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Society for Ethnomusicology

The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand: A Study of Distinctions

Author(s): Terry E. Miller and Sam-ang Sam
Source: Ethnomusicology, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1995), pp. 229-243
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of Society for Ethnomusicology
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The Classical Musics of Cambodia

and Thailand: A Study of Distinctions



a world
perspective, the distinctions separating the classical musics
of the Kingdom of Cambodia (hereafter, Cambodia) and the Kingdom of
Thailand (hereafter, Thailand) would seem small indeed, but for Cambodian
(hereafter, Khmer) and Thai musicians the differences are obvious and
significant. While up to this point the two traditions have been dealt with
separately in the literature, this study explores similarities as well as the
essential differences between them. We treatonly briefly two subjects which
would require book-length explanations: history and repertory. The other
elements cited here are ones that can be perceived and understood by non-
practitioners, including instruments, ensembles, function, colotomic struc-
ture, tuning, scale, mode, notation, and performance practices.1
We have reluctantlyadopted the term "classical"to distinguishthe musics
under study from village or "folk"musics. We avoid calling it "court"music
because, while this music was characteristicof court life, it was not exclusive
to the court. Today both Khmer and Thai musics are maintained primarily
through all levels of the education system, and consequently in both nations
government support is essential. Courtsupport for the artsended in Thailand
with the 1932 coup thatbrought the absolute monarchy to an end, and in 1970
in Cambodiawhen MarshalLon Nol overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk. In
Thailandstate support for the artsgraduallyresumed in the 1930s through the
newly founded Departmentof Fine Artsand eventually through the School of
DramaticArts and its branches. The musical and theatricalarts of Cambodia
have suffered several devastating blows, first when the Siamese destroyed
Angkor in 1432, again when the court musical system was disbanded in 1970
and especially in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot attempted
literally to destroy Khmer culture; this resulted in the deaths or escape of
virtually all classical musicians and dancers. A determined but meagerly

? 1995 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

230 Ethnomusicology, Spring/Summer 1995

financed restoration is taking place in Cambodia today through the University

of Fine Arts with support from the Ministry of Culture.

Instruments and Ensembles

Most Khmer and Thai classical instruments are similar enough that
Cambodian refugee musicians in the United States and France use instru-
ments imported from Thailand. Besides being unable to import instruments
from Cambodia, they understood that few Khmer instrument makers
survived Pol Pot's holocaust. Instrument making in Cambodia is only now
resuming, thanks in part to a grant from Australia in 1988 to erect a building
for instrument making. Although the terms for instruments are in some cases
derived from the same roots, the overall terminology represents the
differences between the Thai and Khmer languages. The basic classical
instrumentarium is given in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Corresponding Thai and Khmer instruments

Thai Khmer Type
Ranat ek Roneat ek Higher-pitched xylophone
Ranat thum Roneat thom or Lower-pitched xylophone
roneat thung
Ranat ek lek or Roneat dek Higher-pitched metallophone
Ranat tawng
Ranat thum lek Roneat thong Lower-pitched metallophone
Khong wong yai Kong thom Lower-pitched gong circle
Khong wong lek Kong tauch Higher-pitched gong circle
Pi Sralai Quadruple-reed aerophone
Khlui Khloy Vertical fipple flute
So sam sai Tro khmer Three-stringed bowed lute
Tro chhe Two-stringed bowed lute (d-a)
So duang Tro so tauch Two-stringed bowed lute (G-d)
Tro so thom Two-stringed bowed lute (D-A)
So u Tro ou Two-stringed bowed lute (C-G)
Krajappi Chapei veng Long-neck lute
(3 strings) (2 strings)
Jakay Krapeu Three-stringed "crocodile"zither
Khim Khim Dulcimer
Ching Chhing Small cup-shaped cymbals
Chap Chhap Medium flat cymbals
Thon Skor thaun Goblet shaped single-headed drum
Rammana Skor rumanea Single-headed flat drum
Skor arak Goblet-shaped drum larger than
skor thaun
Klong that Skor thom Pair of barrel drums
The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand 231

Figure 1, cont'd.
Thai Khmer Type
Taphon Skorsampho Horizontally-mounted barreldrum
Klongkaek Skorkhek Pairof long laced drums
Krap Krabb Pairsof wooden concussion
Khong Kong Singlehangingknobbedgong

Among the melodic idiophones, the differences are relatively minor.

