Tibetan Traditional Music: Rich Folk Song Heritage and Cultural Significance

Tibetan traditional music encompasses a rich tapestry of sounds, deeply ingrained within the cultural fabric of the region. It is a dynamic art form that includes various types such as folk, religious, and court music. Each subset holds its own significance and contributes uniquely to the musical landscape of Tibet.

Types and Categories of Tibetan Folk Music

Within Tibetan folk music, there exist five distinct categories, each with its own distinct characteristics. These encompass folk Music, Dance music, Rap music, Opera music, and Instrumental music. Delving deeper, Tibetan folk songs, the heart of this musical tradition, can be further categorized into minor tunes and dance songs.

The spectrum broadens when considering their content, which spans wedding songs, battle chants, love ballads, antiphonal harmonies, labour songs, and delightful children’s tunes.

History and Evolution of Tibetan Folk Songs

Tracing the roots of Tibetan folk songs reveals a rich history dating back to the 8th century AD. “Lu,” an ancient folk song genre, emerged during this era, setting the foundation for the diverse melodies and themes that permeate Tibetan folk music.

Characteristics of Tibetan Folk Songs

Tibetan folk songs exhibit a distinct structure and varied expression forms. Their musical elements encompass a free-flowing rhythm, improvisation based on emotional impulses, and the use of a rhythmic pattern. These songs primarily embrace the pentatonic scale and present a musical landscape that mirrors the elegance of clouds and the gracefulness of wind.

Lalu: A Unique Tibetan Folk Song Category

Lalu, a distinctive subset of Tibetan folk songs, is often sung in the open expanses, resonating lyrically through the mountains and fields. With its broad tonal range, free rhythm, and characteristic use of the plateau’s musical tones, Lalu embodies the essence of Tibetan traditional music. Representative tracks like “Harvest Folk Song” and “Amiyo” encapsulate the spirit and beauty of Lalu.


Changlu refers to a drinking song in Tibetan traditional music. It has a smooth and subtle melody, soft and uncomplicated. Typically, it’s sung during festival gatherings when toasting. The melodic structure mainly revolves around the tones. Representative pieces include “Kalsang La,” “Changshey” and “Muli Wine Song,” among others.

Importance and Influence of Tibetan Folk Music

Tibetan traditional music isn’t solely a form of entertainment; it is a reflection of the region’s cultural heritage. It carries immense significance within Tibetan society, serving as a vessel that carries stories, emotions, and history.

The depth and richness of Tibetan traditional music echo through its varied forms and historical significance. From the ancient roots of “Lu” to the contemporary Lalu songs, this music encapsulates the essence of Tibetan culture, leaving an indelible mark on the global musical landscape.

Song and Dance Music:

In Tibetan, the combination of song and dance is referred to as “harmony.” The music’s rhythm is consistent, with clear beats and a moderate pitch. Varieties include “Gorshay,” “Toeshay,” and “Nangma.” etc.,


Translating to “dancing in a circle” in Tibetan, Gorshay is a form of self-entertaining folk song and dance that involves participants forming a circle, holding hands, singing collectively, and rhythmically stepping. This form of expression is popular in rural Tibet. While performance formats are similar across different regions, they bear different names.

During the singing, there is no musical accompaniment. Dancers circle around a fire pit or an iron pot, moving clockwise, holding each other’s hands and shoulders while singing and dancing. The music generally follows a four-two-beat rhythm, mostly using pentatonic scales, some utilizing six- or seven-tone scales, and commonly employing modes like Gong, Yu, and Zheng. The melodies are simple, often featuring slow and fast songs, skillfully expressing cheerful and enthusiastic emotions.


Also known as “Upper dance,” Toeshay gets its name from the geographical location where the dance originated.

“Tod” in Tibetan refers to the upper area (as Tibet was historically divided into upper, middle, and lower regions). Folk artists in this upper region used Dramnyen as fruity accompaniment, which eventually developed into a structured song and dance with a fixed prelude, interlude, and conclusion. Over time, this singing and dancing style spread to Lhasa, where it evolved further, incorporating numerous accompanying instruments to form “Toeshay”

Notably, the musical characteristic of this style features a melody starting in the high range, cascading down, and ending in the low range. The musical structure typically involves a Prelude, Falling Harmony, Interlude, First Harmony, and Ending.

“Toeshay” denotes slow-tempo singing and dancing, primarily focused on singing with minimal movement. It features a broad rhythm, melodious melodies, and deep emotions. Conversely, “Toeshay” refers to brisk singing and dancing, vibrant and lively, creating a warm atmosphere. Toeshay predominantly uses the Gong mode but also incorporates the Yu and Shang modes, often alternating between Gong and Yu.


Transliterated from Tibetan, Nangma is a classical song and dance popular in regions such as Lhasa, Shigatse, and Gyantse.

