International conference The art of đờn ca tài tử and styles of improvisation, Ho Chi Minh city, january 2011

International conference The art of đờn ca tài tử and styles of improvisation.


 From the 9th to the 11th of January 2011, in Hồ Chí Minh City, The Vietnamese Institute for Musicology cooperated with the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Hồ Chí Minh, the representative agency of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to hold the international conference The art of đờn ca tài tử and styles of improvisation. The participants attracted over 100 delegates, including cultural administrators, folk artists of 21 Southern provinces, professors, researchers, and scholars at home and abroad such as France, Germany, Cyprus, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Japan. In three conference days, the delegates had chance to listen to 33 papers. They also scientifically discussed about and evaluated many aspects of the art of đờn ca tài tử such as history, musicology, spread, realistic life of this art form as well as methods of preservation and dissemination. Followed the scientific bulletin No. 32 and 33, we would like to introduce some papers presented at the conference in this scientific bulletin No. 34.





According to the documents of researchers, Southern artists, and đờn ca tài tử and cải lương lovers, Southern đờn ca tài tửhas the development history of over 100 years. Its development history is very young, compared with that of a nation with thousands of years old. However, this musical genre has admirable development not only because of its fast development speed but also on account of its struggle with harsh environment.

We will be on the track of the most important stages in the formation and development process of đờn ca tài tử from the beginning point, at which foundations were laid for the fetus of this musical genre.

In the first half of the nineteenth century

When Mr. Nguyễn became the King and chose the Middle as the capital city. Political, social, cultural, and artistic institutions, among which were musical ones, especially nhạc lễ ceremonial-music ones, considerably impacted the whole country, particularly the South. The South was influenced by the Nguyễn for over 200 years when they ruled it.

In the last half of the nineteenth century

The French colonialist invaded our country. The Vietnamese country fell into harsh situation – cruel war, death, and oppression, which caused people’s groan under the yoke of slavery, great misery, and deep resentment. Ridiculously, đờn ca tài tử was born at that time and it reflected Vietnamese residents’ painful cry and indignation against invaders soon afterwards. It also reminded people not to forget the sore of losing the country and to be unyielding in resisting Western artistic and musical trends, penetrating into the country, to protect our national spirit.

In fact, in the background of the last half of the nineteenth century, at which the national disaster happened and the regime of the Nguyễn dynasty was shaky, royal music and entertainments gradually fell into decay. Royal chamber music – Huế singing and instrument playing – leaked to the common people community through royal artists and was then disseminated to other places, which were Quảng region and even the South. Although this musical type did not lay the first foundation for forming the movement đờn ca tài tử in the South, it was one of the factors, significantly impacting the development of đờn ca tài tử in the South as presented above.

Đờn ca tài tử has been the secular popular music in Southern residents’ daily life for long time. However, it orginated from the nhạc lễ ceremonial music in this land. Đờn ca tài tử experienced two stages – the stage of instrumental music and the stage of vocal-instrumental music – for the development from nhạc lễ ceremonial music. According to some Southern researchers such as Vương Hồng Sển, in the past funerals of Southern people, monks and instrumentalists often asked house owners to serve them rice soup for their vigil after the services of sacrifice or prayers recitation. On those occassions, they often performed ensembles for keeping them awake, which became a habit. Therefore, the orchestra was invited to perform in every funeral, new-house celebration, new-mandarin welcome, happy-occasion celebration, or wedding. This habit laid the foundation for the birth of the instrumental-music movement (known as đờn cây movement which consists of music performed by string instruments without percussion), which is the forerunner of đờn ca tài tử.

Being favourite and combined with the trend of the ancient music1 from the Middle, the đờn cây movement increasingly developed. The repertoires of this musical type were from ceremonial music and supplemented by those of Huế music and adapted musical pieces of bội singing (classical theatre). Because of the public demand, the songs of this musical genre were written and song composers complemented the orchestra. The đờn cây movement was gradually turned into đờn ca tài tử movement with progressively copious repertoires. At first, it had only 20 principal musical pieces, remarkably influenced by the repertoires of Huế music. This influence was happening in the next stage until the Southern tài tử circle composed ten kinds of basic pieces in the beginning of the twentieth century.

As a result, it was not unreasonable for the researcher Đắc Nhẫn to suppose that the đờn cây movement originated from some services of sacrifice, transmitted to common people’s life and that it was a part of the nhạc lễ ceremonial-music orchestra without performing drums, kèn wind instruments, and percussion instruments with some nhạc lễ musical pieces composed new lyrics and some musical pieces of nhã nhạc court music of the Middle. It was certainly influenced by bội singing and especially the creativeness of the Southern tài tử circle in the next stage. When tài tử developed, it stepped into the mature stage: hơi Oán (Oán nuance) and Oán repertoires shortly afterwards.

The development process of đờn ca tài tử is very similar to that of Huế music, from ceremonial music, chamber music, and instrumental music to vocal and instrumental music. The only difference is Huế music was born in the imperial palace in the Nguyễn dynasty in the Middle while đờn ca tài tử came into existence in the green gardens of Southern common people.

Because this musical genre was born and nurtured in the common-people community, it became the mean of demonstrating common people’s feeling and it developed very strongly. From the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, several tài tử songs were composed, which expressed the cry of the people losing their country, the mothers losing their children, or the wives losing their husbands. Văn Thiên Tường of Mr. Trần Văn Thọ was composed to commemorate Nguyễn Hữu Huân – the first of one school year – soon after this patriot was killed by the French colonist in Mỹ Tho. Ba Đợi or Ba Đại wrote Bát ngự on the occasion of the King Thành Thái’s trip to Sài Gòn between 1898 and 1899 to express the common people’s respect to this King. They still respected the King and loved the country, although they were abandoned by the court in the war from 1859 to 1894. Tứ bửu of Mr. Nhạc Khị2  expressed the utmost pain of the people, losing their country and their houses. According to Trần Phước Thuận, when the author composed Ai tử kê (it was called Ái tử kê Bạc Liêu afterwards), he related the panic of the small chickens, losing their mother, with the French’s invasion over our country, Huế court’s surrender to the invaders, and Huế court’s abandonment of common people in pain and panic. This song was evaluated as a wonderful composition with the bass and high melody, which was like people’s angry complaint and portraited the colour of country losers.

That sorrow and that resentment were the source of creating special hơi Oán (Oán nuance) and Oán musical pieces, which are only available in Southern ancient music – the origin of the movement đờn ca tài tử.

The first two decades of the twentieth century

Because đờn ca tài tử expressed people’s feeling, the movement đờn ca tài tử has increasingly developed everywhere, from busy cities to the most desolate places such as Đồng Tháp Mười or U Minh forest. According to Đắc Nhẫn, in these areas, “in cosy houses with tightly-closed windows and doors for moquito resistence, when firewood was burn in the ovens, music was played, which was the warmest moment. It was ill-fated for the people, who were still doubtful and had unserious attitude, to be asked for leaving those houses straightly”.

In Đắc Nhẫn’s opinion, thanks to the quick development of the movement đờn ca tài tử, not only the artists’ professional ability has improved promptly but also the people’s level of enjoying music has been significantly enhanced. This author wrote: “concerts were usually followed by ebullient discussions. Young and old generations proposed different opinions about performance issues. They discussed playing techniques with the spirit of protecting and developing this art as their task”. Regarding folk artists, “the folk artists, who become teachers, must be very professional and experience several challenges to be talentful and prestigious enough”. Through the writings in newspapers and books in the South from the first decades to the fiftieth or sixtieth decades of the twentieth century, we could clearly feel Southern ancient music lovers’ great command of this art.

The exchange and the competitions between Western and Eastern tài tử troupes at this time made important contribution to the development of đờn ca tài tử in terms of the playing techniques; vocal techniques; note taking; systematization; adaptation of ancient musical pieces; and trainings for singers, instrumentalists, and composers, which leaded to the strong development of the movement of composing songs, following the ancient music style. According to the artist Ba Vân, about in 1910, in addition to the hò, lý, or ngâm melodies, there were three Nam, six Bắc, four Oán, seven big pieces, eight Ngự, and ten successive pieces in the South. Although basic tài tử repertoires, which included 20 principal musical pieces, could be summarized in the formula “Nhất lý, Nhì ngâm, Tam nam, Tứ oán, Ngũ điếm, Lục xuất, Thất chính, Bát ngự, Cửu nhĩ, andThập thủ liên hườn”. The past tài tử circle considered up to 72 pieces as the maximum threshold, which instrumentalists had to spend time and effort on practicing to achieve skillfulness as the late composer Nguyễn Văn Thinh advised the author of this writing: “Thậm đa lịch luyện thất thập nhị huyền công”. Furthermore, there were numberless variants and new compositions of talented composers and artists. Many of these compositions, which were the musical heritages, have been preserved for posterity until now.

