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 Cover story: 05 Apr
 Vol. 26 No. 5
Traditional Thai Music
  The Art of Sound
By Miranti

When you (as a foreigner) listen to traditional Thai music, you will notice that the music is pleasant to the ear and is outstanding with its rhythmic tinkling sound, which is what you will remember most vividly afterwards. To acquaint you with traditional Thai music, Thaiways gathered information about it to be presented here.

Wong Pi-phat (Thai Flute Band)

The Characteristics of Traditional Thai Music

Danis Segaller, the writer of Traditional Thailand: Glimpses of a Nation's Culture, explains about the characteristic of traditional Thai music as follows:

"...And the Thai musical scale is indeed different -- for the intervals between all notes are exactly the same. This means that almost all the notes are slightly different in pitch from those on the western scale. Only the interval between a note and its octave, eight notes higher up the scale, is the same as in the west. This is what gives Thai classical music its unfamiliar sound, its 'otherness' to western ears."

Thai Musical Instruments and Bands
Traditional Thai music is produced by Thai musical instruments, which can be divided into four categories -- plucked instruments, bowed string instruments, percussion instruments and woodwind instruments. Traditional Thai musical bands are divided into three categories as follows:

1. Wong Pi-phat (Thai Flute Band) mainly comprises percussion instruments like gongs and drums and the Thai flute (pi), which produces the melody. The Pi-phat band can be grouped further into Pi-phat Cha-tri, Pi-phat Mai Khaeng, Pi-Phat Mai Nuam and Pi-phat Mon, to name but a few. The number of musical instruments in these sub groups ranges from five to fourteen pieces.

2. Wong Khrueang Sai (Bowed String Instrument Band) has bowed string instruments like so-duang, so-u and cha-khe as principal instruments and has the woodwind instruments and the percussion instruments as constituents of the band. There are four types of bowed string band -- Wong Khrueang Sai Khrueang Diao, Wong Khrueang Sai Khrueang Khu, Wong Khrueang Sai Phasom and Wong Khrueang Sai Pi Chawa. The number of musical instruments in these sub groups ranges from five to seven pieces.

Wong Mahori (Bowed String Instrument
Band mixed with Pi-phat Band)

3. Wong Mahori
(Bowed String Instrument Band mixed with Pi-phat Band)
consists of all kinds of instruments (plucked, bowed string, percussion and woodwind instruments). There are four sub kinds of Wong Mahori, viz. Wong Mahori Khrueang Si, Wong Mahori Khrueang Hok, Wong Mahori Khrueang Diao and Wong Mahori Khrueang Khu.The number of musical instruments in these sub groups ranges from six to twenty-three pieces.

Origin of Traditional Thai Music
Regarding the origin of traditional Thai music, there are two assumptions: The first one assumes that traditional Thai music was derived from India because the Indian influence had spread all over the Asian countries very early in history, including Thailand. The second assumption is that traditional Thai music was created by the Thais themselves.

The Evolution of Traditional Thai Music
Now, let's have a look at traditional Thai music. The earliest written evidence of the existence of traditional Thai music was discovered in the Sukhothai period (1238-1438) after King Ramkhamhaeng (1279-1299) invented the Thai alphabet. The evolution is briefly described here in a chronological order.

Traditional Thai Music in the Sukhothai
Period (1238-1438)

Thai music during this time was unsophisticated. Mostly, it was plainly and locally performed. The instruments used at that time were simple ones such as drums, gongs and fiddles. A musical band usually consisted of five pieces of basic instruments.

Traditional Thai Music in the Ayutthaya
Period (1350-1767)

During this period, several kinds of musical instruments, such as cha-khe, Thai flutes and rammana were created. In this period, Thai music was very flourishing as was recorded in the Court Law that playing musical instruments or singing was prohibited in the royal residential area. This indicates that traditional Thai music was so popular that even in the king's residential area, there were people singing and playing musical instruments and caused disturbances to the king and the royal family. One distinctive development of Thai music in the Ayutthaya period is the introduction of the ranat-ek (high-toned gamelan) in musical bands.

H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn
playing the so duang.
(Photo by Royal courtesy)

Traditional Thai Music in the early Rattanakosin Period (1782-1868)
This is the recovery time of the country after the fall of Ayutthaya. Arts and culture, especially traditional Thai music, were restored to the standards as in the Ayutthaya period. The characteristics and styles of Thai music were the same as the Ayutthaya period, except that more musical instruments were added into the performing bands.

