Vietnamese Traditional Music
Phan Khoi, Hien V. Ho
         In order to truly appreciate something we love, we must be able to understand it first. When the Vietnamese came to the United States, they preserved the image of their country in their minds and songs in their hearts. For the people of southern Vietnam, the most touching sound is Vọng Cổ, the traditional Vietnamese music. Older generations of the Vietnamese become nostalgically ecstatic when they hear Vọng Cổ, especially in this land of rock and roll. It is unfortunate that the youth cannot appreciate such cultural music. Therefore we must help them understand the music so that they may have some knowledge of their heritage. If they can learn the basic principles, then they will be able to understand the essence of their music better. The best way for them to comprehend those principles is by comparing Vietnamese music with Western music.

         I. Difference in Notes
         Western music consists of seven notes, A-G, which are compiled together to create a melody. Tones raised a half step in pitch are called sharp notes, whereas tones lowered a half-step are flat notes, for example D-sharp or D-flat. In contrast, Vietnamese music has only five notes, Hò, Xự, Sang, Xê, and Cống. There are no sharps or flats; only Hò and Xự can be raised a half step. When Hò is raised a half step, a new note is created, called Lieu. When Xự is raised a half step, the resulting note is called Ú. In addition, we also have something call "ngân éo on," which is frequently used throughout a song, especially at the end of a phrase. "Ngân éo on" is not like "trill," the rapid alternation between two Adjacent notes. It is also unlike "vibrato," which is produced by a regular pulsating change of pitch created by tension. Instead, "ngân éo on" is the modified pitches and vibrato of a held note.

         Result: Some instruments cannot produce "ngân éo on," for instance the piano. We may use the clavier or the pedals of a piano to generate the same tone but not "ngân éo on." Southern Vietnamese music uses some instruments that can produce similar bending notes like "đàn tranh," a sixteen-string zither. Another instrument is "guitar phím lõm." These guitars are modified by carving out deep trenches between frets (Phím) to allow great flexibility in pitch bending. "Đàn bầu," or the monochord, is a one-string instrument exclusive to Vietnam: the musician can manipulate the handle to vary the tension of the string to create different effects and pitches.

         Traditionally, western notes have a clean sound, whereas Vietnamese music prefers the emphasis on notes with frequent use of "ngân éo on."
        Please read the rest of the story in THE MEN OF VIETNAM.