The prompt development of đờn ca tài từ continued. About in 1914 and 1915, after the first appeal for innovating dramas, Southern artists swiftly created changes in this art with the spirit of innovation. Starting from being performed only inside houses for friends, family members, or neighbors and on the river under sparkling moonlight, đờn ca tài tử was performed under splendid limelight and it was innovated in terms of performance styles. Approprimately ten years, the singing style Tứ đại oánBùi Kiệm – Nguyệt Nga” was the suggestion to form the singings tyles ca ra bộ, hát chập, hát lớp, and finally a reformed theatre performed on stage – a new theatre, which was considered as the King of music at that time (known askịch hát “vua”) – which was spread the most widely in the whole country in the twentieth century: hát cải lương or cải lươngreformed theatre.

From the popularity of cải lương up to now

Although this stage was long and this art experienced many ups and downs in life, there was no big sudden and big change as there was in the previous stage. During that stage of over half a century, đờn ca tài tử has had to confront the new challenges – the expansion and the vehement attractiveness of cải lương theatre and then Vietnamese innovative music. In addition, the American and European cultural and artistic trends has penetrated into our country and significantly impacted people’s habits, living styles, and tastes.

Under that situation, even the kịch hát “vua” was staggered many times and was gradually hybrid, sometimes following the western style and sometimes the asian style. However, regardless of all difficulties, đờn ca tài tử continued its trip, adapted to the new times, and was ready to accept the new for development, but preserved its innate nature. It existed in two forms at the same time: the chamber music for the people with close relation as it was in the past and the stage music in public or the music, broadcasted on newly-imported mass media or kept in VCD, CD, and DVD. More importantly, đờn ca tài tử was not replaced or ruined by new singing styles. In contrast, it became the stable and strong support for the development of cải lương theatre.

In reality, many artists at this time were both the members of tài tử troupes and the members of cải lương teams. There was not discrimination between tài tử or cải lương circles in the dead anniversary of the ancient-music progenitor. However, the subtlety and the quintessence of ancient music have been seriously preserved only in đờn ca tài tử. The artist Bảy Nhiêu remarked: “Singing on stage is easier than tài tử singing. The researcher Đắc Nhẫn commented on instrument playing: “The performance technique of tài tử orchestras is more subtle than that of staged art and it has a marvellous attractiveness”. Therefore, it is understandable that đờn ca tài tử has become the training source for many famous singers and instrumentalists not only for tài tử music but also cải lương one. The compositions of tài tử artists enrich not only tài tửrepertoires but also cải lương ones.

Nevertheless, đờn ca tài tử and cải lương had an interactive relation. Cải lương not only depended on đờn ca tài tử but also transmited youthful vitality to đờn ca tài tử, which born and was the firm support of cải lương. First of all, cải lương stimulated the boom of the movement of composing new musical pieces in accordance with ancient music style in tài tử circle. The terminologies “cầm ca tân điệu” and“cổ nhạc canh tân” (innovative ancient music) were born at that time. In the twentieth century, hundreds of musical pieces of this style were composed and many of them were performed in đờn ca tài tử and cải lương activities. Many comtemporary artists and descendant artists still remember Mộng Vân – a prominent phenomenon in the above movement of innovative compositions. Together with the strong and wide expansion of cải lương, ancient and new compositions of the Southern tài tử circle has travelled nationwide, even to neighboring countries, in which the oversea Vietnamese live, and to other far nations through several ways.

Đờn ca tài tử has been thus in harmony with cải lương and they have efficiently supported each other for their development, preservation, and reception of new factors. Accordingly, both of them can develop well thanks to people’s confidence and strong pride in the national ancient-music heritage under the condition of overwhelming exotic music and art as well as new domestic ones. The name “Vietnamese ancient music”, which was named by Hậu Giang tài tử group, has dignified national ancient music with the implication of their respect towards “Western ancient music”, which several contemporary people admire as the sole pinnacle of international music. It is the manifestation of confidence and pride.

The development of đờn ca tài tử and cải lương not only was the motive for the development of singing, instrument-playing, and composition art, but also created the impetus of the development of instrument making and ancient-music compilation. These activities flowered with published compilations and research of Trịnh Thiên Tư (Ancient music), Võ Tấn Hưng (Cổ nhạc tầm nguyên), Hậu Giang artists (Vietnamese ancient music), and Lê Văn Tiếng (Cầm ca tân điệu) in the South, Đinh Lạn – Sỹ Tiến (Instruction of using some traditional instruments through cải lương repertoires) and Đắc Nhẫn – Ngọc Thới (Cải lương repertoires) in the Northin the fiftieth and sixtieth decades. Although these works deal with cải lương music, they help the public to understand Southern ancient music more deeply. Moreover, there are several valuable writings on newspaper and magazine.

Like cải lương, tài tử circle has early experimented with many new Western instruments for ancient-music performance such as violins, mandolins, or guitars. However, not messy like cải lương, tài tử circle has adopted these instruments selectively. The most successful achievements were admitting the Spanish guitar with hollowed-out finger board to “the ancient-music village” with the new name “lục huyền cầm” and the violin with the new name “vĩ cầm” that has some modifications to its strings. They supplemented the ancient-music orchestra with new consonances, but did not cause this traditional music to lose its innate nature.

At the last half of the twentieth century, although being degraded, compared to the past, in addition to activities and performances of đờn ca tài tử, the movement of ancient-music composition and research kept going. The research on applying Yin and Yang five basic elements to composition and the musical pieces Ngũ châu minh Phổ of the musician Nguyễn Văn Thinh, born in 1979 in the East, Tứ bửu Liêu thành of the musician Lê Tài Khí (Nhạc Khị), and other published small and big research works were the evidences of the above statement.

Up to now, đờn ca tài tử is still practiced in Southern provinces as the indispensible spiritual demand of the public. Many repertoires are still taught in artistic schools and private classes of folk artists and artists nationwide and internationally. Some young people learn this sophisticated art. Although being nearly 100 years old, the famous musician Nguyễn Vĩnh Bảo continues to teach students this valuable ancient music in the whole country. Although being very old, the researcher Trương Bỉnh Tòng is still devoted to do profound research on Southern ancient music. In addition to them, many talented artists and young researchers continue this work.

Đờn ca tài tử is really a big phenomenon in contemporary Vietnamese music, which is people’s inheritance and preservation with their confidence and pride in the traditional artistic culture heritages. Furthermore, it is the people’s activeness, which means continuously adopting new factors to adapt to the new times. It is not only a product of culture and human being of Vietnam but also a typical pattern of Vietnam vitality in the modern time, a good example for forever – not just only for traditional music circle but also for new music circle in the inheritance, preservation and development to adapt to the new times.

At the end of this writing, I would like to express my great gratitude to Southern folk artists, artists and researchers, who protect, develop, and conserve this special music for the descendants like me to have the chance of considerably understanding Vietnamese people in Southern land, very resilient, broad-minded, and audacious. These people have made significant contribution to the development of Vietnamese ancient music, which was thought that it could not exist under the oppression of invaders and overwhelming penetration waves of Western art and music.


                                      MA. DƯƠNG BÍCH HÀ


Huế is the land of poetry and music. Its characteristic is the natural amalgamation among the folk, the urban, and the royal; and is the difficult-to-delimit boundary between the scholarly and the folk, between the suburbs and the urban area.

Huế folk songs, born on the land with many specific characteristics, thus bring the Vietnamese folk-song panorama special features. These folk songs reflect the activities of the working class, Confucian scholars, and mandarins as well. Therefore, Huế folk songs are of the folk music nature and formal music nature as well.

Similar to other art forms, there are always the folk and the scholarly music in the traditional music. Despite the difference in their characteristics, nature, repertoires, performance condition, performance, those two musical currents always influence on each other.

The musical tune of Huế scholarly music originates from the folk tune of Huế folk songs; the sound of Huế singing and music originates from the tune and voice of Huế people. Accordingly, those who are not a connoisseur will not be able to distinguish Huế singing or the folk songs.

Music plays a significant meaning and role since it shows many elements such as Huế-language phonology, culture, festivities, and faiths. Those imply sentiments, knowledge, material, and spirit in the life of Huế people. The folk music, in particular the folk songs is always affected by phonology and voice, Huế language with Chăm morpheme is defined by linguists. We see that Huế music shows very clearly its vocal feature that cannot help being infected by Chăm element. Due to the limited time, we just present some Chăm elements in Huế folk beliefs such as Bà Lồi sanctuary and Bà Giàng sanctuary in Tháp hamlet – Quảng Điền district, Thiên Mụ pagoda and the meeting and mix between Mother of the Việt people – princess Liễu and Mother of Champa – Ms. Thiên Y A Na, and princess Ngọc at Hòn Chén temple. The vague Việt culture of ancient Thuận Hóa was mixed with Champa culture. When the Việt culture became prominent and was supplemented with new features, there was an integration between Champa and Vietnamese culture. Additionally, the new voice (Huế voice) led to the local and specific color. Huế culture got influence from Việt – Mường culture that emigrated in 1306 from the North, influence from Sa Huỳnh culture of Champa, and the exotic culture imported by the monks or merchants from China, Japan, France, and Italy to Huế. Huế music has the clear relation with the “narrow” voice of Huế. How did the process form this special voice’s timbre? If the landmark is 1306, since when did the inhabitants of đàng ngoài (the North) change to use that voice (with few tonemarks). The contact environment took place among the Việt people of the North, then who did they learn from? If it was because the contact with the local inhabitants, why do the Việt people living from Quảng Nam to the South have different voice’s timbre? We leave this issue for the fields of linguistics, anthropology, and ethnology!

