Âm nhạc as Music. When the right hand touches the musical instrument, it makes thanh and the left hand playing creates âm. The right hand embodies yang and the left hand represents yin. It means we connect the yang and yin while playing. The left hand makes the fretboard vivid and turns all those lively words into musical tones that are very fascinating and touching. That is how we make this music seductive to people.

To clarify the conception of thanh and âm in Vietnamese traditional music, Prof. Trần told the story about his visit in Beijing, the capital of China, to introduce Vietnamese traditional music.

The third story: In Beijing (China)

When I came to Beijing to talk about Vietnamese traditional music, the Organizing Committee provided me with a huge modern củ trâng (cổ tranh – long board zither) with strong strings producing loud sounds. After I finished my talk, the organizers told me: People say that you are good at not only teaching theories but also playing musical instruments. Please perform a Vietnamese song for us.

I responded, “Thank you for your words, but this instrument is called xin trâng, meaning tân tranh (renovated musical instrument), not củ trâng (original version). Excuse me as I cannot play this zither, because its strings are too hard and I would probably fail to use my right hand to make the sound and my left hand to bring it the soul with these hard strings”.

After a twenty-minute break, I came back and found another zither replacing the previous one. The Chairman of Organizing Committee said, “To meet your requirement, I asked some staff to take a dust-cleaned zither from the Museum and tune it for you. Please show us your playing”.

I thanked and told him, “This is the true cổ tranh, and you tuned it in Chánh cung điệu. Chánh cung điệu belongs to Vietnamese Bắc (North) tune including notes: Hò, xự, xang, xê, công and líu. In your music norms, the note xự and cống have to be stressed, and hò, xang, xê must be vibrated. In Viet Nam, we vibrate xự and cống, and stress hò, xang, xê. Thus, please let me make this cổ tranh speak the Vietnamese language”. The Chairman was surprisingly startled.

I said, “Dear friends, the tonal context of the song Vũ đả ba tiêu (Rain falling on banana leaves) is: Cống xê / xàng xê cống líu /  xê cống xự hò /  cống líu cống xê /  xàng cống xê cống /  hò ừ hò / xự xang / hò xang  / xư liu cộng cộng / liu. If I play the Guangdong style, the word xự, cống will be stressed; Hò, Xang, Xê are vibrated; and the words Xự, Cống, Ú, Cống are stressed. If I stress the words Hò, Xang, Xê and vibrate Xự, Cống, that is Vietnamese style”. Through the explanation, our Chinese friends were able to understand that there are many important ornaments in Vietnamese music.

Then I told them about the Xuân tune and Xuân tempo. I said that Xuân tune also hosted musical words Hò, Xự, Xang, Xê, Cống, phan, líu and so did the Xuân tempo, but the way we played Hò, Xự, Xang, Xê, Cống, Phán, Líu in Xuân tempo is different from in Xuân tune. The organizers exclaimed, "Chinese music does not have that feature". They themselves actually made the comparison and saw the differences.

During the lecturing days in Beijing, I had success in introducing Vietnamese traditional music, because I played first the Chinese-inspired Vietnamese songs, and then moved to true Vietnamese songs. That really made Chinese people ready to acquire.

Another lecture in Beijing was also about Vietnamese traditional music. The organizers asked me to show how to introduce a folk song.

I gave the example of Mời giầu (offering betel and areca), a one-minute forty-seven second folk song. I said: It took me twelve hours to lecture on this song in France. Now my talk can last for maximum three hours including translation, hence, in fact I have only one hour and a half to analyse the song. They initially thought that I complicated the song, but after my lecture, they desired more.

Basically I had to introduce that Mời giầu as a Quan họ folk song. Of course, I also had to tell them about and analyse Quan họ: Who did sing this song? Is he/she a folk artist, a professional or an amateur? When did he/she sing this song? What does it mean by “two terms in Spring and Fall”? Was the song recorded in the studio or in field? What is the costume? How is the performer supposed to pose and move? Is there any legend of Quan họ?

I split the song into three sections. In the first section, chị hai (female performer of Quan họ) took the betel tray, offering every guest and singing the first line of verse Này tay em nâng cái cơi có đựng i a giầu.

If I had told them that that line consisted of musical notes mi, fa, la, đố, it would have been normal. But I explained that it was the typical texture in the lullabies in Northern delta of Vietnam: tính tinh tang tình tính tinh tang (equivalent to sí (flat) sol sol re sí sol sol – Đặng Hoành Loan). Where was that texture born? In Northern delta, specifically in Bắc Ninh area.

