Vietnamese Institute of Musicology Website - Characteristics of Ca trù music & brief introduction about six musical forms of ca trù

Characteristics of Ca trù music & brief introduction about six musical forms of ca trù

                                                          PGS-TS Vũ Nhật Thăng


After more than three years when Ca trù has been recognized as an Intangible Cultural
Heritage in Need of Urgent Saferguarding by the UNESCO, many national Ca trù festivals
were organized at the provincial and city levels and many Ca trù classes were opened by
Ca trù clubs or folk artist. Thanks to that, there is a possibility that young people can
become ca trù singers and instrumentalists, who continue the career of senior folk artists.
However, it is still very arduous to train them into good singers and instrumentalists.

As an agency directly involved in building the nomination file of Ca trù, in 2012, the
Vietnamese Institute for Musicology unhesitatingly opened the first Ca trù class with the
aim of training young singers and instrumentlists, capable of following this career. The
students of this class, selected by the Departments of Culture, Sports and Tourism,
consists of the best singers and instrumentlists of Ca trù clubs nationwide

In the opening ceremony of this class, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Vũ Nhật Thăng had a talk
about Ca trù music features and six musical forms of Ca trù and next was the
performance of Thái Hà Ca trù group. This scientific bulletin will introduce to
the readers the full text of this talk.


Ladies and Gentlemen,         

I was asked to talk about Ca trù music by the leaders of the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology. With very limited time, I would like to mention briefly two out of many features of the musical note combination in Ca trù art from the viewpoint of musicology. In my opinion, two important features that make Ca trù music be different from other kinds of traditional music in Vietnam are melody composition and ensemble method. These two methods cause a series of effects. However, due to limited time, I cannot mention them in detail. I can say that these two methods differentiate Ca trù from other musical kinds. 

Vietnam has two different styles of singing Ca trù. What I am mentioning is Ca trù in the Red River Delta, Mã River Delta, Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh provinces. Quảng Bình province has different Ca trù performance style. The researcher Đặng Hoành Loan[1] is very knowledgeable about this matter. And for me, I have considered Quảng Bình Ca trù as a separate topic, which must be quickly researched for preservation.


            I. SOUND AND CA TRù MUSIC


1. Chord melody.

 In my opinion, traditional Ca trù songs must be performed by four tools, including singing, clappers, musical instruments, and drums. In every performance environment, listeners will have the feeling of lyricalness, passionateness, enjoyment. In addition, they will have a common feeling that music is mature and deliberate. Expressing such feeling depends on artists’ understanding of song contents and Ca trù performance styles. Yet, the core is Sound and Music

In terms of the “key mode (the key điệu thức)” of most of traditional Ca trù songs, they are composed with the pentatonic scale of tune, which can also be called mode No.5 or Nam mode. However, the main melody is played only with tone No.1 (stable tone), tone No.3 (the overtone minor third interval at stable tone) and tone No.5 (natural perfect fifth interval at stable tone, or called stable semitone). The main melody of the song is composed by the above three degrees (bậc) and the other two degrees only play the role of ornamental tones. They appeared only for short duration. Such melody is made of  arpeggios, which I called “chord melody” (known as giai điệu hợp âm).

Some people will say that such characteristics can be recognised in European classical and romantic music. I agree that every kind of classical music has been influenced by the natural overtone system. Because Ca trù is a traditional music of a nation with thousands of civilisation, it has been certainly impacted by the overtone system. It is “harmonious vibe”, which has been existed in every cell of all living beings. Composers of all traditional music of human beings relies on this system to create the own characteristics for their music. However, because the universe is immense and always in motions, a creature or a model appearing on the earth will alter into many versions like the nature of the universe. Human beings will use that model with thousands of ways, in which the way of creating traditional Ca trù music is special.

For example, the third interval is not often used upwards in Ca trù; instead, downward notes are sometimes used in ending sentences. Skips of the fourth, the fifth, the sixth and the eighth intervals are usually used and there are clear regulations in using ornamental and ligature techniques. Note ornamental always becomes the specific rule for each of our traditional music, which proffesionals must not be confused.