“Nang” meaning “inside,” Nangma is termed as an “inside” song and dance. Its classical status is attributed to its long history (dating back approximately 300 years) and because it’s considered a non-folk song and dance.

Nangma music typically comprises three segments: an introduction, a song, and a dance. The introduction involves relatively fixed instrumental music with accompanying instruments such as flute, Dramnyen, Piwang, Yangjing, dulcimer, and string bells. During the song section, the music is elegant and beautiful, while the singer stands on a long board.

The accompanying dance involves gentle, free, and graceful movements in tandem with the singing. Following the song, there’s a dance segment where, after the performer shouts “Lasuo-oh,” the tempo transitions to a faster and more animated dance. Accompanied by the band, participants synchronize their steps, performing “marching steps,” leg raises, hand movements, and other dance elements, creating a sense of freedom, cheerfulness, and joy. Nangma extensively uses heptatonic scales with clear tonalities and intricate modal variations.

Tibetan Opera:

Tibetan opera, known as “Ache Lhamo” in Tibetan, includes three main types: U-Tsang Tibetan opera, Amdo Tibetan opera, and Dege Tibetan opera. Eight traditional repertoires exist, such as “Norsang Dharma King,” “Dolwa Sangmo,” “Zukyi Nyima,” “Pema Weobar,” “Bumo Nangsa” “Princess Wencheng,” “Dunyue Dundup,” and “Drimey Kunden”.

Tibetan opera exhibits a strong ritualistic nature and consists of three segments: the opening, the main play, and the conclusion (Tashi). The opening introduces the characters in a ritualistic and structured sequence. The main opera involves cycles of plot interpretation, comedy, singing, dancing, and occasional participation from the audience. The ending comprises blessings, auspicious ceremonies, chants, songs, and dances, and often evolves into a lively scene akin to a carnival.

Rap Music:

In Tibetan rap music, “Gesar Garluu,” also known as “The Rap of King Gesar”, holds the most significant influence and artistic value. The content centres around the famous folk epic “The Biography of King Gesar,” narrating the mythical story of King Gesar, the legendary leader of the ancient Ling Kingdom.

The epic follows a “serial formula” rap structure and portrays strong religious characteristics due to its historical background and humanistic atmosphere. Before starting the song, artists typically recite six-character Buddhist mantras such as “Om,” “Mah,” “Ne,” “Ba,” “Mi,” and “Hum,” followed by supporting words like “Ah La” and “Tala.”

The biography showcases rich and varied tunes, characterized by short sentence lengths, changeable rhythms, and colloquial recitation. Performances usually involve stand-up singing without instrumental accompaniment, although temple renditions may include musical instruments like suona, conch, six-stringed qin, gongs, drums, and flutes.

Tibetan Buddhist Music

Chanting Music: Monks in Tibetan monasteries sing music when reciting sutras, accompanied by instrumental interludes. The chanting music is categorized into three types:

  1. “Vocal Rhyme”: It involves chanting scriptures with a regular rhythm and pitch, bridging the gap between music and language. This form exhibits strong regularity, a complete musical structure, relatively free beat rhythms, slow music pace, substantial fluctuations in intensity, and strong musical expressiveness.
  2. “Ritual Prayer”: Among Tibetan temple chants, this form is the most melodic and sung with a distinctive melody and a relatively complete musical structure.

Cham Music and Dance: Cham, or “Garcham” in Tibetan, is a religious music and dance performance in Tibetan Buddhism. Performers wear large, three-dimensional masks and hold various mystical instruments. Its primary purpose is to exorcise ghosts and subdue evil spirits, enhancing religious rituals’ solemnity while conveying Buddhist teachings through religious stories. This fusion of religious consciousness with music and dance serves a dual function of entertaining both deities and people.

Temple Instrumental Music: This music is typically performed during temple celebrations, such as welcoming and bidding farewell to living Buddhas, hosting distinguished guests, and processions of monks during religious festivals. It is categorized into two main styles:

  1. Tibetan Buddhist Style: Utilizing instruments like Tibetan drums, cymbals, Jialin, Tongqin, and Falco, evoking a mysterious religious ambience, particularly owing to the deep, resonant tones of the Tongqin.
  2. Influenced by Han Chinese Music: Temples closer to Han areas demonstrate influences from Chinese Buddhist music, employing instruments commonly found in Han temples, like bamboo flutes, Sheng, Guanzi, Suona, and Yunluo.

Significance of Tibetan Music Inheritance

Tibetan music is vast, diverse, and rich with unique characteristics varying across different regions. It holds a long history and encompasses rich folk music and captivating folk dances. The Tibetan people have a unique form of art where “Songs must be danced” and “Dances must be songs,” frequently expressing their emotions towards nature, aspirations for a better life, and pursuit of love.

Whether after work, during festivals, gatherings, or celebrating a good harvest, scenes of men, women, old and young singing and dancing together are common, creating an “ocean of song” and a “world of dance.”

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