The next line Giầu têm hự là cánh phượng cũng rằng là dâng lên is a variant of the first one.          

And the third line is Dâng á a lên là lên em mời ới a à người ứ hư ứ hự người ôi. If I had told them that this line was sung on notes sì re mi sol la sí, it would sound boring. But I explained that the sentence was sung on Vietnamese musical words cộng, hò, xừ, xang, xê, cống and that this was the ritual music scale. So why did we use ritual music element in this line? It was because the female performers used solemn vocative considering the guests as gods and deities when they offered them betel and areca. These were the musical scale and tempo of the ritual song Ngũ đối hạ.

The next line: Ai ơi nay có nhớ, người ơi nay có thấu, thấu chăng, chăng là đến chúng em chăng, hứ hưu hư hự hừ hư. I did not analyse that the texture was: là sì mi fa (sharp), si (flat),but told them that the sentence was sung on musical notes hò, xự, xang, xê, cống, xê, líu. It was the Nam ai tempo with sharp xang and flat xự, expressing the sadness when the guests of Quan họ left. Liền chị were too sad and would probably miss the guests very much, so they sang in Ai tune. Tracing the flow from the beginning of this song, we saw it starting with the lullaby, moving to ritual music and employing the Ai tune later. Foreigners were surprised and found Vietnamese traditional music very interesting when I analysed the songs by our traditional textures and showed that a little song like this employs different tunes.

How about the rhythm of Mời giầu? There were many Vietnamese traditional musical rhythms in this Quan họ song, including the rhythm of the song Cò lả and Nói vè tune. These rhythms were very popular in folk music.

Example 6:

Westerners considered the rhythm in the example above as Rythme tactile of the Greek. Beijing men exclaimed, "You make such a long talk about a song only lasting over one minute".

Actually I was invited to Beijing by UNESCO. The organization had offered China tens of thousand dollars to buy audio recorders to make musical notations of folk songs in the Yellow river area, and UNESCO asked me to check how China was working with the recorders. They recorded fifty thousand songs and made twenty-five thousand notations. They intended to show me some notations, but after my lecture on the song Mời trầu, they said, “Professor, please do not take a look at them, because they are just simple notations. How could we make such an amazing lecture like you did”.

Until now, the staffs of Beijing Academy of Music still remember that lecture of mine, so they hesitate to let me see their notations when I come to speak at the Academy. They said, "We made the digitized notations but have not done intensive research yet ".

The story of the introduction of the song Mời giầu at the Beijing Academy of Music ended Prof. Trần’s talk about the method to disseminate Vietnamese traditional music around the world. He then started to talk about Vietnamese Buddhistic music.

Actually before coming to Vietnam, he sent me an email, saying: “Could you please let me know what you want me to talk about so that I can be well-prepared to give a good talk". We replied, “We want to ask you many things, but in the meantime, can you tell us about Vietnamese Buddhistic music in addition to your lecture of the dissemination of Vietnamese traditional music to the world”? And Prof. Trần spent the rest of the time talking about Vietnamese Buddhistic music.

He said:

I was born a neighbor of a shaman who often taught tán, tụng (chanting) to his pupils. When I was five years old, I joined his pupils to tán, tụng everyday.

My mother was afraid that I would become a monk if this kept happening. She told me, “My dear, please stop tán, tụng, but learn the multiplication table that I teach you”. I was fed up with the multiplication table taught in French, because that was what my mother had been taught in Mrs. Phước School. I was keen only on tán, tụng.

My grandfather sympathized with me, so he offered me a Buddhist cassock and a plank for me to chant. I kept chanting until he screamed, “Stop stop! Your mother is coming in. Hide your cassock quickly”!

One day, one of my neighbours came to my house and said to my mother, “Well, your five-year old child chants so excellently”! My mother asked her, “When did you hear him”? “Oh, I hear him chanting at 8 o’clock every morning”.

After my neighbor’s visit, the maid of my family asked me to chant whenever she had to kill a chicken. She told me: "My dear, please chant the Giảng sanh for this chicken to accelerate his reincarnation. Poor chicken!" She held a knife with eyes closed, waiting for me to finish chanting. I chanted for a while, and then she chopped off the chicken’s head.

When I grew up, I liked to prepare vegetarian meals in pagodas.

In 1968, when I lived and worked in France, there was a conference on religious music, and I was requested to help in the compilation of a specialist dictionary of religious music. The conference organizers asked me, "Are you sure you can do this?" I answered, “Yes, I can!” I actually gave such a decisive confirmation so that I could have this chance to make contribution to the making of that book. I was really able to do it because the deadline for article submission was one month later and that was enough time for me to finish.

