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On Beauty in Tibetan Music


In its own strange language, Tibet’s music, its notation, form, and sound are all suffused with a mysterious beauty...

In its infinite power, musical language may find its ultimate expression in devotional music. And while every musical tradition around the world seems to implicitly suggest this, the culture of Tibet —and its unique aesthetic— presents a noteworthy example.

Every religion bears the colors and forms of the culture from which it emerged. When Buddhism arrived in Tibet in the 7th century, it merged with existing regional traditions and its musical works were permeated by this syncretism. Within the religious sphere, music serves as a record surviving generation of devotees, as a way of knowing and memorizing sacred scriptures, and as a method for scaring off harmful spirits or even invoking deities. In Tibet, music derived into a complex (and beautiful) system of writing music, an essential ingredient of Buddhism and its spiritual expressions, —in which the aesthetic experience happening outside of a person is also of considerable value. Within the Buddhist world, sound often bears a sacred quality and an evident capacity for the elevation of human consciousness.

The notation of Tibetan music depicts —by means of symbols— melodies, rhythms, patterns, and musical arrangements. One of the best known and most extensive traditions of ritual singing is known as Yang Yig and emerged in the 6th century, prior to Buddhism in Tibet. The writing doesn’t indicate rhythmic patterns, nor the durations of the notes. But along with songs, visualizations, and some facial gestures, the musical notation also transcribes the main guide for many rituals. Such rituals often integrate dance, traditional instruments, and polyphonic chants.

In written Tibetan music, curves indicate the smooth effects of rises and falls in intonation. This notation also indicates, frequently, the metaphorical spirit of that which should be sung. For example, “flowing like a river,” and “light as the song of a bird.” One can also find detailed indications of the modifications to be made to the voice when certain vowels are pronounced. Specific notations are used for vocals, and others for instruments like drums, trumpets, horns, and cymbals.

Music is powerful because it communicates the essential, timeless, and inexpressible parts of what makes us human. Tibetan music invokes, in its deep ritual inclinations, a sensory immersion in the transcendental, and a rethinking of melody, rhythm, and song.

Tibetan writings


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