Traditional Philippine Music

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Traditional Music in the Philippines, like the traditional music of other countries, reflects the life of common folk, mainly living in rural areas rather than urban ones. Like its counterparts in Asia, a lot of traditional songs from the Philippines have a strong connection with nature. However, much of it employs the diatonic scale rather than the more famous pentatonic scale.

A Blending of East and West

Like the culture of the country itself, traditional Philippine music is a melting pot of the country's historic past. Philippine Traditional Music is influenced by all the music with which it came into contact, so it is not surprising that it may sometimes sound as 'Chinese' as it is 'Indian' or even 'European'.

Like the people who use it, Traditional Music in the Philippines is either Western or non-Western. And while having more subdivisions, each form will surely reflect the culture of a specific group. Through its Traditional Music, one can clearly see how Filipinos have a deep reverence to God, close family ties, and pay attention to nature.

Vocal Music

Vocal music remains to be the most important form of music found in every ethnic group in the country. Although there is some music intended for dance, the best form of preserved traditional music is those intended for the voice.

According to the book Philippine Literature: Folk Songs by Mauricia Borromeo, folk songs from the country may be divided into Western-Type Folk songs, Narrative Psalm, and Secular Songs from the Indigenous Groups.

The Western Inspired

According to Borromeo, Philippine folk songs inspired by Western music are characterised as songs with (1) singable melody, (2) syllabically set stanzaic text, (3) simple structure, (4) major and minor tonalities, (5) duple or triple in meter, and (6) simple harmonies.


Western music came to influence the traditional music of the Philippines through Spain/Mexico. As the country was under Spanish Rule from Mexico City for more than 300 years, it is inevitable that this kind of music will have noticeable resemblance to Western music.

This kind of music is mainly found in the Christian regions for the reason that they had more contact with the Spaniards than the non-Christian groups.

The observation made by Dorothy Scarborough is specially true to the Western Inspired Philippine Music:

A song that starts out as sheet music, duly credited to author and composer, may be so altered as to words or music, or both, by singers who learn and transmit it orally, as to become a folk song. The fact that elsewhere it may be known as published music makes no difference.
... no genuine folk music is ever the exact duplicate of any other version even of the same song. Each version or variant has its own value. (Scarborough 1935: Foreword)

Indeed, some songs like the Visayan Matud Nila and Usahay are considered folk songs even though some versions give their composer as Ben Zubiri and Nitoy Gutierrez respectively.

With regard to the range, most songs are relatively easy for an untrained voice as they are between six to eleven tones. Musicologists agree that the normal range of an untrained voice is fourteen tones or an octave and a half.

Filipino folk songs are also sung in a relaxed and easy voice. Though singers of this type of songs may employ falsetto, its use is not actually compulsory. Modern recordings of these folk songs employ the speaking voice used in popular music.

Syllabically Set and Stanzaic Text

Most Western inspired songs are either fall under the corrido, four lines of eight syllables each, or awit, four lines of 12 syllables each. And although these lines do not generally rhyme, most of them end with an assonance.

However, unlike traditional songs from Spain, Western-Inspired Philippine Traditional Songs do not employ lengthy mellismas. As a general rule, the 'One Word for Every Note' style as said in the Motion Picture The Sound of Music is identifiable in Philippine traditional music.

It is also characterised as strophic, wherein one melody is repeated for every stanza. This is specially true to the ballads. Though modified strophic, like the case of the Irish Song 'Red Is the Rose', hardly exists. The Binary form is more common, where a refrain of a fixed verse is repeated after each stanza.

Simple Form

According to Borromeo:

The single-unit song is made up of musical phrases (two or four) with an internal relationship that could be progressive, reverting, repetitive or contrasting. The two-unit song or binary song form is common to haranas and kundimans. Each unit is repeated as in 'Lulay'. A return to the first part changes the form to a ternary or three repeated designs. The version of 'Sarong Banggi' is one example.
The verse and refrain type has been mentioned; i.e. 'Magtanim ay di Biro'. A rare example of the leader-chorus type is the Ivatan rowing song 'Un As Kayaluhen'.

Major and minor tonalities

As mentioned above, Traditional Philippine Music employs the Diatonic scale rather than the Pentatonic scale, as the common practice of traditional songs from the Orient. This means songs are either in the Major scale or Minor scale. In some cases also, the Kundiman and other art songs that have been included in the Traditional repertoire begin with the minor mode and then modulate into the relative major in the second half.

As a result, songs are stereotyped as in joyful, peaceful, and exuberant if they are in the Major mode while those in the minor mode are sad, plaintive, mourning of longing.

Duple and triple meter

Though there are songs that exist in quadruple meter, those in duple and triple meter are most common in Western-inspired Philippine music. As one could notice when they examine a collection of traditional songs, those with triple meter form the largest part in the repertoire. This form is specially suited for the song-dance type which will be discussed thoroughly below.

Simple harmony

If everyone in Great Britain can play the recorder, everybody in the Philippines can play the guitar. Thus, one can easily expect that this is the most common accompaniment for the Western-inspired traditional songs. Since many songs falling under these types were once classified as art songs, one cannot undermine the importance of an accompaniment.