I came to Vietnam to visit the monk Thích Nhất Hạnh and Thích Thiện Châu. I followed them to learn the way that people in Central Vietnam chant the Buddhistic music. How to chant? How to pray? How to mantra? How to invoke? How to preach? How to tụng the Thiền and Ai tempo?; tán the Thiền (Meditation) and Ai tempo? I intensively studied with the two monks and even recorded the lectures so I could listen to them again. I read prayer-books then from my understanding; I wrote an article on methods to tán, tụng in Vietnamese Buddhism.

I remember that many people in Southern Vietnam are Caodaism believers. When I was eleven to fourteen years old, I was living with my aunt and her husband who was a Caodaism monk. For that reason, I was exposed to Caodaism doctrines and prayers. I sent a letter to Master Vân Quế, one of my teachers, to ask for materials related to Caodaism. He sent me back many things including the Holy Bible of Caodaism. After studying all documents, I wrote an article on Caodaism. When my article was published, the Cao Ninh Church sent me many compliments and praise. Those were my two articles of religious music, but the paper of tán, tụng was much simpler.

Later I taught a man whose name was Nguyễn Thuyết Phong. Before becoming my pupil, he had been a Buddhism novice. When in Paris, he said to me, “Dear teacher, I wonder what I should do now”. I told him, “You’ve got a Bacherlor’s degree in Buddhism, so why don’t you do research in Buddhistic music”? So he came to research Buddhism under my guidance at Sorbonne University for six years. In 1982, he got a Ph.D degree. His dissertation, Buddhistic Music, comprised six hundred pages. Thuyết Phong is now a lecturer in America. Now he gives me many lessons on Buddhistic music.

I suppose that I can do all these things in Buddhistic music thanks to fate. When I was not a believer, not taking time to follow holy orders, having no religious name, it was fate making me able to tán, tụng. Because I know how to tán, tụng, I can make it clear in Buddhistic music.

Tụng means reading out loud using a certain rhythm. Each word is performed in a particular synaptique style of vocal. Additionally, it has to follow the pentatonic scale Hò, Xự, Xang, Xê, Cống, Líu. There are two types of tempo in this scale, namely Thiền (as in ritual music)and Ai.

Example 7:

People strike the bamboo tocsin and the bell during tụng time. For each word read, there is a tocsin sound struck, and a bell is beaten to end each section.

Tán is also practiced according to tone, vocal, based on Thiền tune and Ai tune but with different rhythm. The rhythm here is more complicated and always is the outer rhythm. When tán, a tang (also called đẩu), which is the small hand-holding gong, and a fish-shaped tocsin are employed. Beating those musical instruments must be in cycle.  There are three tunes of Tán, namely Tán rơi, Tán trạo and Tán sóc.

Example 8:

The rhythm of Tán rơi:

The rhythm of Tán sóc :

The rhythm of Tán trạo:

Tán is also practiced in Thiền and Ai tune. So what are Thiền and Ai? And how to apply them to chant Buddhist scriptures?

Catholic believers in every country sing Gregorian chants, but the way that people chant Buddhistic texts differs from country to country. Chinese believers chant differently from Vietnamese believers and so do Indian and Japanese believers. For example, people in Southern Vietnam chant the mantra: Namo Amitabha Buddha in five-note scale Hò, Xự, Xang, Xê, Cống and follow the Ai tune of a Southern lullaby. In Northen Vietnam, people chant on the Bắc tune of a Northern lullaby. The monks are not educated in music schools, so they chant on the tune of their mothers’ lullabies.

Chineses people use the different music scale as follows:

Example 9:

In Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, people chant as follows:

Example 10:

When I came to Kyoto, Japan, the monks chanted the mantra “Namo Amitabha Buddha” in Shomyo style (Shomyo can be translated into Vietnamese as Thanh minh which means bright sound):

Example 11:

That the mantra “Namo Amitabha Buddha” is actually chanted differently in each country proves two points:

  • There is no certain Buddhistic chanting type that people must follow.
  • Chanting is determined by the tradition. Sacred texts can be the same but chanting depends on national/regional musical tradition.

