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The traditional music of Thailand
An overview

Thailand is famous as a tourist location. No more words needed about beautiful scenery and landscapes.  On the other hand, the Thai still are keen of keeping their traditions. Watching temples, tourists often are not aware of how powerful the Thai empire once was. Today, musical and dance traditions still are part of  many festive occasions. All of these musical traditions create a mosaic of music embedded in between the
modern Thai Pop music market and the modern Karaoke fashion. Involved in this mosaic we find Khmer, Lao,  Burmese and Malaysian origins nowadays implemented within the Thai music reality, making Thailand a rich  resource of understanding of the different regional cultures of mainland Southeast Asia.

Besides the modern aspects of pop music and Karaoke, the actual geographical and political borders of Thailand cover a wide variety of musical traditions of different origins, and before some of these will be described, some basic facts about the "Thai" should be kept in mind:

Speaking of the "Thai" actually means speaking about members of the Tai-Kadai language family, which consists of six subgroups, defined by their geographical settlement:

- The western Thai (Shan)                           - The Southern Thai (Siamese)       - The Mekong Thai (Lao, etc)
- The Upland Thai  ("Coloured" Thai)       - The Eastern Thai (Nung, etc)      - The Kadai (Li, Kelao, Laqua)

This way we can find many members of this language family in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Combined with the musical traditions of the members of these groups, the appearance of the musicla traditions is best described by splitting it up into the four areas of music of the South, central, North (Lan na) and Northeast (Isaan) of Thailand.

Each of this regions knows indigenous habits and influencies, whether it is the court music of central Thailand, the famous fingernail dance of the North or the shadow puppet theatre in Southern Thailand. In each region, village and court traditions have to be viewed seperately,  
from the perspective of their modern appearance today.

Speaking of influencies, the modern "Thai" culture in Thailand presents itself as a mixture of indigenous habits with those brought in by Mon, Khmer and also Chinese imigrants.  The shifting of the location of the capital city marks the historical phrases in Thailand:

Starting from the 12th century, Chiang Mai and Sukothai were the first cities to culminate cultural and political power, followed by the golden age of Ayutthaya around 1350, in which the Siamese defeated powerful Angkor Wat in 1431. When the first French colonists showed up in the 16th century, Siam soon decided to be a free block between British Burma in the west and French "Indochina" in the east, which is also important for the modern Thai self identity. When the Burmese defeated Ayutthaya in 1767, the new capital moved to Thonburi (Bangkok), in which the era of kings (Rattanakosin) still rule today.

Traditional Thai music may be looked at as being "well reserached" if compared to other countries in Asia. It was displayed on the first world exhibition in France in 1869, followed by several European researchers coming to Thailand, as well as kings and members of the court wrote books and articles about theatre, dance and the  "classical" music, a term which does not really work, as "classic" better translates as "of high value" if it is about Thai music, and the "court" traditions have been opened to the public and actually get taught to everyone, including performances even outside the court.

The interesting fact about "classical" music is, that it seems to be no more a part of daily life, is rather seen as a "museum piece" but is respected to be "truly Thai" and always used for representations. Asking for "classic tradition", one will always face dance and theatre traditions combined with the music of the ensembles.

From 1932 on, instrumental music restricted to court relations started to vanish. In the 1970ies the universities reinstalled some of these traditions, but the theatre, dance and festive occasions still are the most common places to experience "traditional" music.
Most of all, the theatre traditions provide a platform on which music, dance and language melt in genuine forms and shapes:

The origin of the shadow puppet theatre (nang yai) is not clear and might link back to the Khmer "sbek thom" or Indian and Indoensian traditions. It was the first place in which backgrounds and stages (water in Vietnam) were used, in each play a set of puppets (chü) is performing pieces of the "Ramakain", a Thai version of the Indian "Ramayana" epos, which takes several days to be performed completely.
The performance is resounded by the 
Piphat ensemble, which is bound to ceremonial traditions in its playing context, like honoring the teachers in the Wai khru ceremony and playing instrumental overtoures.  We also find rod puppet shows called "hün", which may have originated in Hainan.

The masked theatre (khon) may have evolved in the 16th centurfy from the nang yai tradition, in which actors take the role of the puppets, using colourful masks, which actually only show the faces of deities, gods and demons, and only act without speaking - which is only done by a narrator standing off stage or interactive clowns.  Here we also only find pieces of the Ramakain which still are seperated in several chü. The performance is resounded by a Piphat ensemble played with hard mallets (mai khaeng), in which the xylofon player takes the melodical part while the drums follow the foot steps of the actors and dancers.

