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THE Past History of Vietnamese Music


The music of Vietnam and its history are too complex to be described briefly. True, to a large

extent, Vietnamese music was handed down from one generation to another. I am spending my

life studying music of every corner of the country, and am fortunate, however, in having some

various written and oral sources on my research.

It is hoped that the present information will prove both informative and entertaining to those who

have been attracted to Vietnamese music. The exact ethnological origin of the Vietnamese

music is not clearly known. In addition to the Chinese, Korean, Mongolian and Southeast

Asian’s influences found in archeological remnants, there seems to be something that can only

be explained as indigenously Vietnamese.

Along with Chinese literature, architecture, government, and religion, Vietnam had adopted

Chinese music models and developed music of her own. However, in the process of adaptation,

the system was likely reshaped by the Vietnamese people according to their own well

established habit.

Western music is easily understood by Westerners because it is part of their own heritage. A

large part of Vietnamese music is either incomprehensible to them or greatly oversimplified for

them by convenient stereotypes provided by only partially-informed writers, who sometimes

confuse it with that of China. Therefore, before Westerners could understand Vietnamese

music, they must first have an idea of its place in the general history of Vietnam.

Because of her geographical locations, Vietnam belongs as much to East-Asia as to South-

Asia. Moreover, Vietnam was under Chinese domination for a thousand years (from the 1st to

the 10th century). Besides, at the crossroads of peoples and civilization, Vietnam was also in

touch with the people of the ancient Indianized Kingdom of Champa (The Cham still exist in

greatly reduced number as one of the ethnic minorities in Viet Nam today).

Vietnamese music, like Vietnamese culture, is primarily East Asian rather than Southeast Asian.

Its closest affinities are to China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. This combination of influences

has produced a sophisticated and multifaceted musical culture, and it is not surprising that

Vietnamese music shares many characteristics with that of China. Among the common items

are the Pentatonic (five-tone) scale, and more than a dozen instruments, some of which are

central to the music of both cultures.

Vietnam has many kinds of music, and many varieties of each musical form: The North, The

Center and The South have their own kinds of music including:

- Court music – (which has eight subdivisions)

- Ceremonial and Religious music – The prayers of thanks and supplications of

remembrance. (Religions include Buddhism, Confucianism, and Caodaiism)

- Music for Entertainment – (roughly comparable to Western Chamber music)

- Folk music and the ethnic minorities – provide even more variety with their own

ceremonies, dances and songs.

- Musical Theater, long popular in Vietnam, divides clearly into three sections:

- The Folk Opera of the North – resembles the opera comic and the Renovated Theater

of the South (Hat Cai luong).

- The Classical Theater of the Central – akin to grand opera called the “Hat Boi”. Legend

claims that the “Hat Boi” was initially brought to Viet Nam from China by a Chinese

invasion soldier who was captured by the Vietnamese army. 

- The Renovated Theater of the South (Hat Cai Luong) – a kind of operetta. It was born

in the twentieth century as a mixture of Chamber music, French theater, and traditional


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