The process to change from a timbre to another completely-new one is quite complicated, here we just present an issue: Was Huế voice formed before the appearance of specificities in Huế chanty and Huế tunes? Or, the “degeneracy” process of the Northern timbre formed the specificities of Huế music?

From our point of view, although the folk singing and music is formed basing on the specific phonology and intonation, the singing and music did appear before the voice was fixed. This process takes place parallel and becomes complete gradually. Specificity of Huế voice in comparison with others leaves marks very clearly and creates the special identities for Huế music!

A characteristic in the formation and development history of Huế scholarly music is the appearance of chamber music (the present-day Huế singing known as ca Huế). Because the court music degraded gradually, it has been performed not only in the Court but among the common people as well. In addition to Huế, it has left much influence over Quảng Trị, Quảng Nam, Quảng Nghĩa. It followed the migrants to the South and developed gradually a new form, i.e. the South tài tử music which is the forerunner of the reformed theater (so-called cải lương).

To base on Huế place-name (the formerly Thuận Hóa), people gave the name of Huế singing to the ancient singing and music. Mr. Ưng Bình Thúc Giạ Thị said, “Singing is called Huế singing because the voice of Huế people is suitable to this singing; people in the North of Huế region such as in Quảng Trị, Quảng Bình can sing well. People in Linh Giang dĩ Bắc, Hải Vân Quan dĩ Nam can also sing, but even good singers of these places still shows little difference in voice…”. Huế singing is the bridge and the harmonious combination between the folk and scholarly with regard to the structure, performance style and content as well. According to Prof. Tô Vũ (in Vitality of Vietnamese traditional music.Music Publishing House, 1996), “…about the music content, the most special part is under influence of the folk chanty and lý tunes, accordingly, Huế singing performs a special charm that meets the aesthetic demand of not only the silk-stocking but the grassroots as well…”. For instance, lý Huế tune presents the neat and close structure, fine lyrics, and profound thought like Huế singing, thus not having boundary with Huế singing. It penetrates gradually into some Huế singing’s repertoires, such as the tune Lý giao duyên ( tune about the dual love) (Fa, sixteen Sol note, eight Do note joins Do, and eight La note: …cách phá Tam giang…), and effects each other with Tứ đại cảnh( Fa, sixteen Sol note, the eight Do note, a group of four notes: La, Sol, La, Sol…) via such methods as imitation, the length extension or shortening, etc, and some folklores that also affect Huế singing with many different methods.

Huế singing with the performance methods, the fine nuance treatment is formed basing on two main modes, i.e. Bắc (Kháchnuance) and Nam. It has the same “nuance” (known as hơi) system that presents each kind of nuance such as Dựng nuance,Đảo nuance, Thiền nuance, Nhạc nuance, Xuân nuance, Thương nuance, Ai nuance, Oán nuance, thus creating its own specific style.

Most folk artists and researchers suppose that Bắc tune is jubilant, pure, solemn and flexible while Nam tune is sorrowful, woeful, and some repertoires are not-joyful-not-sad. Some people said that Northern repertoires belong to Bắc tune, while Southern repertoires belong to Nam tune! In our opinion, viewpoints are not right to some extent because melodies, singing lyrics, and performances in some repertoires, although they are jubilant, pure, and flexible, do not belong to Bắc tune. For example, A Xá folk song of the North, entitled Mưa rơi (rain) with d f g a h d, belongs to Oán tune. Đợi chờ (waiting), folk song of the Central Highlands with d f g a c d, belongs to Nam (Ai); or Lý cây bông ( tune about the cotton tree), the Southern folk song with d f g a c d, belongs to Nam (Ai). However, here we just present the opinion of some individuals, it takes time to acknowledge and analyze more thoroughly!

Some Huế folk singers and instrumentalists confirm that Huế rarely call Bắc tune or Nam tune, usually call Khách repertoire orNam repertoire. This can be the way of calling of tuồng (classical drama) stage: Khách singing (together with Xướng, Thán, etc) written as Bắc singing by the Confucianism. Or, it can be the tune of cung Bắc that marks four cung (tones) and two prosodies in 15th century (Hồng Đức dynasty), i.e. Cung Hoàng chung, cung Nam, cung Bắc, cung Đại thực; and two prosodies:Luật âm and Dương kiều.

Possibly, for unanimity, we still call Bắc and Nam

Bắc tune (Khách nuance) consists of: Do – , Ré – Xự (higher, vibrating), Fa – Xang, Sol – Xê (clapping), La – Cống (vibrating); with the joyful, flexible, and solemn nature.

Nam tune (Ai nuance) consists of: Do – (higher, vibrating), Ré – Xự (lower), Fa – Xang (higher, vibrating), Sol – , La –Cống; with the sad, missing and commiserate nature.

The folk artist Trần Thảo in Huế said, “There is Bắc tune (Khách nuance) in all three regions, however, there is Nam tune (Ai nuance) in Huế only …”

Prof. Dr. Trần Văn Khê said, “The difference between Bắc tune and Nam tune is the equal or unequal scales….”. Many secondary tones or weak tones appear the unequal pentatonic scale of Nam tune. Those are usually attracted by the main tones (strong tones). This phenomenon makes an equal scale become the unequal one that decides the song / tune’s nature (such as color, the quick and slow rhythms, the kinds of tune changes as above-mentioned make Huế singing and music lissome and sophisticated).

The singing of folk artist: using the pressing and ligature, the way of breath taking, using the quite complicated throat’s voice and falsetto that can be supposed as the vocal techniques of ả đào singing.

Instrumentalists possess skilled techniques. Many different playing techniques of pressing are used such as semitone, a tone, a tone and a half, two tones or even three tones from the pressing to , pressing and glissando, pressing and jumping, pressing and vibrating (known as nhấn vuốt, nhấn mổ, nhấn nhảy, nhấn rung). In addition, there are more than ten techniques such as pizzicato, pressing, gallop, mute, and arpeggio.

Each tune of Huế singing and music creates the nuance system, each nuance describes each sentimental nuance, the innermost feeling, or different styles:

Bắc tune: consisting of four nuances:

+ Quảng nuance: is the musical nuance of repertoires that shows more or less the sonority of the musical features of the Sourthern China.

+ Đảo nuance: belongs to Bắc tune,has many paragraphs that change the scale system, which is called Ngũ cung đảo (the reverse pentatonic scale).

+ Thiền nuance (so-called Lễ nuance in books, the players rarely use this word): shows the sonority of Buddhism music.

+ Nhạc nuance: is one of the important nuances that show the solemn, refined and grand style (Lê Văn Hảo – A precious source in the traditional music treasure. The music magazine Vol. 3. 1987).

Nam tune consists of four nuances, i.e. Xuân, Thương, Ai, and Oán.

According to Ms. Quỳnh Nga, a lecturer of Huế Culture and Art College, Bắc tune (Khách nuance and Thiền nuance) in Huế is called hò sol g (, clapping), a (xự, vibrating), c (xang, clapping), d (, clapping), and e (cống, vibrating) in accordance with hò sol system. The style of vibrato is quick and light with unchanged pitches. Vỗ is the one-time clapping with the bright nature and unchanged pitches. As for the performance of Khách-nuance repertoires including Cổ bản, Lưu thủy, and Lộng điệp, its speed is quicker than that in Thiền -nuance repertoires, Lễ – nuance repertoires namely Long ngâm, Ngũ đối thượng.Nam tune comprises only Ai nuance, Dựng nuance and Xuân nuance (which is written Xuân nuance and Dựng nuance in books, the folk artist Nguyễn Văn Đời does not accept the Dựng nuance and Xuân nuance because he supposes that there is only a song whose treatment is similar to Ai nuance). Ms. Quỳnh Nga believes that all of them belong to Nam tune because the prelude (so-called Dựng nuance and Xuân nuance) must be presented before the performance. The vibrating at hò – xang, and the clapping at the rest strings is realized during performance. It is written in the MA thesis of Hải Phượng (2003) that xuân nuance of Huế vibrates at xự – cống, which Ms. Quỳnh Nga supposes as completely wrong. In her opinion, it will beNam xuânNam bình if leaving the beginning rhythmic pattern. As for Nam xuân, there appear the notes lower cống (known as cống non) and the notes lower ú (known as ú non) although it is still at the vibrating hò – xang axis. It isn’t known why Prof. Dr. Trần Văn Khê as well as the book Huế singing handbook (the Department of Culture and Information of Thừa Thiên – Huế) suppose that the songs Tứ đại cảnh, Hành vân, Nam bình belong to Dựng nuance? In practice, for performance, the above pieces are at the Sol string system, and vibrate at Sol (hò, higher) – Do (xang, higher), and clap at La (xự) – Ré () – Fa (cống) in which the variant cống (F flat) sometimes appears. Additionally, each is different from each other depending on how much slow and deep the vibration is. Normally, these songs usually vibrate at xang (the deep vibration with the quite high tolerance pitch – not reaching ); vibrating at is similar to xàng but not as prior as xang. It should clap at xự and , and clap at cống later. The frequency of vibration notes in a whole is high or low depending on each song/tune. The vibrato technique at notes and the successive clapping is Huế’s specificity, which makes audience very stirred. This way of treatment is also used in lullabies, at the beginning of tunes, Huế reciting uses the vibration note at its note’s tag). As such, many tones are used to express sadness. Vibration and clapping is done sometimes strongly and sometimes weakly depending on mood and time. The sound is a little lower if clapping is done weakly and the sound is a little higher if clapping is done strongly. Accordingly, a specificity of traditional music is the orally-transmited professional teaching, which shows all of the soul and sophistications of songs and tunes. As for the usage of Cổ bản tune (Cổ bản Dựng), some lazy people just change the treatment way of vibrato and clapping and couple the singing lyrics because these two songs match each other in term of the syntax, which is still not correct. However similar the writing and performance is (the hò – xangfrequence is set up and appears very suitably, thus, the vibration note drops at hò – xang very naturally), it cannot createDựng nuance by simply using a Bắc tune and creating the breath vibration. This can explain the following question: as for the same scale, what is the appearing sound axis? (In the scale: g a c d e g, the group of three notes: ga (vibration) cis usually used in Thiền tune (Lễ: Long ngâm, Long đăng).

