About the Dan Tranh


In the morning of Jan. 14th, 2003, Eminent Educator Pham Thuy Hoan answered the questions of the audience from the Ho Chi Minh Television Music Box. The talk was illustrated with Artist Hai Phuong and Singer Duc Tam's vivid renditions. The interesting questions related to the dan tranh: the origin, the structural and the musical characteristics, the fingering techniques, and the related books. The following are some of the content

       "Not any documents have given a clear definition of the origin of the dan tranh and its inventor. In the book An Nam Chi Luoc by Le Tac, an extract mentioned Dai Nhac and Tieu Nhac (The Great Music and The Subdivided Music). Dai nhac was performed in the Court, Tieu Nhac in the public. There were the ty ba and the dan tranh among Vietnamese musical instruments for Tieu Nhac. The book entitled Vu Trung Tuy But by Pham Dinh Ho also said that there were 2 techniques of playing the dan tranh: one with a reed stick and the other with a pick of silver. According to Pro. Tran Van Khe, based on archaeological books, some engraved images of the artists playing the musical instruments among which was an instrument resembling the dan tranh were found on a flagstone next to the root of one pillar of the Phat Tich pagoda ( about 20 kilometers from Hanoi). Another old book said that the dan tranh came into existence in the thirteenth century. Thus, if agreed upon the hypothesis about the engraved images at the Phat Tich pagoda (also known as Van Phuc), the dan tranh was derived from the Chinese Zheng into Vietnam in the Ly Dynasty in the tenth or eleventh century. The Korean Kaygakum, the Japanese Koto and the Mongolian Yatga are appropriate variants of the Zheng. Depending on the aesthetics of the nation, each of them has its own repertoire, as well as unique performing art, and is the pride of the nation."

( Hai Phuong played Binh Ban Van on the dan tranh accompanied with song lang - the foot clapper)

Prof. Thuy Hoan went on. “The rendition has brought 2 special things to our notice:

Firstly, before playing the main piece, the artist performed a prelude without rhythm. It was played with sudden inspiration, not the same all the times, which inspires the artist and the audience, tells the mode of the piece, sad or joyful, and is simultaneously a way of adjusting the strings. This is considered as unique in Vietnam, not in other countries.

Secondly, the artist used song lang as accompaniment playing the piece. This special thing has not been seen in other nations.”

dantranh-thuthuy.jpg (44085 bytes)There are 3 types of the dan tranh. The ancient dan tranh has 16 strings, thus called thap luc-the sixteen-stringed board zither. The present dan tranh that has 17 strings is most favorite. But the bigger dan tranh can have 19, 21, 22, or even 24 strings …etc.

           First of all, let’s see the ancient dan tranh. This is not a very ancient dan tranh. It was made more than 40 years ago, but it is a prototype of the ancient dan tranh. The dan tranh is a long soundboard that is narrow at one end and wider at the other. The convex upper surface has bridges supporting the strings and altering the pitch. Each of the parralell strings is stretched over the upper surface with one end rolled around the axis on the surface, the other fastened under the surface. The concave underside of the soundboard is closed by a flat base that has 3 holes - the largest semicircle used to fasten the strings, the rectangular used as a holder, and the smallest used as a hanger. To make the dan tranh more beautiful, the upper surface will have 2 pierced close sous between the wider end and the bridges, and 2 pierced lozenges between bridges and the narrower end while both sides and bridges of the dan tranh are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. To tune the strings, we have a tuning peg. There are 3 types of strings: the biggest being 0.30 millimeters in thickness, the others 0.25 and 0.20.


And this is the seventeen-stringed zither. It is a little bigger than the ancient. Its upper surface is less convex than that of the ancient one. There are neither sous nor lozenges, for they will be cracked by the cold weather, which is believed to result in distortion of the sound. For the seventeen-stringed zither, the first string is the the biggest (0.35 or 0.40 millimeters in thickness), the others the same as those of the ancient zither.