The higher and lower Khmer xylophones have twenty-one and sixteen
wooden or bamboo bars respectively while the Thai may increase the totals
by one. While the Khmer formerly had the lower-pitched metallophone
equivalent to the Thai ranat thum lek, it is now obsolete. Thai quadruple
reeds come in three sizes-pi nai, pi klang, pi nok (from largest to
smallest)-while the Khmer equivalents are found in only the largest and
smallest sizes-sralai thom and sralai tauch. In practicaluse, however, one
rarely hears anything but the pi nai/sralai thom. The Thai khlui and Khmer
khloy, however, are not interchangeable, because the Thai flutes are
available at four pitch levels-khlui u (F), khluiphiang o (B13),khlui lip (E),
and khlui kruat (C) [from lowest to highest]-while the Khmer khloy is
usually available in only one size, pitched C. Both the khlui and khloy have
a hole for a buzzing membrane, but Thai musicians universally cover it with
tape while many Khmer musicians use a membrane to obtain a desirable
timbre modification.
Greater differences are found among the bowed chordophones. The
three-stringedversions differboth in constructionand function. The tro khmer
is smaller than the normal Thai so sam sai, has a snakeskin resonator instead
of calfskin,and its use is restrictedto the village arak(spiritceremony) and kar
(wedding) ensembles, whereas the Thai version is the leader of the classical
mahori ensemble. But the Thai also have a smaller version called so sam sai
lip which is infrequently heard.
Two-stringed fiddles are relatively recent in both countries. There is no
convincing documentation for the Thai so duang and so u until the 1884
publications resulting from the London Inventions Exposition (see Verney
1885, Hipkins 1921). Two-stringed fiddles must have been known in
Thailand long before that, however, because there is clear documentation
for the performance of Chinese theatre, in which the fiddle is usually the
leading instrument, from the late seventeenth century (see, for example,
Chaumont 1686, Choisy 1930, Gatty 1963). That they did not become part
of the Thai instrumentarium until around the middle of the nineteenth
century may seem surprising,but the so duang is in shape and timbre a close
relative of the Chao-zhou Chinese tou xian fiddle, and Chao-zhou speakers
232 Ethnomusicology, Spring/Summer 1995

are the dominant Chinese group in Thailand. The Thai so u is less clearly
Chinese in origin, since its calfskin resonator differsfromthe coconut-bodied
Chinese fiddles-yeb bu and ban hu-instruments which have thin wooden
resonators.2In contrast, the Khmerfiddles with cylindricalbodies-tro chhe,
tro so tauch and tro so thom-have cylindricalbores ratherthan the conical
bore of the Thai so duang (which gives it a nasal timbre), giving them a
warmer tone quality. The Khmer tro ou (coconut body) is known in two
versions: the normal tro ou with a full-sized coconut body and calfskin
resonator, and the tro ou chamhieng with a half coconut body and wooden
resonator. The former is used in the mohori ensemble and the latterin bassac
and yike theatres. Therefore, the Khmer two-stringed fiddles appear to be
closer to those of the Chinese than are those of the Thai. Indeed,-two-stringed
fiddles were unknown in Cambodia until the twentieth century, and clearly
they came to the Khmerthrough bassac, a genre of Chinese-derived theatre
originating in the area of Vietnam where Khmer speakers predominate. In
addition, the Khmer developed two lower-pitched fiddles with cylindrical
bodies tuned G-D (a fourth below the tro ou) and D-A below that, both called
tro thom, but these were used exclusively at the University of Fine Arts in
Phnom Penh.
The remaining chordophones, a zither and a dulcimer, are virtually
identical. The useages of the khim dulcimer, however, differ in that it is a
regular member of the Khmer mohori ensemble but is not found in the
equivalent Thai ensemble. Furthermore,the khim, which was derived from
the Chinese Chao-zhou yang qin or yao qin, is found in larger and smaller
sizes (khim tauch and khim thom) in the Khmer-Chinese bassac ensemble,
the former playing melody, the latter a bass line.
Thai and Khmer drums are similar enough to be interchangeable, but
useages vary. The pair of two-headed, laced drums (Klong khaek in Thai)
can be used in classical ensembles whereas the Khmer equivalent is only
used in the kaekensemble heard at funerals. In the Khmermohori ensemble,
either the skor thaun with skor rumanea or the slightly larger skor arak may
be used. In the case of Thailand, there are two kinds of thon, one used by
the mahori and khruang sai ensembles, and one used in SouthernThai nang
talung (shadow theatre) as well as classical pieces in the Khmer "accent"
(samniang khamen or tang khamen). Finally, the Khmer mohori may use
a skor sampho when the skor thaun and skor rumanea are unavailable, but
the Thai would not use the equivalent drum, taphon, which is reserved for
the piphat ensemble.
The Thai and Khmerhave two related ensembles, one called piphat and
pinpeat respectively, the other called mahori and mohori respectively.
Although each pair is superficially similar, there are significant differences
in function and leadership roles. The Khmer do not have an equivalent
The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand 233