Although, some songs, like the Habanera inspired 'Ti Ayat Ti Maysa Nga Ubing' from the Ilocos Region, are highly chromatic, one can still easily accompany it using the I-IV-V or Tonic-Subdominant-Dominant chord progression.

The Native Psalm type

The Native Psalm style is less frequently used but nevertheless a very important part in the repertoire of Traditional Philippine Music. Unlike the Western tradition, however, Borromeo classified songs with lengthy mellismas under the Psalm category.

The 'Huluna of Bauan', from Batangas, is the paramount example of this form of music. Indeed the 'Huluna of Bauan' is characterised with highly elaborate fioritures, free in meter, modal in melody, long phrases and narrow range.

This kind of vocal music is undoubtedly taxing for an average singer. Though the range of this kind of songs is generally a sixth above, the lengthy mellismas and elaborate fioritures make it very difficult. Here, the singer must take a deep breath every time he reaches the end of the cadence in order to sustain the next long phrase.

Secular songs from indigenous groups

Unlike the earlier two songs, this form of song has more resemblance with other traditional music from the Orient as it uses the same scale as that of the Chinese pentatonic scale. This form also employs a recurring beat, verse lines set in syllables and a wide melodic range.

Although it is very difficult to establish what meter is used in a certain song, one can easily recognise that it is not as free as the 'Huluna'. There are also cases in which the accent of the words is altered in order to suit the beat of the tune. This is especially true in songs of the Northern Tradition like the 'Salidumay' of the Kalinga. It is also syllabic and the lines do not end in rhyme but in assonace.

But even though vocal music falling under this category is regarded to have a wide range, as most of them stretch more than an octave, they are still considered singable even for an average singer.


Borromeo also noted that one interesting feature of Western-Inspired traditional music is that a tune is not bound to a particular language or dialect. One must remember that the Philippines is an archipelago and the use of Filipino as a national language is just very recent. Thus, Filipinos did not have a unifying language during the time of the Spaniards.

Yet, the tune used for the Tagalog 'Magtanim ay Di Biro' is also used for the Kapampangan 'Deting Tanaman Pale' and the Gaddang 'So Payao'. Just to give the reader a clear difference between these languages, Tagalog is related to Kapampangan in the same way that English is related to German. On the other hand, Tagalog is related to Gaddang in the same way English is related to Nordic Languages.

Other examples of this tune sharing are the Visayan 'Ako Ining Kailu', the Ibanag 'Melogo Ti Aya' and the Kapampangan 'Ing Manai'. One can also notice the same with the Bicolano 'Mansi Pansi' and the Ilocano 'Pamulinawen'.

Language used in traditional vocal music

It is interesting to note that although 90% of the 80 million Filipinos claim varying proficiency in the English language, no song was ever found out to have it as the original text. The largest body of songs are those using the various vernacular languages, especially the eight major languages in the country.

Most of the collected traditional songs have a translation in Filipino, the national language, but most scholars tend to ignore its existence.

Songs from the various minority languages rank second while those in Spanish ranks third. Though the Spanish used in the Philippines is generally called Chavacano, it is intelligible to anyone who can understand Castilian. The most famous songs in this classification are perhaps 'No Te Vayas de Zamboanga' and 'Viva! Señor Sto. Nino'.

Dance music

After Vocal music, Dance music is the next most important form of Traditional Philippine Music. As mentioned above, the best form of preserved music are those with lyrics, this is also true for those music intended to accompany a dance. According to Francisca Reyes-Aquino, known for her voluminous collection of folk dances, the folks watching the dance sing the songs in the same way that cheerers chant in a game. This is very evident especially in songs where interjections 'Ay!', 'Aruy-Aruy!', 'Uy!' and 'Hmp!' are present.

Music falling under this type may be classified as those belonging to the Christianised Groups, Muslim Groups, and the other Ethnic Groups.

Dance music from Christianised groups

As Christianity came to the Philippines through its Western conquerors, Dance Music classified as belonging to the Christianised Groups are somewhat related to Western music as well. Dance Music falling under this category may also be called Habanera, Jota, Fandango, Polka, Curacha, etc. and has the same characteristics as each namesakes in the Western Hemisphere.

However, there are also indigenous forms like the 'Balitao', 'Tinikling' and 'Cariñosa'. In a study made by the National Artist for Music Dr. Antonio Molina, the Balitao, famous in the Tagalog and the Visayan regions employ a 3/4 time signature that employs a 'crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet' beat. Others employ the 'crotchet-minim' scheme, while others use the 'dotted quaver-semiquaver-crotchet-quaver-quaver' scheme.

This type of music is generally recreational and, like traditional music from the West, is used for socialising.

Dance music from Muslim groups

The court dance music of the Muslim-Filipino groups have somewhat preserved the ancient Southeast Asian musical instruments, modes and repotoires lost to the islands further north which were colonozed by Spain. It is important to note here that orthodox Islam does not condone musical entertainment, and thus the musical genres among the Muslim Filipinos cannot be considered "Islamic".

