Exploring the Dan Bau: A Revival of a Traditional Vietnamese Instrument in a Contemporary Context

A Master’s thesis  submitted to the Multimedia Composition Department, University of Music and Drama Hamburg In fulfillment of the Requirements For a Master’s degree September, 2023

Supervised by Prof. Dr. Georg Hajdu and Vlatko Kučan


The dan bau, a traditional Vietnamese monochord, has a rich history deeply embedded in Vietnamese culture. Despite its historical significance, it has received limited attention in the context of contemporary composition. This thesis seeks to explore the potential of the dan bau in new compositions, aiming to revitalize its presence in modern music while preserving its cultural identity. The study will examine the instrument’s historical significance, its unique tonal qualities, and the challenges and opportunities it presents to composers. By analyzing the integration of dan bau into contemporary compositions, this thesis aims to contribute to the preservation and development of traditional music in a modern context.


2.1 As plucked instrument (lute)
2.2 Struck on the string
2.3 Some bowed instruments

3.1 An overview of the origins and development of the dan bau within Vietnamese musical traditions
3.2 The cultural importance of the dan bau and its role in various Vietnamese ceremonies and artistic expressions

4.1 Construction and physical characteristics of the dan bau
4.2 Tuning and the mechanics of producing sound

5.1 Composition
5.2 Improvisation

1. Introduction

Dan bau has been an integral part of Vietnamese music for countless generations, representing the soul and spirit of the nation’s cultural expression. Yet in the face of globalised music, up until recently traditional instruments often struggled to find their place in the spotlight. In recent years we are witnessing a sort of resurgence of niche instruments (often traditional instruments of various cultures), as these commonly provide the artists and their audiences with, if not unique, then rather special sounds.

This work responds to the urgency of preserving the musical heritage of the dan bau by exploring enticing compositional avenues that can captivate new audiences and reintroduce the instrument to the contemporary scene.

My exploration of the dan bau’s potential is based on combining historical research, technical analysis, and artistic experimentation. By immersing myself in literature, historical texts, and ethnomusicological research, I gained valuable insights into the cultural significance and evolution of the dan bau. Research into the instrument’s tonal characteristics and overtone series also allows us to grasp its distinct tonal qualities and the prospects for harmonious fusion with Western musical conditions.

I would review the compellingly related monochord instruments and history of dan bau and unravel its role in Vietnamese music and cultural practices. This understanding of its traditional context provides a solid foundation for preserving its identity while opening new compositional horizons.

I will also present my compositional approaches to the dan bau, including solo performances that showcase its pure sound, its enchanting interplay with live electronics, its role in the ensemble, and its foray into experimental pop styles. My works serve as practical examples of how the dan bau can be revitalised through contemporary compositions.

In search of exciting new directions, I aim to bridge the gap between tradition, experimentation and contemporary music, to preserve the rich cultural heritage of dan bau while exploring the possibilities of the contemporary musical landscape. By combining the instrument’s historical heritage with the ideas of the present, I hope to inspire composers and performers to embrace the dan bau and enhance its presence in their musical creations. By breathing new life into the dan bau through fresh approaches, I want to help preserve this gem of Vietnamese tradition, to keep its cultural identity while bringing it into the diverse world of modern music.

In summary, this work serves as a guide that unravels the history of the dan bau, explores its unique characteristics, and reveals the exciting possibilities that lie ahead in contemporary composition. By breathing new life into the dan bau through fresh approaches, we seek to preserve this gem of Vietnamese tradition, maintaining its cultural identity while bringing it into the vibrant and diverse world of modern music.