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Traditional Thai Music


From: Thailand: Traits and Treasures, National Identity Board, ©2005 by Office of The Permanent Secretary, The Prime Minister’s Office, ISBN 974-9771-52-4


Traditional Thai music has characteristics of both art and science. It has unceasingly been developed and finally become a vital element of the Thai way of life.

According to archaeological evidence, several instruments such as the bronze Mahorathuek (ceremonial kettle drum), stone bell, and metal windbell that produced sounds had been used in every region of the country. These instruments were not originally created to entertain but rather to produce signals for communication and some were employed in performing important sacred rites. It has been claimed that these are musical instruments which have been passed down to the present generation since prehistoric times.

The development of Thai music resulted in two genres:
- Folk music is performed in diverse unique styles in various regions of the country; and
- Traditional music, which has a style that closely resembles the style from the earlier generation, continues to enjoy popularity until today. This has been formally endorsed as a branch of National Arts.

There are several categories of traditional Thai music which have been handed down from generation to generation. Traditional Thai music is known for its many rules and it has several styles in the performance of musical ensembles which have been much improved during the Rattanakosin Period. Musical performance varies depending on the occasions, for example, the accompaniment of rites, entertainment, performances, and competitions. Because of its rules, Thai music has a strong foundation and continues to flourish.

Musical instruments

Scholars in the field of music have concluded that Southeast Asian music is dominated by percussion instruments, and that Thai music is no exception. In any Thai musical ensemble, there are several classes of percussion instruments that may vary in size. They are made of wood, leather, or metal. The most prominent ones are the Khong (gong), Klong (drum) and Ranat (xylophone).

Stringed instruments are classified as follows:
- plucked instruments (lute) such as the Phin Pia, Phin Namtao and Chakhe;
- bowed string instruments such as the Saw U, Saw Duang and Saw Sam Sai, which was developed by H.R.H. Prince Nakhonsawan Woraphinit, one of the artistic princes of the Royal House of Chakri, to produce more varieties of pleasing sound.

Most of the stringed instruments popular in Thailand are used for folk music and have no fixed and the North and Khaen of the Northeast.

Thai musical scale differs from that of the Western and neighbouring countries. Traditional music is categorized into two modes, namely: Pentatonic Mode (6 1 2 3 5) and Septatonic Mode (5 7 1 2 3 4 5). Scholars in music identify Thai traditional music as having its own style and identity, the Equdistant Septatonic Scale. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has a great talent in music, called on all Thai music teachers to preserve the original mode of the Thai music and not to be influenced by the Western mode.

Musical Ensembles

Traditional Thai musical ensembles can be performed at the Palace or at the houses of wealthy band owners, or to accompany some sacred rites and performances. There are several classes of traditional Thai musical ensembles such as: the Khrueang Sai Ensemble (string ensemble), the Pi Phat Ensemble and the Mahori Ensemble. During the reigns of King Rama V and King Rama VI of the Rattanakosin Period, musical ensembles were developed by adopting some elements of Western standard size such as the Phin (lute) of the Northeast and Salo of the North. Another important group of Thai musical instruments are the chrodophone or wind instruments which are commonly used in folk and standard music. Most of these instruments are made of wood, such as the different classes of Pi (oboe), which give varieties of sounds. Some have been developed from the neighbouring countries, like the Pi Chava (Javanese oboe), Pi Mon (Mon oboe) and Pi Nae (Burmese oboe). Some are used in the performance
of folk music; for example, Pi Kalo of the South, Pi Chum of musical instruments to become the novel string-musical ensemble. At present, “Maha Duriyang”, a musical ensemble, for instance, consists of hundreds of musical instruments played by musicians from various educational institutions, all over the country. It annually presents a special performance before the royal seat of H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

In this globalizing world, Western music has been popular and predominant in Thai society, however, attempts have been made to preserve traditional Thai music as a National Art. Although international music is popular among the young generation, the pride of traditional Thai music in it several aspects is upheld. It has been taught and regularly performed in many famous institutions of higher education. It has been included and studied in other branches of knowledge such as anthropology and history. Besides this, high technology has been adopted to preserve and disseminate traditional Thai music like the physical science to measure and compare the musical scales and the computer to arrange teaching programs. Traditional Thai music has already been taught in some educational institutions in several countries such as Kent University, Ohio, U.S.A. It is clearly enjoying popularity and stimulating interest among international communities.

If all this is a bit too classical for you, find impressions of contemporary music in Thailand on!

Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.


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