The 16-string Zither - traditional Vietnamese musical instrument

VOV.VN - Vietnam is home to 54 ethnic groups, each with its own customs and traditions. Those groups have created a variety of traditional musical instruments, which have played an important role in Vietnamese people’s lives.

The many types of musical instruments found in Vietnam include "monochord zither", "moon-shaped two-string lute", and “pear-shaped lute with four strings”. 

One of the best-known musical instruments is the Đàn Tranh or 16-string Zither.

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Dan Tranh is considered the "princess" of the Vietnam's traditional plucked string instruments 

Culture researcher and composer Thao Giang, Deputy Director of the Vietnam Traditional Music Development Center, who has studied Vietnamese folk music for 40 years, said, "The Vietnamese 16-String Zither is considered the “Princess" of Vietnam's traditional plucked string instruments. Its beautiful sound beguiles everyone."

"The Zither can be played as a solo instrument or accompanied by other instruments in many traditional orchestras, including Tuong (a classical theater form), Cheo (popular theater), Cai Luong (reformed theater), Nha Nhac (court music orchestra), Chau Van (ceremonial singing), religious music, and Don Ca Tai Tu (southern amateur singing), and even accompanies poetry recitals," she added.

As the zither has 16 strings, people in the north and central parts of Vietnam call it “Thập Lục” (thập means ten; lục means six), whereas the name “Đàn Tranh” is preferred in the south. 

The 16-String Zither is also known by the name “Bán nguyệt cầm” (bán means half; nguyệt means moon) because of the sound box’s semi-circle shape. 

The body of the 16-string Zither measures 100 to 120 cm. The large end is 17-30 cm in width and the narrow end is 12-20 cm in width. The two ends of the instrument are made of hard wood and the sound box is made of Vietnamese “Wootung” wood fashioned into a semi-circular shape. 

The bottom is a thin, flat piece of wood. The convex surface is considered the sky or Yang, and the flat base is the earth or Yin, reflecting a miniature of the universe. 

The flat base often has three holes. The first hole, a half circle shape, is where the player inserts his fingers to change broken strings. The hole in the middle is the sound hole and often has a rectangular shape. 

This is where the musician can insert his fingers to carry the instrument. The third hole, about 1-centimeter in diameter, is used to hang the instrument on the wall. 

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Zither artist Hai Phuong

At the head of the 16-string Zither, there is a bent copper wire used as a bridge to support 16 stainless steel strings. The strings used to be made of twisted silk or brass. 

The 16 strings symbolize the 12 months and 4 seasons of a year. The strings run from the bridge to the other end of the zither and wind around 16 wooden pegs. 

The strings are also supported in the middle by 16 “wild geese” that have the shape of an inverted letter “V”, which can be moved to change the tonality. 

Although the Vietnamese Zither, Chinese Guzheng, Japanese Koto, and Korean Kayagum look very much alike, a number of differences can be noted. 

Teacher Nguyen Thi Thu Hang, who has taught zither at the Hanoi College of Arts for more than 30 years, gave one example: “The Vietnamese Zither produces a pure and bright sound that flows into you like sunshine flows into trees, while the Chinese Zither’s sound is deep and warm. Each instrument has a different character”.

Culture researcher and composer Thao Giang said, “When playing the 16-string Zither, Vietnamese musicians focus on the melody. The melody is inspired by the common language that we use in everyday conversations, showcasing Vietnamese minds, hearts and spirits. For players, the most difficult thing in playing this instrument is reflecting the Vietnamese soul and culture in the music.” 

In the past, players grew long fingernails to pluck the strings. But nowadays, they wear finger-nail plectrums made of tortoise shell, horn, plastic or metal on the thumb (No1), forefinger (No2) and middle finger (No3) of their right hand.

The tunings of the 16-string Zither follow the pentatonic scale (having just 5 notes).While performing, players often stand, or sit on a chair or a mat on the floor, with the Zither in front of them. 

Players gently lift up the right hand, ring finger slightly touching the bridge while fingers No 1, 2, 3 take turns plucking the strings. At the same time, the left hand can press or release the strings between the peg and the wild geese to embellish the song. 

Each hand has its own technique. Two of the prominent techniques of the right hand are "Gliding"" and "Tremolo".

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For players, the most difficult thing in playing this instrument is reflecting Vietnamese soul and culture in the music 

The first, "Gliding", is the most typical technique of the Zither. This technique is used mainly on weak beats, before strong beats, or at the beginning or the end of a musical sentence. 

Players use this technique to imitate the sound of rain, water, or wind. “Tremolo", is a technique that uses the tips of the finger nails to pluck strings continuously. 

The artist can beautiful the sound using other left-hand techniques, for example: Vibrato, Accent , Mordent, Glissando, and so on. 

Using these diverse techniques, the Zither can play many Vietnam folk songs, for example "Rice drum", "Song of the flower", "The beautiful bamboo tree",” Ferns drift and clouds float". 

It can also play new pieces of instrumental music, for example: "Bamboo in the wind", "spring in my homeland", "spring comes", and "Nirvana”. 

The 16-string zither is very difficult to learn, but anyone can try. Teacher Thu Hang said, “With passion and love, anyone can learn how to play the 16-string Zither, no matter how old they are. But, personally speaking, the most appropriate age for learning this instrument is between 9 and 15, because at that age, students are more focused than they were at a younger age but have more time to practice than adults do."

"Students need to be patient and practice hard in class and at home. Daily practice is the key to making progress on this instrument,” she added. 

Mai Thanh Hoa, who has been learning the 16-string Zither for a year, spoke of her love for this instrument: “I started to learn this instrument 1 year ago, but unfortunately, I found out that I didn’t have a natural talent. Since then, I have kept practicing hard. Now, I can play some pieces of music. The sound of the instrument is amazing, and even more impressive than on television. Learning Dan Tranh helps me refresh my mind and love life more. ”

In the 1950s, musician and Former Professor at the Saigon Conservatory of Music and Theatre, Nguyen Vinh Bao, increased the instrument’s range by adding a 17th string, then a 19th, 21st, 22nd. 

Now the instrument can play modern music like jazz, blues and even rock. 

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Now the instrument can play modern music like jazz, blues and even rock

Culture researcher and composer Thao Giang says one of the best ways of preserving and developing Vietnamese traditional instruments like the 16-string zither is to create cultural spaces. 

He said, “In my opinion, we need to organize more presentations or workshops to show the uniqueness and charm of the 16-string zither, and get more people to feel the beauty and fascination of this instrument. 16-string zither fans and students are the ones who preserve and keep this instrument alive.”

In recent years, the Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh Conservatories and other music development centers have organized many classes for people who are drawn to the 16-string Zither. 

Those same conservatories and centers also hold performances and workshops in Vietnam and abroad to expand the audience for this kind of music. 


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