Besides, there is a nuance considered as the intermediate nuance between Bắc (North) and Nam (South) which is a bridge between sadness and joy. It belongs to the non-sad and non-joyful repertoires and the harmony between the joy and sadness: like the major scale whose melody uses the submediant and leading tone of the natural minor scale in Western music so-called Dựng nuance (the folk artist Trần Thảo, using Do system, supposes that people base on the manner of Cổ bản tune – Khách nuance and use the scale of Nam tune, thus, being called Cổ bản dựng. It is not the normal Cổ bản as people usually call). In practice, the folk artists perform the Huế chamber music still used Nam tune (Ai nuance), i.e. the appoggiaturas, legato, vibration, slapping, pressing belong to Ai nuance, not Dựng nuance. According to the folk artist Trần Thảo, it is not right that the folk artists list Tứ đại, Hành vân in Dựng nuance; and the folk artist who perform these tunes usually use Nam tune (Ai nuance). In the South, it becomes Dựng nuance when the folk artists combine Xuân nuance (jubilant) with Đảo nuance (deep). We see that the piece Đăng đàn cung (Ngũ lôi) in Huế belongs to Bắc tune (Kháchnuance), the folk artists sometimes do not understand or arbitrarily vibrate at xang (it is not allowed to vibrate at xang inKhách nuance), those researchers who hear and list in the group of repertoires that are close to Quảng nuance. In practice, this song has been popularized over time; Or, the song Phú lục chậm of Huế singing belongs to Bắc tune (Khách nuance), it partly shows Thiền nuance, and the song Phú lục nhanh shows the specificity of Khách nuance!

According to the folk artists, a piece of Bắc tune that vibrate at hò, xang and clap at (the vibrato principle of Nam tune) will become another nuance so-called Dựng nuance. On the contrary, a piece of Nam tune (written basing on the scale ofNam tune, xự and cống degrees appear much at strong beat) is two vibrating degrees of Bắc tune, and the nuance is not as sad as in the nature of Nam tune. It is quite inclined to Bắc tune and creates the non-sad and non-joyful nuance and is listed in Dựng nuance.

People set up the nuance for singing (music) to create the effect different from the normal singing (or music performance) so-called Dựng nuance. That is a way of “…changing the nuance, which is similar to the composition treatment in Western music, such as changing from Ai to Oán, changing from the song Tứ đại cảnh to Tứ đại oán. It is called Dựng nuance” (Văn Lang – Huế singing and Huế opera. Thuận Hóa Publishing House. 1993).

The second opinion does not show what is the “difference from the normal singing nuance”?  Which is the nuance in the rhythmic patterns or scale? The first opinion does not mention the meaning of the word “Dựng” and its changes. In the way of classification of nuances in Huế traditional singing and music, researchers divide many different ways, though there are two main ways as below:

  • The first way: divide in detail like the way of division into four nuances of Bắc tune and four nuances of Nam tune.
  • The second way: divide into groups

+ Group of pieces in Nam tune, comprising Ai nuance – Dựng nuance.

+ Group of pieces in Khách tune, comprising Khách nuance – Dựng nuance.

The color-varying outline of repertoires in Huế singing (from sadness to joy, from darkness to brightness).

Repertoires of Nam tune

Repertoires of Bắc tune

Ai nuance

Dựng nuance

Khách nuance

+ Quả phụ

+ Nam ai

+ Nam bình

+ Tương tư khúc

+ Nam xuân

+ Tứ đại

+ Hành vân

+ Cổ bản dựng

+ Phú lục chậm

+ Ngũ đối thượng

+ Long ngâm

+ Cổ bản

+ Lộng điệp

+ Phú lục nhanh

+ Lưu thủy

+ Mười bản ngự

We see that the first way just bases on the pieces’ tonality to rank and does not show the concrete differences by systematical music, such as the distinguishment between this nuance and other nuance of Bắc tune and Nam tune. The second way just presents the only typical nuance of Nam tune, i.e. Ai nuance with the familiar musical scale (having flat xự, sharp xang, flat cống degrees). Dựng nuance has both Bắc tune and Nam tune, and converges into a kind of nuance so-called Khách nuance with the correct pentatonic scale (natural, unequal).

As for the musical instruments, the tuning of the strings is being done in many ways, each of which presents a sound system such as Nam string, Bắc string, Oán string, Thuận string, Nghịch string, Nguyệt diều string, Hò nhì string, Hò ba string. Those perform the music with such sophisticated and complicated techniques as pressing, glissando, and vibrato. The folk artists usually show their talent and playing techniques via the different nuances and voices on the skeletal melodies, which creates many variants with high creativeness. The music performance way of folk artists in Huế is called an overall of legato, sliding, vibrating. That creates the sweet and smooth sound. The instrumentalists must follow the above regulations to show the kind of nuances in Huế singing.

The color-mixing phenomenon in Huế singing is from low to high, from simple to sophisticated, thus enriching the repertoires. There are some methods as follows:

– To use the auxiliary chord as an embellishment: in such songs as Phẩm tuyết, Liên hoàn, Phú lục, Hồ quảng, Nam ai, Quả phụ (belonging to the scale of Nam tune). Because the piece is very long; and the musical piece would become very long and reduces its value if there were not the note Fa – Phan.

– To use the modes in order to create the unique color with the new and strange sonority, and then to return the former tune. The pieces Quả phụ, Tương tư khúc, Hành vân are one of the best pieces because of its succinct and close composition’s form, and the liberal and lyrical melody as well. The interminglement of modes of these pieces creates the new and strange color and then returning the old voice, which ensures the constancy of the main harmony.

– The mode rotation (so-called the system change phenomenon): do not create the simple brightness but set up the new color that imitates or contrasts with the old color. The appearance time can be long or short to create a position firmly and can return or cannot return the old melody: the system change at the last paragraph of Nam bình tune almost decides the whole tune’s value, which shows the light affection and love. When changing with Hò- Fa at the last paragraph, the nature suddenly becomes severe and offense, and finishes at xang note (not the tonic) whose sound looks like discontented.

Tuồng Huế uses the following nuances:

Bắc tune system:

+ Khách nuance: so-called Khách singing (the wind instrument in the great music which is performed in Phú lục song).

+ Xuân nuance: pure and jubilant (Nam bằng song in the great music).

+ Thiền nuance (Cát nuance) – Buddihism: solemn (Long ngâm tune in the small music).

+ Đảo nuance: In Cổ bản tune.

Nam tune system:

+ Oán nuance: sad and plaintive (In Xuân nữ tune of the South).

+ Ai nuance: sad and profound (the piece Nam ai in the great music).

The typical nature in Huế music is lyrical and deep-lying. Huế people are tactful, are elegant, and have deep and pure mind.

Huế singing and music, following the Southward march of the Việt people, tends to propagate much in the South. In that process, this music line has received effect of Champa music, Indian music, etc. Additionally, its cultural origin from the capital city Thăng Long (Flying Dragon) raises extra some other music forms such as the Quảng musical instrument in the South Central Coast and tài tử music (known as nhạc tài tử or đàn tài tử) in the South. The homeland missing together with the miserable life makes the life of emigrants warmer and more tormenting shown very clearly in music. We can see via its nature: soft, soothing, sad, and quite dark. Is is the reason that people give extra a kind of nuance so-called Ai nuance? For example, xang script in Nam nuance that vibrates slowly and deliberately (in the Central Coast) shows harass and hurry intài tử music.

In the tài tử music, there is group of three notes in Bắc nuance: Sol (clapping), La (vibrating), Do (clapping). There are two groups of four notes in Lễ nuance: La (vibrating), Do (clapping), Ré (clapping), Mi (vibrating) and: Ré (clapping), Mi (vibrating), Sol, La (clapping). Two technique ways are the quick vibration, the clapping is performed later and the pitches are still maintained.

* Nam nuance at the first form: Sol (vibrating), Do (ornamentation) going down Si, Do Ré (vibrating Do) and then to Mi (the eight note), Ré (clapping), Mi (clapping) – the going-up line. The going-down line is Sol (the eight note, dot, vibrating) and makes it legated at Si at high register, Mi (clapping), Ré (clapping), Do legates at the eight Ré note (vibrating Do), Si legates at the eight Do note (vibrating Do), Sol (vibrating): like the tune Lý chim quyên.