The onomatopoeias tùng, tang, tính or xoè are often used ca đàn of Ca trù. If you want to listen, Mr. Nguyễn Văn Khuê - a member of the group Ca trù Thái Hà - can sing every musical phrase with onomatopoeias. I would like to read notes for your easier understanding and ignore the slight difference in width of intervals.

[G (downwards towards eighth interval) G (upwards towards fourth interval) C.C ;

G (downwards towards eighth interval) G (upwards towards minor sixth interval) Eb ligature ~ (downwards towards minor thirth interval) C.C]

   When a tone is repeated many times, only the appearance of a strange pitch can make listeners feel a change and then the player comes back previous tone (tonicize). Strange sounds can be added to move to a new tone (complete change). For instance, a melody is played as above; note D is added; and then note C comes back (temporary change). If note A appears after note D, the melody moves father (complete change).

2. Performing ensemble - combining musical patterns.

As far as we are concerned, every professional music has its own form and performance style and so does the music of each Vietnamese ethnic group.

   When Ca trù has been performed in western countries, some audiences wondered that it should be called Tam tấu (performed by three instrumentalists) or Tứ tấu (performed by four instrumentalists) because three instrumentalists performed it; yet, it sounds that sounds come from four musical instruments. Those 4 instruments are different, but independent from each other. In addition, until now, many Vietnamese people are excited in listening to Ca trù. Although they cannot feel a regular rhythm, every note is played smoothly. It turns out to be caused by the method “performing ensemble - combining musical patterns”. This is the terminology that I temporarily call. Indeed, performing ensemble and combining different rhythmic patterns (poetic pattern, vocal pattern, clappers pattern, instrumental pattern, or drum pattern) eliminate regular beating of clappers. As a result, it is impossible and it is not necessary to identify a certain beat. In this ensemble method, singers are the leading people: sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, or sometimes regularly. They have practiced their career for years; thus they can perform improvisation without making mistakes. Because female singers have played the main role since Lý dynasty, this art has been called ả đào singing until the 15th century. After the name Ca trù was born, the combination name “Ca trù - ả đào singing” appeared. (I would like to open quotes to add my own opinion: Nowadays, nobody awards singers by throwing bamboo tokens on which the value was shown, so the name “ả đào singing” is more reasonable). Singers must practice clappers-playing skilfully because they have to know how to combine secondary and main clappers to create different rhythmic patterns of the clappers as regulated. In addition to an instrument, clappers also play the important role of providing “leading signals” for other instruments in an ensemble. They are not allowed to play clappers wrong in rhythmic patterns, but they can create variation. Therefore, besides beauty and good singing voice, singers’ talents are evaluated in their ability of playing clappers.       

In the past, people often said: “there are five singing voices; an instrument can play five cung tunes; clappers can perform five khổ rhythmic patterns; and a drum can play five phép rhythmic patterns”. With serious ensemble principles, nobody are allowed to perform a traditional Ca trù musical piece out of khổ musical patterns, singing voices, tunes, and phép rhythmic patterns, all of which can be called khổ rhythmic patterns. Accordingly, an ensemble is a combination of rhythmic patterns. They are succeeded horizontally and overlap each other vertically. Maturity is expressed from that seriousness. That is an unique ensemble method, which can be only found in Ca trù - ả đào singing.

   Generally and briefly, I finish presenting the melody and ensemble principles in processing Sounds and Music in Ca trù. These two principles grant Ca trù a special and unique position.


1. Thét nhạc

Thét nhạc is a musical form performed to start Hát cửa đình (singing in the communal house) and also an ancient tune handed down up to now. Under the Lê dynasty (the 15th century), this tune was played to start the sacrifices in the royal palace. Therefore, thét nhạc is believed to be a deviation of thiết nhạc. It means that the display of musical instruments of the instrumentalist. However, in the ancient words of Vietnamese language, thét also means making vibrated at high. In addition, Thét nhạc means starting playing music.

In this kind of musical form, lyrics is not used to express any content clearly but it is only used to show emotion of human being before nature and music. Borrowing the lyrics to perform music, the song performs sufficiently five musical modes (five different pitches and features of music) in turn.