Buddhistic music is performed mainly by the human voice. Hence, the chanting is primary, whereas the sounds of drum, bamboo tocsin and bell are just accompaniment. Musical instruments used in pagodas are often mõ gia trì (bamboo tocsin), chuông gia trì (copper bowl), tang (copper gong), drum, Panna bell. In remarkable ritual such as nhập đàn (normally held in Central Vietnam), there is the song Khai đàn, then Ngũ đối thượng or Long ngâm , and lastly Duyên chi tịnh thủy. In Southern Vietnam, people perform the song Ngũ đối hạ in the first phase of the ritual. After the Ngũ đối hạ, the tune Tụng, Tán are performed. Northern and Southern Buddhistic music are different, but there exist some similar points, such as the method of playing Bát nhã drum.

Bát nhã drum and bell must be played according to Bát nhã hội (the team of people searching for wide knowledge), Thỉnh Phật thượng đường (invoking Buddha), Đại chúng đồng văn (everyone is listening), kệ Bát nhã âm (the sound of Panna), Nhập Bát nhã Ba la mật môn (stopping by the Panna gate which opens to the Mahaprasma Paranita. Paranita means leaving this bank of dull mind to reach the opposite bank of enlightenment. Thus, there must be three rolls of the drum and three bell rings: thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng boong. Invoking Buddha requires four rolls gradually more and more rushing: thùng thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng thùng boong. Because Panna drum is accompanied by the trumpet, the drum must be accurately played.

What are Thiền tempo and Ai tempo? Thiền is peaceful and Ai is fairly sad. The lyrics of Khai kinh is an example:

                                    Vô thượng thậm thâm vi diệu pháp
                                    Bá thiên vạn kiếp nan tao ngộ
                                    Ngã kim kiến văn đắc thọ trì
                                    Nguyện giải Như Lai chân thiệt nghĩa.


Nothing is greater than Buddhist doctrine because it is incredibly ysterious.
For one hundred years, one thousand years, or ten thousand incarnations,
                                                                                        it is still very hard to catch it.
Today I get the Buddhist doctrine.

Buddhistic music is performed mainly by the human voice. Hence, the chanting is primary, whereas the sounds of drum, bamboo tocsin and bell are just accompaniment. Musical instruments used in pagodas are often mõ gia trì (bamboo tocsin), chuông gia trì (copper bowl), tang (copper gong), drum, Panna bell. In remarkable ritual such as nhập đàn (normally held in Central Vietnam), there is the song Khai đàn, then Ngũ đối thượng or Long ngâm , and lastly Duyên chi tịnh thủy. In Southern Vietnam, people perform the song Ngũ đối hạ in the first phase of the ritual. After the Ngũ đối hạ, the tune Tụng, Tán are performed. Northern and Southern Buddhistic music are different, but there exist some similar points, such as the method of playing Bát nhã drum.

Bát nhã drum and bell must be played according to Bát nhã hội (the team of people searching for wide knowledge), Thỉnh Phật thượng đường (invoking Buddha), Đại chúng đồng văn (everyone is listening), kệ Bát nhã âm (the sound of Panna), Nhập Bát nhã Ba la mật môn (stopping by the Panna gate which opens to the Mahaprasma Paranita. Paranita means leaving this bank of dull mind to reach the opposite bank of enlightenment. Thus, there must be three rolls of the drum and three bell rings: thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng boong. Invoking Buddha requires four rolls gradually more and more rushing: thùng thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng thùng boong / thùng thùng thùng thùng boong. Because Panna drum is accompanied by the trumpet, the drum must be accurately played.

What are Thiền tempo and Ai tempo? Thiền is peaceful and Ai is fairly sad. The lyrics of Khai kinh is an example:

 Example 12:

When chanting in funerals, Vietnamese Southern people chant in Ai tempo which will effectively express the sorrow and share the loss with the bereaved.

Example 13:

After listening to my chanting, he exclaimed: "So good! So interesting!” Thanks to that incident, I knew how Japanese chanting style is. Actually Vietnamese chanting style is very interesting because we use more than a single note in a tone, not following Western mix system but in accordance with another system.

In Southern Vietnam, people tán in the tune hát khách. In Central Vietnam, there are certain principles for tán, for example, the instrumentalists will play Phú lục to accompany Thiền and play Nam Ai to accompany Ai. A difference between Hát khách in the Southern Bội singing and Hát khách used to tán Buddhist scripture is that the ornaments in Bội singing use the word ư whereas the monks use the word a to embellish chanting.