* Nam nuance at the second form:

The going-up line: Sol (vibrating), Do (ornamentation) legates at Si, the sixteen Do Ré note (vibrating Do) then to the eight Mi note, Ré (clapping), Fa legates at the eight Sol note (vibrating Fa), Sol. The going-down line: Sol (vibrating, at high register), the eight Fa Sol note (vibrating Fa, clapping Sol), Ré (clapping), Do legates at the eight Ré note (vibrating Do), Si legates to the eight Do note (vibrating Do), Sol (vibrating): like the song Lưu thủy, Hành vân.

* Oán nuance: like the form of Nam nuance, but playing at 4. We see that the pitches will change when appearing the vibrating, clapping and ornament notes.

* Quảng nuance: According to Hải Phượng, Quảng nuance is the Bắc string system that changes to vibrate at hò – xang – xê(which is called Dựng nuance in Huế music and singing?). In our opinion, Quảng nuance shows the difference via the intervals presented in the songs/ tunes (we can hear very clearly the Cantonese nature). Additionally, Quảng nuance presents the following notes according to the melody:

– The downward line: the eight La Do note, tugging Sol La, the eight Do Sib note ( Sib non ), the eight La Sol note, the eight Fa Mib note (Mib non Ré). The line waves downwards : the eight Do, La Sol, Fa, the eight Mi note (non), the sixteen Ré Sol note, the eight Fa Ré note, the eight Fa Sol note, the eight La Do note, the eight Do Si note (Si non), the eight La Sol note.

* Xuân nuance (only presented in Nam Xuân piece): the playing techniques of vibrato must be very skilful. There are two ways as below:

The first way: Sol, La (vibrating), Do, Ré, Fa (vibrating).

The second way: single Sol, double Si Sol (vibrating), Si, a chord of four double notes Do Mi Ré Do (vibrating), Ré, Fa (vibrating).

* Đảo nuance: only in the piece Đảo ngũ cung : Sol, La (ornaments) joins La (vibrating). Do, Ré (vibrating), Fa.

We see that Huế chamber music and the tài tử music shows the similarity and difference as follows:

* Bắc nuance (Thiền – Lễ): those are same in the instrumental playing, the nuance treatment, name, repertoire, and melodies.

* Ai nuance:

+ Huế: shows the specificities of the Central Coast with the vibration and clapping techniques at the same string

+ Tài tử music: the variant notes ligature up or down in different ways, creating the pitches of other scale.

* Xuân nuance:

+ Huế: similar to Nam nuance, however, the pitches are quite lighter, the variant notes are less than that of Ai nuance. There are strange notes (at the scale of Xuân nuance as above).

+ Tài tử: Cống always appears at the borrowing sounds, it vibrates lightly, just showing the lighter nature than in Huế music.

The string-vibrato techniques between Huế and tài tử are different from each other. That is hò – xang in Huế, and xế – cống intài tử. As for the nature, that of Huế is sadder.

* Oán nuance does not exist in Huế but in tài tử music. This still needs much discussion. Concretely, Oán’s treatment is similar to the second form of Ai (tài tử). It is not different from each other, thus many disagreements still exist. For example, some people call the piece Văn Thiên Tường Oán nuance, some call Ai nuance. According to Quỳnh Nga, “the audience praise when I perform at the two degrees of 1 and 4, actually, I treat similarly”.

Some people say that the piece Quả phụ of Huế is Oán tune (?). Is that they give this conclusion after finding this piece is very sad and sobbing? Or, they have another way of interpretation. In practice, we see that this piece is not Oán tune. It is mistaken because the speed is slow with deep register and longer vibration, which shows the sad state. Can Ai and Oánnuance of tài tử be like that?

* Quảng nuance presents the Cantonese’s nature (the eight note, China), and some pieces present the features of Chaozhou. There is not Quảng nuance in Huế because very few Chinese-origin people live there, and its music presents no influence on Huế.

People use the term “lower” or “higher” (known as non or già) because of the variant notes, thus, the original notes will change the pitches. The nuance does not mean the mode, and is not purely the ornamental notes of some degrees of mode. It is the synthesis of the most specific characters of repertoires among which the mode plays the central role. All creates the nuance, spirit, and nature of a composition that the folk artist and audience do feel when they play and enjoy directly. Via the performance ways of the folk singers and instrumentalists, the nuance is presented in the folk and scholarly music through the ornamentation, a little bit lower, a little bit higher, vibrato, accent, etc, to show the nature of each minority from the highland to the lowland. That contributes to create the special characters of each region in particular and of Vietnamese nation in general.

Huế, December 9, 2010





To clarify the similarities and the differences between tài tử and cải lương music, the overview of the formation and development process of these two types of music should be studied from the musical angle.


Tài tử music originates from the pentatonic music in the South with sanctuary and solemn nature, performed in festivals or funerals. The pentatonic ceremonial orchestra is divided into two groups: văn (literature) group and (martial arts) group, involving five instrumentalists to play from five to six instruments.

Nhạc văn (literature music) entails playing the musical instruments: cò, cò chỉ, cò gáo tre, cò gáo dừa[1] (different kinds of the two-stringed fiddles), trống nhạc (or trống bát cấu) (the drum), trống cơm (the small cylindrical drum), and performing the compositions: Nam xuân, Nam ai, Đảo ngũ cung, Xàng xê, Ngũ đối thượng, Ngũ đối hạ, Long đăng, Long ngâm, Vạn giá, Tiểu khúc, and Xuân nữ[2].

Nhạc võ (martial-art music) involves playing the musical instruments: trống đực (the male drum), trống cái (the female drum), chập bạt, đẩu or thanh la (the cymbals), mõ sừng, kèn trung, and bồng, and singing the compositions: Đánh thét, Bài lạy, Táng điệu, Táng thích, Đánh đàng, Đánh chập, Tiếp giá, etc.

In the middle of 1845-1850, văn group was divided into the new groups: the group of plucking instruments and the group of bowing stringed instruments[3]. These groups had the common name đờn cây group, who performed chamber music. This formation arose from the music-knowledgeable audiences’ demand of enjoying music out of worship time.

Afterwards, this model was disseminated in many places and developed into the movement đờn cây. In this stage, to create attractiveness and competition ability of this group against other groups, musicians have gradually modified some Huế ancient music’s musical pieces[4], which supplemented the repertoire of đờn cây music.

Since 1875 on, đờn cây movement has spread in many Southern provinces and has become an elegant hobby of many high-ranked families. It can be organized in many places, including living rooms, the most formal places in a house, in gardens, on boats, at riversides, in parties, etc. Performers and appreciators have been more diversified than before, including nobilities, poets, literates, beauties, etc. To attract passionate audiences, singing has been alternated with instrument playing. Since that time, the songs with the narrative style and different contents have been composed from the inspiration source of traditional poems such as Kim Vân Kiều, Lục Vân Tiên, Tô Huệ chức cẩm hồi văn, etc. The roles of singers and instrumentalists were of the same importance; therefore, all of them sat on the same plank or mat for performance. Since that time, a new percussion instrument, sanh clappers, which were played by singers, has been created5].

The performance style gradually got out of the solemnity of nhạc lễ ceremonial music; instead, it was soaked with sentiment and the color of chamber music. Performers were allowed to show off their deliberate and poised manner with all of their emotion and talent on the simple structure of skeletal melody6] as well as in tune and hơi [7](musical nuance). The professtionals, who played music as a living, and passionate amateur players were distinguished on the base of instrument-playing purposes (e.g. entertainment) and intrument-playing styles (e.g. elegant or refined). This distinction helped causing the appearance of the word tài tử (amateur talents). The music, performed by such people and having such characteristics, was called đờn ca tài tử (the performance of amateur talents). Afterwards, it was called with another more formal term âm nhạc tài tử (the music of amateur talents) or with a shorter term nhạc tài tử (the music of amateur talents).

Tài tử music has been developed widely in the South, especially in some typical places such as Bạc Liêu, Vĩnh Long, Sa Đéc, Vĩnh Kim, and Cái Thia in Mỹ Tho, Cần Đước in Long An, or Sài Gòn. These people were divided into two groups: Eastern amateur talents and Western amateur talents. The heads were Nguyễn Quang Đại or Ba Đợi (his nickname), living in Cần Đước, and Trần Quang Quờn or Ký Quờn (his nickname), living in Vĩnh Long. Both had significant contribution to composing new pieces of music and teaching and disseminating tài tử music with their own way. Accordingly, the number of musical pieces, especially renowned pieces, increased. These songs were performed longer, which were commensurate with old pieces.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the composers of tài tử music systematised musical issues academically. The orchestra was formed in accordance with tam hòa, tứ tuyệt, and ngũ tuyệt8]. Especially, sanh clappers were innovated into the new instrument, called song lang[9]. Musical pieces were selected in accordance with nuances and modal characteristics and classified into different groups. The following table of classification in time order has been widely applied.

