Philippine Folk Music

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 that was ever brought there, so it may sometimes sound ‘European’, ‘Indian’, or even ‘Chinese’.

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.Examples of popular Filipino folk songs in Tagalog: Bahay Kubo, Sitsiritsit Alibangbang, Leron Leron Sinta, Paruparong Bukid, Magtanim ay Di Biro, Lulay, Aking Bituin etc.

Vocal Music

Vocal music 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.Though not known they use instruments to make it seem like vocal music at times. egarded 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.

 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. Only those traditional songs used by the Catholic Church, which probably entered the country through America, used English. And these body of songs were more associated with the church rather than the country. 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 ‘crotchetquaverquavercrotchet‘ beat. Others employ the ‘crotchetminim‘ scheme, while others use the ‘dotted quaversemiquavercrotchetquaverquaver‘ 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 and folk dance music of the Muslim-Filipino groups have somewhat preserved the ancient Southeast Asian musical instruments, modes and repertoires lost to the islands further north which were colonized 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”.

Genres shares characteristics with other Southeast-Asian Court and Folk musics: Indonesian Gamelan, Thai Piphat, Malay Caklempong, Okinawan Min’yō 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.

Music is related in wars in some regions in the country.In fact it is the way of the commander on that particular region to show the emotions of winning or losing in wars.Philippine music also depends on the biographical factors.In cold regions,the beat of the music is so slow due to the temperature they encounter for example BAGUIO.And in some hot regions it is so fast.

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 are 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, the Czech Republic and the neighboring Malaysia, 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 ethnolinguistic 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 400 years of Spanish colonization 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 1920s.

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.


One comment on “Philippine Folk Music

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