Burmese musical instruments can be classified into six groups, namely:
Thaye : Instruments made of leather (drums)
Kyey: Metal instruments
Kyo: String instruments
Lei: Wind instruments
Let Khoke : Percussion instruments used for timing
Patala : Xylophone
1. Thaye : Instruments made of leather
Thaye instruments are typically drums and each drum has a different tone quality. These drums keep the liveliness of the song by filling it in with beats.
Oozi (pot drum)
The pot-drum (ou:zi) is a single-headed drum on a long hollow stalk which is flared at the bottom. The single head has a membrane tightly stretched over a round frame. The pot drum is tuned by sticking a piece of tuning dough (pa’sa) made of rice and ash to the head.
The pot-drum is the chief instrument for the lively pot-drum dance. The dancer would pass the pasoe between his legs and tuck it at the back, exposing a trouser-type dress beneath, which covers the knees. He would wear a short- sleeve jacket and dance joyously. However in other performances such as the grand drama, the dancers would be well dressed with some paraphernalia. The pot-drum is also played for group dancers in formation. Though the pot-drum is single-headed, it can be played to produce a complete set of sounds.
Dobat (Double-headed slung drum)
The double-headed slung drum dobat is most popular in the countryside. The dobat was played to bring in the harvest or to call for rain when the monsoon was late. The dobat may be seen at pagoda festivals, charities and at labour contribution functions when the villagers come out to build a road or to reap the harvest.
The double-headed slung drum can be played on both sides. The left side of the drum is called the female side and the opposite side is the male side. The female side is tuned to the fundamental (taya) while the male side is tuned to the dominant (tayo). The female side requires more tuning dough. The dobat is played briskly and joyously. The player uses both hands to strike the drum so that the left hand hits the female side, and the right hand strikes the male side. Fingers, palms, or the heels of palms, and sometimes elbows are used.
Patma (Principal drum)
The principal drum or patma is part of the saing ensemble. It used to be hung on a horizontal beam placed on tripods, but now it is placed on a lengthy piece of hard bamboo with nodes at short intervals. The beam assumes five components of a pyinsa-rupa, a mythical animal with a serpent’s head, the antlers of a deer, the hooves of a horse, the wings of a birdlike creature (galon) and the tail of a carp (ngajin).
When the patma is played together with the large cymbals, it sounds most effective. The musician who plays the patma in the ensemble is also responsible for the six small graduated upright drums and the medium horizontal sakhun.
Sidaw (Royal Drum)
The royal drum or sidaw was played on royal occasions, auspicious gatherings, and for favourable portents in the villages. Historically , the sidaw was played as part of palace rituals and during royal ceremonies and occasions. It was played during the entrance and exit of the king and queen into the Audience Hall, or when the monarchs were attending grand dramas or marionette shows. The sidaw was also played at ploughing ceremonies, city visits, and ceremonies marking the beginning and ending of the sitting of the Hluttaw. Gift presentation ceremonies were also marked by use of the sidaw, as was the beginning of the Thingyan Water Festival.
The advent of the sidaw ensemble induced the creation of the sidaw dance. The two big drums are hung side by side on a beam. The two dancers moved gracefully and swayed gently to strike the drums with their fists in time with the beat.
Sitou (short drum)
The short drum or sitou is a drum of two heads of the same size. It is placed at an angle on a stand and beaten with two sticks. The karaun beat is struck in tune for the dance of the ogre and when chasing the deer in the grand drama.
On non-dramatic occasions, the drum circle ensemble uses seven short drums of different pitches to provide a greater variety of sounds for the audience’s pleasure. The short drum is also played during the anyein, a non-dramatic performance of dance and comedy stints. The sound of the short drum is melodious and joyful, and it comes to the fore during truth-revealing scenes and duet dances in grand drama.
Chauklon Pat (six drums)
The six drums are located in the patma corner of the percussion instruments. The six drum collection did not exist during the dynasty of the Konbaung Kings, and it was not until 1900 AD that the six drums were added to the patma corner.
Originally there were only four drums. Then two more drums were added to provide for a broader musical sound. In 1903 the sakhun was added to the six drums and short drum.
Bjo (long drum)
The long drum or bjo is the diminutive form of an earlier stage-drum or si bjo played on auspicious occasions and during ceremonies. The bjo is a double- headed drum slung from the neck and played by beating with two angled cane-sticks on a membrane stretched tight over the two heads. The drum requires no tuning dough.
Horizontal Drum (Sakhun)
The horizontal drum or sakhun is a two- headed drum laid horizontally on two tripods, and located in the percussion corner of the ensemble. The body of the drum is made out of padauk or kokko wood. The membrane is made of tough ox hide, tightened by wetting the thongs that hold the membrane in place and pulling on the thongs. The sound of the drum may be dampened in a manner similar to the patma.
