Tibetan Music – About Religion, Besides Religion

By Sari Xu

To be honest, as an outsider, I found it hard to distinguish Yi music from traditional music of Dai people. The closer these ethnic groups are geographically, the more similarities we could see among their music. However, Tibetan music is much more distinctive and you can easily recognize it after you read about the following introductions.

About Religious Music                                                                                                   

The main religion of Tibetan people is Lamaism (The Mahayana branch of Buddhism). Therefore, their music is mostly Buddhist music. Other than the traditional chanting music, Tibetan people also created their own musical notation – Yāng Yí Musical Notation (央移谱) back in 14th century. It consists both straight lines and curves, while the 7 straight lines have the same function as the modern Western musical score, the curves replace the notes and indicate the entire flow of the melody. Therefore, there is no publicly accepted standard for these notes. The only way to read the notation is to learn from senior lama (monks), follow their chant, keep practicing daily for lifetime, and truly understand the meanings behind.

Just like the Pilgrimage to Santiago, the road to Potala Palace, Lhasa is another famous route among pilgrims. The religious music is one of the main sources that mentally supports the lama and pilgrims to finish their pilgrimage with a worship on the ground every three steps starting from their hometown until Potala.

A Yang Yi Musical Notation Sample





Besides Religious Music

Other than their religious life, Tibetan people also sing and dance a lot in their daily life. The concepts are mostly about the nature, the family reunion, and best wishes to everything. Some popular types of folk songs including Sgor-Gzhas(果谐), Reba-Gzhas(热巴谐) and Mamani(嘛玛尼), etc. Sgor-Gzhas is the most popular way of singing while dancing in a circle simultaneously. Reba-Gzhas represents various types of dance music to accompany with knife dance, deer dance, musical dramas and so on. The Mamani artists usually hang on a religious painting in front of the audience and tell the religious story through their songs.

Modern Artists and Singers

The music talents of Tibetan people are also widely recognized by audience around China. Tseitain Zhoima, as one of the best sopranos in China, was deeply influenced by Tibetan folk music since childhood. Her iconic works including Liberated Tibetan Serfs Singing the Emancipation, Over the Gold Hill in Beijing, The East is Red, etc. Yangchen Zhoima, probably more known as Han Hong (韩红), is a mixed Tibetan-Han singer and songwriter. Heavenly Road is her prestigious masterpiece.

Tseitain Zhoima Performing in Tibetan Clothing

Why Tibetan?

Tibetan people are born to be great singers. Why?

Around 8000 years ago, Qiāng Tribe, the ancestor of Tibetan people, settled in the Tibet Plateau and started grazing. To communicate on the endless plain, it’s necessary to have great voice when herding animals. In addition, the atmosphere pressure is much lower at high altitude like Tibet, the trachea, bronchus and lungs of Tibetan people gradually evolved and developed to tackle with the thin air. This helps Tibetan people to reach really high pitches and also spread their voice far away.

Nowadays, more and more musicians fall in love with Tibetan music and started to add Tibetan elements into their own music. No matter what types of music they are doing, they could always find the Tibetan music mixing well with the pop music favored by the majority. Therefore, the Tibetan music now is no longer about religion only, it goes beyond Lamaism, and even beyond the border to the international stage. Check out this performance to see how young Tibetan singers are promoting their own music in a modern way.



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