Jour : 6 juin 2021

TRẦN QUANG HẢI : Vietnamese Music From a Cultural Perspective

Vietnamese Music From a Cultural Perspective


Trần Quang Hải (National Center for Scientific Research, France


Geographically Vietnam occupies the eastern coast of the Indochinese peninsula, extending from China South to the Gulf of Siam, and is a part of Southeast Asia. Culturally, artistically and, above all, musically Vietnam is a part of the Sino-Japanese family grouping China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam. The music of the Far Eastern world shares many common caracteristiques: script (Chinese characters), musical terminology (the same theory for the determination of twelve basic tones and the names of musical instruments), musical instruments (most of them of Chinese origin), musical genres (court music), village folk music, anhemitonic pentatonic scale for ritual music, theatre music and ceremonial music.

Ten centuries of Chinese rule (from 111 B.C. to A.D. 939) have profoundly influenced the life, culture and music of the Vietnamese people. Musical instruments, such as the 16-stringed zither, the 4-stringed pear-shaped lute, 3-stringed lute, 2-stringed fiddle, vertical and transverse flutes, the oboe, large and small drums, cymbal, stone chime, bell chime, undoubtedly originated from China. Names of musical instruments are written in Chinese characters but their pronunciation differs according to whether they are read by Chinese or Vietnamese (16-stringed zither ZHENG in Chinese, TRANH in Vietnamese, pear-shaped lute PIPA in Chinese, TỲ BÀ in Vietnamese, etc…).

During the Lê Dynasty (1428-1788) the first theory of Vietnamese music was copied from the Chinese (the theory of five degrees, of seven tones and twelve LYU or basic tones, and the eight categories of court music: music of the esplanade of heaven, temple music, music of the five sacrifices, music for helping the sun and the moon in the event of the eclipse, music for formal audiences, music for ordinary audiences, banquet music and palace music. Musical notation (hò, xự, xang, xê, cống, liu) was still written in Chinese until the eve of the World War I (1914-1918)

Owing to its geographical position, at the crossroads of different peoples and civilizations, Vietnam has also come into contact with the Champa Kingdom of Indian civilization. Indian influences can be found in the use of the improvised prelude RAO in the South, or DAO (read ZAO) in the North, preceding the performance of a set musical composition, in the use the TRỐNG CƠM, a long two-membrane drum covered with a rice paste in the centre of the drum head, similar to the MRIDANGAM of South India, and in the use of onomatopoeia for drum playing (toong, tà-roong, táng, tà-ráng, cắc, tà-rắc, trắc, rụp, sậm, tịch, rù), as in the BOL and THEKA systems of Indian music.

Chinese and Indian influences have not, however, destroyed the creative instincts of the Vietnamese people. In fact, the national identity is reflected in the creation of three purely Vietnamese musical instruments :

The ĐÀN ĐÁY or ĐỚI CẦM or VÔ ĐỂ CẦM, the songstresses’3-stringed lute,which incorporates the peculiarities of the 2-stringed moon-shaped lute ĐÀN KÌM or ĐÀN NGUYỆT, of the 4-stringed pear-shaped lute ĐÀN TỲ BÀ, and of the 3- string lute ĐÀN TAM

The SINH TIỀN, or coin clappers, bearing all the characteristics of clappers, sistrum and scrapers,

The monochord ĐÀN ĐỘC HUYỀN or ĐÀN BẦU, differing from other Asian monochords (e.g. the Cambodian SADEV, the Indian GOPIYANTRA and EKTARA, the Chinese I HSIEN QIN, and the Japanese ICHIGENKIN), in the exclusive combination of the use of a unique string and the production of harmonics.

Vietnam is a multi-ethnic country with its main population of 85 millions of Vietnamese of Mongoloid race. There are also 20 millions of aborigines grouping some 53 ethnic minorities. The composition of ethnic minorities is as followed : the Mường, Thổ, Chut (of Việt-Mường language), the Tày, Nùng, Thái, Cao Lan, Sán Chi, Lào, Puna (of Tày-Thái language), the Hmong, Dao, Patheng, Tông (of Hmong-Dao language), the Lolo, La Hu, Công, Phu La, Si La (of Tibeto-Burman language),the Bahnar, Khmer, Sedang, Mnong, Maa, Srê, Katu, Khmu, Hrê (of Môn-Khmer language), the Jarai, Êđê, Chàm, Churu, Rađê (of Austronesian language), the Co Lao, La Chi, Pu Peo, La ha (of various languages of the Austroasiatic family), etc.

The history of Vietnamese music can be divided into four periods, from the foundation of the first Vietnamese Dinh Dynasty (968-980)

The first period (10th – 15th centuries), characterized by the conjugated influence of Chinese and Indian music,

The second period (15th – 18th centuries), characterized by the predominance of Chinese influence,

The third period (19th century to the eve of World War II), characterized by the originality and identity of Vietnamese traditional music, and by the introduction of superficial influence of Western music.

The fourth period (from 1945 onwards), characterized by the decline of traditional music and new attempts to restore it, and by the development of a new European style music.

The Vietnamese musical language is characterized by the use of musical scales such as :

– the ditonic scale C-G-C (e.g. the HÁT ĐÚM, as in the alternating voices song of

the Hải Dương province in North Vietnam )

– the tritonic scale C-F-G-C (e.g. as in children’s game-songs « TÙM NỤM TÙM NỊU »,

« OÁNH TÙ TÌ », folksongs « THUYỀN PHÊNH », « ĐÒ ĐƯA » of the Hải Dương

province, « HÁT DẶM, » « VÍ ĐÒ ĐƯA » of the Nghệ Tĩnh province, « HÁT THAI»

charade song of Central Vietnam, of the beginning of the classical piece «


– the tetratonic scale C-F-G-Bb-C (e.g. « HÁT DÂNG QUẠT » of the Thanh Hóa province in

North Vietnam, « HÒ DÔ HẬY, « LÝ HOA THƠM », « LÝ LẠCH » of the Quang Nam

province in Central Vietnam, the lullaby « RU EM » and boatwoman’s song “HÒ MÁI ĐẨY”  of Central Vietnam,

– the pentatonic scale comprising five types :

C – D – E – G – A – C (folksongs)

C – D – F – G – A – C (Bắc modal system music)

C – Eb- F – G – Bb- C (Nam modal system music)

C – D – F – G – Bb- C (Ngũ Cung Đảo piece)

C – E – F – G – A – C (Vọng Cổ piece)

Vietnamese music is composed of many musical genres: court music, ceremonial music, religious music, village music, new Western style music and proto-Indochinese music.


