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Traditional Vietnamese Musical Instruments

vietnamese-instruments-ethnology-museum-26-1 Traditional instruments displayed at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi

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.

An Overview of Vietnamese Musical Instruments

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.

traditional vietnamese musical instruments nha nhac

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.

Vietnamese String 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).

traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan tranh traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan ty ba

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.

traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan nguyet traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan sen

Đàn nguyệt and Đàn sến

traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan bau traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan nhi

Đàn bầu and Đàn nhị

traditional vietnamese musical instruments kni

Đàn k'ni

Several other Vietnamese musical instruments with strings are:

  • Đàn tam: 3-stringed lute with the body covered by python skin
  • Đàn tứ: 4-stringed lute
  • Đàn hồ: the coconut 2-stringed violin
  • Đàn đáy: 3-stringed lute with a rectangular body
  • Đàn tính: 2 or 3-stringed lute of the Tay and Thai people in the North
  • Đàn tam thập lục: 36-stringed zither

traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan tam traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan tu

Đàn tam and Đàn tứ

traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan day dan gao

Đàn hồ and Đàn đáy

traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan tinh traditional vietnamese musical instruments tam thap luc

Đàn tính and Đàn tam thập lục

Vietnamese Wind Instruments

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 diều: includes many tubes of different size tied to a kite to make sounds when the kite is flown to the sky
  • Sáo mông: a transverse flute played by the H’mong

traditional vietnamese musical instruments sao truc traditional vietnamese musical instruments tieu

Sáo trúc and Tiêu

traditional vietnamese musical instruments sao dieu traditional vietnamese musical instruments sao mong

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: quite popular in the music of H’mong and Ede people, includes many tubes of different length tied together with a vertical mouthpiece going through near one end
  • Klong put: with which people move air into the tubes by clapping their hands instead of blowing, mostly performed by women in Central Highland

traditional vietnamese musical instruments khen traditional vietnamese musical instruments klong put

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.

traditional vietnamese musical instruments ken bau

Kèn bầu

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Vietnamese Percussion Instruments

In the world of Vietnamese musical instruments, several kinds of drums of different ethnicities can be found.

From small sizes like:

  • Trống xẩm: a set of small wooden drums about 4-5 cm high
  • Trống paranưng: a signature flat drum of the Chams
  • Trống đế: used in “Ca Trù”, Vietnamese court music in the North
  • Trống bồng: a sand clock lookalike drum
  • Trống cơm: translated as the “rice drum” because the drummer used rice to adjust the pitch of the drum by sticking it onto the drum surfaces

traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong xam traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong paranung

Trống xẩm and Trống paranưng

traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong de traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong bong

Trống đế and Trống bồng

traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong com 2 traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong com

Trống cơm

To larger size drums include:

  • Trống chiến: used to highlight the breaks in traditional Vietnamese musical when the singers end or pause their sentences
  • Trống cái: about 60-70 cm high and 40-50 cm in diameter

traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong chien traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong cai

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.

vietnamese instruments art museum 52 1

Trống Đồng

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.

traditional vietnamese musical instruments trong dat

Trống đất

Besides drums, the xylophones also vary in sizes and materials:

  • Đàn đá: rock xylophone of people in Central Highland
  • Đàn t’rưng: bamboo xylophone of Gia Rai and Ba Na people, making a clear sound resembling that of a stream flow
  • Biên khánh - Biên chung: a set of flat rock pieces “khánh” or bronze bells “chung”, hung on a wooden frame, mostly played in “Nhã Nhạc Cung Đình Huế”

traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan da traditional vietnamese musical instruments dan trung

Đàn đá and Đàn t'rưng

traditional vietnamese musical instruments bien khanh traditional vietnamese musical instruments bien chung

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: a set of two flat bamboo sticks and a wooden cylinder stick struck on another 30-cm long bamboo piece; also means “the beat”
  • Sênh tiền: a combination of clapper, rasp, and jingles with coins nailed to the wooden sticks
  • Song lang: a clapper made from a round, hollow wooden piece attached with a wooden ball by a flexible curved metal, can be played by clipping it with your hands or stepping on it with your foot
  • Mõ: usually used by monks in temples when they chant, or by the “village newsboys” in the old-time to catch the attention of villagers when there are announcements from the authority

traditional vietnamese musical instruments phach traditional vietnamese musical instruments senh tien

Phách and Sênh tiền

traditional vietnamese musical instruments song lang traditional vietnamese musical instruments mo

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.

traditional vietnamese musical instruments cong chieng

Cồng Chiêng

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Summary of Traditional Vietnamese Musical Instruments

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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