Tibetan Musical Notation Is Beautiful

Reli­gions take the cast and hue of the cul­tures in which they find root. This was cer­tain­ly true in Tibet when Bud­dhism arrived in the 7th cen­tu­ry. It trans­formed and was trans­formed by the native reli­gion of Bon. Of the many cre­ative prac­tices that arose from this syn­the­sis, Tibetan Bud­dhist music ranks very high­ly in impor­tance.

As in sacred music in the West, Tibetan music has com­plex sys­tems of musi­cal nota­tion and a long his­to­ry of writ­ten reli­gious song. “A vital com­po­nent of Tibetan Bud­dhist expe­ri­ence,” explains Google Arts & Cul­tures Bud­dhist Dig­i­tal Resource Cen­ter, “musi­cal nota­tion allows for the trans­fer­ence of sacred sound and cer­e­mo­ny across gen­er­a­tions. A means to mem­o­rize sacred text, express devo­tion, ward off fer­al spirts, and invoke deities.”

Some of these fea­tures may be alien to sec­u­lar West­ern Bud­dhists focused on mind­ful­ness and silent med­i­ta­tion, but to vary­ing degrees, Tibetan schools place con­sid­er­able val­ue on the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of extra-human realms. As Uni­ver­si­ty of Tul­sa musi­col­o­gist John Pow­ell writes, “the use of sacred sound” in Tibetan Bud­dhism, a “Mantrayana” tra­di­tion, acts “as a for­mu­la for the trans­for­ma­tion of human con­scious­ness.”

Tibetan musi­cal nota­tions, Google points out, “sym­bol­i­cal­ly rep­re­sent the melodies, rhythm pat­terns, and instru­men­tal arrange­ments. In har­mo­ny with chant­i­ng, visu­al­iza­tions, and hand ges­tures, [Tibetan] music cru­cial­ly guides rit­u­al per­for­mance.” It is char­ac­ter­ized not only by its inte­gra­tion of rit­u­al dance, but also by a large col­lec­tion of rit­u­al instruments—including the long, Swiss-like horns suit­ed to a moun­tain environment—and unique forms of poly­phon­ic over­tone singing.

The exam­ples of musi­cal nota­tion you see here came from the appro­pri­ate­ly-named Twit­ter account Musi­cal Nota­tion is Beau­ti­ful and type­face design­er and researcher Jo De Baerde­maek­er. At the top is a 19th cen­tu­ry man­u­script belong­ing to the “Yang” tra­di­tion, “the most high­ly involved and regard­ed chant tra­di­tion in Tibetan music,” notes the Schoyen Col­lec­tion, “and the only one to rely on a sys­tem of nota­tion (Yang-Yig).”

The curved lines rep­re­sent “smooth­ly effect­ed ris­es and falls in into­na­tion.” The nota­tion also “fre­quent­ly con­tains detailed instruc­tions con­cern­ing in what spir­it the music should be sung (e.g. flow­ing like a riv­er, light like bird song) and the small­est mod­i­fi­ca­tions to be made to the voice in the utter­ance of a vow­el.” The Yang-Yig goes all the way back to the 6th cen­tu­ry, pre­dat­ing Tibetan Bud­dhism, and “does not record nei­ther the rhyth­mic pat­tern nor dura­tion of notes.” Oth­er kinds of music have their own types of nota­tion, such as that in the piece above for voice, drums, trum­pets, horns, and cym­bals.

Though they artic­u­late and elab­o­rate on reli­gious ideas from India, Tibet’s musi­cal tra­di­tions are entire­ly its own. “It is essen­tial to rethink the entire con­cept of melody and rhythm” to under­stand Tibetan Bud­dhist chant, writes Pow­ell in a detailed overview of Tibetan music’s vocal and instru­men­tal qual­i­ties. “Many out­side Tibetan cul­ture are accus­tomed to think of melody as a sequence of ris­ing or falling pitch­es,” he says. “In Tibetan Tantric chant­i­ng, how­ev­er, the melod­ic con­tent occurs in terms of vow­el mod­i­fi­ca­tion and the care­ful con­tour­ing of tones.”  Hear an exam­ple of tra­di­tion­al Tibetan Bud­dhist chant just above, and learn more about Tibetan musi­cal nota­tion at Google Arts & Cul­ture.

via @NotationIsGreat

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The World’s Largest Col­lec­tion of Tibetan Bud­dhist Lit­er­a­ture Now Online

Free Online Course: Robert Thurman’s Intro­duc­tion to Tibetan Bud­dhism (Record­ed at Colum­bia U)

Leonard Cohen Nar­rates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Fea­tur­ing the Dalai Lama (1994)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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