– In 1900, the first classification table of Mr. Ba Đợi was called 20 bản tổ [10(20 principal musical pieces), including:

Table 1:



Sáu: Bắc Lưu thủy, Phú lục, Bình bán, Xuân tình, Tây Thi, and Cổ bản
Bảy: Bài, etc. (tổ, lễ, nhạc, cò, lớn, bắc lớn, and bắc lễ) Xàng xê, Ngũ đối thượng, Ngũ đối hạ, Long đăng, Long ngâm, Vạn giá, and Tiểu khúc
Ba: Nam Nam xuân, Nam ai, and Đảo ngũ cung (Nam đảo)
Bốn: Oán Tứ đại oán, Phụng hoàng, Giang Nam (Giang Nam cửu khúc), and Phụng cầu (Phụng cầu hoàng)

This table was considered standard. It was explained that although many musical pieces were composed, they were not new in terms of structure as well as musical nuance and rhythms except for Vọng cổ.

These 20 principal musical pieces had different nuances: Bắc, Lễ (Nhạc, Hạ), Xuân, Ai, Đảo, and Oán11]. Particularly, sáu Bắcgroup included different melodies with three rhythm levels: tẩu mã (fast), đoản or vắn (moderate), and trường or chấn(slow)12]. There were three types of time: the duple time, the quadruple time, and the eight time. Each type included song lang time, which was beaten at the second time of the duple time, at the third and fourth times of the quadruple time, and at the sixth and eighth times of the eight time. The quadruple time was located in sáu Bắc, bảy Bài, and ba Nam. The eight time was played in bốn Oán. Furthermore, times were classified into two groups: strong time and weak time.

– A musical piece-classification table was later consolidated in 1945 by Nguyễn Văn Thinh or Giáo Thinh (his nick name), a renowned musician in Sài Gòn. According to the assessment of the musician circle, this table was sophisticated; yet, it excluded the pieces of tài tử music in the West, which were called 72 bài bản cổ nhạc Nam phần13(72 ancient Southern musical pieces).

Table 2:



36 bản Bắc[14 Lưu thủy, Phú lục, Bình bán, Cổ bản, Xuân tình, and Tây Thi[15].
7 bản Lễ Xàng xê, Ngũ đối thượng, Ngũ đối hạ, Long đăng, Long ngâm, Vạn giá,and Tiểu khúc.
3 bản Nam Nam xuân, Nam ai, and Đảo ngũ cung
6 bản Oán Tứ đại oán, Phụng hoàng, Giang Nam, Phụng cầu, and Bình sa lạc nhạn,and Thanh dạ đề quyên
8 bản Ngự Đường Thái Tôn, Vọng phu, Chiêu Quân, Ái tử kê, Bắc Man tấn cống, Tương tư, Duyên kỳ ngộ, and Quả phụ hàm oan.
10 bản Tàu
(Thập Thủ Liên Hườn)
Phẩm tuyết, Ngươn tiêu, Hồ Quảng, Liên hườn, Bình bản, Tây mai, Kim tiền, Xuân phong, Long hổ, and Tẩu mã.
1 bản Bát bản
1 bản Hội ngươn tiêu

– The legend has it that a classification table has been consolidated by Mr. Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, published on the newspaper Tiếng Dân of Huế in 1927. However, the source, the title, and the detail were questionable[16]. In 1957, Mr. Lan Dương posed a question on Tin Điển newspaper of Sài Gòn, published on the 17th May. He wrote that there was a rumour that Mr. Huỳnh wrote an article about 10 kinds of repertoires of ancient Vietnamese music. That table has the content, presented below, according to his opinion.

Table 3:



Nhứt: The South and the Middle
Nhì: Ngâm The South, the Middle, and the North
Tam : Nam The South and the Middle
Tứ: Oán The South
Ngũ: Điếm The South
Lục: Xuất Kỳ Sơn The South and the Middle
Thất: Chánh The South
Bát : Ngự The South
Cửu : Nhĩ The South
Thập: Thủ “Liên Hườn”    The Middle

Afterwards, Mr. Giáo Thinh, although he has not read that writing yet, has tried to analyse songs and summarised 10 ancient Vietnamese musical pieces as follows:

Table 4:




The South: Lý bốn mùa (Vọng phu), Lý giao duyên, Lý con sáo (tam thất), Lý ngựa ô Nam, Lý ngựa ô Bắc, and Lý Phước Kiến.

The Middle: Lý hoài xuân, Lý Giang nam, Lý Nam xang, Lý giao dươn, Lý tử vi, Lý huê tình, etc.



The recitation of ancient styles of poems at three regions: five-word verse, seven-word-four-line verse, seven-word verse, seven-seven-six-eight-word verse, etc.


The South: Nam xuân, Nam ai, and Đảo ngũ cung.

The Middle: Hạ Giang Nam (Nam xoan and Nam chiến), Vọng Giang Nam (Nam bình), Ai Giang Nam (Nam ai), etc.



The South: Tứ đại oán, Phụng hoàng, Giang Nam, Phụng cầu, Bình sa lạc nhạn, and Thanh dạ đề quyên.


The South: Lưu thủy, Phú lục, Bình bán, Cổ bản, Xuân tình, and Tây thi.

Xuất Kỳ Sơn

The South and the Middle: Cổ bản vắn, Bình bản, Kim tiền, Xuân phong, Long hổ, and Tẩu mã


The South: Xàng xê, Ngũ đối thượng, Ngũ đối hạ (bài hạ), Long đăng, Long ngâm, Vạn giá, and Tiểu khúc.


The South: Đường Thái Tôn, Vọng phu, Chiêu Quân, ái tử kê, Bắc Man tấn cống, Tương tư, Duyên kỳ ngộ, and Quả phụ hàm oan.


The South: Hội ngươn tiêu and Bát bản chấn.


Liên Hườn

The Middle: Phẩm tuyết, Ngươn tiêu, Hồ Quảng, Liên hườn, Bình bản, Tây mai, Kim tiền, Xuân phong, Long hổ, and Tẩu mã.

– Since 1975, tài tử music has developed strongly on repertoire. Several new musical pieces have been composed, which integrated into the musical circle quickly. A noticeble effort was done in 1979 by Mr. Chín Tâm, a renowned tài tử musician in Hồ Chí Minh city. He modified the system of ten pieces by supplementing it with some other valuable pieces and excluding some similar pieces and some pieces from the Middle. This system was called 10 ancient Southern musical pieces.

Table 5:




Lý vọng phu, Lý giao duyên, Lý con sáo, Lý ngựa ô Nam, Lý ngựa ô Bắc, Lý Phước Kiến, Lý chuồn chuồn, and Lý thập tình.


The recitation of six-eight-word verse, four-line verse, seven-word verse, etc in accordance with Xuân and Ai melodies.


Nam xuân, Nam ai, and Đảo ngũ cung.


Tứ đại oán, Phụng hoàng, Giang Nam, Phụng cầu, Bình sa lạc nhạn, Thanh dạ đề quyên, Ngươn tiêu hội oán, and Võ văn hội oán.


Lưu thủy, Phú lục, Bình bán, Cổ bản, Xuân tình, and Tây Thi (= 36 bản Bắc)


Văn Thiên Tường, Trường tương tư, Chinh phụ nam (Chinh phụ ly tình), Tứ đại vắn (Tứ đại cảnh Nam phần), Hội ngươn tiêu, andBát bản chấn


Xàng xê, Ngũ đối thượng, Ngũ đối hạ, Long đăng, Long ngâm, Vạn giá, and Tiểu khúc.


Đường Thái Tôn, Vọng phu, Chiêu Quân, ái tử kê, Bắc Man tấn cống, Tương tư, Duyên kỳ ngộ, and Quả phụ hàm oan.


Minh hoàng thưởng  nguyệt, Ngự giá đăng lâu, Phò mã giao duyên, ái tử kê, Kim tiền bảng, Ngự giá, Hồ lan, Vạn liên, andSong phi hồ điệp[17].


“Liên Hườn”

Phẩm tuyết, Ngươn tiêu, Hồ Quảng, Liên hườn, Bình bản, Tây mai, Kim tiền, Xuân phong, Long hổ, and Tẩu mã.

The musical piece-classification table of Mr. Chín Tâm[18], although containing more sufficient repertoire of tài tử music (orthe Southern ancient musical pieces in his opinion), lacks quite several pieces. Because he remarkably depended on the order and the number 10 of musical pieces in accordance with Mr. Huỳnh’s classification (such songs are called Vietnamese ancient music), there are two irrational issues. Firstly, although the Southern folk music has many songs, there are only eight songs in the above table. The recitation of three regions cannot be considered songs. Secondly, “nhứt lý” and “nhì ngâm”were harly performed in any tài tử performance in the past.

The number of tài tử repertoires significantly increases at present. In addition to the repertoires in table 5, several other repertoires have been welcomed by tài tử circle.