Pat wain (drum circle)
The center of each Burmese ensemble, giving name to the idea of instruments hung up in a circle “hsain wain”, is the pat wain drum circle. The instrument consists of 19 (traditionally), or 21(after 1920) tuned drums with heights ranging from 13 to 41 cm, hung from a circular wooden rack or stand with the player in the middle. One of the most fascinating aspects of South East Asian music is the early idea of the melodic use of percussive instruments, such as the drum circles, gong ensembles and xylophones. The drums in the pat wain get tuned by filling in “pa sa”, a paste of rice and ashes. The more pa sa is filled, the lower the drum will sound. The pat wain player is known as “hsain hsaya”, which means he is the “master of hsain” and thus the main leader and director of the complete ensemble.
Watch some close-up Pat Wain action here:
2. Kyey : Metal instruments
Kyey instruments are metal instruments used in Burmese traditional music. They have different functions in music.
Linkwin (cymbals) are punctuating instruments which are similar to the typical cymbals in any other South East Asian music ensembles.
Individual gongs are called Kyey Naung (brass gong), Maung (gong), Wa Maung (gong), Teta Maung (gong) depending on their size. When the maung gongs are assembled together they are called ci wain or maun sain.
Ci Wain (gong circle)
The gong circle ci wain shown above is a smaller counterpart of the pat wain drum circle and is associated to be played much easier. The 21 gongs get beaten with mallets, the higher pitched gongs get softened with the palm or the fingers in order to not oversound the pat wain drums.
Maun Sain (gong set)
The above picture shows a gong set maun sain, which is sometimes also called “gong rak” and was introduced lately in the 1920s. It consists of 18 to 19 bossed gongs arranged in up to five rows, hung into wooden frames and placed on the ground. Each gong gets tuned by a filling like the pat wain drum circle.
Here’s a comprehensive demo video on the Ci Wain, Pat Wain, Maun Sain and most of the Thaye instruments we have covered so far:
Kyey Se (burmese bell)
The Kyey se (“kyeezee”) gong is also sometimes called the “Burmese bell”. It is a flat, triangular solid brass gong which appears in many ensemble performances in different shapes and sizes. It can also be found in ceremonial use in temples, or even with monks when they walk down the streets in the morning to beg for alms. A wooden mallet is used to hit the gong on the left or right side of the triangle, so it starts spinning with high tempo and thus creates a vibrating sound. Depending on the size and the corner where it is hit, the pitch changes and it is famous for its long sustaining tone.
Listen to the sound of the Kyey Se here:
3. Kyo : String instruments
Kyo instruments are mainly the Saung (harp), Mi Gaung (three stringed musical instrument in the shape of a crocodile) and Tayaw(fiddle).
Listen to a beautiful harp piece here:
The Saung is classified as an arched horizontal harp since the resonator body is more horizontal as opposed to the Western harp, which has a vertical resonator. The main parts of the harp are the body, the long curved neck, carved out of the root of a tree, and a string bar running down the center of the top of the body. The top of the resonator body is covered with a tightly stretched deer hide, heavily lacquered in red with four small circular sound holes. The neck terminates in a highly decorated representation of the bo tree leaf. The harp body and stand is decorated with pieces of mica (“Mandalay pearls”), glass, gilt and red and black lacquer. The saung’s strings are made of silk or nylon.
There are 13 to 16 strings on the saung. Traditionally, tuning was accomplished by twisting and adjusting the string bindings. Modern harps have machine heads or tuning pegs to make tuning easier. The traditional silk strings have also been replaced by nylon strings, but silk-stringed harps can still be seen.
A full-sized harp is about 80 cm long, 16 cm wide, and 16 cm deep, and the arch rises about 60 cm from the body. Smaller harps have been made for smaller players.
The harp is played by sitting on the floor with its body in the lap, and its arch on the left. The strings are plucked with the right hand fingers from the outside. The left hand is used to dampen the strings to promote clarity and produce staccato notes. Stopped tones are produced by using the left thumbnail to press against the string from the inside to increase its tension.
Composition of the Saung
- The body is made of padauk, the famous Myanmar mahogany.
- The flat bar is made of cutch wood.
- It is covered with the leather of a female deer.
- The strings are made of silk.
Here’s a video of a Saung being played:
Mi gyaun (zither)
The mi gyaun zither is an ancient instrument of the Karen people of Burma. It was famous in the 18th and 19th century but is no longer performed anymore. The picture above shows an old mi gyaun donated by C.E. Pitman in 1911 to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) in the UK. This instrument is no longer in use by the Burmese, however it is still associated with the Mon (an ethnic group in Southern Burma).