ensemble to the Thai kbruang sai composed of two-stringed bowed lutes,

zither, flute, the usual idiophones and membranophones, and optional
instruments as diverse as dulcimer, electric organ, and violin.
The term piphat in Thai suggests the importance of the quadruple reed
aerophone, pi, combined with a word which means instruments, while the
Khmerretainthe word pin, derived from the Sanskritvina, meaning stringed
instrument.In earliertimes the Thai also called their ensemble phinphat, and
the Lao continue to do so, but there are no chordophones in this ensemble
type. Both Thai and Khmer ensembles consist of two types of xylophones,
two gong circles, and a quadruple reed, with rhythmic structurearticulated
by small cymbals and a drum or drums. Leadership in both resides with the
higher xylophone player, but the instrument carryingthe fundamental form
of the melody differs. In Thai practice the lower-pitched gong circle is not
only essential, it is the first instrument learned and must be mastered before
going on to other types. In reducing a Thai piphat ensemble to minimum
strength, the lower xylophone and higher gong circle can be eliminated, but
not the lower gong circle, while in Khmer practice the latter is expendible.
Indeed, Khmer musicians do not normally startlearning on this instrument,
and consequently few play it.
The Thai conceive of the lower-gong circle's idiom (tang khong wong
yai or tang khong) as representing the most fundamental form of the melody
(luk khong); that is why musicians must play this instrumentfirst.The Khmer,
in contrast, think of the sralai quadruple reed as carrying the melody,
although the vocal part is first and foremost. Since the gong circles play
variants, they are of lesser importance. In Thai practice the pi, xylophones,
and higher gong circle play variants of the khong wong yai version.
Both Khmerand Thai have pin peat/piphat ensembles for both hard and
soft mallets. The Thai call them piphat mai khaeng and piphat mai nuam
respectively while the Khmercall them pinpeat anloung roeung and pinpeat
anloung tun respectively. The soft-mallet ensemble in Thailand, however,
uses khlui instead of pi, which results in a shift of pitch level (to be discussed
below). In addition, the Thai employ a so u in the soft-mallet ensemble. The
Khmer soft-mallet ensemble uses khloy but no chordophone.
A full Thai mahori ensemble consists of the three-stringed fiddle, both
two-stringed fiddles, flute, zither,and both xylophones and gong circles, with
the addition of the ching cymbals and a drum pair, usually the thon and
rammana but possibly klong khaek. The three-stringed fiddle is normally
considered the leader, although that function is shared with the higher
xylophone. As with the piphat, the lower gong circle is considered to play the
most fundamental form of the melody. Although not required, there is a
smallerversion of the gong circle available for mahori use called khong wong
klang. The Khmermohori, in contrast, does not use either the three-stringed
234 Ethnomusicology, Spring/Summer 1995