During the first years of the Lê Dynasty (1428-1788), Lương Đăng, a high Court dignitary, was asked to establish a new theory of Court music(Nhạc Cung Đình), which took its form from Chinese Ming 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. Eight categories  were presented to King Lê Thái Tôn:

1. GIAO NHẠC : music of the « esplanade of Heaven », performed during the sacrifice for Heaven and Earth, and during the triennial ceremony celebrated by the Vietnamese emperors,

2. MIẾU NHẠC : Confucius temple music, performed at the Confucius temple and during the anniversary commemoration of the death of Vietnamese sovereigns,

3. NGŨ TỰ NHẠC : music of the Five Sacrifices,

4. CỨU NHỰT NGUYỆT GIAO TRÙNG NHẠC : music for helping the sun and the moon

in the event of the eclipse,

5. ĐẠI TRIỀU NHẠC : music for formal audiences,

6. THƯỜNG TRIỀU NHẠC : music for ordinary audiences,

7. ĐẠI YẾN CỬU TẤU NHẠC : music for large banquets,

8. CUNG TRUNG CHI NHẠC : palace music

Apart from music performed for the Emperor, there were two large instrumental ensembles (ĐƯỜNG THƯỢNG CHI NHẠC – music of the upper hall; ĐƯỜNG HẠ CHI NHẠC – music of the lower hall). Court dances consisted of military dance (VÕ VŨ), civilian dance (VĂN VŨ), flower branches dance (HOA ĐĂNG VŨ), phoenix dance (PHỤNG VŨ), horse dance (MÃ VŨ), four fabulous animals dance (TỨ LINH VŨ), and the dance of the 8 barbarians presenting their gifts (BÁT MAN TẤN CỐNG VŨ),


Ceremonial music and religious music are heard less and less today. Funerals are held according to the Confucian, Buddhist, Caodaist or Christian rituals. In some parts of the country one can still witness the celebration of the worship of ancestors or local deities. The Buddhist or Caodaist prayers, the medium or medicine men or women incantations (CHẦU

VĂN, HẦU VĂN, RỖI BÓNG) are still heard in numberless pagodas and temples

in Vietnam. CHẦU VĂN is a Northern traditional folk art which combines trance singing and dancing, a religious form of art used for extolling the merits of beneficent deities or deified national heroes. Christian music is inspired from the Western Catholic liturgy, while new Buddhist music in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is written by young composers who take their inspiration from Christian hymns.


Music for entertainment purposes is performed by a small instrumental ensemble for a small audience:

In the North, the HÁT Ả ĐÀO (songstress’ song) mostly vocal but accompanied by three musical instruments : a 3-stringed lute ĐÀN ĐÁY, wooden clappers PHÁCH, and a small drum TRỐNG CHẦU reserved for the listener-connoisseur. It has different names : CA TRÙ, HÁT NHÀ TRÒ , HÁT NHÀ TƠ, HÁT CÔ ĐẦU. CA TRÙ flourished in the 15th century in northern Vietnam when it was popular with the royal palace and a favorite hobby of aristocrats and scholars. Later it was performed in communal houses, inns and private homes. These performances were mostly for men. When men entered a ca trù inn they purchased bamboo tally cards. In Chinese, TRÙ means card. CA means song in Vietnamese. Hence CA TRÙ means tally card songs. The tallies were given to the singers in appreciation for the performance. After the performance each singer received payment in proportion to the number of cards received.  CA TRÙ requires at least three performers. The singer is always a woman and plays the phách, an instrument made of wood or bamboo that is beaten with two wooden sticks. A musician accompanies the singer on the đàn đáy, a long-necked lute with three silk strings and 10 frets. There is also a drummer who is a connoisseur . The drummer shows his approval of the singer or the songs depending on how he hits the drum. If he likes a song he might hit the drum several times. If he is disappointed with the singer, he hits the drum twice. The long necked lute player must follow the rhythm of the wooden clappers phách. The repertoire of the CA TRÙ has 15 styles namely :HÁT MƯỠU , HÁT NÓI, GỬI THƯ, ĐỌC THƯ, ĐỌC PHÚ, CHỪ KHI, HÁT RU, CUNG BẮC, TỲ BÀ, KÊ TRUYỆN, HÃM, NGÂM, VỌNG, SẤM CÔ ĐẦU, etc…..

In Central Vietnam, the CA HUẾ (Huế Music) of aristocratic origins was created when the Nguyễn kings settled in Thuận Hóa province at the beginning of the 18th century. The music of the North in contact with  the Cham music which was influenced by Indian music gave birth to CA HUẾ .This music has a particular scale, characteristic to the Central part of Vietnam. It  is often only instrumental (the orchestra called NGŨ TUYỆT – the five perfects –  being composed of stringed instruments, including 16 stringed zither đàn tranh , 4 stringed pear shaped lute đàn tỳ bà, 2 stringed fiddle đàn nhị, monochord đàn độc huyền and transverse flute sáo). After 2 centuries of existence, the repertoire is composed of 10 bài ngự ( royal pieces) such as LƯU THỦY, CỔ BẢN, KIM TIỀN, TẨU MÃ,  NGUYÊN

TIÊU, XUÂN PHONG, PHẨM TUYẾT, LONG NGÂM, HỒ QUẢNG, LỘNG ĐIỆP in the Bắc mode and a certain numbers of songs in the Nam mode expressing Sadness like AI GIANG NAM , HÀNH VÂN, NAM XUÂN or HẠ GIANG NAM, NAM BÌNH, CHINH PHỤ, TƯƠNG TƯ KHÚC. The song TỨ ĐẠI CẢNH might be composed by Kinh Tự Đức in the 19th century. As for the songs, the voice is always accompanied by the NGŨ TUYỆT ensemble.

