The tinh tau is an original musical instrument very popular among the Tay, Thai and Nung minorities of the northern highlands.
It is also called the then lute because it is played in rituals performed on the occasion of then ceremonies. Its name describes how it is made: tinh means musical instrument, tau means gourd. Tinh tau means "lute made with a gourd".
A tinh tau comprises a sound box made of the dried half of a gourd shell pierced with sound holes. The sound board is made of light unvarnished wood and is about 25cm across. The neck is a tapered rod about 80cm in length, with no frets. The bigger end of the rod goes through the shell of the gourd; the other end is curved backward. It has small bells attached to it and two or three pegs for turning. The strings, two or five in number depending on the ethnic minority using the instrument, are made of silk.
The player rests the neck of the tinh tau on her thumb and middle finger, and plucks it with her index, either downward or upward, at times in a quick run. The lute can sound a semi-tone, four quarter-tone and a three quarter tone because it has no frets. The playing technique includes vibrato, trills and harmonics.
The tinh tau has a sweet and warm tone. It plays a major role in then ceremonies and traditional dances. Bass and soprano instruments are often played together with good effects. Recitals of tinh tau are well liked at home and abroad.