The picture above shows a modern version of the mi gyaun made based on old sketches from the 19th century. The three strings are made of silk like the strings of the “saung” harp. The hollow body appears in a crocodile shape and is covered by a red painted cow bladder. The strings are played with a plectrum fast and rapidly.This instrument is the ancestor of the Thai and Cambodian Jarakhe.
View a video of the Mi Gyaun here:
The tayaw is a bowed string instrument and the above picture shows one that was donated to the RAMM in the UK and is dated back to the late 19th Century.
The bowed Burmese fiddle known as a ‘tayaw’ has now completely disappeared from Burma and is replaced by the violin, which the Burmese have adopted. The instrument is made of wood, with the underside being lacquered in a black gloss, and the edge decorated in gold leaf. The handle and bridge surface have been lacquered or coated in red pigment and decorated with gold leaf. A bird has been ornately carved into the wood at the head of the fiddle. A small bow accompanies the instrument.
4. Lei: Wind instruments
Lei instruments are wind instruments, which means they are played by blowing air into the instruments.
The Hne is a multiple reed oboe with a remarkable crooked form. It knows seven nearly equidistant playing holes which were basic for the development of the main Burmese scales in both chamber and ensemble music.
There are two common sizes of the hne, “ci” (big) and “kalei” (small) used for different purposes, the bigger one for slow tempo and more dignity, the latter one for festival occasions. Sometimes the bamboo flute “palwei” accompanies the “hne” during festivals as it also knows equally set playing holes resounding in the same scale.
There are attempts to compare this instrument to other reed aerophones like the Chinese “Suona” or even more the Indian “Xaranai”. There are also comparable instruments in medieval Europe, which could be connected to instruments like this. However, the Burmese version has its own unique shape and way of tuning.
Watch a video of the Hne being played:
The palwei flute is a wind instrument which consists of a hollow tube played by blowing through a hole at one end. There are two kinds of Myanmar flutes, the khin palwei and the kyaw palwei. The khin palwei is the more commonly played and it has a vintage and a reed at the blowing end. The kyaw palwei has no reed.
Earlier flutes were made of cane, bamboo or brass, while present day flutes are made of wood or plastic. The vintage holes are made according to the diameter of the bamboo. There are 10 perforated holes: seven finger holes, a thumb-hole, the membrane hole, and the pinleku or vent hole. However the modern flute no longer has a membrane hole because it tends to produce a shrill sound. Flutes come in two sizes – big and small, and flutes can cover the chromatic scale.
Hear the palwei here:
Khayuthin (conch shell)
A conch shell, locally called Khayu thin, is a natural shell with a hollow that produces sound when blown. The shell has grooves on the outside to allow a good hold for the four fingers of the musician. When blowing the shell with the lips, it should be closed lightly, not tightly, so that the lips may be made to vibrate.
Traditionally, the conch is blown on auspicious occasions such as a coronation, wedding, the ceremony for the induction of a male person into the Sangha as a novice, or ordination into monkhood.
The conch shell is common in music from other regions around the world too, not just Myanmar or South East Asia.
5. Let Khoke : Percussion instruments
Let Khoke instruments are used for timing, to maintain the rhythm of the song for other instruments to follow their beat. Examples are the cymbals “si” and clapper “wa”.
The brass cymbals “si”(left), which sometimes get replaced by the bigger “yakwin”, are held in the right hand of the vocalist. In the other hand, he/she holds the wooden “wa” which appears in the shape of castanets or a bamboo node slit open (right). Both provide the basic patterns of a tune, where all accents are performed by the “wa” while the “si” gets used on weak or unaccented notes. Each pattern is strictly linked to a melodic phrase and often counts up to 9 or 16 bars. Like in Gamelan ensembles with the last gong, the final stroke of the “wa” is delayed as much as possible.
Other Let Khoke instruments are Wa letkhoke (bamboo clappers) and Ton Wa (Wooden gong):
6. Patala : Xylophone
Patala instruments are usually the Wa Patala (Wood Xylophone).
The Wa Patala consists of 24 bamboo plates placed above a resonating box, starting with the lowest pitch on the players left side and the highest pitch on the player’s right side. The plates get beaten by two mallets, actually tuned in a diatonic scale and ranging over three octaves.
The name patala means a musical instrument on which you can play from the crescendo to the bases or from the base to the crescendo. We can find similar instruments under different names in Thailand (known as “ranaad”) and Cambodia (known as “roneat”).
A video of a Wa Patala being played: