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Popular Musical Instruments of Vietnam

In general, the Vietnamese traditional music and musical instruments are similar to those of other Southeast Asian Countries such as China, Japan, Korea... but it is also very distinct in terms of technique, style, composition, mood, modal system and performance practice. There are about 50 different kinds of Vietnamese musical instruments. Some originated from other countries and others were created by Vietnam itself, especially those used by the ethnic groups in the Highlands. This is a brief description of some of popular musical instruments which are currently still used in various occasions in Vietnam : ensemble music, funerals, religious ceremonies, folk music, festivities, traditional drarna.. These instruments are divided into three main groups- Strings, Winds and Percussions.

A. DAN DAY (String instruments)

1. Dan Tranh (16 string zither):

The Dan Tranh is the smallest of the far Eastern Tithers. The sound box of this instrument has the form of a long half cone. The 16 strings are divided into two sections by a series of 16 high and movable bridges (Nhan). The strings are stretched along a soft wooden sound board. One end of the string is wound around one of 16 tuning pegs (Truc), while the other end of the string passes over the tail-board and goes through one of the 16 small holes where it is attached with small pieces of paper. The strings are plucked with plectrums attached to the fingers of the right hand, while the left hand is used for oman-wenting the notes by pressing more or less heavily on the strings. The plectrum are made of tortoise shell, metal or plastic. Though a common Chinese ancestry, this instrument is closely related to the Japanese Koto, the Korean Kayakuem, the Mogolian Jetakh and the Chinese Zheng. It is, however the smallest one and its 16 strings are currently made of steel instead of plastic or twisted silk. The zither is basically a solo instrument or sometimes accompanies other instruments. It is used in instruments ensemble (Hoa tau), chamber music (Nhac thinh phong), the revival theater (Cai luong), folklore group, poetry recitation (Ngam tho).


dan tranh


2. Dan Nguyet (Moon-shaped 2 string lute), Dan Doan (short lute), Dan Sen:

Dan Nguyet is a two-stringed lute with a flat, circular sound box which is shaped like a moon. This instrument has an appearance similar to those of other East Asian Moon shaped lutes, the Yue Qin of China, the Wul Kim of Korea, and the Gekkin of Japan. However the Vietnamese Dan Nguyet can easily be distinguished from others by its long neck, the prominently raised fret, and the performance practice. This is an important plucked stringed instrument used in so many kinds of musical or theatrical performances such as solo, song accompaniment, instrumental ensembles, chamber music, ritual music, royal court music... and this instrument was placed on the first position of the five perfect instruments (Ngu tuyet.- Tranh, Ty, Nhi, Nguyet, Sao) in chamber music. In chamber music of the South Vietnam, the musician who plays this instrument also conducts the ensemble by keeping the Song Loan (the percussion instrument which looks like castanets, is used to keep the beat for the song playing), the Dan Nguyet has been widely appreciated by the Vietnamese for centuries.

The Dan Doan, and Dan Sen are copies of the Dan Nguyet in smaller shapes . The Dan Doan has a round thin sound box with a short neck and two strings while the Dan Sen has a flower shaped sound box with two strings on its neck which is longer than those of the Dan Doan. In addition to the different shapes compared to the Dan Nguyet, the frets of the Dan Doan or the Dan Sen are fixed in diatonic scale instead of pentatonic scale of the Dan Nguyet.

Dan Nguyet

Dan Doan

Dan Sen

3. Dan Day (Songstress lute):

This is a special instrument of Vietnamese origin. The Dan Day is three-stringed lute, which incorporates the peculiarities of the two-stringed lute (Dan Nguyet), the four-stringed pear-shaped lute (Dan Ty Ba), and the three-stringed lute (Dan Tam). Mostly the Dan Day is used in the North Vietnam. Its sound box is a trapezoid shape but without a back surface. The frets are fixed on the lower part of a very long neck. Its 3 plastic strings produces a low sounds and the Dan Day is only used to accompany the songs performed by female singers. These songs are inspired from poems of the guests who visit the Geisha guest house (Nha Co Dau) where the singers are playing.


Dan Day


4. Dan Ty Ba (4 string lute):

The pear-shaped four-stringed lute, known as Ti Ba, was originated from China (Pi pa) but was modified into a smaller size . The frets are placed in diatonic scale. It is a plucked stringed instrument used for vocal accompaniment, in chamber music, in royal music. The playing technique of the Ty Ba is the same as those of the Dan Nguyet. But because of having 4 strings, the Ty ba can play chords by using 4 fingers of the right hand.