Thét nhạc is derived from Hát thờ (worship singing) but due to its beautiful melody, it is also performed as Hát chơi (singing for entertainment) and Hát thi (competition singing).

2. Bắc phản - Hát nói

Bắc phản is played in Hát chơi and Hát thi. The song is at the low ambitus at the beginning and then accordingly high. It means that it is the Nam tone and changed into Bắc tone. Tempo is from slow and then swift and back to slow. The Bắc phản is also called Hát mở because it is recitative played to start a singing session. Sometimes it is played before a Hát nói to replace the Mưỡu song which is usually played to start a Hát nói. The Bắc phản has many different lyrics and each six verses of six-eight word district meter is a song.

 Hát nói is a singing tune which is loved the most in Ca trù art. It is played mainly in Hát chơi (singing for entertainment), Hát thi (competition singing), and then in Hát thờ (singing for worship) and Hát cửa quyền (singing in royal palace). The original name and melody of Hát nói is from Hát giai cửa đình and songs called "nói" (speaking) in Hát thi. Hát nói is a proper noun to show this singing genre and unrelated to the verb "nói" (speaking). It is because the Hát nói is a real singing tune not speaking.

Apprearing in the last 18th century, the Hát nói tune brings about the formation and perfection of the poem style of Hát nói. This tune is strongly developed in Hát chơi and quickly favored at cabaret because it reflects the emotion of human being at that time. Many “hát nói” poems were composed by famous scholars at that time. The Hát nói brings out a melody and rhythm model with an ensemble mode (singing+clappers+lute+drum) in the regulation which is both strict and flexible, appropriate to all poems of hát nói in spite of thiếu khổ insufficient canto or đủ khổ sufficient canto or dôi khổ redundant canto.

Before singing the Hát nói, singer normally recites several six-eight word distich meter poem verses to start which is called Mưỡu composed by the same author. Mưỡu also has many types such as Mưỡu đơn (simple Mưỡu) (two six-eight word distich meter verses), Mưỡu kép (double Mưỡu) (four six-eight word distich meter verses), Mưỡu tiền (pre- Mưỡu) (beginning of the Hát nói), Mưỡu hậu (post- Mưỡu) (conclusing the Hát nói).

However, Mưỡu can be replaced with the song namely Bắc phản. The song "Danh tại giáo phường đệ nhất bộ" written by a Quảng Yên provincial chief to present the singer Nguyễn Thị Tuyết, the third-generation career ancestor of Thái Hà Ca trù will be performed in the style of Bắc phản - Hát nói.       

3.  Hát nói giở Gửi thư

 Gửi thư is a tune whose lyrics describes the longing of a girl for her sweetheart from afar. This tune is very lyrical in Ca trù art. The seven-seven-six-eight word meter poem style is usually used because it is appropriate to open one’s heart.

Singing voice is ornate and velvety as well as the lyric is eager and warm. The singer sings according to each four-verse canto, sweet and gentle at the beginning and then accordingly melodious. Gửi thư tune (letter-sending tune) is indispensable not only in Hát chơi tune and Hát thi tune but also in Hát thờ tune.

   "Hát nói giở Gửi thư" is a performance style of singers. Firstly, they will sing Hát nói (recitative) and then move to Gửi thư (letter-sending singing). This shift makes Gửi thư songs be more lyrical.

4. Hát nói

 The poem, written for Hát nói tune in this musical item, is called Vô đề. It was composed by the poet Nguyễn Đức ý in Nhâm Tý year (1852) when he had just been the first in an exam. He was a Quản giáp (a leader) in a musical guild, who was the first ancestors of Ca trù Thái Hà group. Their all second, third, and fourth generations have trained famous singers and instrumentalists. The fifth generation is Mr. Nguyễn Văn Mùi, who is playing a drum in this performance today. His daughter is the singer Nguyễn Thuý Hoà; his sons are Nguyễn Văn Khuê and Nguyễn Mạnh Tiến, who are both instrumentalists; and his grandchildren are the singers Nguyễn Thu Thảo and Nguyễn Kiều Anh. Ca trù Thái Hà group has seven generations, following this career.

