In spite of the fact that Thailand was never colonized by foreign powers–or maybe because of that fact–the music of Thailand is a blend of many international musics but still resonates exceptionally well with Thai culture and history. Thai classical music is challenging and complex. Thai popular music boasts a pronounced humor and an unusual energy. Thai music’s scales and sounds and the many unique instruments may seem impenetrable to Westerners, but keep open ears and an open mind and it may just all start to make sense.

So many Thai musical styles, so little time! Let’s leap onto the Internet and experience a little bit of what Thailand has to offer.


Thailand’s relatively central geographic position in Southeast Asia placed it at the hub of trade routes involving Persian, African, Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian travelers. Thai classical music reflects these influences, most obviously in the Persian, Indian, Chinese and Indonesian origins of many of its instruments, yet it is still a very distinctly Thai form. Today’s Thai classical musicians play compositions similar to those performed in the Thai royal court nearly a millennium ago.

There are three primary types of classical Thai ensembles — the Piphat, Khruang Sai and the Mahori. All feature ching hand cymbals and wooden sticks to mark the beat, several small drums (klong) to fill out the basic rhythm and and a suspended gong (mong) to punctuate the end of a rhythmic statement.


Piphat is performed by a midsized orchestra that includes, says Wikipedia, “two xylophones (ranat), an oboe (pi), barrel drums (klong) and two circular sets of tuned horizontal gong-chimes (khong wong).” Members of Piphat ensembles may feature different instruments if they’re performing at a funeral than they would if they accompany a puppet show, and different, louder mallets if they are performing at an outside celebration than they wield when they play inside.

Khruang Sai:
The Khruang sai orchestra expands on the piphat rhythm section by adding string instruments like the so duang (a high-pitched two-string bowed lute), a three-string jhakhe (a plucked zither), as well as flutes, a goblet drum and a Chinese hammered dulcimer. Khruang sai ensembles generally provide music for Chinese-inspired Thai stick-puppet theater (hoon grabok).

Mahori is a kind of Thai classical court music traditionally played by women, mixes Piphat and Khruang Sai instrumetns, includes a fiddle and more prominently features vocals than other Thai classical forms.


Luk thung:
Luk thung (known as “Thai country music”) originated in the mid 1900s as a reflection of the difficult rural life in Thailand but developed in the 1960s into a form of Thai rock.

Mor Lam:
Mor Lam dominates Thai music in the region near Laos, where it’s the primary traditional form of music. Mor lam is a generally improvised rapid-fire poetic form that often has flirtatious undertones. The Lao song we sing in class, “Let’s Write a Song,” is mor lam, very much like this one.

Found mainly along the Thai border with Cambodia, kantrum is traditional dance music that has become increasingly electronic and increasingly popular.


By the 1930s music like jazz and Western classical had become influential in Thailand. Thai musicians fused Western and Thai music together to form new styles that blurred lines between the cultures.

Wong shadow:
Imitating artists like the British early rock band Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Thai bands from the ’60s like The Impossibles pioneered a style of music called “wong shadow” that by the ’90s had evolved into a less funky pop music called String.

Phleng pheua chiwit (“Songs for Life”):
Phleng pheua chiwit is a Thai form of protest music that started in the ’70s to address the issues of the working class and blended Thai traditional instruments with Western folk, rock and reggae. The first phleng pheua chiwit band, Caravan, was an integral part of the mid ’70s movement for democracy. In 1976 Caravan and students from Thammasat University fled to the rural hills when police and right wing activists attacked them. In the
’80s the government granted amnesty to the students, helping phleng pheua chiwit to become mainstream. By the 1990s, phleng pheua chiwit was no longer as popular, though there are few phleng pheua chiwit artists remain like Pongsit Kamphee.

String is Thai “bubblegum pop”
that became popular in the 1990s. Some of today’s best known string bands are Silly Fools and Bodyslam.

More information:
Wikimedia on the music of Thailand

In class we’re going to listen to:
— “I’ve Lost My Chance to Be Your Husband” by Petch Prakai Saeng Ensemble, on Fong Naam’s compliation, “Ancient-Contemporary Music from Thailand.” Fong Naam is a three decades-old East/West collaboration between Thai classical musician Boonyong Kaethong and American Vietnam War conscientious objector Bruce Gaston. Already an accomplished musician, Gaston arrived in Thailand in the late 1960s and became a student of Kaethong, learning the khong wong, a circular gong that is a staple of the Thai piphat orchestra. Gaston and Kaethong formed Fong Naan to, according to their website, “to provide a stage and artistic opportunities for musicians who are not only sophisticated in classical Thai arts but also have a commitment to contemporary Thai art.” Kaethong had a special purpose: “Instead of ending up as an old drunken musician complaining that things were not what they used to be, as tragically many of his colleagues did, he fought to forge new future for Thai society through his compositions and performances with Fong Naan….” Fong Naan has spent the last thirty years performing Thai classical and jazz compositions and compiling collections of ancient Thai music in order to simultaneously preserve and advance the form.

More information:
The fascinating story of Fong Naam: Boonyong, meet Bruce…. | Bruce Gaston is the first non-Thai to win the Silpathorn award | At the Fong Naam Bangkok Banana Contemporary Arts Festival in 2009….

— “Lam Tung Wai” by Chaweewan Dumnern
Soundway Records’ “The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz & Molam 1964-1975″ is a compilation of raucous, funky tunes from a Thai music scene of the ’60s that overflowed with energy and innovation. A mishmash of Thai classical musical styles, African rhythms, American funk and jazz, surf guitar, Latin ballroom and more, “The Sound of Siam” is a snapshot of an Asian music scene in the late ’60s that resonated with the imagination and the cultural tensions of the time.

More information:
About “The Sound of Siam” | loves “The Sound of Siam,” and especially loves Chweewan Dumnern

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