In the South, it is the ĐÀN TÀI TỬ (the so-called « music of the amateurs» )coming from the Hue and Quang traditions. This music is the origin of the music of the renovated theater HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG. Many pieces from the CA HUẾ repertoire were modified after the inspiration of  South Vietnamese musicians and the specific scales of ĐÀN TÀI TỬ tradition. There are two distinct modal systems : Bắc (North) and Nam (South). All the pieces belonging to the Bắc  system are rapid, joyful and the pieces of Nam system are sad, melancholic and tempo is slow . The principal short pieces of Bắc system are : LONG HỔ HỘI, XUÂN PHONG, LƯU THỦY, CAO SƠN, KHỔNG MINH TỌA LẦU, MẪU TẦM TỬ, BÌNH BÁN VẮN, KIM TIỀN HUẾ. Besides, there are 6 long pieces such as : TÂY THI, CỔ BẢN, LƯU THỦY TRƯỜNG, BÌNH BÁN CHẤN, XUÂN TÌNH . The Nam system has the following pieces NAM AI, NAM XUÂN, ĐẢO NGŨ CUNG, TỨ ĐẠI OÁN, VĂN THIÊN TƯỜNG, PHỤNG CẦU HOÀNG, TRƯỜNG TƯƠNG TƯ . Only the musical piece TỨ ĐẠI OÁN was the most popular and performed by musicians before the World War 2 (1939-1945). The piece TỨ ĐẠI OÁN combining with the piece HÀNH VÂN from the Ca Huế tradition  inspired Mr. Cao Văn Lầu ( his nickname was Sáu Lầu) to compose the piece DẠ CỔ HOÀI LANG ( Hearing the drum in the night when thinking of his beloved) which was changed the name VỌNG CỔ (nostalgia of the past) . This piece has since become the main piece of  the renovated theater HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG  There exist two other modal systems of the ĐÀN TÀI TỬ repertoire : Nhạc ( from the term Nhạc Lễ – Ritual),  and Quảng – Cantonese having the flavour of Chinese music. The piece NGŨ ĐỐI HẠ of Nhạc system is also performed in ceremonial music and at the traditional theater HÁT BỘI , while the piece XÀNG XÊ  is used in the renovated theater HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG. Many pieces of Quảng system like NGỦ ĐIỂM, BÀI TẠ, KHỐC HOÀNG THIÊN, XANG XỪ LÍU, TÂY THI QUẢNG also belong the repertoire of the renovated theater HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG .


Theater in Vietnam comprises the traditional theater of Chinese

origin (HÁT TUỒNG, HÁT BỘI), folk theater (HÁT CHÈO in the North), and

renovated theater (HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG). A new westernized theater (KỊCH NÓI) was born during the 30’s. The water puppet theater (MÚA RỐI NƯỚC) is created by the Vietnamese people.

HÁT TUỒNG, also called HÁT BỘI in the south, came into being over eight hundred years ago, thanks to the transmission of the art of Chinese traditional theater by Lý Nguyên Cát during the Trần Dynasty (1225-1400). HÁT TUỒNG stage has a very concise symbolization. Only with some actors on the stage, the whole scene of the court with all the officials who are attending royal ceremonies could be seen, or two generals with some soldiers fighting also show a battle with hundreds of thousands of troops and horses fighting fiercely, and even a gourd of wine and four wooden cups also express a lowish banquet. It is a mistake to deal with Tuong without mentioning the art of making up. It is because just looking at a made-up face, we may guess the personality and social class of that character; As for beards, a black, curly beard is for a fierce man, three-tuft beard for a gentleman; a dragon’s beard for Kings and mandarins and for majesty; a mouse’s whisker, a goat’s beard and a fox’s whisker for cunning and dishonest men. Beardless man must be students.  The gestures of characters on the stage are stylized with symbolization, which attract the viewers passionately. To a western-style drama, when a general rides a horse, it must be a real one or a horse-like costume ; but, to an actor of HÁT TUỒNG , only a white, brown red or black whip also means many kinds of horses: black, sorrel or white. The actor of Tuong acts very concisely. Only with a whip, he is able to make the viewers passionate through delicate acting’s with horses galloping or at full gallop, of which there are good-mannered or restive ones… With an oar, the actor of Tuong is able to show the viewers the boat fast sailing, wavering due to waves, making the viewers feel as through they were on the boat.The accompanying drum in HÁT TUỒNG are very important, because they start the actor’s sentiment; they bring the past time and space to the present; they unite the character’s sentiment with the stage, and the actor with the audience. The art of HÁT TUỒNG in Vietnam includes those of painting, sculpture through the ways of making up, costumes and dance, pantomine, singing, saying through the actings of actors; as well as the combination of traditional musical instruments of Vietnam. The art of HÁT TUỒNG has raised the lofty view of desire to the true – the good – the beautiful (Chân – Thiện – Mỹ) as well as the viewpoints of life of the ancients: Benevolence – Civility – Righteousness –  Knowledge – Loyalty ( Nhân – Nghĩa – Lễ – Trí- Tín) through special characters who are benevolent and righteous.

HÁT CHÈO is a form of popular theatre in Vietnam that has its roots in ancient village festivals. It consists of folk songs with pantomime, intrumental music and dances, combined with instructive or interpretive sketches dealing with stories from legends, poetry, history or even daily life. Also brought into play are acrobatic scenes and magic. HÁT CHÈO tells tales of chiefs, heroes and lovely maidens and offers an eclectic mix of romance, tragedy and comedy. Traditionally HÁT CHÈO was composed orally by anonymous authors. Nowadays, HÁT CHÈO plays are composed along traditional lines : the characters in the plays sing time-tested popular melodies with words suited to modern circumstances.The costomes, makeup, gestures and language create typical characters familiar to every member of the audience. The props are simple. As a result, there is a close interchange between the performers and the spectators. A HÁT CHÈO play could be put on stage in a large theater, but it could also be performed successfully on one or two bed mats spread in the middle of a communal house with a cast of only three: a hero, a heroine and a clown. The sound of the HÁT CHÈO drum has a magical power and upon hearing it. Villagers cannot resist coming to see the play. The clown in a HÁT CHÈO play seems to be a supporting role, but actually he or she is very important to the performance. The clowns present a comic portrayal of social life, with ridiculous, satirical words and gestures, they reduce the audience to tears of laughter. The national CHÈO repertoire includes among others Trương Viên, Lưu Bình – Dương Lễ, and Quan Âm Thị Kính, which are considered treasures of the traditional stage.

HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG  (renovated theater) appeared in the southern part of Vietnam in the 1920s. The word “Cải lương” was coined after this sentence “Cải biến kỳ sự, sử ích tự thiên lương”  (Changing old things and transforming them into better and newer ones). The first word and the last word of the sentence were combined to create the word CẢI LƯƠNG around the year of 1920 .This relatively modern form combines drama, modeled after French comedy, and singing. Scenes are elaborate and are changed frequently throughout the play. HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG is similar to the Western operettas and more easily depicts the inner feelings of the characters. Songs of the HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG are based on variations of a limited number, perhaps 20, of tunes with different tempos for particular emotions – this convention permits a composer to choose among 20 variations to express anger, and as many to portray joy.The principal supporting songs in HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG is the VỌNG CỔ (nostalgia of the past). CẢI LƯƠNG theater owes much of its success to the sweet voices of actors/singers ( the most famous actors are Năm Nghĩa, Út Trà Ôn, and actresses are Út Bạch Lan Thanh Nga, Bạch Tuyết ), much appreciated by the audience. Upon hearing the first bars of the well-loved VỌNG CỔ, the

audience reacts with gasps of recognition and applause. The HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG performance includes dances, songs, and music; the music originally drew its influences from southern folk music. Since then, the music of HÁT CẢI LƯƠNG  has been enriched with hundreds of new tunes. An orchestra consists mainly of guitar with concave frets Lục Huyền cầm or Ghita phím lõm, and 2 stringed moon shaped lute Đàn Kìm, 16 stringed zither Đàn Tranh; 2 stringed fiddle Đàn Cò and a percussion ensemble .


Folk music is composed by the people for the people without any artistic goals, illustrating the life of an individual from the cradle to the grave.

It is essentially vocal music (DÂN CA, literally DÂN: people; CA: songs).

Lullabies (HÁT RU in the North, RU CON in the Center, and HÁT ĐƯA EM in the South), children’s game songs (THIÊN ĐÀNG ĐỊA NGỤC, tag games OÁNH TÙ TÌ – one two three, etc.), work songs associated with work in the field (irrigation HÒ ĐẠP NƯỚC, HÒ TÁT NƯỚC, rice grinding HÒ XÂY LÚA, lime crushing HÒ GIÃ VÔI. Boatman songs can be heard on the rivers (HÒ CHÈO GHE, HÒ CHÈO THUYỀN, HÒ MÁI NHÌ, HÒ MÁI ĐẨY, HÒ MÁI XẤP, HÒ KHOAN, HÒ SÔNG MÃ).

Love songs are countless in Vietnam. In the North, the birthplace of festival songs (TRỐNG QUAN, QUAN HỌ, CÒ LÃ, HÁT ĐÚM, HÁT PHƯỜNG VẢI, HÁT GIẶM, HÁT GHẸO, HAT XOAN). Songs are used for singing contests between girls and boys. In Central Vietnam, the HÒ or calls, are associated with many village activities and the LÝ, very numerous, include mostly love songs (LÝ THƯƠNG NHAU, LÝ HOÀI NAM, LÝ MONG CHỒNG, LÝ NĂM CANH, LÝ CHIA TAY, LÝ HÀNH VÂN, etc.). In the South, the most famous HÒ are the A LI HÒ LỜ, HÒ ĐỒNG THÁP, HÒ BA LÝ, HÒ LÔ TÔ, HÒ CẤY, The LÝ are : LÝ GIAO DUYÊN, LÝ VỌNG PHU, LÝ CHIM QUYÊN, LÝ CHUỒN CHUỒN, LÝ CÂY CHANH, LÝ BÕ BÌA, LÝ CON KHỈ ĐỘT, LÝ CON SÁO, LÝ NGỰA Ô, LÝ DĨA BÁNH BÒ, etc.. HÁT GIẶM VÈ (stories told in flowery terms), HÁT VÈ, NÓI VÈ, HÁT XẨM (peddler’s songs) are other types of Vietnamese folk songs. HÁT XẨM, or the song of the blind artists, has existed since the Tran dynasty (13th century). The beauty of the « XẨM » song is expressed in the rhythms and tones of the music. Its attractive and lively drum rhythms and numerous rules of song applications make it an interesting spectacle. The HÁT XẨM song tells of the fate or unhappiness of the poor. Besides theses common themes, there are funny songs with satirical implications about wrong doings, the condemnation of outdated customs, the crimes of rulers, and the deeds of heroes. These stories are well

oved by many people.The instruments traditionally used for the HÁT XẨM are a 2 stringed fiddle đàn nhị, bamboo clappers phách, a monochord đàn bầu and two drums. People used to walk in a group of 2 to 5 and sing, mainly in residential areas such as a parking lot, a ferry-landing, or a market gate . Today, HÁT XẨM singers no longer exist, but their ancient art is still kept alive and respected thanks to the effort by a group of researchers and musicians led by Mr. Thao Giang . Mrs Hà Thị Cầu is the last Hát Xẩm singer in Việt Nam .


Modern music based on Western musical styles was introduced to Vietnam around the 1930s. On the eve of World War 2, the Youth movement gave origin to a new music corresponding to youth’s aspirations for struggle (songs of struggle NHẠC CHIẾN ĐẤU), for love (love songs NHẠC TÌNH CẢM). During the last 75 years pop music has rapidly developed and now represents nearly 80% of the music heard in Vietnam. Songs associated with love, struggle, war, revolution, natural beauty etc. are a convincing means of expression for awakening or subduing the political conscience of the people,

The most famous composers in Vietnam are Lưu Hữu Phước (died in 1989), Phạm Duy (moved to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and now back to Vietnam since 2005), Trịnh Công Sơn (died in 2001) Lê Thương (died in 1999), Văn Cao (died in ), Nguyễn Văn Thương (died in )

Classical music in the Western idiom was late in developing in Vietnam: works for piano have been composed by Mrs. Louise Nguyễn Văn Ty and the late Vo Duc Thu. Symphonic works have been and are always written in Vietnam by Do Nhuan (deceased) Nguyen Xuan Khoat (deceased), Nghiem Phu Phi (in the United States). In France, some composers like Nguyen Van Tuong (deceased in 1998), Truong Tang (deceased in 1989), Ton That Tiet, Nguyen Thien Dao and Tran Quang Hai have written many compositions in electro-acoustical, contemporary or avant-gardist style. Some renowned young composers such as Phan Quang Phuc (USA), Vu Nhat Tan (Vietnam), Hoang Ngoc Tuan (Australia) have had their works performed in Western countries.

