The Kinh and all ethnic minorities in Vietnam have a time-honoured
tradition of music and dance. This is evidenced by the figures seen dancing
to music which were engraved on the bronze drums unearthed at Dong Son
(Thanh Hoa province) and lithophones discovered in Tay Nguyen Highlands and
other relics. Besides royal court music, there was also a rich vein of music
which was closely attached to the daily lives of the working masses.
Thousands of diverse musical tunes have been collected from this source.
From Quan Ho folk songs in the North to Hue songs (songs from the Perfume
River), "guessing game" songs, satirical songs, joking songs and numerous
songs in southern provinces, all are characterised by a profound sensibility
and poetic, lyrical sense. After 1945, royal court music was underdeveloped.
But folk music flourished more than ever before along with the increasingly
popular modern music.
Situated at the crossroads of two powerful cultural currents, the Chinese
and the Indian, VietNam has been influenced by these elements whose are
evidenced in VietNam Music. The Indian influence dates back to the beginning
of the Lyù dynasties (1010). When the Vietnamese people came in contact with
Western civilization (18th century), they evinced also enthusiasm for
European music. The National Conservatory of Music created in Saigon by the
Ministry for National Education of South VietNam has set itself the task of
renovating the national music of Viet Nam on the basis of a new synthesis of
Oriental and Occidental arts.
As in other countries in the world, Vietnamese oral literature is composed
mainly of the songs of the people which have a profound sensibility and
poetic sense, and become real masterpieces of Vietnamese literature. The
origins of these songs are rooted in the era preceding recorded history.
They are so rich, maybe much more than in other countries, to form a very
vast repertoire. They are so various with several genres of folk music of
different ethnic minorities groups and those of the North, Central and South
VietNam. The folk songs become a very valuable national heritage of our
people. There are songs of boat rowers, of wood cutters, love songs,
satirical songs, etc... There are also songs relating to heroic deeds,
reflecting the soul of the laboring masses, expressing their happiness,
sadness, patient resignation or courageous revolt. These songs are less
artificial and less speculative than all the other types of literature, and
the natural expressions used in popular songs, the beauty of their imagery
and the pertinence of their observation, go beyond the rigid frame of
The language is itself musical, the Vietnamese people sing spontaneously on
all occasion whether they are at play or at work. Echoing the preoccupations
of the individual, the folk songs of VietNam reflect the vivaciousness,
quickness, candor, ironic, wit and common sense of the Vietnamese people.
During the long centuries of Chinese and French dominations, folk songs
always played the role of preserving hope, and keeping the spirit of
Vietnamese traditions and customs.
Origins and Evolution of Vietnamese Music
In 1924 archaecological excavations in the village of Ñoâng Sôn, Thanh Hoùa
province, North VietNam, unearthed bronze drums, and coins on which were
engravings representing 2 men, one seated astride the other’s back, playing
a "khen", an instrument made of several flutes tied together. Drawings on
the drums depicted warriors, one of them playing a "khen" and the others
playing castanets of a type still in use today. Since the Dong Son findings,
dated from the Han dynasty (around 200 B.C.) we can conclude that Vietnamese
already had their own indigenous music prior to the Christian era.
The study of the folk songs of the Tonkinese central region permits also
affirmation that the most ancient musical discoverable are those of the
citadel Coå Loa in which are found the tomb of King An Döông Vöông. At this
time, the earliest music had a folkloric character which was typified by
round sung as accompaniment to mystico-religious or ritualistic dances, and
the use of drums, khenes, castanets and cymbals.
From the second to the 10th centuries, Vietnamese music had an almost
exclusively Chinese influence. The five tone musical scale of Chinese music
was adopted and utilized without innovation.
From the 11th to the 14th centuries, with the advance of the Viet toward the
South, contacts with the Champa, introduced new elements into Vietnamese
music which resulted in the development of the southern laments and the
enriching of the five tone scale with 2 supplementary notes.
From the 15th to the 18th centuries, great developments were marked in the
art of music, with innovations on the styles of the Chinese and Cham. It was
during this era that songs accompanied by castanets first became popular.
The words of these songs came from the works of eminent literary men.
After the "Haùt AÛ Ñaøo" came Hueá songs, boat songs from the Parfume River,
and guessing game songs or mirador games, first came into vogue, along with
songs from the southern part of the demarcation river.
The contemporary period is notable first for the codification, then
modernization of Vietnamese music under the influence of Occidental
traditions. More recently, composers trained in European schools have
produced many works which have enjoyed great popularity. Most of these tunes
are based on Western rhythms.
The classic Repertoire
The classical Vietnamese music includes 2 principal types: the Northern
tunes and the Southern tunes. Concerning the origins of the Northern tunes,
the Annals relate that in 1285, on the occasion of Traàn Höng Ñaïo’s great
victory over the Mongol invaders, a theater troup which accompanied the
agressive forces was captured along with its entire orchestra. The troup was
immediately incorporated into that of the Imperial Court, and its
performances reached a large segment of the popular audience.
Later, in 1470 during the reign of Le Thanh Ton, 3 members of the National
Academy, Traàn Nhaân Trung, Löông Theá Vinh and Ñoã Nhuaän were sent to
China to study Chinese music, and its methods to adapt it to the Vietnamese.
Three committees were thus created: the first for symphonic music, the 2nd
for music education, and the 3rd for the popularization of music arts.
In the middle of the 15th century, following a victorious campaign against
the Champa, the favorite song the Cham King was introduced to the Imperial
Court. 150 years later, King Lyù Cao Toâng commissioned the composition of
Chiêm Thành Aâm (Chăm Melody) whose name indicates its source of
The Southern tunes, bore the imprint of contacts with the Champa, are
characterized by nostalgic plaints, moody and melancoly, which are
particularly expressive of the spirit of Hue, a city dominated by the
influence of the langourous Parfume River. As for the Northern tunes express
optimism and liveliness.