The dance drama (lakhawn) may have evolved from the village theatre "li-ke", or it may be of Khmer or Southern origin and uses more dancing and singing than in the khon. It can be found mainly in temple festivals under several (irritating) names.
Piphat as well as Mahori  ensembles accompany the dances, which are redifend by the University of fine Arts today, depending which instruments are used.
In the temples we also find the "thet mahachat" ("to preach high birth"), a festival in which Bhuddas life is rechanted and which knows several very famous Piphat pieces that are performed even outside the ceremony today, like in the "tham kawn" ceremony or during an intermission of a narrative singing (sepha), in which the narrator sings in a high voice (khap) about a famous king and his rival, accompanied by wooden castagnets (krap sepha) and recited by the Piphat ensemble in his pauses.

It is already obvious that the Piphat ensemble somehow stands in the center of musical traditions in Thailand. The instruments used in these and the other ensembles show a deep impact on the theoretical aspects of musical traditions in Thailand, of which the origin still is part of the discussion  about ensembles and their origin.

Not only the occasion like a khon or li-ke show, also the aerophones used within an ensemble determine the pitch of these ensembles.
For example, a pi nai demands a basic tone of the fourth tone of the khong wong yai gong cirlce, while a khlui flute requires the sixth gong. The khlui flute is also basic for the discussion of the appearance of equidistant scales, as the holes of this flute seemed to  be equidistant. The result was never perfect and maybe never represented more than an ideal to follow.  Even more, if we compare 5 old xylophones today we might find five different tunings. This makes it not easy to notate the music in a Western notation, which is common in Thailand since 1930 but in no way able to represent the true meaning of a note.  The only thing for sure is that the Mahori music always sounds one tone higher than the Piphat music.

Resulting scales today represent an adaption to the Western diatonic scale, basing on the pentatonic scale 1-2-3-5-6, which also uses the tones 4 and 7 as ornamented side tones on weak beats (or for modulating purposes, thus creating metaboles). These scales or modes (thang) combined with typical rhythmical patterns (nathap) form the different regional and instrumental styles which get represented in the pitches:  

G  (gong 4) - thang nai - for the pi nai, used in all hard mallet ensembles    
A (gong 5) - thang  klang - for the pi klang (out of use today)
B  (gong 6) - thang phiang - actually notated in C, used for a soft mallet ensembles and in the Mahori ensemble
C  (gong 7) - thang kruat - for the pi nawk (out of use today)
D  (gong 1) - thang haep - for the khlui lip (rare)
E  (gong 2) - thang chawa - for the pi chawa (rare)
F  (gong 3) - thang phiang - for the khlui u (a rare flute, but common tuning for many ensembles)

The instrumental focus for the creation of the different scales and the clear determination of pitches and scales for instruments and their use in festive occasions already point out to a clear seperation and categorization in traditional Thai music, which actually is understood and lived in Thailand with less restrictions today and sometimes mixed freely.

In the rhythmical (nathap) center of all ensemble music, one might discover an unimposing instrument providing the heartbeat of the music. The little brass cymbals ching plays patterns of dampened (chap) and open sounds, and the patterns drive the music by augmenting or diminishing the tempo in double or half relations.  These patterns are strictly bound to melodical phrases and cycles, and together with the final siang tok pitch they end on an accented chap strike.

Basically, Thai rhythm knows three different tempi, which should'nt be called "fast" or "slow" but better be named "wide" and "dense".
Thus, the three tempi (chan) can be understood as related augmentations:

sam                                                                           sawng                                dio
wide, used for flute and vocal sections              normal density                 dense, used mostly for xylophones

Here, sam is the augmentation of sawng and dio, not representing a "real" tempo but the density of notes along a time line.
Of course, changing between the levels requires a tempo rubato (thawt) and a very skilled performer. Playing drums is elaborated very well, each drum stroke knows an unique name, and drums are seperated by female and male drums like in India, but the playing virtuosity does not cope with the one of the Tabla drums in India, allthough it remains very impressive.

The motivs and phrases of the main melodical instruments, the pi nai and the voice, form the melodical aspects (thang) of the music and know many variations and ornamentations, often basing on regional styles and habits.  The most important notes and pitches are always placed on the strokes of the ching, and motivical melodies (sepha) sometimes use a coda (luk mot), depending on the genre performed.

