Tibetan ritual music makes a major impression on newcomers to Tibetan Buddhist pūjās. People are often surprised and impressed by the dramatic and sometimes deafening sounds of ritual music. Monastic group chanting is known as yangröl (dbyangs rol). We should understand that this music is not merely entertainment, but is itself a form of offering or chöpa (mchod pa).
Yangröl, or rölmo, refers to the combination of ritual chants and music. Chants are accompanied by a variety of specialized instruments. Specialists learn to play the instruments so that their offerings are considered both pleasant to the ear—nyenpa (snyan pa)—and skillfully—khépa (mkhas pa)—performed.
Great scholars and practitioners, such as Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyaltsan (sa skya pan di ta kun dga’ rgyal mtshan) (1182-1251) wrote treatises on sacred music. This attention to musical science demonstrates the profundity of sound in Tibetan Vajrayāna practice.
Sakya Pandita had studied intensively the monastic curriculum of the great Indian monasteries. Thus, he became an important figure in bringing the Indian system of five major and five minor sciences, including music, to Tibet. His work, Treatise on Music (rol mo’i bstan bcos), was a valuable contribution to the understanding of this science.
Traditionally, it is said that these musical instruments derived from the meditative visions of high lamas. When highly realized persons perform visualizations involving various deities, they can be actually transported to the realms of those particular deities. Having observed retinues of gods bearing offerings, including musical instruments, to the deities, these lamas were then able to describe and order the crafting of replicas. Similarly, the musical tones produced are not aimed at human ears, but as expressions of ultimate truths realized through meditation.
Typical pūjās employ musical instruments of two broad categories: those that are beaten (percussion) and those that are blown (wind instruments).