Dan Ty Ba

5. Dan Tam (Three string lute):

This instrument is a plucked instrument and was Aso originated from China, the sound box is rectangular-shape and its front surface is covered by snake skin. This is a plucked instrument with three plastic or twisted silk strings, but because there are no frets on its neck, the fingering method of the Dan Tam is much like the Dan Nhi or the Violin.

Dan Tam

6. Dan Nhi (2 string fiddle), Dan Ho (bass fiddle), Dan Gao (Coconut fiddle):

The Dan Nhi is the most important bowed stringed instrument. The sound box is made of bamboo or hard wood with one end covered by snake skin. From two tuning pegs, the two strings pass along the neck and go over a small bridge (con ngua), which is at the center of the snake skin sound board. A bow is drawn between two strings to produce the notes. The playing position of the Dan Nhi is different with the Violin, but their playing technique is almost the same. The fiddle is used in practically all occasions, either alone, with a triad, a quartered or a full band. It appears almost in ceremonial music, royal music, chamber music, and theatrical music.

The Dan Ho is longer than the Dan Nhi, and has a bigger sound box made of hard wood, or is made of coconut like the Dan Gao with two thicker strings. The Dan Ho and Dan Gao have the same playing technique as the Dan Nhi but create lower notes. It is used in solos or to support the first fiddle and is made with the same construction materials.

Dan Nhi

Dan Ho

Dan Gao


7. Dan Bau (monostring):
Dan Bau or Doc Huyen Cam is a monochord of Vietnamese origin. The string passes over a long body and at one end is attached to a tuning screw while at the other passes through a small wooden funnel (trai bau) and connects to a curved stalk made of buffalo horn. This instrument requires a special technique in order to  produce harmonic sounds. To create harmonic sounds, the player uses the back of the hand to attenuate on the string at its exact points where divide the string into 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/8... of its length, and plucks the string by a stick at the same time. By bending the stalk with the other hand, one can produce different notes and various part-tone series. Nowadays, the Dan Bau is mostly played with a small electric amplifier and loudspeaker, so that its faint tone is audible in the orchestral context. The Dan Bau is mostly used to solo, in chamber music, folk music and poetry recitation.

Dan Bau


B. NHAC KHI THOI HOI (Wind instruments)

8. Sao Tieu (horizontal, vertical bamboo flutes):

The flute, also an instrument for vocal accompaniment, is a bamboo tube pierced with several holes. There are six holes are for the fingers, and the seventh one is covered with a thin paper to create vibration to the notes. Two more holes are pierced at one end for a string to pass through, so that the flute could be hung on the wall. At the other end, a bigger oval shaped hole is cut for the player to blow in the flute. The flute is handled horizontally (Sao) or vertically (Tieu) between two hands. The Sao is smaller compared with the Tieu. The children playing Sao on top of the buffalo's back is a very popular symbol Vietnamese peaceful country life. The Sao is very familiar to everyone in countryside. However, the Sao and Tieu is also used in solos, musical ensemble, chamber music, folk music and poetry recitation.




9. Ken (wooden, copper hauboits):

There are 3 diffierent kinds of Ken: The Ken Dai, Ken Trung, Ken Tieu. The Kens, though customary used as a solo instrument, may sometimes be used for vocal accompaniment. It is a wooden conical shaped tube connected at the lower end with a wooden sound-magnifier (Ken Dai or Ken Bau, Ken Tieu) or with a brass sound magnifier (Ken Trung or Ken Thau). The Ken Dai is bigger than the Ken Thau, and the Ken Thau is bigger than the Ken Tieu. The first one creates bass sound, while the other two create middle to high notes. The tube have eight holes for the fingers. At the upper end, there is a piece of rubber tissue (reed), attached to the mouth-piece producing a loud sound when being blown. This instrument is closely associated with funeral, ceremonial or ritual music because of the solemn and sad sounds it creates. It is used in a combo eight instruments in a big band named Bat Am (Eight Sounds).




C. NHAC KHI GO (Percussion)

10. Dan Tam Thap Luc (36 string- Dulcimer):

It is so called Dan Buom (Butterfly instrument) because its original shape looks like a butterfly with 36 strings which are tuned originally in pentatonic scale. Currently the size of this instrument is expanded and modified into a trapezoid shape so that it can carry more strings. The strings are also fixed in chromatic scale with a sound level of over four octaves for playing both Vietnamese and Western music. The instrument is placed on a stand and played by two sticks, which are made of a long and thin bamboo sticks with a soft material piece clued to each end. This instrument can play in solo, but mostly in songs accompaniment.

