Background

Burmese Traditional Music

Introduction

Burmese traditional music is the court tradition passed down by the ethnic Burman, the pre-dominant ethnic group of Burma’s total population. Although its ethnicity is today associated exclusively with Burmans, the music is an amalgamation of different local and international cultures that had facilitated certain degrees of assimilation and localization.

In addition, warfare between Burmese kingdoms and particular external powers like Thailand have also integrated and exchanged artistic practices into Burmese music. After Burma won the Thai-Burman battles in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Thai/Siamese theatrical plays and music were adopted by Burmans as some Thai musicians and dancers were captured from the Thai court, Ayutthaya. This artistic infusion generated a new style, yòdayà, which has been one of the most popular musical styles in Burma since the second half of the eighteenth century. Furthermore, Konbaung’s, the last dynasty that ruled Burma, (1752–1885) court musical practices, one can also witness the influences of Cambodian, Laotian, and Javanese music, dance and plays, as well as those derived from the indigenes, such as Shan and Arakan. As a result, what is known as Burmese classical music today is an outcome of a centuries-long blending of diverse ethnic music.

It is known as thachìn gyì. The term thachìn gyì refers to the entire song repertoire of Burmese classical music. Although there is little documentation indicating when the Burmese began to use this term, it is clearly associated with the official anthology of the song-text repertoire, Maha-gitá (Great Songs), published in 1969 for political propaganda purposes. Now, it is often used as a loose equivalent for “classical music,” conceived by the Burmese as a repertoire characterized by certain distinctive musical sounds, articulations, and progressions that, taken together, constitute the “classics.”

Thachìn gyì is characterized by two types of ensembles: the hsaìng ensemble and the refined-style ensemble (it is also known as chamber music ensemble). The hsaìng music sounds exhilarating and vigorous, and its most common ensemble, hsaìng-waìng (or simply hsaìng). The ensemble includes maung-hsaìng (gong-circle), kyì-waìng (gong-frame), chaut-lòn-bat (six drum set), and, the leading musical instrument, pat-waìng (drum-circle). It was used in Burmese folk traditions, theatre etc. In contrast, the refined-style music sounds more subtle and enchanting, often using an instrumental duet or a trio to support the crucial vocalist. Typically the vocalist controls the metric cycle by playing two idiophones called and using cymbals and clappers respectively.

Compared to hsaìng music, the music of refined-style ensembles exhibits a steadier, albeit still flexible, tempo. There are some Western musical instruments used in today’s refined-style ensembles, and they were localized for the purposes of playing of Burmese classical music during the period of British colonization (1886–1948).They include the violin (tayàw), the piano (sàndayà), the slide guitar (Bama gitá), and the mandolin (medalin), each having undergone adaptation. In comparison, the indigenous solo musical instruments saùng gauk (arched harp) and pattalà (xylophone) are considered more historical and indigenous. However, there are other performances that western musical instruments are not integrated into ensembles such as “Nat Pwe”, Burmese form of spiritual ceremony.

Characteristics of Burmese Music

The basic of Burma music is “Se”(brass instrument that makes sounds like a triangle) and “Wa”(bamboo instrument that makes sounds like a castanet). 3/4 timing or 6/8 of western music is not used in Burma.

The first timing is 4/4 timing and is called Nayee Se. The second and the third timing is 2/4 timing. The second timing has some time gap. It is called Walet Se. The third timing is 8/16 timing and has no time gap. And it is called Walet Amyan. The fourth is called Sone Se. Se and Wa are played at the same time.

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The Musical Theory: scales and modes

Burma started from a musical instrument called Hne  (oboe). It has seven basic tunes. They are called in Sanskrit language. It is claimed to have similarities with standard Thailand tunes.

International notes of music are Do (C), Re(D), Me(E), FA(F), So(G), La(A) and Te(B). As for Burma harp, the method of naming is Tapauk (first note C), Khunhit Pauk (seventh note D), Chauk Pauk(sixth note E 1/4 lower sound), Nga Pauk (fifth note F 1/4 high sound), Lay Pauk (fourth note G), Thone Pauk(third note A) and Ngha Pauk (second note B 1/4 lower sound).

Although Burma tune is pentatonic (five sound tune), it can be changed into three sounds, Nga Pauk(fifth note), Chauk Pauk(sixth note) and Ngha Pauk (second note) are half sound. Sixth note is a little lower than E. Fifth note is a little higher than F. Second notes is a little lower than B.

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