A great number of harmonized folksongs for part singing have attracted a certain category of the Vietnamese population. This westernized music, now in expansion, cannot however be judged at this time.


Tribal or Ethnic Minorities, living in the mountainous sections of the country, in an area equal to two thirds of the entire territory of Vietnam, and especially in the autonomous zone of Viet Bac, the Northwest mountains or Vietnamese Cordillera and the High Plateaus of Central Vietnam, have a music which is completely different from that of Vietnamese of Mongolian

ORIGIN:TOUNG, GOC; mouth organ with divergent tubes – MBOAT, KOMBOAT, ROKEL; xylophone – TRUNG, KLENG KLANG; monochord fiddle – KONI; gongs – CING; gong ensemble ; hydraulic chime – TANG KOA ; lithophone of the Mnong Gar from the village of Ndut Lieng Krak, etc.). This music has many common characteristics with the music of other tribal peoples in Southeast Asia.

Vietnamese Music in Exile since 1975 and Musical Life in Vietnam since Perestroika

The exile of some millions of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975 gave birth to a new type of music outside of Vietnam. Traditional music has been in regression because of the lack of interest among youngsters. Pop music, on the other hand, is flourishing, especially in the United States, where there is a big concentration of Vietnamese emigrants. Contemporary music in the Western idiom is in its early stages. In Vietnam, pop music has come back since around 1990, with perestroika. Traditional music has also gained in popularity due to the efforts made by the Institute of Musicology (viện âm nhạc) in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and thanks to a number of festivals organized in main cities.

Forty three years have gone by since the fall of Saigon. Forty three years during which many political, economical, and artistic events have changed the face of the history of humanity in general and that of Vietnamese history in particular. In terms of music, it has only been outside of Vietnam, notably among members of the exile community, that an exceptional development in quantity can be observed. Thousands of new music and video cassettes of pop music, as well as revivals of theater pieces, have been issued by twenty or so producers in America. These producers, who are centered in California (more precisely, in the area of Orange County nicknamed ‘Little Saigon’) and in Europe (especially in Paris) have flooded the market with cassettes reserved for Vietnamese refugees.

In the framework of this article, the author will offer with some brief information on the musical activities in the Vietnamese community since April 30, 1975, the date of the fall of Saigon and the beginning of the major departure into exile of several hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, as well as some comments on musical life in Vietnam since perestroika.

Four themes will be discussed:

1. The survival of traditional music (nhạc cổ truyền)

2. The development of new music (tân nhạc)

3. The beginning of a contemporary western-style music (nhạc cận đại tây phương)

4. Musical life in Vietnam since perestroika.

1. The Survival of Traditional Music (nhạc cổ truyền)

Traditional music has long been treated as a poor parent in relation to westernized music.

Before April 1975, at the National Conservatory of music in Saigon, classes of traditional instruments and arts did not attract many students. Professors of traditional music had an inferiority complex in relation to professors of western music.

The Vietnamese refugees who now live abroad have been generally too busy setting up their new lives to have the time to appreciate the sound of the zither dàn tranh or to attend performances of the revived theater form of hát ci lương. Children who arrived abroad when they were ten years of age are now 53 years old. They are really quite indifferent towards Vietnamese culture. They hardly speak their native language amd prefer listening to Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Céline Dion and others, because for them it is the music of their present world.

Performances of modernized theater hát cải lương, concerts of traditional music are less and less numerous because of lack of spectators. Parents do not encourage children to attend Vietnamese concerts or theater performances , which are boring for youngsters who understand Vietnamese less and less, and tickets are expensive.

For the next few decades, Vietnamese renovated theater will probably have fallen into oblivion. Traditional music could probably survive longer but to a lower level, because young Vietnamese have turned toward western pop music or the new Vietnamese westernized music.

2. The Development of New Music (tân nhạc)

The departure of many artists from Vietnam in May of 1975 marked the beginning of the development of exile music. This music, characterized by pop songs, can be divided into several themes:

1. Nostalgia for the country, nostalgia for Saigon (1975-1977) with songs evoking lost memories, such as ‘Vĩnh Biệt Saigon’ (Farewell Saigon) by Nam Lộc (1976) and ‘Saigon niềm nhớ không tên’ (Saigon, Nostalgia without Name) by Nguyễn Đình Toàn (1977).

2. Resistance and struggle for the reconquest of the country (1978-1981) in songs composed by Phạm Duy (‘Hát trên Đường tạm dung’ / Songs on the Road of Exile, 1978), songs of struggle by Nguyệt Ánh (‘Em nhớ màu c / I Remember the Colors of the Flag, 1981); ‘Dươi cờ phục quốc’ / Under the Flag of the Reconquest of the Country, 1981), and songs by Việt Dzũng (‘Lưu Vong Quốc / Melodies of the Exile, 1980; ‘Kinh tỵ nạn’ / Prayers of Refugees, 1981), etc.

3. Description of prisoners’ lives in Vietnam, found in a compilation of 20 songs by Phạm Duy based on poems written by Nguyễ, Chí Thiện (‘Ngục Ca’ / Songs of Jail, 1981) and melodies by the poet-musician Hà Thúc Sinh (‘Tiêng Hát tûi nhục’ / The Song of Shame, 1982), etc.

4. Rebirth of prewar songs (1982-1985), with thousands of cassettes recording voices of male singers (Elvis Phương, Duy Quang, Chế Linh) and female singers (Khánh Ly, Lệ Thu, Thanh Thúy, Thanh Tuyền, Hương Lan, Julie Quang) well known to the Vietnamese; these revive memories of the golden age of Saigon.

5. Birth of the Hưng Ca movement (since 1985) gathered around ten young composers, including Hà Thúc Sinh, Nguyễn Hữu Nghïa, Nguyệt Ánh, Viêt Dzũng, Phan Ni Tấn, and Khúc Lan. They have composed new songs on different themes: struggle, resistance, and love, and this movement works to collect and preserve some new songs.

6. Development of ‘new wave’ music and of Chinese serials music (since 1986), with about one hundred cassettes on these kinds of music (‘top hit’ western songs and music of Hong Kong and Taiwan movies with Vietnamese lyrics).

7. Diffusion of songs composed in Vietnam among Vietnamese communities overseas (since 1997). This new Vietnamese pop music has been developed in Vietnam, and many of its artists have become well known abroad. The overseas Vietnamese are interested in the newly composed songs and the young artists of Vietnam because they like to listen to another musical source and to discover new artistic faces. Vietnamese refugees are allowed to go back to Vietnam on vacation, where they discover new songs and new artists. This contact permits the export of music to foreign countries where the Vietnamese diaspora now lives.

3. Beginning of Western Composers Classical Music (Nhạc cận đại Tây phương)

In addition to the few Vietnamese composers of contemporary music living already for a long time in France such as Nguyn Văn Tường (died in 1996), Nguyn Thiên Đạo  (died in 2017), Tôn Tht Tiết ( composer of music for 3 films ‘ Odeur de la papaye verte ‘,Cyclo’, ‘A la verticale de l’été’ directed by Trn Anh Hùng), Trương Tăng (died in 1989), Trn Quang Häi, and Cung Ti‰n, Lê Văn Khoa in the United States, some young Vietnamese composers have also emerged. In Australia, the guitarist Hoàng Ngc Tun, gold medal winner of the 1978 music festival in Vietnam and author of more than 500 new songs, left Vietnam in 1982 by the sea and received a research grant to prepare his Ph.D. dissertation on Vietnamese folk songs. He wrote some modern arrangements for traditional songs in a new style. Nguyn Mnh Cường won a composition prize at the Asia Pacific Festival and Composers Conference in December, 1984, in New Zealand on the basis of his composition ‘Phøng VÛ’ (The Dance of Phoenix). Since 1985, he has continued to compose electronic music in Sydney (Australia). Lê Tun Hùng obtained his Ph.D. degree in Ethnomusicology at Monash University in Melbourne and has composed new music mixing Vietnamese musical instruments and Western contemporary compositions. He has published 4 CD since 1992. Phan Quang Phc earned a doctorate of music at the University of Michigan and has taught composition at Indiana University (Illinois, USA). He is considered to be one of the six most talented young composers in the United States and won the Prize of Rome in 1998.

Among interpreters of western classical music, the guitarist Trnh Bách is the only one who has reached an international level of performance. Having arrived in New York in 1975 at the age of 13, he is now considered one of the best guitarists in the world. Several excellent young Vietnamese musicians have pursued their studies at conservatories of music in Sydney, Paris and the United States. In 2001, Văn Hùng Cường, a Vietnamese pianist, won the world piano competition organized by the American Music Scholarship Association in New York (USA). There are Nguyên Lê, a talented jazz guitarist, Phạm Quân , excellent violinist in France.

4. Musical life in Vietnam since Perestroika

Since Perestroika policies began there, many foreign tourists have been visiting Vietnam, instigating a new dimension to the musical life of that country. Many hotels and restaurants for tourists hire musicians of traditional music to entertain their new customers. Spectacles of traditional music offer to tourists some aspects of the musical culture of the country. Instead of presenting the authentic music, though, musicians play westernized folk music to please European tastes. Because of the economical necessity, traditional artists have done this for money and have neglected aspects of art and tradition.

Many groups of artists like Tre Xanh, Phù Đổng have been sent abroad to participate in festivals or to present concerts to the exiled Vietnamese. Inside of the country, though, the emphasis is on pop music, as young singers turn toward the west. They dress like European pop singers on stage, imitate them and sing fashionable foreign songs (Western, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese). Since 1995, many singers namely Thanh Lam, Mỹ Linh, HÒng Nhung, Hồng Hạnh, Ánh Tuyết, Thanh Phương, Cẩm Vân, Lam Trường, Đan Trường, Quang Linh, Mỹ Tâm, Trần Thu Hà, Bằng Kiều etc.. have become famous inside and outside of the country. They can earn up to 20,000 US dollars per month with shows and recordings .

The rebirth of modernized theater (Hát Cäi LÜÖng) since 1990 in Ho Chi Minh City and the southern part of Vietnam has enabled young artists like Ngc Huyn (moved to the United States in 2004), Tài Linh (moved to the United States in 2005), Vũ Linh, Kim T Long, Ngc Giàu, Bch Tuyết, L Thy, Minh Phng, Minh Vương to earn more money and have a better life. A new kind of comic theater (TÃu Hài) appeared at the beginning of the 90’s and has become popular with productions of video cassettes and DVD. Some actors like Bo Quc, Minh Nhí, Thành Lc, Lê Vũ Cu, Hu Châu, Hoài Linh etc..; and actresses like Hng Nga, Hng Vân, Ngc Giàu are well known in Vietnam and also among the Vietnamese abroad .

In spite of this disappointing aspect, some excellent festivals of traditional music take place, namely the Lullaby Festival, modernized Theater Festival, Theater Song contest, the Traditional Theater Festival, etc.

Composers for film music have been more and more after the unification of the country since 1976. Other composers like Trng Bng, Đàm Linh, Hoàng Vân, Đặng Hu Phúc, Trng Đài, Dương Thụ have contributed to film music in Vietnam. Contemporary music with concertos, symphonies has been developed in Vietnam with some famous composers like Đỗ Hng Quân, Nguyn Th Nhung, Hoàng Dương, Hoàng Cường, Phúc Linh, Vũ Nht Tân .

Compositions for orchestra with traditional musical instruments (16 stringed zither, monochord, moon shaped lute, 2 stringed fiddle, bamboo transverse flute) and Western orchestra occupy an important place in musical creations in Vietnam nowadays .

In Hanoi over the past 43 years, the Institute of Musicology has carried out thousands of field work projects on the tribal music of 53 minorities. In addition to the collection stored in archives from 1956 to 1995, 34 field work projects have been carried out since 1996 throughout the country, from the mountainous regions in the north to the highlands in the central region and some provinces in the south. Stored in the Sound Archives of the Institute of Musicology are 8,850 pieces of instrumental music and nearly 18,000 folksongs performed by more or less 2,000 performers. Since 1995, with revisions in working methods, open and dynamic mechanisms based on the current situation have abolished the passive role of scientific research. The Institute of Musicology now has qualified collaborators in the entire country to carry out projects from the grassroots to the ministry level and up to the national level.

In January of 1999, this Institute of Musicology opened a showroom of 130 Vietnamese musical instruments from 54 ethnic groups belonging to four categories of classification: chordophones, idiophones, aerophones, and membranophones. Each instrument in the showroom is introduced in printed descriptions and audio and visual recordings. Of particular note, the showroom also displays many ancient musical instruments such as the lithophone, bronze drum, big drum with elephant skin of the Ede ethnic group, sets of gongs, etc. In addition to providing visual education, the displayed objects and musical instruments are also demonstrated in a lively way.

Thousands of technology products in the form of audio CD, video CD, and videotapes featuring performances on folk music have been released.In addition, the Institute of Musicology has held symposiums and seminars on diverse and practical themes such as the Vietnamese lithophone, gongs of the central highlands of Vietnam, etc. In 1998, the Institute of Musicology held a scientific meeting on ‘Reviewing a process of training, preserving and promoting Vietnamese traditional music’. More than 30 papers of a high scientific quality were presented. The research department of the Institute of Musicology is well equipped with modern apparatus that can help to restore and preserve traditional music and folk songs on compact discs for the longer and better conservation of sound documents. Thanks to these demonstrations, many scientific books on music and traditional songs have been published. This Institute of Musicology has many young researchers like Hình Phước Long (Cham music), Dương Bích Hà (traditional music from Central Vietnam), Kiu Tn (traditional music from South Vietnam), Võ Thanh Tùng (Vietnamese musical instruments with a publication of a CD Rom and an important book on that subject), Nng Th Nhinh (folk music of the Tày, Nùng, Dao tribes from North Vietnam), Kpa Ylang (Bahnar music from the Highlands) Romah Del (Jarai music from the Highlands)

In Vietnam, the research on traditional music has been developed rapidly . Many senior reasearchers have contributed to enrich this field with hundreds of publications (books, CD, films). Prof. Nguyễn Hữu Ba (deceased) Lê Thương (deceased), Lưu Hữu Phước (deceased in 1989), Đắc Nhẫn, Huy, Huy Trần, Tú Ngọc (deceased) Đỗ Minh, Vũ Nhật Thăng, Đặng Hoành Loan, Thụy Loan, Tô Vũ( deceased), Tô Ngọc Thanh, Lư Nhất Vũ, etc.. are among the best known in Vietnam . Young researchers are many such as Lê Văn Toàn , Nguyễn Bình Định, Nguyễn Thị Minh Châu, Bùi Trọng Hiền, Hồ Hồng Dzung, Phạm Minh Hương, Nguyễn Thuỷ Tiên,

A center of research on the preservation of court music was created in Huê in 1996 thanks to the help of Japan and has been under Prof. Trn Văn Khê’s supervision .

For the last 23 years (since 1995), many artists of folk theaters and pop singers living in Vietnam have performed abroad at international music festivals or in America, Asia, Australia, and Europe where Vietnamese refugees have settled in . Since 1999, a great number of Vietnamese Oversea artists like Hương Lan, Phượng Mai, Elvis Phương, Tuấn Ngọc, Khánh Hà, Hoài Linh, Dalena, Linda Trang Đài etc.. have been back to Vietnam many times to perform with other artists in Vietnam. This musical exchange has contributed to facilitate the relationship between Vietnamese artists outside/inside .

The influence that music has throughout the world is immeasurable. Music evokes many feelings, surfaces old memories, and creates new ones all while satisfying a sense of human emotion. With the ability to help identify a culture, as well as educate countries about other cultures, music also provides for a sense of knowledge. Music can be a tool for many things: relaxation, stimulation and communication. It is often transformed according to technological advancement, market demands, and political forces far from its home ground. As certain forms of music enjoy worldwide popularity, other forms of music mutate, sink into obscurity, and even cease to exist Within the reign of imported culture, cross cultivation and the creation of the so-called global village lies the need to expand horizons to engulf more than just what you see everyday. Globalization is becoming one of the most controversial topics in today’s world.

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Trần Văn Khê : 2000 : Văn hóa với âm nhạc dân tộc, tiểu luận, nhà xuất bản Thanh Niên, 158p, Ho chi minh city.

Trường Kỳ : 1995 : Tuyển tập nghệ sĩ , vol.1, nhà xuất bản Trường Kỳ, 336 p, Montreal, Canada.

Trường Kỳ : 1999 : Tuyển tập nghệ sĩ , vol.3, nhà xuất bản Trường Kỳ, 268p, Montreal, Canada .

Trường Kỳ : 2000 : Tuyển tập nghệ sĩ , vol.4, nhà xuất bản Trường Kỳ, 368p, Montreal, Canada .

Trường Kỳ : 2002 : Một thời nhạc trẻ, nhà xuất bản Trường Kỳ, 384p, Montreal, Canada.

Trường Kỳ : 2003 : Tuyển tập nghệ sĩ vol.6, nhà xuất bản Trường Kỳ, 376p, Montreal, Canada.

Tú Ngọc : 1994 : Dân ca người Việt, nhà xuất bản Âm nhạc, 300p, Hanoi.

Tú Ngọc : 1997 : Hát Xoan, dân ca lễ nghi – phong tục, nhà xuất bản Âm nhạc, Viện Âm nhạc, 216p, Hanoi.

Tú Ngọc, Nguyễn Thị Nhung, Vũ Tự Lân, Nguyễn Ngọc Oánh, Thái Phiên : 2000 : Âm nhạc mới Việt Nam : tiến trình và thành tựu, Viện âm nhạc, 1000p , Hanoi.