11. Dan T' rung and Dan Klom-put (Bamboo Xylophones):

These percussion instruments have appeared long ago in the Highlands of the Central Vietnam. These instruments are a combination of bamboo tubes in different sizes, tightened and arranged from smallest to biggest. The sound levels Trung and Klomput are about three octaves which are fixed in pentatonic scale. To play the Trung, the musician uses two bamboo sticks which are tighten with rubber bands or fabric tissues at the ends. To play the Klom-put, the musician, by clapping their hands at the end of each bamboo tube, creates air waves which go through the tubes causing different sounds to be produced . In addition to accompaniment to voices or dances, The Trung and the Klomput can be used in solo, duo, or played together.

12. Sanh Tien (Coin-dappers):

Sanh Tien, or Sinh Tien or Phach Tien, is another instrument of Vietnamese origin. It is composed of three wooden pieces of equal lengths: the first, which has two bamboo sticks and three coins on each stick, is attached with the second. The second, with its inner surface serrated, has a bamboo stick with three coins attached. The third also has a serrated edge. With a special playing technique, these coin clappers can produce the sonority of clappers, scrapers, and sistrum.

To play this instrument the left hand of player holds the first and second pieces, one over other, as in a lever system. The right hand holds the third piece in the manner of holding a violin bow in order to scrape the two other pieces, which are being clapped. The agitation of the coins on the sticks creates a unique rattling sound. This instrument can be used in chamber music, royal music or sometimes with the court dances.

Sanh Tien

13. Song Loan (Castanets):

Song Loan is a hollow wooden instrument about 7 cm in diameter. It is attached to a flexible curved stick with a wooden ball on the other end. It is put on the ground and can be played by using the foot to force the ball to be beat the body of the instrument. The Song Loan is mostly used to keep the beat for the songs in chamber music, theatrical music.


Song Loan


14. Trong Dai, Trong Le, Trong Com, Trong De...(Different kinds of Drum):

Although the clapper can maintain the tempo in musical drama, sometimes the voices of the actors and the sounds of other instruments are so loud that it becomes confusing, then the Trong Le (small drums) is used.

The Trong Le used in pair, a male (bass sound) and a female (treble sound). When cymbals and gongs are used, the Trong Le not only helps to keep the beat, but also creates rapid staccatos between the sounds of the brass instruments for special effects The Trong Le are used in opera, ceremonial or ritual music.

Trong Le

The Trong Dai (big drum) and the gong are used in military and religious ceremonies. In opera, it is used to create war effects. The big drums are carried by two men with a pole over their shoulders or it can be set up inclining on the ground with the use of a rack. In a drum dance, the big drum is the center piece surrounded by the small drums. The drummer selected for the center piece is usually a big and muscular man. The big drum is made of a wooden frame covered with cowhide.

Trong Dai

The Trong Com (rice drum) is a small portable drum carried by a string over the neck of the leading man of a parade or procession. This is a tunable percussion. The pitch of the drum can be changed by sticking a little or a lot of cooked rice on the two surface of the drum. This drum is played by hands and is also used to keep tempo for the march or accompany to the song of ceremonial music or operas.

trong com


The Trong De is a small drum used with other instruments in traditional drama of the North (Hat Cheo). To play this instrument, the musician needs to learn many complicated rhythms in order to successfully accompany the songs or the act of performers.

Trong De

15. Phach (The clappers):

Besides being used at the Geisha houses (Nha Co Dau) or in chamber music in Central Vietnam, It is the main instrument in Vietnamese opera (Hat Boi) for keeping beat. While musicians of Western orchestra keep beat by following the baton of the conductor, Vietnamese instrumentalists listen to the beat indicated by the sounds of the clapper. The clapper is made of two pieces (In Central, South) to three (In North) of hard wood. One or two of which is used as sticks to beat on the other to make loud resonant sounds. It somewhat works like the Spanish castanets, but makes much louder noises.




16. Chieng (Gongs):

There are different kinds of gongs. The small gong is similar to the large gong, and is used alternately with the Drums and other percussion in occasions of religious ceremonies, ceremonial music, royal music, theatrical music. This instrument can be carried by one hand or by a stand, and being beaten by a stick on the other hand.


17. Mo (Wooden beatkeeper):

This is another percussion instrument used as a beat keeper in music band of ceremonial music. It's a round deep hollow wooden piece. There are so many sizes of Mo. Each can create a different sound to others. The Mo is also used by the monks in Buddhist Pagoda at the praying time.



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