We also have the 22-stringed board zither; the more strings, the lower sounds The first string is 0.50 or 0.55 millimeters, the others 0.45, 0.40, 0.35 …etc. This type of the zither is played for new pieces which require larger octaves. The person making this modification is Musician Nguyen Vinh Bao, former professor of the Saigon Conservatory of Drama and Music.

       If the convex surface is considered as the sky, the flat base is symbolic of the earth. Poet Nguyen Hai Phuong imagined the surface in other way. 

Your hands are scented with verses

They are butterflies playing with flowers

The surface is a full river

The wind rising over the bridge, some geese flying down

(Recited by Duc Tam with dan tranh accompaniment by Hai Phuong)

        And now, here are some fingering techniques. The artist uses both hands. The right hand plucks the strings and the left hand adds ornament by bending them. The following are some techniques of the right hand. The artist uses 2 or 3 fingers to pluck the strings for pieces of traditional music, 4 or even 5 fingers for modern music. One of special fingering techniques is Fingering A. It is performed by plucking a series of strings from the higher notes to the lower. For happy songs, Fingering A is heard as unending joy:

First causing laughter,

Fingers dancing on the sixteen strings.

                        (Nguyen Van Thinh)


For sad songs, it sounds slow, gentle, and sometimes very sad.

Like a sigh at the first touch of the sound.

Fingers dropping tears on the sixteen strings.

                      (Pham Thuy Hoan)

The artist often plucks 2 strings at the same time, which is called song thanh-2 notes, or many pairs of strings, each pair producing 2 separate notes that form an octave

The left hand

To the Vietnamese artist, the left hand is very important. The artist makes the sound more beautiful with the left hand by using techniques: Rung-Vibrating, Mo-Pecking, Nhan-Pressing, Vuot-Gliding or the combination of Rung - Nhan, Mo – Nhan – Rung, etc …(illustrated). Further more, the left hand can create some microtonal variations on the fixed pitches, for example, the note Fa in the strings sol,la,do,re,mi, … It is more important that it brings us feeling of joy, solemnity, melancholy, sadness, pleasure,…  

       For illustration, Hai Phuong will play the Bac Mode, the Sa Mac Mode, the Nhac Mode-the Nam Mode in the middle region of Vietnam, the Xuan Mode, the Oan Mode . And then, Duc Tam will recite 2 sentences of verse by Tru Vu with a dan tranh accompaniment in the Oan Mode.

Because of dan tranh cast in tear thousands of years ago

Now, tears keep falling only with a touch of somebody's hand

Along with the development of science, techniques and expansion of cultural exchange with other countries, the dan tranh has some changes. Some artists among whom is the distinguished Musician Nguyen Vinh Bao (Former Professor at the Saigon Conservatory of Music and Theatre) have added strings to the instrument: 17, 19, 21, 22 strings, etc… this way of enlarging the octaves inspires the dan tranh players to create many new fingerings, such as Pizzicato. A fingertip of the left hand is put on a bridge while the right hand plucks the string, which makes the sound dull. (illustrated). Hai Phuong will perform the song Tinh Ca Dat Bac where  she uses the mentioned techniques.

                  Each musician has his own musical notation, fingering and pieces for his learners the books about which, to some regret,  have not been published and popularized. However, there are the books like this by: Musician Chin Ky, Prof. Nguyen Huu Ba, Musician Van Luyen, Prof. Pham Van Nghi, Honor Teacher Ngo Bich Vuong and Prof. Dinh Thi Noi of the Hanoi Conservatory. You can also find 10 other books about the dan tranh fingerings, folk songs or songs  written for the dan tranh by Prof. Thuy Hoan. Let's hope that there will be in the future more books about the dan tranh which dan tranh learners wish to have on their bookshelves.

          What I have just talked about is sketchy. To my regret, the time is up which does not permit me to talk more. I hope that my introduction can help  you catch some knowledge of the dan tranh. It is delicate and rich in fingerings. It makes us more love and proud of this charming instrument.

          Goodbye my dear audience.


Picture 1: Prof. Pham Thuy Hoan

Picture 2: Vietnamese Artist Thanh Thuy (Ha Noi)

Picture 3: Dan Tranh VN

Picture 4: THQH Troupe