Each of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam has their own musical instruments, inherited from their ancestors, reflecting their life, rituals, and living environment. It is believed that there are hundreds of Vietnamese musical instruments; some are similar to one another, while some stand out to be known worldwide. In this article, we can only list out and go into details a small portion of this extensive list.
The origin of some Vietnamese musical instruments can be dated back to thousands of years ago, in the first form of government known in Vietnam, the Hung Kings Dynasty, while others were invented or upgraded from primitive ones about couple hundreds of years ago.
It is not easy to find these Vietnamese musical instruments in modern time band, but you can still see them in museums and traditional performances that are recognized as the intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO like “Nhã Nhạc” (Vietnamese court music in Hue), “Quan Họ Bắc Ninh” (Vietnamese antiphonal music in the North), and “Đờn Ca Tài Tử” (South Vietnam theatrical music), or many familiar tunes of folk songs and Central Highland’s music.
A band of Nhã Nhạc Cung Đình Huế
Most of the traditional Vietnamese musical instruments are string, wind, and percussion instruments, made of natural materials like wood, bamboo, stones, ivory, and animal skins. They can be used to create music for songs or dances, in solo or orchestra performances. While the traditional music of people in the deltas uses more string instruments, the people in the mountainous area tend to create melodies with percussion instruments and wind instruments.
It is not easy to list all and tell each kind of string instruments in Vietnam apart because there are too many with similar looks. And like many other aspects of Vietnamese culture, some Vietnamese musical instruments are also partly influenced by or adopted from Chinese ones like “Đàn tranh” (16-stringed zithers) and “Đàn tỳ bà” (4-stringed lute, with the body shaped like a water drop).
Đàn tranh and Đàn tỳ bà
In “Đờn Ca Tài Tử” performance, some signature lutes include “Đàn nguyệt” or “Đàn kìm” (2 strings, a moon-shaped body with no soundhole) or “Đàn sến” (2 strings, flower-shaped lute) are more popular, while “Đàn bầu” (gourd zither with a single string) and “Đàn nhị” or “Đàn cò” (2-stringed bowl-shaped chordophone) are usually played in “Hát xẩm” performances (Vietnamese folk songs in the North), and “Đàn k’ni” (a single-stringed instruments with which you have to stretch the string with your mouth) is one of the rare string instrument in Central Highland’s music orchestra.
Đàn nguyệt and Đàn sến
Đàn bầu and Đàn nhị
Several other Vietnamese musical instruments with strings are:
Đàn tam and Đàn tứ
Đàn hồ and Đàn đáy
Đàn tính and Đàn tam thập lục
The two popular wind instruments in Vietnam is “Sáo trúc”, the general names for any transverse flutes made of bamboo, 1-2 cm thin, with 6 sound holes, and “Tiêu” - the vertical flute, mostly used in orchestras in North Vietnam. Other versions of these flutes are:
Sáo trúc and Tiêu
Sáo diều and Sáo mông
Among the Vietnamese musical instruments, those of ethnic groups in mountainous areas have quite rare playing methods and lookings:
Khèn and Klong Put
While some Vietnamese musical instruments of people in the deltas and mountainous areas are quite different, “Kèn bầu”, a gourd oboe, is used in both places, in “Nhã Nhạc” and in the festivals of the Tay, Thai, or Chams.
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In the world of Vietnamese musical instruments, several kinds of drums of different ethnicities can be found.
From small sizes like:
Trống xẩm and Trống paranưng
Trống đế and Trống bồng
To larger size drums include:
Trống chiến and Trống cái
The largest and heaviest one is probably “Trống đồng”, the bronze drum, used in religious rituals or assembling an army. The special thing is the sophisticated patterns on the surface of the drum, a 8 or 12-pointed star at the center and some toad sculptures near the edge to create different sounds. “Trống đồng” is now mostly preserved in museums like Vietnam History Museum as a cultural symbol rather than played as a musical instrument.
However, the title of the most unique drum in Vietnamese musical instruments has to go to “Trống đất” or the “earth drum”. The body of the drum is the actual earth, where people dug a hole in the ground and covered it with the outer skin of bamboo shoots. One string is connected with this cover and tied to another 1-meter string stretched about 20 cm above the ground; the drummer will hit the horizontal string instead of the surface to make sounds. It was believed that this drum birth dated back to the 6th reign of Hung Kings and was a random invention when the soldiers were nailing the posts to the ground to put up the tents.
Besides drums, the xylophones also vary in sizes and materials:
Đàn đá and Đàn t'rưng
Biên khánh and Biên chung
Another set to be mentioned in this list of percussions are instruments to keep the beat of the music:
Phách and Sênh tiền
Song lang and Mõ
And last but not least is the most well-known “Cồng - Chiêng”, an element of “Space of Gong Culture” which was given the title of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “Cồng chiêng” is actually two words for two-hand gongs that look similar and go together in music performance of people in the Central Highland. “Cồng” is a flat surface gong, while “Chiêng” is a nipple gong with a raised center; both are struck with a wooden stick covered by cloth at one end or with bare hands.
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It is impossible to list out all of the Vietnamese musical instruments because there are as many as 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, each with their own culture and lifestyle, has their own music and instruments to play with. Most of these musical instruments, along with the traditional Vietnamese music, are dying out and only have a small group of audiences. Nowadays, they are only appreciated as the country’s heritage and cultural symbols rather than its original purpose of making music.
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