                                     Dương chi tịnh thủy

                                       Biến sái tam thiên

                                       Diệt tội tiêu khiên

                                       Hỏa diệm hóa hồng liên


                                       Take the Holy water

                                       Splash one drop then it turns to three thousand drops

                                       Wash all sins

                                       The volcano becomes a pink lotus    

Since the content is not sad but beautiful, the tempo is:

Example 14:

But when tán the text Nhất điện, which expresses that human life is ephemeral, we use Ai tempo.  Here is the verse of Nhất điện [7]:   

                            Nhứt điện mộng hoàng lương,

                           Nhân mạng vô thường.

                           Thân hình bào ảnh tợ ngưng sương,

                           Phiên thân lưu mộng đoạn tợ ngưng sương

                           Nhứt triêu thương hải biến.

                           Như diệp tợ ngưng sương.

Example 15:

It is such a good chanting, with good tempo, nice melody and all the rhythms are outer rhythms. When accompaniment music sounds, drum must be played in responding meter which does not follow the vocal meter but adds three or four more meters. It sounds good and very interesting.

Fortunately, when I lectured at Xá Lợi pagoda and Minh Sơn pagoda, I said, “All I know about the Southern style of Tán was taught by my shaman neighbor when I was a child. I know that many other texts have been chanted, but none of the monks who I asked for help can show me. Thus, today I can only talk about the Central chanting style. I hope that one day I meet a monk who can give me a lecture of all tán, tụng styles of the Southern Vietnam.

Shortly after, I came to Vietnam and received a letter from Venerable Thích Lệ Trang, who wrote that, “I was moved when listening to you at Xá Lợi pagoda. You admitted that you knew very little about Buddhistic music in Southern Vietnam. Hence, I am willing to help you out with my best. I would like to invite you to Viên Giác pagoda in tomorrow morning. We will tán, tụng for your recordings”.

I recorded Buddhistic music for more than three hours at Viên Giác pagoda that day. It was too bad that the monks added some other kinds of music and employed even trumpet, long board zither and monochord.

After the chanting, I talked to the monk. “Dear Venerable, my knowledge of Buddhist scripture is much less than you, but in terms of music, I must say that there is no need to bring music into chanting. Firstly, the most important thing is to make people thoroughly perceive the sacred texts. If people are already able to absorb the scriptures through chanting, embellishments become unimportant. Thus, you are wrong let musical accompaniment overwhelm chanting. Secondly, the playing of long board zither makes the chanting sound like contemporary music or Cải lương. It is so ridiculous when people suppose that they are listening to Buddhist chanting, but it seems to be Cải lương singing”.

Venerable Thích Lệ Trang argued, "Actually, I like that the chanting sounds like Cải lương singing. People will come to Buddhist doctrine because they like Cải lương singing, and now they can listen to music of Cải lương and absorb the content of Buddhist scripture".

I said, “It is fine if you take that music as means to transmit Buddha, because your method is not a taboo in Buddhism”.

To give the talk of Buddhistic music an end, I would like to recite a text in Thiền tempo. This text is composed by Bonze Mãn Giác (1052-1096), a monk who lived in Ly Dynasty and was renowned for his literary career.

Xuân khứ bách hoa lạc
Xuân đáo bách hoa khai
Sự trục nhãn tiền quá
Lão tòng đầu thượng lai
Mạc vị xuân tàn hoa lạc tận
Đình tiền tạc dạ nhất chi mai

Translation by Prof. Trần:

Flowers fall when spring ends
Flowers blossom when spring comes
Life moments have gone forever
Heading to aging
Turning out not all flowers fall at spring end
Last night an apricot banch blossoms at the pagoda’s front gate

Finishing the recitation of bonze Mãn Giác’s poem, Prof. Trần took his fingers off the musical instrument, smiled and said, "Each time we meet is meaningful, because we walk on our own path, a very different path from each other, but whenever we meet, we are heading to the same side. Meeting each other with no prevention, let us be as siblings".

Hanoi welcoming autumn - 2015

[1]. I accordingly use the word “truyền thống” as Prof. Trần Văn Khê wrote, not “cổ truyền” (though both two words mean “traditional”).

[2]. This talk was recorded in the cassettes TĐ/s 209 and TĐ/s 210 that are archived in the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology.

[3]. Several months after this meeting, Prof. Trần Văn Khê, from Paris, sent us the article: "Revisiting the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology after many years". It was published in the Scientific Bulletin No.2, 2000.

[4]. Every song used as examples in this article is extracted from the music notation of Prof. Trần’s singing in this talk.

[5]. Romain Rolland (1866-1944): a French writer and playwright.

[6]. Mr. Hà Huy Giáp was the Deputy Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnam at that time

[7]. The text Nhất điện comprires six verses. Prof. Trần tán the second and the third verse.