Võ Thanh Tùng : 2001 : Nhạc khí dân tộc Việt, nhà xuất bản Âm nhạc, 435p, Hanoi

Vũ Tự Lân : 1997 : Những ảnh hưởng của âm nhạc Châu Âu trong ca khúc Việt Nam giai đoạn 1930-1950, nhà xuất bản Thế giới, 252p, Hanoi.

Vương Hồng Sển : 1968 : Hồi ký 50 năm mê hát , nhà xuất bản Phạm Quang Khai, tủ sách Nam Chi, 254p, Saigon.


1988 : Vietnam : Rêves et Réalité, performed by Trần Quang Hải & Bạch Yến, CD.

            PLAYASOUND PS 65020 , recordings (1979 & 1987), bilingual notes (French-English) (12p) by Trần Quang Hải, Paris.

1989 : Hát Chèo / Théâtre populaire vietnamien, CD

            AUVIDIS D 8022, recordings and bilingual notes (French – English) by Trần Văn Khê, Unesco Collection, Paris.

1991 : Music from Vietnam, CD

            CAPRICE CAP 21406, English notes (16p) , Stockholm, Sweden.

1993 : Stilling Time / Người ngồi ra thời gian, CD

            INNOVA 112, recordings and English notes (12p) by Philip Blackburn, Minneapolis.

1993 : Vietnam : chants des minorités des Hauts Plateaux du Nord Vietnam, CD

            PEOPLES , recordings and trilingual notes (French – English-German) (16p) by Patrick Kersalé, Paris.

1993 : Cithare vietnamienne / Tran Quang Hai , performed by Trần Quang Hải, CD.

            PLAYASOUND PS 65103, recordings (1993), bilingual notes (French-English) (24p) by Trần Quang Hải, Paris .

1993 : Vietnam : Tradition du Sud, performed by Nguyễn Vĩnh Bảo and Trần Văn Khê, CD.

            OCORA C 560043, recordings (1972), bilingual notes (French-English) (32p) by Trần Văn Khê, Paris .

1994 : Vietnam : Le Dàn Tranh : Musiques d’hier et d’aujourd’hui,  performed by Hải Phưọng and  

           Trần Văn Khê, CD

OCORA C 560055, recordings (1994), bilingual notes (French – English) by Trần Văn Khê, Paris.

1994 : Vietnam / Poésies et chants, performed by Trần Văn Khê and Trần Thị Thủy Ngọc, CD

            OCORA C 560054, recordings (1993) and trilingual notes (French-English-German) (36p) by Trần Văn Khê, Paris

1994 : Music from Vietnam 2 : Huê, CD.

            CAPRICE CAP 21463, recordings, English notes (16p), Stockholm, Sweden .

1995 : Vietnam du Nord : chants de possession, CD.

            Buda Records 92657-2, recordings and bilingual notes (French-English) (24p) by Patrick Kersalé, Paris.

1995 : Vietnam : Ca Tru tradition du Nord, CD.

            Maison des Cultures du Monde MCM W-260070, recordings (1995), bilingual notes (French-English) (24p), Paris.

1995 : Vietnam : Musique de Huê, CD

            Maison des Cultures du Monde MCM W-26073, recordings (1995), bilingual notes (French-English) (24p) by Trẩn Văn Khê, Paris.

1996 : L’art de la vièle vietnamienne, CD

            ARION ARN 60417, recordings and bilingual notes (French-English) (12p) by Patrick Kersalé, Paris.

1996 : Fêtes traditionnelles vietnamiennes, performed by Trần Quang Hải & Bạch Yến, CD

            Studio SM D-2504, quadrilingual notes (French-English-German-Spanish) by Trần Quang Hải, Paris.

1996 : Vietnam : Music of the Trường Sơn Mountains, CD

            White Cliffs Media WCM 9990, recordings and English notes (12p) by Nguyễn Thuyết Phong and Terry Miller, USA.

1996 : Tran Quang Hai / Landscape of the Highlands, performed by Tran Quang Hai , CD.

            Latitudes LAT 50612, North Carolina, USA.

1997 : Vietnam : Musiques des Montagnards, set of 2 CD.

            Le Chant du Monde CNR 2741085/86, recordings (1958-1994), bilingual notes (French-English) (124p) by many authors, Paris.

1997 : Tran Quang Hai / Guimbardes du Monde, performed by Tran Quang Hai, CD.

            PLAYASOUND PS 66009, recordings (1997), bilingual notes (French- English) (12p) by Trân Quang Hai, Paris .

1998 : Vietnam : Musique des Edê, CD

            Buda Records 92726-2, recordings and bilingual notes (French-English) by Patrick Kersalé, Paris .

2001 : Dân Ca Miền Núi và Cao Nguyên (Folksongs of Mountainous Regions and Highlands), CD

            Viện Âm Nhạc, Hanoi, Vietnam

2002 : Âm Nhạc dân gian dân tộc Mông (Music of the Mông tribe), CD

            Viện Âm Nhạc, Hanoi, Vietnam

2004 : Musique du Vietnam, CD.

            PROPHET 38, Philips 981 431-1, recordings (2003), bilingual notes (French –English) (20p) by Charles Duvelle, Paris .

2005 : Ca Tru Vietnam / Vietnamese Ca Tru Singing, CD

               Viện Âm Nhạc (Vietnamese Institute for Musicology), Hanoi, Vietnam

2006 : Vietnam : Musiques vocales des plaines du Nord : Ca Trù – Hát Chèo – Quan Họ , CD

            VDE CD-1267, recordings (2005) and bilingual notes (English – French) (40p) by Yves Defrance, Geneva


2001 : Canh Hát Quan Họ VCD 2 (A session of Quan Họ Singing) , VCD

            Viện Âm Nhạc, Hanoi, Vietnam

2001 : Canh Hát Quan Họ VCD 1 (A session of Quan Họ Singing), VCD

            Viện Âm Nhạc, Hanoi, Vietnam

2005 : Âm Nhạc và Múa Cung Đình Huế (Music and Dance of Huế Court) , DVD

            Viện Âm Nhạc, Hanoi, Vietnam