5. Ba mươi sáu giọng

Ba mươi sáu giọng is a song for fun and normally performed at the end of a session of Hát chơi. In the Vietnamese language, thirty six is symbolized a large number. For example, a folksong has a sentence that: "Trên trời ba mươi sáu thứ chim/ there are thirty six kinds of bird on the sky" meaning that many kinds of birds are flying on the sky or other sentence is Hà Nội băm sáu phố phường/Hanoi has thirty six streets and districts" meaning that Hanoi has many streets and districts. The Ba mươi sáu giọng is the song joined and put together many different melodies.

This song is also called ả phiền, which is a deviation of A phiến or á phiện (opium). The name is derived from the first singing sentences of the song aiming at making fun of those who are on drugs. In addition to above mentioned slang name, the song is also called in funny “Nộm, which is a favorite dish for drinking. It is a combination of many vegetables, tubers, fruits, banano inflorescence, squid, shrimp, sea-crab, chicken, etc. with a lot of spices including hot, sweet, sour, and tasty. It is also called Thập bát thanh in using highbrow terms, meaning that 18 different singing tunes are joined and gathered to form a song. However, it contains only about 15 main melodies with 17 successive phrases: 1/ Sa mạc, 2/ Bồng mạc, 3/ Xướng tế, 4/ Đò đưa, 5/ Huê tình, 6/ Trống quân, 7/ Nói sử, 8/ Bài sai lên đồng, 9/ Kể truyện sa mạc, 10/ Thổng thiên thai, 11/ Hát cách Chèo, 12/ Chầu văn, 13/ Hãm, 14/ Sa mạc tỳ bà, 15/ Tỳ bà hành, 16/ Cung bắc, 17/ Dựng tỳ bà (cung Huỳnh).

If singing in sufficient, the song is very long. Therefore, singers usually cut down the singing lyrics or melody depending on performance condition.

The performer does not pay attention to the logical meaning of the singing lyrics but only to the succeeding of melodies to be logical. When performing the Ba mươi sáu giọng, the performer has to arrange nearby melodies, so the talent of singer and instrumentalist is expressed when they play clearly and accurately each melody and also change melody skillfully. That is an art for performing this song.

6. Tỳ bà hành 

Tỳ bà hành is a poem of Bạch Cư Dị (772 - 846), a realistic poet, a famous culture theorist of China. The poem is typical for the sympathy for a courtesan who is old and whose beauty is gradually faded. She played the pear-shaped lute beautifully but the life did not treat her well. It was as the same as the situation of the author who was banished to Châu Giang to become a small mandarin named Tư mã.

 Being admired with emotion before the humanity poem of forebear, over a thoudsand years later, Phan Huy Vịnh (1800 - 1870), the Vietnamese poet in the 19th century translated it into Nôm poem in the style of seven-seven-six-eight word meter. That was a famous song which was admired by many people and quickly became an excellent cultural work independent of the original version.

Before singing the Tỳ bà hành, singer usually plays the phách clappers to declaim the eight verses in the poem namely Thu hứng by Đỗ Phủ (712 -770) and was translated into the national language by Ngô Thế Vinh (1825 - 1869). However, the poem Tỳ bà hành is so long that the singer can only sings the first phrase and the last phrase.

For the Tỳ bà hành, music gives prominence to poetic inspiration but it does not always depend on poem. The harmony between poem and music can be recognised. However, sometimes poem and music are nearly independent of each other. That is the time when music expresses its tone. The rhythmic phrases (khổ) of the lute and the clappers are slow and fast now and then, slow at the beginning and gradually swift. The lute and the clappers are sometimes played strictly or sometimes in impromptu refinely and gradually become a big climax. The singing voice vibrates highly which move people’s heart before it gradually goes back the quietness to end of the song.


Ladies and gentlemen,

   People should understand something if they want to enjoy it. It takes a lot of time and effort if they want to perform Ca trù. However, if they are passionate in Ca trù, it is not a matter.


[1].  Đặng Hoành Loan, Vietnamese Ca trù Art – the general and particular features of Quảng Bình  Ca trù. Printed in a research funded by Quảng Bình province in 2011 (BBT)