fiddle or the gong circles, but it does use all four sizes of the two-stringed
fiddles and the dulcimer. The preferred drums are the skor thaun and skor
rumanea, but when these are unavailable a skor arak or sampho may be
employed. Both Khmer and Thai ensembles use flute and zither, but string
sounds predominate in the former whereas melodic idiophones retain a
greater importance in the latter.
While listeners unacquainted with the Thai and Khmer languages may
find the vocal sections of compositions similar, there are fundamental
differences. The Thai language is tonal and Khmer is not. This difference
triggers totally different procedures in generating melody in relation to text.
As noted earlier, the voice part is considered the purest form of the melody
in the Khmer tradition. Those instruments which imitate the voice most
closely--quadruple reed, flute, or fiddle-therefore play the purest form of
the melody. Ornamentation occurs as a result of idiomatic style. In contrast,
the Thai singer constructs the voice version on a skeletal outline of the
melody-the same skeletal structureon which the instrumentalistsbase their
versions-but the realization results from a systematic coordination among
several variable elements. Yoko Tanese-Ito has shown through extensive
analysis that Thai singers use a complex system of formulae to realize each
syllable of text based on its tonal inflection, the degree of the scale, the mode,
as well as other factors(1988). While Thai singing might appear more flexible
and changeable from one stanza to another than Khmer, in fact Thai singers
have little flexibility because they operate within this intuitively known but
surprisingly consistent system governing the creation of the vocal form of a
melody. Therefore, in Thai thinking, both melodic and instrumentalversions
of a given melody are built upon the same skeletal structure,and the version
played by the largergong circle is closest to that fundamental form, whereas
the Khmer musician considers the vocal version to be the purest realization
of the melody and considers all other versions to be variants, in spite of the
fact that the same sort of skeletal structure exists.
Functionally, practices in both Thailand and Cambodiawere at one time
similar. The piphat/pinpeat was the primary ensemble and accompanied
virtually all genres of theatre, including masked play (khon/khol), dance
drama (lakhon/lakhon), and shadow puppet theatre (nang/sbek). The latter
type exists in two varieties, large tableau puppets carriedon sticks above the
manipulatorswho move behind and before a screen, called nangyaiin Thai
and sbek thom in Khmer, and small puppets manipulated from behind a
screen, called nang talung in Thai and sbek tauch in Khmer.All Cambodian
puppet theatre is a village entertainment, but in Thailand the larger puppets
were found at the court and the smaller type was centered in southern
Thailand. The mahori/mohori ensemble had the same function in both
countries, primarily to entertain guests at banquets. The Khmer ensemble
was also used to accompany folk dances and a genre of theatre called the
The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand 235

mohori play. In Thailand the mahori is the primaryensemble for playing an

extensive repertory of tuneful compositions from the later nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, some of which are in the extended, tripartitethao form.
Today the Thai mahori may even accompany the lakhon dance drama.

Rhythm and Meter

Rhythm and meter in both Thai and Khmer musics are founded on the
same fundamental principles, but the practices differ in subtle but important
ways. Melody in both is regulated by cyclic patterns realized on both the
drum or drums and the small cymbals (ching or chhing). The Thai system
is more extensive than the Khmer.
In Thai practice a cycle consists of four strokes of the ching, alternating
the unaccented (undamped) "ching" stroke with the accented (damped)
"chap"stroke, the final stroke ("chap")being both accented and representing
the end of the cycle, called siang tokor luk dok(o + o D). Ithas been customary
to mark the final stroke-the siang tok-as (. A full cycle is o + o @.
Further,this cyclic patterncan be realized in three different proportional
relationships, or tempo levels, called in Thai chan ("level"):chan dio ("first
level"), song chun ("second level"), and sam chan ("thirdlevel"). Four cycles
of chan dio equal in duration two in song chan or one cycle of sam chan (see
fig. 2).

Figure 2: Thai tempo levels

o + o E sam chan (1 cycle)
o + o E o + o E song chan (2 cycles)
o + o( o + oE3o + o (o + o( chan dio (4 cycles)

Without the ching strokes, however, it is difficult to tell which level is being
heard because the basic movement remains relatively constant.
Drum patterns, called nathap, parallel the ching patterns. Two are
associated with drums of the laced head category (called thap) and consist
of sets of drum patterns called nathap brop kai and nathap song mai in all
three tempo levels. There are other nathap associated with pieces in specific
national accents (samniang), such as Lao (lao), Khmer (khamen), Mon
(mon), Chinese (jin), Burmese (phama), and Muslim(khaek). A nathap song
mai pattern is half the length of the same level pattern in nathap brop kai.
Thus, nathap brop kai sam chan has four ching strokes spaced over sixteen
beats while nathap song mai sam chan has the same number of strokes over
eight beats. Expressing this relationship in number of beats (not ching
strokes), the proportions in nathap song mai are 8-4-2 while those in nathap
236 Ethnomusicology, Spring/Summer 1995