Combined with the ensemble music, the melodies form a kind of heterophone chamber music within the string ensembles and a kind of polyphone ensemble music in the gong chime ensembles.  Within the rich diversity we find lyrical compositions, alternations and stretti, counterpoints and the canon. But all of these appearances are stricly prescribed and not to be used freely.

Even more, free improvisation on the leading melodical instrument does not exist , only a flexibility regarding the details of ornamentation or regarding the playing skills of the performer might change the melodical line.

Most of the ensemble music is handed over orally from generation to generation. Only the music of strings instruments like the fiddles,
the hammered dulcimer and the floor zither are notated in numbers and syllabels.

Besides the ensemble music, the theatre, festival, dance and court traditions another main place for musical traditions is the life in the temples and temple schools. Chants of the priests know different styles (makot and sang yok), and most of the preaching is also performed by a singing manner (thet).  Thus we can say that within regional and casual aspects, genres (phleng) and styles determine the music:

naphat    - descriptive music for moods like fighting, loving,, etc. , used in all instrumental music and in theater and dance
rüang      -  pieces not bound to a story, for example the "Satugan", the first piece you learn to play in a Piphat
tap           - a suite of vocal and instrumental pieces
thao        - a collection of pieces coming from the competitions of royal ensembles playing aginst the hosts ensemble during a visit
la             - pieces performed at the end of a show ("good bye")
kret          - instrumental, solo and vocal pieces that do not fit other categories, indicating their origin (Lao, Khmer) in the title
yai           - "great music" combining as many compositional skills as possible
dio           - all solo instrumental music
homrong - a collection of instrumental overtoures

Besides the phleng dio and homrong instrumental music is also part of the important Wai khru ceremony, in which the famous "great father" of music is honored (with a mask depicting his divine face), this way honoring all teachers before a performance starts. In this important and restrictive ceremony, the deep divine value of music and the performing instruments gets represented in many little rituals, including instrumental performances interlocking with prayers.

The deep intellectual, religious and philosophic background for music is also shown in the treating of instruments, which should be respected and never stepped over, and in the common respect of a musician not for his technical playing skills but his wide and  rich knowledge of a big repertoire and his ability to perform in an ensemble. On the other hand, recently the Pop music market has changed the focus on solo artists, which become more and more popular and developed a new modern star cult in Thailand.

But what about the four main regional traditions in Thailand - how do they differ from each other?
These regions are mainly influenced by the traditions of the bordering countries like Laos, Cambodia and Burma. But the regional traditions vanish, because the younger generations learn Thai "classical" music instead of their own traditions, and language habits and thus songs like the village songs (phleng pün ban) disappear.

Among these rare traditions we find the village theatre li-ke which originated from the Malaysian "dhi-khe" and is remarkable for its funny costums and comedian plays that get accompanied by a small Piphat ensemble.  The klang yao troops, reminding of the Burmese "ozi" drummers, consisting of male drummers and female dancers, also got rare.

On the other hand, festivals like the 
Phi Ta Khon  show electrified self-constructed instrument versions, electric guitar and bass with a western drum set, amplified by loudspeakers turned up to the peak volume; Karaoke and Thai Pop is all around, and even western military brass bands have found their way to 19th century Thailand.

This western influence is accompanied with new styles mainly coming from the South, North and Northeast, for example the rich theatre traditions manora (human theatre) and nang talung (shadow theatre) of the Malysian influenced South and the new traditions coming from Lanna (better known as "golden triangle") and Isaan.

In Isaan we do not only find the mor lum singing traditions of the Lao, which clearly seperate from the Lao version of this singing tradition on the other side of the Mekong, we also find the Phin lute and its solo tradition, the usage of musical kites like in Cambodia, the panpipes wot and the
Khene performance.

The lam singing traditions, the playing of the Khene mouthorgan and also the more and more famous night stages called "luk thung" spread from here all over  Thailand. The traditions experienced in this area are looked at as being most authentic, because this region does not provide any big cities and thus does not attract many tourists. These facts make this region one of the most important actual resources for traditions in and out of Thailand. Further research has to be done in this region ,while, thanks to the ancient capital city Chiang Mai, more is known about the rich tradition of the North in the old Lanna kingdom.

(written in Germany, 2011)