As for the popularity of Thai music in the Rattanakosin period, it can be said that its zenith was in the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824) as the king was not only fond of traditional Thai music but also gifted in playing traditional Thai instruments, especially so sam sai. A song composed by the king entitled "Bulan Loi Luean" is regarded beautiful and has remained a classic up to the present.

Western music was introduced to Thailand around 1900 and it soon became the fashionable music trend. Before that, traditional Thai music was very popular. There was a tradition that the nobility usually had their own Thai musical bands and that they regularly held music competitions to find out the expert band and the most talented musician of each type of musica instrument. Nowadays, a traditional musical competition is annually arranged in August at Wat Phra Phiren in Bangkok.

Traditional Thai Music At Present
Even though traditional Thai music is considered as a cultural heritage, it is not as popular as modern Thai music and is at the risk of becoming obsolete.

A person playing a vital role in conserving traditional Thai music is H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn who supports the teaching and learning of traditional Thai music and who, despite tight schedules of royal duties, annually performs traditional Thai music with students from high school level in the High School Traditional Thai Music Performance. The Princess mostly plays the ranat-ek. In addition, a group of people following the princess' intention of prolonging this national heritage is the senior masters of traditional Thai music and some young people interested in it.

Nowadays, traditional Thai music is taught as a major field of study at The College of Dramatic Arts and at some other leading universities of Thailand. As for high schools, some of them provide students with introductory courses on traditional Thai music.

Recently, the Office of National Culture had gathered 18 senior masters of Thai music to give a special performance to celebrate the 53th birthday anniversary of H.R.H. the Princess, who is honoured with the titles of "Patroness of Thai Cultural Heritage" and "the Most Illustrious Artist". Thaiways had an opportunity to talk to three masters of traditional Thai music who are the cream of their field. Below is a summary of their opinion on the current situation of traditional Thai music (presented in order of their seniority in age).

Khru Chaloem Muangphrae-sri
playing the so sam sai

Khru Chaloem Muangphrae-sri

Khru Chaloem is 67 years old now. He is a master of so sam sai. He told Thaiways that he loves the melancholy and soothing sound of the instrument. When asked about the benefits of learning traditional Thai music, Khru Chaloem said that besides being a skilled musician, the persons would be cultivated to be humble, to respect the elders, to have good manners and to be grateful to their benefactors. Khru Chaloem added that in spite of the support of H.R.H. the Princess, an obstacle to learning and teaching traditional Thai music is that the learners do not have enough time to practice their lessons.

M.R. Chakrarot Chitrabongs playing the ranat-ek

M.R. Chakrarot Chitrabongs
M.R.1 Chakrarot told Thaiways about his love in traditional Thai music that it was because he was born in a family filled with the sound of music, the Chitrabongs family, which has served as a centre of artists and musicians since the reign of King of Rama V (1868-1910).

He began playing the ranat when he was only 6-7 years old but as an amateur, not a professional even though he was taught by Khru Thewaprasit, one of the talented musicians of the era. M.R. Chakrarot commented about the situation of the traditional Thai music that the situation is very good because H.R.H. the Princess gives priority to it, supports senior musicians and makes teenagers well aware of the value of traditional Thai music.

Khru Pakorn Rotchangphuean
playing the cha-khe.

Khru Pakorn Rotchangphuean

Khru Pakorn is 58 year old and is gifted in playing the cha-khe. He learned to play the cha-khe with Khru Thongdee Sujaritkul, a master of traditional Thai music. His comment about the situation of traditional Thai music is that he feels very grateful to H.R.H. the Princess who upholds the conservation of traditional Thai music and encourages traditional Thai musicians to continue their career and duty in passing on their knowledge to posterity.

Khon performance

Where to hear traditional Thai music

If you would like to listen to traditional Thai music, you can buy some CDs at most CD stores. And if you are interested in witnessing a live performance of traditional Thai music, please contact the Office of National Culture for the schedules on tel: 0 2247 0028 ext.2204, 2205, fax: 0 2248 5849 or

Besides, several Thai restaurants provide their customers with beautiful traditional Thai music while dining. Also, the music is played along the khon2 performance. You can go to Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre in Bangkok to experience a khon show. (Showtime: Fri. & Sat., 19.30 hrs.) Please call 0 2224 4499 for more details.

1M.R. is an abbreviation for Mom Ratchawong who is a great- grandson of a king.
2 Khon is a traditional Thai masked drama.

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language.

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