Court genres shares characteristics with other Southeast-Asian Court musics: Indonesian Gamelan, Thai Piphat and to a lesser extent, through cultural transference through the rest of Southeast Asia, is comparable even to the music of the remote Indian Sub-Continent.

Generally, music falling under this category tells a story. An example is the Singkil, which relates a story from the ancient Indian saga, the Ramayana (other examples of narration dance from the Ramayana are seen in other Southeast Asian nations see). The Singkil is considered the most famous in the Philippines under this category for its perceived elegance, and is also performed by Filipinos from other ethnic groups throughout the country. The Singkil recounts the story of Sita (known locally as Putri Gandingan) as she was saved by Rama (Rajahmuda Bantugan) from the clashing rocks. Only, for the purposes of the dance, the rocks are changed into bamboos.

Dance music from Indigenous groups

Like the secular songs from the same group, this form of music has a 'beat' even though it is hard to put it in a form of time signature. Percussions are mainly used for these type of music and sometimes, a gong is enough.

As closeness to Nature is a main feature of these ethnic groups, one can expect that dance steps falling under this category is a mimicry of the movements of plants and animals of a certain locality. Some music is simply called the 'Monkey Dance' or the 'Robin Dance' for identification.

Some of the music falling under this category is ritual music: thus there are dances used for marriage, worship, and even for preparation for a war.


Unlike folk music in Ireland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, traditional music in the Philippines never reached national popularity. Perhaps, it is partly due to the fact every region of the Philippines has its own language.

Though some groups tried to collect songs from the different enthnolinguistic groups, none has so far succeeded in making traditional music a part of the national identity, much more a national symbol. It is rarely taught in Elementary school, as in Ireland, aside from Children's songs. This results in a mentality that traditional songs are children's songs.

The decline was accelerated with the entry of television, making popular culture from Europe and the United States easily accessible to a common Filipino. Though most Europeans would say that Filipinos are music-loving people, traditional music is always at risk of being left in oblivion.

Attempts to Collect

Attempts have been made to collect and preserve Traditional Philippine Music but most of them focus only on the Vocal form. Under the 300 years of Spanish occupation of the Philippines, no collection of the traditional music was ever made. There are however studies made regarding this subject in the late 19th Century, when the Romanticists of Europe began to find the value of folk songs.

Even during the American occupation of the Philippines, attempts to collect traditional music came rather late. Perhaps the first collection was done in 1919 by Fr. Morice Vanoverberg, which is focused on the traditional music of the Lepanto Igorots of the North. Unfortunately, only the words and not the tunes are included in the collection.

The collection entitled 'Filipino Folk Songs' by Emilia Cavan is considered to be the earliest collection with tunes, published in 1942. Perhaps, the most important collection of Folk Songs is the 'Philippine Progressive Music Series' by Norberto Romualdez published in the late 1920's.

Unfortunately, the collectors who worked with Romualdez did not present the songs in their original languages but rather translated them into English and Filipino. This collection also included some songs aimed to promote National Identity, like the National Anthem of the Philippines, the Philippines Our Native Land and even Philippines the Beautiful and adaptation of America the Beautiful. The collection also included some folk songs from other countries.

For a period of time, Romualdez' collection became the textbook for teaching music in the Primary School. It also ensured that folk tunes from every part of the country is preserved and will be passed to the next generation of Filipinos. Until now, this collection remains to be the most important collection of traditional music from the Philippines, since a copy of it is still available in major Municipal and Provincial Libraries in the country.

Other collections like the 'Filipino Folk Songs' by Emilia Reysio-Cruz caters to the so- called 'Eight Major Languages' of the country and according to some, the collection is the best representation of the songs from these ethnolinguistic groups.

Dr. Jose Maceda, former chairman of the Department of Asian Music Research of the College of Music of the University of the Philippines, also did some collection which began in 1953 and lasted until 1972. This was followed by collections from his students as well.

During the last years of the 20th Century until the early 21st Century, Raul Sunico, Dean of the Conservatory of Music of the University of Santo Tomas, published his own collection. He began with publishing a collection of lullabies, followed by love songs, then by work songs. Finally, he published a collection of songs about Filipino women, a major topic of traditional songs from all the ethnolinguistic groups. All these collections were arranged for the piano and the words are given in their original languages. A translation is also supplied, not to mention a brief backgrounder about the culture of the specific ethnic groups.

With regard to traditional dance music, the seven volume collection of Francisca Reyes-Aquino is still the most important collection. None has yet followed her lead until now.

Commercial use

Some rock icons from the 1970s tried to record folk songs. Singers like Joey Ayala, Bayang Barrios, Freddie Aguilar and the group Asin tried to propagate the songs as the same phenomenon is happening in the United States.

Many of the serious musicians also recorded the songs but none has still made a folk song so successful that it could enter the charts. Nowadays, popular musicians tend to ignore this form. Its propagation is now mainly left to the musicians in the academic sphere.


1) Philippine Literature: Folk Music by Mauricia Borromeo
2) Philippine Progressive Music Series by Norberto Romualdez.
3) The Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, Volume 6: Philippine Music by the Cultural Centre of the Philippines
4) Himig: A Collection of Traditional Songs from the Philippines by Raul Sunico

Original Source

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