Beautiful Tibetan Musical Notations Visualize the Rise and Falls of Buddhist Chants

Tibetan Buddhist Musical Notation

Photo: The Hum

Musical notations can go far beyond what is indicated on the page. For Tibetan Buddhists, these figures have religious importance that represent sacred sounds and ceremonies that have been passed along for generations. Visually beautiful, the sweeping notations help to shape their rituals by offering other forms of devotions, ways to ward off “feral spirits,” as well as summon divine figures.

For those that don’t understand the meanings of the intricate musical notations, they seem to resemble tiny landscapes on paper. The peaks and valleys, however, describe a myriad of instructions—from rhythmic patterns to instrumental arrangements. The symbols are a guide for the ritual performance; music is understood to be paired with the likes of “chanting, visualizations, and hand gestures.”

The Yang tradition is considered to be one of the most revered and elaborate traditions in Tibetan music. Using the Yang-Yig system of notation, we can understand the essence of the music by the marks. “The chant consists of smoothly effected rises and falls in intonation, which are represented by complex curved lines,” The Schoyen Collection notes. “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.” Sung at a low pitch, the pace is meant to linger to allow for “full expression of the chanted text.”

Tibetan Buddhist musical notations are beautiful symbols of devotion.

The elaborate marks describe rhythmic patterns and instrumental arrangements, and they're also a guide for the ritual performance.

The symbols are a guide for the ritual performance; music is understood to be paired with the likes of “chanting, visualizations, and hand gestures.”

Watch Tibetan monks perform amazing throat singing (a form of chanting) below:

h/t: [Open Culture]

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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