brop kai are 16-8-4. In practice, however, musicians often double the rate
of ching strokes in nathap brop kai because the time span between strokes,
especially in the third level, is so long that musicians easily lose the beat.
Consequently, in practice a given tempo level in either nathap may sound
the same, but fundamentally they are not. Furtherdetails, especially drum
strokes on each drum in each pattern, are well beyond the scope of this
paper. A third category, called nathapphiset (special pattern), is associated
with drums of the klong category, with tacked heads. They include a great
variety of patternsunique to particularpieces, especially for theatricalaction
tunes (phleng naphat).
Khmer practice is much simpler. There are two classes of drum patterns
parallel to the Thai nathap: the longer phleng chrieng and the shorter lam
or phleng skor respectively. In the former, the first level (shortest pattern,
equivalent to chan dio) is called muoy choan, the second levelpi choan, and
the third level bey choan. In practice, the rate of chhing strokes is reduced
by half during vocal portions. While details of the drum patterns differ
between Thai and Khmer traditions,the principles remain the same. Khmer
musicians do not depend to any great extent on the chhing pattern in
identifying the choan of a composition. Instead, they listen to the patterned
filler phrases played by melody instrumentsbetween the end of one phrase
and the beginning of the next, called thao. Because the time span between
structuralpitches in bey choan is greaterthan either pi choan or muoy choan,
the thao pattern is different.
A majordifference thatinvolves both metricalpracticeand repertoryis the
Thai preference for constructingcompositions in thao form [a differentword
from that used for filler phrases]. In these compositions, the second tempo
level (song chan) is considered to be the basic or "original"form and the
diminished version (chan dio) and augmented version (sam chun) are
variants. A full thao composition, however, begins with the augmented
version and flows without break into the originalversion, then the diminished
version. If listeners fail to recognize the progression from the melody itself,
they become aware of it as the ching and drum patternschange. The Khmer
play tripartitecompositions less often, and they retainthe same chhing pattern
throughout.Mostcompositions exist in only one tempo level. This is trueeven
though both traditionsshare repertorythat may be performed in thao form by
Thai musicians.

Tuning, Scale, Mode

A full discussion of this broad topic exceeds the bounds of this
preliminarystudy; only certain essential matters can be touched upon here.
Another limit is that theoretical terminology is neither fully developed nor
The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand 237

widely known, and yet discussions in Western languages (and in Thai and
Khmer to some extent) often refer to pitches by letter names as if everyone
understands. We do not believe they do.
First, regarding absolute pitch and tuning generally, there is no fixed
standard equivalent to the West's A=440; but because aerophones are made
within a narrow range there tends to be an unofficial standard. Evading for
the moment the question of tuning, let us consider who does the tuning?In
the Khmer tradition the leader of the ensemble controls the tuning himself
using the notes of the sralai quadruple reed as the standard.The Thai leader
may also exercise such authority, but at least in cities the services of a
professional tuner may well be used. Certainlythe pi (Thai quadruple reed)
pitches must be taken into account, but they are not preeminent.
The question of whether the Thai and/or Khmer tuning systems is/are
equidistant has been fiercely debated in some quarters (see, for example,
Fuller 1979). Morton asserts that Thai tuning is equidistant, although Thai
tuners accomplish this by ear and not with the aid of a machine, all of which
makes the perfect intervals of 171.4 cents arrived at by Morton unlikely
(Morton 1976:26). In fact Thai instrumentsof fixed pitch, such as xylophones,
are not exactly equidistant; and in some ensembles the variations among
intervals are significant and easily heard. By the same token, Western
musicians teach that the piano is tuned equidistantly when in fact careful
measurement would demonstrate discrepancies. Nonetheless, in practice the
piano functions as an equidistantlytuned instrumentmaking all twelve major
or minor keys useable. The question remains,then, do the easily demonstrated
differences among notes on virtuallyany xylophone or gong circle in Thailand
contradictthe equidistanttheory or is the tuning "practically"
equidistantas on
the piano? The fact that specific classes of compositions, especially those in
the national accents such as lao or mon, are always played at certain pitch
levels argues for non-equidistance. The fact that specific ensembles play at
specified pitch levels-for example, piphat normally plays based on G-
argues for non-equidistance. The latter,however, is explained by the necessity
of accommodating the appropriate aerophones rather than non-equality
among intervals.Finally,Thai musicians can play the same piece on the same
instrumentsfor both piphat and mahori ensembles without retuning, and yet
mahori pitch is one key or blade lower than piphat pitch. To muddy the
argumentyet a littlemore, even an inexperienced listenercan sometimes hear
unnerving differences when the same melody is played at two differentpitch
levels on a Thai xylophone. In fact, the near equidistance of fixed pitch
instruments is a compromise, for the other instruments realize a far more
flexible and complex tuning system. In the case of Khmer music, there has
never been a strong claim for equidistance, and in fact Khmertuning is clearly
non-equidistant. Certain pitch levels are considered useable, others not. In
238 Etbnomusicology, Spring/Summer 1995

sum, then, Thai tuning is functionally equidistant while Khmer is not only
apparently non-equidistant but variable.
For years the Fine ArtsDepartment in Bangkok has published examples
of Thai classical music in staff notation following a systematic relationship
between Western and Thai systems. The staff is constructed to differentiate
half and whole steps. Whether or not Thai music is perfectly equidistant, the
staff does not reflect the true intervals. Staff notation, then, is somewhat
crude, and results in compromises like using the degrees B and E in some
scale forms and Bb and Eb in others, to make it appear more reasonable.
Even putting this problem aside, the question remains, where is C on a given
instrument?Both Khmer and Thai musicians trained to read Western staff
notation consider that the piphat or pinpeat ensembles play in G. But where
is G on the xylophone?
The Thai higher xylophone (ranatek), normallywith twenty-one blades,
begins with F on the lowest end and concludes with E at the upper end three
octaves higher. The Khmerconceive of the highest blade as being E, making
the lowest F. Consequently, the Khmer and Thai are in agreement here.
However, in Cambodia village-trained musicians play one pitch lower than
university- or court-trained musicians.
The Thai piphat plays in G because that is the pitch of the pi nai. In recent
years piphat also played on other pitch centers when using pi klang (A) or
pi nok (C). The piphat mai nuam (soft mallets) ensemble substitutes the khlui
phiang o flute, a Bb instrument, for pi nai, thus requiring the fixed
instruments to shift down one blade or gong. The Khmerpinpeat anloung
tun with soft mallets also uses khloy, but the Khmer flute is tuned in C,
requiring no shift.
The Thai mahori has the same relationship to the piphat mai khaeng
(hard mallets) as does the soft mallet form:the requirement of shifting down
one blade to accommodate the flute. The Thai mahori is said to play in either
Bb and F or C and G, depending on the source. The confusion arises because
of differences in placing C. To a piphat musician, C is the seventh gong on
the largergong circle, but to a mahori musician, C is the sixth gong. The staff
notation used in Thailand has no way to accommodate this shift. If piphat
musicians play a piece written in C, it is understood that C is the seventh
gong, but mahori musicians using the same score would start one pitch
lower-the sixth gong-and still call it C, but it would be Bb compared to
the piphat. Because the Khmerkhloy flute is pitched in pinpeat C, in contrast
to the Thai khlui which is pitched in piphat Bb, no shift is necessary. While
none of this is of much concern to a traditionalmusician of either country,
since they do not use notation, it is nonetheless perplexing to scholars trying
to reconcile written notation with aural practice.
The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand 239

A detailed discussion of scales and modes is out of the question, for

extensive documentation through examples would be required to illustrate
how both Thai and Khmer melodies may be built on five or more pitches,
why pitches beyond the basic set occur, and how modulation or metabole
occurs. In this area Thai and Khmer melodies are not radically different.
These matters have been discussed at some length separately in Morton's
pioneering study (Morton 1976) and in Sam's doctoral dissertation (1988).
What is clear, though, is that Thai musicians have developed a much more
extensive vocabulary for explaining musical phenomena than have Khmer
musicians. Forexample, the Thai have names for each pitch of the seven tone
scale, based in part on the names of aerophones which play at that level.
Both the pitch level and the scale built upon it are subsumed under the term
thang, meaning "way."

It is safe to say that until the twentieth century neither Khmer nor Thai
musicians used any kind of notation. Training was and to a great extent
continues to be by rote, directly from master to student. Only after one
phrase is mastered is the next given. This traditionalpedagogy is as effective
as it is time intensive for both student and teacher. During modern times,
especially after 1932 in Thailand, various kinds of notation have been
developed to make the transmission process more efficient but less personal
as well. It is not unusual to see students today using notation of some type,
even in performance.
The Thai make use of several kinds of notation (see Miller 1992). First,
there is notation using arabic numerals which represent, depending on
useage, either scale pitches or finger positions; the latteris actually tablature
notation. Second, there is notation using Thai letter initials of the do-re-mi
solfege. Third, staff notation has been used since the 1930s both in
publications aimed at non-Thai and in the beginning to notate the entire
oeuvre of Thai classical music in manuscript,a project never completed.4The
Fine Arts Department has published an anthology of Thai pieces and the
magazine Silapakorn once published a series of notated pieces with
discussions, all in staff notation.
The numeral and solfege notations share common traits:(1) they show
only the skeletal melody, with minimal degrees of idiomatic instrumental
embellishment; (2) they are barred with the accented notes (as determined
by the ching, whose symbols are usually omitted) falling at the end of the
measure; and 3) they indicate minimal rhythmic complexity. These limita-
tions are more true of solfege notation than of numeral. The most frequently
240 Etbnomusicology, Spring/Summer 1995

notated instrumentalparts are for the two-stringed fiddles, zither, dulcimer,

and less commonly for flute. Many teachers, both famous and little known,
have published collections of their own versions of standardmelodies, most
commonly for so duang and so u. Other masters require or permit their
students to copy partsfor their own use. Some also publish generic versions.
Leastcommonly notated are parts for piphat instruments. Full scores do not
exist except for the Fine Arts Department's editions of the hom rong yen
("Evening Prelude") suite and phleng chut tham khwan ("Tham Kwan")
The Khmer,on the other hand, use none of the Thai notations. Only staff
notation is used and then only by urban students at the University of Fine
Arts.Both Khmerand Thai follow the Western practice of placing the accent
at the beginning of the measure in staff notation.
In both traditionsthe ideal is performance from memory, with or without
spontaneous variantsin ornamentation or even phrase details depending on
the player's skill. Notation is more common in Thailandbecause the country,
and especially Bangkok (the center of classical music) is much more modern
than Cambodia. Modernization brings with it greater awareness of and
greater demands on time. Thai teachers have less time for the usual practice
of supervised practice/lessons and students have less time as well. Notation
saves time, and "time is money" in the modern world.

Although potentially endless if discussed in detail, the subject of
repertory if kept to an overview is fairly simple. The Khmer and Thai share
much repertory, so much that a musician from one country could sit in with
musicians of the other and play many pieces with them. Much of the
repertory of "action tunes" used to accompany specific kinds of scenes or
actions in both human and puppet theatre (phleng naphat in Thai, phleng
skor in Khmer) is shared. Not surprisingly,both share the suites made up of
these action tunes, such as the Thai hom rong yen. In addition both Khmer
and Thai share many of the extended suites called ruang. Among the Thai
twenty-nine have survived into modern times.
Where the Khmer differ most from the Thai is in the area of pleng thao,
discussed earlierin referenceto the three tempo levels. While both share many
of the pieces that have been composed into thao in Thailand,the Khmertend
to play them one tempo level at a time, and tripartiteversions occur rarely.In
addition, many of these compositions derive froma Thai narrativegenre called
sephah, in which the reciter accompanies himself/herself with two pairs of
short, wooden sticks called krap sephab. When sephah was still a living
genre-today it is barely maintained by professors and students in the
The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand 241

university system-the reciter was allowed to rest from time to time, during
which a piphat ensemble performed melodious compositions, some in thao
form. As sephah died out, the instrumentalrepertoryflourished on its own.
These compositions constitute the best known classical repertoryin Thailand.
They are more easily played by students and amateursbecause they are built
of long, tuneful phrases, as opposed to the motivic "actiontunes."
Most Thai compositions created since the beginning of the Bangkok Era
(1782) are associated with specific composers. Virtually all before 1932
served the court, but a few were members of the royal family. Some in recent
times: Nai Montri Tramote and Luang Pradit Phairaw, for example, have
contributed numerous works which are now in the standard repertory.
Obviously, these compositions are by Thai composers whether played in
Thailand or Cambodia, and theirworks do constitute a significant percentage
of the Khmer repertory. The extent to which compositions of Khmer origin
are played in Thailand is uncertain. Our knowledge of Khmer composers is
more limited, and it could be said that Khmer musicians are less concious
of composers than are Thai musicians.
Important differences between the traditions are found in the category
of solo performance. Solo repertories and solo versions of ensemble pieces
are more prominent in Thailand than in Cambodia. The practice among the
Khmer has been to have solos only to demonstrate instruments for an
audience or to fill a time gap during a dance when the dancer has to change
or altera costume. Beyond these functional solos, there is relatively little solo
repertory in which master performers could exhibit virtuosity. Thai musi-
cians, on the other hand, have developed the solo style (thang dio) to a
greater extent. The concept of thang dio means a soloistic idiom applied to
an otherwise ensemble-type composition, especially of the "action tune"
type. Extended, and sometimes virtuosic, solos are most commonly played
on the higher xylophone and the higher two-stringed fiddle, but solos also
occur for flute, quadruple reed, three-stringed fiddle, lower two-stringed
fiddle, zither, dulcimer, and occasionally the gong circles and lower
xylophone. Extremelyadvanced players have even been known to play two
or more higher xylophones at the same time, to impress the audience. Thus,
virtuosity is more developed in Thailand than in Cambodia.

Performance Practices
A great number of performance practices have been discussed within
the preceding pages, but two in particularstand out in differentiating Thai
from Khmer. The first is tempo. Partly because of virtuosity, and partly
because of the chan dio tempo level which occurs in the thao compositions,
it can be said that overall Thai music is faster than Khmer. The more rapid
242 Etbnomusicology, Spring/Summer 1995

tempo extremes are set by the Thai, even in ensemble performance. This is
especially so at the end of a composition where a stereotyped luk mot (coda)
is appended to bring the piece to a close, a passage in which the ensemble
or soloist races to a most exciting and sudden conclusion.
A second practice easily differentiates Khmer music from Thai: the
tendency to play pairs of notes in long-short rhythmic patterns. One could
characterize this as sounding dotted, but the proportion of long to short is
closer to a ratio of 2:1 than 3:1. Combined with the overall slower tempos,
this gives Khmermusic a gentler, more lyricalquality. In contrast,Thai music
is played with nearly equal note values throughout, especially for the upper
xylophone, whose idiom tends to continuous and even short notes.

The foregoing demonstates two kinds of differences between Thai and
Khmer musics: those which can be observed and those which are only
known to practitioners. Any experienced musician of either tradition can
instantly distinguish Khmer from Thai. For outsiders it depends on knowl-
edge and experience. Perhaps the main question remaining concerns the
significance of these differences. To what extent do they matterand to what
extent are they mere idiosyncrasies?Here the views of insiders and outsiders
may clash. When looking at the big picture-court music (or "classical"
music) in (Mainland)Southeast Asia-the outsider likely feels the similarities
outweigh the differences. Although the Khmer and Thai have much in
common culturally-Theravada Buddhism (and its sacred language, Pali),
geography, living patterns, and musical instruments,for example-there are
many reasons, both historical and cultural, for the two to wish to keep
matters clearly distinguished. To a person with strong feelings about
neighbors across the border, no difference is insignificant, and few Thai or
Khmer easily forgive confusion on the issue.
The most obvious differences for the uninitiated, as, for example, the
unequal rhythms, are possibly the least significant. One of the greatest
differences-who has "the melody" and what is the singer's relationship to
it-is virtually unobservable but of utmost importance to the musicians.
Whereas instrumentalistscan play in each other's ensembles, an exchange
of singers is out of the question, both because Khmer is non-tonal and Thai
tonal and because the latteralters the melody almost beyond recognition to
accommodate the language tones.
The preceding comparisons are offered, not to demonstrate the supe-
riority of one tradition over the other or to "compare and contrast"apples
and oranges, but to highlight the nuances which make each traditionunique.
They are two distinct traditions, and our musical lives are enriched by their
The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand 243

differences. In listening to the music we may sense them, and there are
concrete reasons for these feelings. Although we have long moved beyond
a naive form of "comparative musicology," articulating the differences
between two apparently similar traditions seems helpful.

1. The authors wish to thank Dr. Jarernchai Chonpairot and Prof. Panya Roongruang for
reading and correcting the Thai portions of this study.
2. Similarly,the Vietnamese dan gao has a rounded coconut body and wooden resonator.
3. We are indebted to Dr. Yoko Tanese-Ito of Japan for her clear explanation of the Thai
rhythmic system in an unpublished paper (1981).
4. David Morton microfilmed the pencilled manuscripts, and copies are held at the UCLA
Archives and at Kent State University's Archives of World Musics.

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