Table 6:



Huế ancient music Hành vân, Tứ đại cảnh, etc.
New compositions Hoài lang (Dạ cổ hoài lang, the 2-and 4-bar phrases), Vọng cổ (the 8-and 16-bar phrases), Võ tắc biệt, Liêu giang, Ngũ quan, Tứ bửu Liêu thành, Ngũ châu Minh phổ, Nam âm ngũ khúc, Ngũ cung luân hoán, Ngũ đối hoàn cung, Khúc hận Nam Quan, Ngũ khúc Long phi, Hội huê đăng, Lục luật Tiêu hà, Đoản khúc Lam giang, Phi vân điệp khúc, Vọng Kim lang, etc.
Variations from  epertoires of tài tửmusic Xuân nữ, Xuân nữ Bạc Liêu, Chiết tứ vĩ, Phụng hoàng cải lương, Phụng hoàng lai Nghi, Khổng Tử khóc Nhan Hồi, Bắc ngự, Xuân tình bát oán, Quả phụ hàm oan[19], Hành vân xuân, Hành vân ai, Ngũ đối ai, Cổ bản ai, Tây Thi Quảng, etc.

– In 1997, through the paper at the 34th conference of the International Council for Traditional Music – ICTM, in Nitra Slovakia, we proposed a table of classifying Southern tài tử’s repertoires in accordance with the systems of bản Bắc andbản Nam[20].

Since 1990, tài tử music has been developed and remarkably influenced by cải lương music. Performers performed pieces in a shortening way, which meant that only some phrases were performed; same phrases were excluded; and different pieces were joined togerther into medley of pieces such as Liên Nam or Lưu-Bình-Kim. Some cải lương pieces such as Ngũ điểm, Bài tạ, Xang xừ líu, Sương chiều, or Tú Anh were accepted as long as meeting the recreation demand of “đờn ca tài tử” session.Tài tử music, in addition to mentioned hơi (musical nuance), included some other hơi: hơi dựng (in dựng phrase of Văn Thiên Tường), hơi Ai- Oán (in Vọng cổ), and hơi Quảng (in the original pieces Quảng Đông and Triều Châu).

The boundary between tài tử and cải lương music is currently equated. Even on the means of mass communication and musical competitions, đờn ca tài tử clubs officially use the term tài tử – cải lương music, which causes more and more people not to distinguish these two musical types. Thus, the performance style of tài tử music is not as pure as before.

The most ideal orchestra involves playing five musical instruments, which is called ngũ tuyệt, including the tranh sixteen-string zither, the kìm two-string moon-shaped lute, the two-chord fiddle, the tiêu flute, and the bầu monochord. The most popular orchestra includes the tranh sixteen-string zither, the two-stringed fiddle, the kìm two-stringed moon-shaped lute (or the sến lute), and the guitar. However, the bầu monochord, the two-stringed fiddle, the kìm two-stringed moon-shaped lute, and the sến lute are gradually less present in tài tử orchestras because few people can play them.


Since the 10th year of the twentieth century, in addition to the traditional performance style, the performance space of tài tửmusic has changed from private houses to public places. At first, there were the initiatives of performing tài tử music to serve customers at restaurants and then performing it on planks at cinemas. Next initiative was standing on performance planks to perform simple illustrative movements, called ca ra bộ. This new singing style was then developed into hát chậpand hát lớp, which afterwards marked the birth of cải lương art from 1917 to 1918.

Cải lương musichas been formed and developed from two sources: traditional music and innovated music. At first, traditional music was tài tử music. However, with the criterion of serving the public, tài tử pieces in cải lương music were shortened or combined with other pieces. Later, folk songs (most are Southern folk songs), Quảng music (the music from Quảng Đông and Triều Châu music, which were domesticated), and new compositions with cải lương style have been written. Modified music played the role of expressing atmosphere and climaxes, including welcoming music, act-changing music, dancing music, background music, and the compound musical style “tân cổ giao duyên” (the integration of traditional and modern music). There are two kinds of music, mentioned above. However, cải lương music is more considered as traditional music because the characteristics of traditional music are prominent in this art.

Initially, the basic traditional orchestra included five instruments (ngũ tuyệt), similar to tài tử[21] orchestra. Afterwards, the two-stringed fiddle and the gáo fiddle replace with the violin. The sến lute takes the place of the kìm two-stringed moon-shape lute. Especially, the guitar with sunken frets is the supplement to the orchestra and plays the main role in the orchestra. As a matter of fact, the orchestra is arranged to sit in front of the stage to observe the performance of actors and actresses.

Initially, there were only 20 principal musical pieces of tài tử music, among which Tứ đại oán was considered as the principle piece and there were few original Huế traditional musical pieces such as Hành vân or Kim tiền. Furthermore, there were other popular styles: literary criticism of Kiều poems, recitation, nói lối, and folk-song singing. Soon afterwards Dạ cổ hoài langand Vọng cổ take the place of Tứ đại oán.

The development of cải lương repertoire is associated with the trend of play composition. In the stage of cải lương with its contents, taken from Chinese stories, many songs orignated from hí khúc Quảng Đông – Triều Châu music such as Ngũ điểm, Bài tạ, Xang xừ líu, or Xái phỉ. Tiên, Phật, and Tây plays involved performing the songs with Western melodies such as J’ai deux amours, Marinella, and C’est pour mon papa.  There were also some new compositions such as Hoài tình, Hòa duyên,or Con ong nho nhỏ. Some folk songs were performed following cải lương style, e.g. Lý con sáo, Lý ngựa ô, or Lý chuồn chuồn. In addition, several cải lương plays with the contents of Chinese swashbuckling stories such as Giang Tô, Phong nguyệt, Sương chiều, or Tú Anh were written by Mộng Vân. Next was the birth of innovated cải lương, influenced by the drama style, including cải lương plays about historical folk stories, society, and war such as Mẫu đơn, Thuấn hoa, Vọng các hòa ca, orSong phụng triều vương. Moving to the stage “hương xa”, influenced by foreign films such as Mongolia, Japan, India, Egypt, or Rome, and the stage “thi ca vũ nhạc diễm huyền”, several new songs were composed such as Lưu thủy hành vân, Sâm thương, or Trăng thu dạ khúc. All of such songs were called bản vắn (short pieces). In these stages, many kinds of plays, in which recitation and music were supplemented, have appeared. After 1975, the trend of composing plays about realistic society entailed the appearance of many Southern songs such as Lý đất giồng, Lý cái mơn, Lý đương đệm, or Lý kéo chài.Phạm Lý utilized folk melodies and cải lương music to compose new songs, e.g. Lý qua cầu, Lý trăng soi, Lý Mỹ Hưng, Lý mù sương, etc.

Although the number of cải lương repertoires is innumberable, only few some bản Bắc, Nam, Oán, bản vắn, Lý, new compositions, and Vọng cổwith its rhythmic structure of 32-bar phrases are presently performed.


(Kiều Tấn’s collection in accordance with the alphabetic order, 1997)

Table 7:





Tài tử / tài tử music

All types of tài tử pieces[22]

Bản vắn / Huế traditional music, Quảng Đông – Triều Châu music, and new compositions

Ánh nắng, Ánh trăng, Bá hoa, Bài tạ, Bài Tiều, Bán nguyệt, Bắc sơn trà, Cao phi, Chi hoa trường hận, Chiến sĩ tùng chinh, Con ong nho nhỏ, Cung thềm, Dạ khúc, Dưới trăng mờ, Đăng sơn lãm thủy, Độc bản, Đông mai, Giang Tô điểu ngữ, Gió hờn, Hàn giang, Hành vân, Hận tình, Hận trường ly oán, Hòa duyên, Hoài cầu, Hoài nam khúc, Hoài tình, Hướng mã hồi thành, Khốc hoàng thiên, Khổng Minh tọa lầu,Khúc ca hoa chúc, Kiều nương, Kim tiền Huế, La hồ, Lạc âm thiều, Lạc xuân hoa, Lệ rơi thấm đá, Liễu Thuận Nương, Long hổ hội, Long nguyệt (Lộng nguyệt), Lưỡng long tranh châu, Lưu thủy cao san, Mạnh Lệ Quân, Mẫu đơn, Mẫu tầm tử, Miên hậu hồi cung, Minh châu, Nặng tình xưa, Ngũ điểm, Nhạn về, Nhị độ mai, Phi điểu, Phong ba đình, Phong nguyệt,Phước Châu, Quý Phi túy tửu, Sâm thương, Song phụng triều vương, Sơn Đông hướng mã, Sương chiều, Tam pháp nhập môn, Tân xái phỉ,Thu cúc, Thu hồ, Thu hồ điệp lạc, Thu phong (Bá điểu), Thủ phong nguyệt, Thuấn hoa, Tiên nữ hái hoa, Tô Vũ mục dương (Tô Võ), Tống phong, Từ bá tuấn, Tử quy từ, Trạng ngươn hành lộ, Trăng thu dạ khúc, Trung thu, Tú Anh, Tùng lâm dạ lãm, Ú liu ú xáng (Thiên bất túc), Uyên ương hội vũ, Vạn huê trường hận, Vọng các hòa ca, Võ Biền xuất đội, Xang xừ líu[23], etc.

Lý / Southern
folk songs


Lý: Ba Tri, Bình vôi, Cái mơn, Cây bông, Chia tay, Chiều chiều, Chim quyên, Chuồn chuồn, Con khỉ, Con sáo, Con sáo Gò Công, Đất giồng, Đương đệm, Giao duyên, Kéo chài, Lu là, Ngựa ô Bắc, Ngựa ô Nam, Phước Kiến, Nhập tình, Vọng phu, etc.

