Have you ever heard of Thai traditional music? If you haven’t, it is recommended that you give it a listen once. You may or may not fall in love with the tone and melody, but they will definitely make you feel the differences.
Thai traditional music is a combined art form from other countries. Most Thai musical instruments are from various cultures like Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian. However, Thai classical music managed to differentiate its tone from other national music and is still played in ceremonies today.
If you are a world music enthusiast, you cannot miss the sound of Thai tunes. So, read on and explore the story of Thai music and its unique melody.
What Is Thai Music?
Before diving further into the depth of Thai music, you need to know what locals consider “Thai music” first.
When someone says “Thai music” in Thailand, people usually think of the old classical tunes played with Thai musical instruments without any vocals. It is comparable to pieces by Beethoven or Mozart of the west.
However, Thai classical music got different treatment from those of the west. Instead of being a niche of entertainment, it became a sacred art form performed in religious ceremonies and stage plays.
You wouldn’t see people listen to it on the radio anymore.
The reason for such a treatment is Thai music’s heavy association with Thai pagan beliefs and superstitions. Locals say that every musical instrument has a sacred spirit within. So, you cannot treat Thai music lightly.
Besides, the style and tone of Thai classical music don’t mix well with modern ones.
Classical Thai bands usually contain Thai xylophones, Thai gamelans, Thai fiddles, and Thai cymbals. The tone of these instruments is too brash for pop songs. So, people reserved them for religious ceremonies.
And since most Thai classical songs don’t have vocals, they are perfect to be performed in the background — for the atmosphere.
Of course, this doesn’t mean nobody listens to it in their free time anymore. The classical enthusiast still exists. However, they are rare to meet.
Moreover, when someone says “Thai music,” the locals also think about what they call “Luk Thung” too.
You can think of “Luk Thung” as Thai folk songs, but different. They usually incorporate vibrato-heavy vocals with bands of trumpets, trombones, accordions, and drums.
Unlike Thai classical music, Luk Thung is still popular to this day. Even though they are not considered “mainstream” in the city, they are the “only stream” in the countryside.
How Did Thai Music Originate?
Surprisingly, there is nothing Thai about Thai music at all. Why? Because if you look at the list of “Thai traditional instruments,” you will see that most of them are imported.
As mentioned, traditional Thai music is a blend of various musical cultures. For example…
- Thai percussions, like xylophones, gamelans, and drums, originated from India.
- Thai string instruments like the zither and dulcimer originated in China.
- Thai wind instruments like flutes and pipes originated in Indonesia and other southern Southeast Asian countries.
The only instrument that seems to be unique to Thailand is the tiny cymbal or “Ching” (ฉิ่ง). But that is still debatable. After all, music knows no border. Pinpointing where something begins can be impossible.
However, most experts agree that classical Thai music peaked in the Sukhothai kingdom (1238 – 1438). (Source) During that period, peace prevailed, and wealth flourished. So, people had time to develop art forms for their entertainment.
But things did not stay that way for long. Later in the Ayutthaya kingdom (1351–1767), wars raged over the country. Subsequently, music dropped in popularity and was played inside the royal palace to relax the monarch and his family.
So, the music of this period usually has a softer tone. It was not meant for celebration but for relieving stress and anxiety.
Eventually, Thai classical music rose again during King Rama II of Rattanakosin Kingdom (1782-1932). And later down the line, music became available to commoners again. The tone of the music became more lively and celebratory.
Throughout all the periods, Thai music has been paired with religious rituals. So when western music reigned dominance during the rule of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram ( 1938-1944 and 1948-1957), Thai music found its sanctuary in the temples. And it still remains that way to this day.
Many modern artists have tried to incorporate traditional Thai instruments into modern songs. However, the style and the tonal difference seem too much to overcome. So, you would rarely see such fusion music nowadays.
Why Is Thai Music Unique?
From a layman’s perspective — especially from westerners, Thai music might sound completely unique. However, if you had intermediate music knowledge, you would know that Thai music operates on the same basis as western ones.
All classical songs are composed on a C Major key. This means they only use the combination of seven notes of the scale: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si. No sharps, no flats. And if you play this key on a piano, you will notice that they are all white keys.
This means that Thai classical music is super-simple compared to those of Beethoven, Mozart, or even Bach. These composers usually incorporate more than 7 notes for accent and mood emphasis.
Furthermore, Thai music also utilizes a concept western musicians call the Pentatonic scale (a scale of 5 notes). And in C Major Key, they are Do, Re, Mi, Sol, and La.
These five notes are the most repeated in Thai classical songs. And that is actually the same with modern rock songs from anywhere else in the world.
So, what makes Thai music unique is actually not the composition. It is the instruments and playing style itself.
The tone of each Thai instrument is comparatively more brash and aggressive than those of the western world.
This might be thanks to the material of the instruments and how they were made. The difference in technology affected the crafting process, resulting in most musical instruments producing somewhat cruder sounds.
On the flip side, crude instruments only highlight the musicians’ skills. They must know exactly how to handle their techniques to produce incredible sound. And they must know which styles would make their instrument shine.
Most classical Thai songs use short jumpy notes. This results in a lively mood and celebratory tone. If a note has to be extended, the musician usually uses the trill technique to sustain the sound rather than let it naturally sustain.
Of course, there is more depth to Thai classical voicing than this. But it’s safe to say that the instruments shape Thai music style.
The Superstitious Side of Thai Music
As mentioned, Thai people believe that there are sacred spirits within their musical instruments. That’s why Thai people treat traditional music as more of a spiritual art form than a tool for entertainment.
Locals treat all instruments with care and respect.
Before playing their instrument, the musician must perform a “Wai” first. Now, you might have heard of “Wai” as the greeting of Thailand. But there is more to it.
“Wai” is also an etiquette Thai people perform to show respect. So, the fact that they “wai” their instruments before playing should tell you how revered these instruments are.
And it’s not just the instruments that are considered sacred. The music itself is also something to be respected. Why? Because Thai people believe that music is originally the art of the angels — not of humans.
The most famous entity in Thai music is called “Old Father” (พ่อแก่). The legend says that he was a sage who taught the art of music, dance, and plays to mankind. So, he is considered the teacher of all musicians.
If you visit a Thai music room, you usually see a statue of his head on an altar. This reminds all the musicians that “your teacher is watching, so play with respect.”
Additionally, Wai isn’t the only thing people perform to show respect for music. There is also a ceremony called “Wai Kru.”
This ceremony is a lengthy ritual where musicians show gratitude to the Old Father and ask for his blessings. It usually involves chanting, incense, candles, flower decorations, and a full band.
The ceremony’s highlight is when the music teachers (the actual teacher, not the entity) hold their students’ hands and play the instrument together. It’s a declaration that these students have a master to teach them — not just a self-taught rogue musician.
What Is the Most Common Thai Classical Music?
Were you asked, “can you name any one classical music piece?” most people would say, “Beethoven symphony number 5.”
So, if the same were to be asked about Thai classical music, these are probably what Thai people would say…
1. Bats Eating Bananas (ค้างคาวกินกล้วย)
This song is arguably the most famous Thai classical piece. All Thai people know this song and must have listened to it at least ten times.
Think of it as a Flight of the BumbleBee of Thai Music. Everyone has heard of it. All musicians have tried their hand at it. People are sick of it sometimes, but it’s the only song they can think of when talking about “that classical music.”
The composer of this song is unknown. However, that doesn’t stop it from gaining popularity.
Traditionally, this song is played as background music in plays. The scene for this song is usually when the comic-relief characters enter the forest — thanks to how light-hearted the melody is.
2. Khmer-Sai-Yok (เขมรไทรโยค)
In this list, this song is probably the most graceful one. Why? Because it is a song describing the beauty of the Sai-Yok waterfall and its surroundings.
This song was composed by Prince Narisara Nuwattiwong 10 years after his trip to Sai-Yok waterfall. (Source) The majestic scenery of the location stuck in his mind for a long time, and he had to compose a song for it.
It is said that this song is based on another old song called “Khmer-Klom-Luk” (เขมรกล่อมลูก). The prince expanded the melody and renamed it to Khmer-Sai-Yok.
This song was originally meant to be played with Thai xylophones. But as time passed, hundreds of new versions popped up. Even an arrangement for a western orchestra exists.
3. Weeping of the Earth (ธรณีกันแสง)
This song is arguably the most iconic Thai classical piece. Why? Because it is THE funeral song.
Every time you go to a funeral, check if there’s a Thai classical band there. If there is, then prepare to listen to this tear-jerker.
Originally, the song wasn’t meant for the funeral at all. But the sorrowful melody makes it unfit for anywhere else. So, all Thai classical bands include this song on their funeral playlist.
The weeping of the earth is such an iconic song that it eventually became a meme. Musicians will jokingly play this song randomly — just to get the laugh out of the audience.
Should You Try Thai Classical Music Out…
In short, yes. You should definitely give Thai classical music a chance.
Nobody can blame you if you think it sounds weird. After all, Thai music is not for everyone. And even Thai people understand that well.
But who knows? Thai classical music might be the tone you have been looking for your entire life. So, start with the three recommended songs, and expand your playlist.
Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might discover something you never knew about this unique country.