As in any country, music have played a huge role in shaping people’s lives and for many centuries, have conveyed messages of love, sorrow, joy and hope from the hearts of the Vietnamese people, young or old, rich or poor.
In Huế, deemed as the cultural heart of Vietnam, a known musical instrument have graced the capital city for so long. Though widely used during the Ly and Tran dynasty (around the 10th century), the Đàn Tranh is believed to have existed earlier than that. A member of the board-zither family having 16 strings, Đàn Tranh is also called Dan Thap Luc. About 110 cm in length, this wooden instrument appears long and hollow resembling a pipe. It has a convex surface and is tapered at one end. Sixteen silk strings pass from the broad end towards the narrow end and on that point are secured by individual pegs which are also used for tuning. In the middle of the instrument lies a raised moveable bridge that allows pitches to be tuned to various notes.
Apart from the beautiful sounds created by the Đàn Tranh, the interesting designs and the appeal it holds captures the fancy even of the non-musicians. Foreigners or anybody who appreciates the exceptional qualities of the instrument uses it as living room centerpieces or for any other aesthetic intention. Indeed, the Đàn Tranh is a beautiful intricate item. With its wooden body usually covered in ornate lacquered designs or laid with mother-of-pearls, the instrument translates the allure of Vietnam’s culture.
Three different types of this instrument exists in the country. The ancient Đàn Tranh has 16 strings. The Đàn Tranh most used today has 17 strings and is slightly larger than its prototype. Then, a newer model developed by Nguyen Vinh Bao has 22 strings. Modern day Đàn Tranhs still have its bridges made of wood or bone tipped with copper. The traditional silk strings are replaced with steel-made and have varying widths. Just as in the past, artists still use picks in playing the instrument. Though the original tortoise-shell picks are still widely used, others can now opt for metal or plastic-made picks.
Believed to be derived from the Chinese Zheng, along with its relationship to other board-zither instruments like the Korean Kayagum, Japanese Koto and the Mongolian Yatga, the Đàn Tranh may share the same general characteristics and playing forms but it has taken its own unique identity in physical appearance, art works, sound, timbre and playing style. Over the periods, it has evolved into a unique musical instrument of its own embodying Vietnam’s wonderful culture and long history. But apart from that, it demonstrates more favorable characteristics of which, its size is most appreciated. With only 90cm to 110 cm in length compared to the 180cm size of Koto, 160 cm of Kayagum is 160cm, 145 cm of both the Zheng and the Yatga, it certainly is more advantageous in terms of portability and convenience. And as the instrument has 17 strings to 21 strings, it makes possible for more tonal range in such a small body. The strings of the Đàn Tranh are also pretty thin (most are .20mm thick), therefore, have less tension and can be easily bended to create all the notes required in modern Western music.
Both hands play an important role in creating wonderful melody from the Đàn Tranh. The right hand plucks the string and produces a sound while the left hand is vital for musicality since it presses on the left side of the string to bend its pitch and provide ornamentation. The strings are often plucked two at a time in octaves and the chords are usually in arpeggio. Some accomplished musicians may also use the left hand to pluck notes simultaneously with the right hand to produce larger chords. Together, a cheerful music is produced. Traditionally, the artist uses two or three fingers to pluck the strings of this instrument. Nowadays, the artist may use as many as four or five fingers to pluck the strings. Centuries of embracing the instrument have brought about newer characteristic in fingering techniques, pressing and releasing, and scale. Various techniques such as pitch bending are used to convey different emotions.
Similar to many great musical instruments, Đàn Tranh can be used in solo performances, song accompaniment, along recitals or orchestra. Its amazingly cheerful sounds have inspired many artists, poets and has taken huge roles in theaters, classical literatures and in many traditional festivals. The instrument is now incorporated into modern Vietnamese music and even in several Asian pop performances as an exotic solo or accompaniment to the modern band instruments. Its massive popularity is evident on how artists throughout the country widely prefer Đàn Tranh in their craft. The instrument had truly lived up to its proud reputation of being among the most dominant musical instruments in Vietnam since the 10th century. With the mix of blissful, exalting and purely positive emotions evoked by the sounds of the Đàn Tranh, it remains to be a proud symbol of Huế and a beautiful expression of the entirety of Vietnam.