” / new  compositions

Lý: Chim xanh, Đêm trăng, Mù sương (Tòng quân), Mỹ Hưng, Năm Căn (Minh Hải), Qua cầu, Trăng soi, Son sắt (Son sắt một lòng), Tư Phùng, etc.

In addition to the duple time, the quadruple time, the eight time, the simple time is used to signal song lang in every first time in cải lương music. The sixteen time and the thirty-two time are only used in Vọng cổ repertoires. The melodies in this art are similar to tài tử music; in addition, Quảng nuance are the supplements in this art.  Although cải lương repertoire is diversified and innumerable, the performance length is short and only phrases are performed. Moreover, depending on the content, the character’s personality, and rhythm, singers have to make appropriate responses such as increasing or decreasing speed, converting tempo, rhythm, and dialogues, etc. which entails instrumentalists to improvise their accompaniment.

Looking at the process of tài tử and cải lương formation and development, some similarities and differences are summarised in the following table.

Table 8:





Purposes and roles: Entertainment. Singers and instrumentalists play the equivalent role Performance on stage. The orchestra plays the role of assisting singing and acting.
Performance forms: Chamber music. It can be performed in any place. Stage music. It is performed on stage.
Musical contents:

– Scale and mode

– Hơi (musical nuance)

– Time

– Tempo

– Repertoires

– Lyrics

– Performance styles

-Musical characteristics

Bắc, Xuân, Ai, Oán, and variations[24].

Bắc, Lễ, Xuân, Ai, Đảo, Oán, Ai Oán, Ngự, and Dựng.

The duple, quadruple, eight, and sixteen times.

Slow or moderate, stable and standard.

Limited, mainly from 20 principal pieces, long performance time. Songs are divided into phrases.

Basing on traditional poems; dignifying piety, loyalty, and heroism. Lyrics are narrative.

Accompaniment is performed first, followed by singing with austere and deliberate styles for music lovers.

Respecting musical characteristics (melodies, nuance, mode, rhythms, time, singing styles, instrument strings, etc.). Lyrics have few words, yet with profound meaning. Music is refined, subtle; thus, audiences should enjoy music with ears instead of eyes.

Bắc, Xuân, Ai, Oán, and variations24.

Bắc, Lễ, Xuân, Ai, Đảo, Oán, Ai Oán, Ngự, Dựng, and Quảng.

The simple, duple, quadruple, eight, sixteen, and thirty-two times.

Slow, moderate, fast, and improvision in accordance with singing and acting.

Many sources, diversified, short performance time. It can be an extract or it can be combined with other songs.

Diversified topics. Lyrics have the characteristics of action and conflicts.
Singing is performed first, followed by the accompaniment with flexibility and improvisation.

Lacking the respect of music contents. Lyrics have many words. Performers do not pay much attention to polishing singing and instrument playing. Music is not very subtle and refined. Artists try to attract audiences by watching instead of listening.

Orchestra Trio, quartet, quintet ensemles among which the kìm two-stringed moon-shaped lute plays the roles of conducting the orchestra and keeping song lang time. The guitar plays the roles of conducting the orchestra and keeping time in the orchestras of trio, quartet, quintet ensemles.

Although there are the similarities and the differences in the above table, the differences are nearly trivial if the recent trend of “tài tử – cải lương” is accepted. The only obvious difference between present tài tử and cải lương music is, in our opinion, performance space.

Indeed, in chamber space, thanks to comfortable feeling, tài tử artists can perform wholeheartedly; thus, they can sing and play instruments improvisatorily and creatively, which helps them to show off all of their talents along with their partners and perform songs with deliberate and poised styles.  In the meantime, in stage space, cải lương artists are restricted in the frame of rhythms and acting; thus, instrument playing lacks refinement and inspiration transmission and it is always put in the passive position. Because of being performed in different spaces and with different musical purposes, they possess different musical characteristics, although the performed musical pieces are same. Accordingly, a piece of music, performed in a concert, or a song, performed solo, is called “đờn ca tài tử” while it is called “cải lương music” if they are performed on stage. As such, the appearance of the dual concept “tài tử music – cải lương music” is reasonable.

Hopefully, this writing can help us to have a lucid orientation in preserving and promoting the valuable values of traditional music. Thereby, the appropriate approaches of learning, teaching, performing, and disseminating this special musical art can be proprosed in order to raise it to a new level: modern, but still traditional.

                                                                                       Sài Gòn, November 2010

Bài Nguyễn Thụy Loan

1. In this article, the term “ancient music” known as cổ nhạc is used by the call of our ancestors in the twentieth century.

2. Or Lê Tài Khí (1870-1948) – the ancestor of Bạc Liêu ancient music (according to Trần Phước Thuận)

Bài Kiều Tấn

1. Flutes or địch instruments can be replaced by different kinds of above two-stringed fiddles.

2. Xuân nữ is a phrase in Ngũ đối hạ  playing for changing to Ai mode.

3. These instruments were performed widely in the ceremonial orchestra of bát âm (eight instruments) guild in the North. It consists of trống bộc (the drum), tiêu cảnh (the flute), ống địch, the nhị two-stringed fiddle, the tam three-stringed fiddle, thetỳ pear-shaped lute, the nguyệt two-stringed moon-shaped lute, and the tranh sixteen-string zither.

4.  For example, Lưu thủy, Phú lục, Bình bán, Cổ bản.

5. Formerly, keeping beats was done by the kìm instrumentalist, beating the instrument barrel with his fingers.

6. It is the melody of a song, which is composed with notes and main rhythms.

7. Hơi is a term, indicating a especial consonance of each song or a group of songs.

8. Tam hòa: the tranh sixteen-chord zither, the kìm two-stringed moon-shape lute, and the two-chord fiddle; tứ tuyệt: thetranh sixteen-chord zither, the kìm two-stringed moon-shaped lute, the two-chord fiddle, and the tỳ pear-shaped lute (or the tam three-chord fiddle); ngũ tuyệt: the tranh sixteen-chord zither, the kìm two-stringed moon-shaped lute, the two-chord fiddle, and the tỳ pear-shaped lute, and the tam three-chord fiddle; or the tranh sixteen-chord zither, the kìm two-stringed moon-shaped lute, the two-chord fiddle, the tỳ pear-shaped lute, and the tiêu flute (or the sáo flute). There can be more than six musical instruments. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the monochord was introduced to the orchestra of tài tử music to replace the priority position of the tỳ pear-shaped lute and the tam three-chord fiddle.

9. Song lang (or it can be called song loan) is played by the instrumentalist of the kìm two-stringed moon-shaped lute, who plays the role of the orchestra conductor.

10. It could be called 20 bài bản Tổ or Nhị thập huyền Tổ bản (20 principal musical pieces). It has been recently called 20 bài Bắc-Hạ-Nam-Oán.

11. In addition, one nuance, called ngự, was available at that time; yet, the
pieces with that nuance were not very popular. There were eight Ngự pieces in 1899.

12. Sáu bắc included two groups: thể thủ and thể vĩ, among which thể vĩ was more popular. Sáu bắc, which was mentioned above, was thể vĩ and nhịp trường. It embraced Lưu thủy trường, Phú lục chấn, Bình bán chấn, Xuân tình chấn, Tây Thi trường,and Cổ bản trường.

13. It could be called Thất thập nhị huyền công.

14. They included six Bắc thủ musical pieces x three types of time, six Bắc vĩ musical pieces x three types of time = 18 Bắc thủ musical pieces + 18 Bắc vĩ musical pieces = 36 Bắc musical pieces.

15. In comparison with sáu Bắc in 20 bản Tổ (20 principal musical pieces), there was a change in order of three last musical pieces: Xuân tình, Tây Thi, Cổ bản into Cổ bản, Xuân tình, Tây Thi.

16. Tiếng Dân newspaper has existed from 1927 and 1943. We have searched all newspapers from 1927 to 1938, available at the General library of Hồ Chí Minh; however, no mentioned articles have been found.

17. The first four pieces belonged to the set Tứ bửu, composed by Western composers. The final five pieces belonged to the set Ngũ châu, written by Eastern composers.

18. Afterwards, Mr. Chín Tâm published it on the Stage newspaper with the number 136-1993 in Hồ Chí Minh city.

19. It is different from Quả phụ hàm oan in eight Ngự pieces.

20. Reference to Kiều Tấn – Gisa Jọhnichen: Well-balanced limits: Notes on South Vietnamese [part 2], Ms.World Conference of the ICTM, Nitra 1997.

21. Depending on each play, the traditional orchestra can involves the participation of some percussion instruments (drums, temple block, chập chõa cymbals, thanh la cymblas) and wind instruments.

22. Reference to tables 5 and 6.

24. Reference to Kiều Tấn: Tìm hiểu điệu thức trong âm nhạc tài tử Nam Bộ, sách Thang âm điệu thức trong âm nhạc truyền thống một số dân tộc miền Nam Việt Nam (Studying the melodies in tài tử Southern music, in the book Scale and melodies in traditional music of some Southern ethnic groups in Vietnam), The Institute of Culture and Arts in Hồ Chí Minh city, pp.303-399.

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