Myanmar Music, Classic and Contemporary

Myanmar Music, Classic and Contemporary


The simplest Myanmar or Burmese instruments are the harp (sating) and the dulcimer (ftatala). It has a boat-shaped body of wood, with a skin stretched over it for sounding-board. The thirteen strings arc of silk or modern material, strengthened with varnish.

The staves of the patata are of dry bamboo. These two instruments are not loud ; they are used to accompany the voice, as we use a harp or guitar, and also by themselves.

The loud band (saing-di), which gives so much character to the pwe, is composed of clarions, gongs and drums. The clarion (hne) is a loud and strident instrument, the effect of which is enhanced by the second clarion. These are supported by gamuts of tuned gongs and drums in circles (kyi-waing and saing-waing). There are two tenor drums and a bass drum. Time is accentuated by cymbals and clappers.

The tone of the gongs is so round and bright that it may be mistaken for a piano ; the flourishes played on the kyl-wain; would imply considerable execution in a pianist.

Drums are struck with the fingers, gongs with padded sticks. Most of the time music and dance  are combined. There is plenty of great stuff in the air beside of the usual, it’s pop music. There is a lot of other positive surprise, the somehow only strange “noise” is coming from the metal flute, sounds very Indian style.

Very often Myanmar Music of today is a copy of “western music”

with local lyrics there is a wide pool of creativity bringing lots of real good sound and for the connoisseur very pleasant classic music…..

This exotic sounds are

close in spirit to those of the Southeast Asian civilizations of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The Indian influence is less perceptible here than in the nation’s mythology and religious beliefs, or than in such other arts as the shadow-theatre and dance-drama.

POP LADY  Pay Oo Naw –  chit kya mae – sate phay


The most complete instrumental music ensemble is the hsaing-waing, which consists basically of a setof from eight to twenty-one drums suspended by leather thongs on a circular rattan frame, and of a circular array of gongs. In addition there may be anything from seven to twelve other instruments, among them oboes, bamboo clap-sticks, hand-cymbals, flutes and mouth organs, bells, xylophones and zithers.

As in Burma and all other countries of the region, however, music drums and gongs predominate. In traditional orchestras, they come in many shapes and forms: double-headed drums struck with wooden sticks, double-headed horizontal drums played by hand, single-headed pottery drums.

The gongs may be flat or bulbous, suspended or supported on wooden frames. Most of these instruments, including the drums, produce an unvarying sound. For that reasons, they normally come in pairs, one for sharp tones and the other for flat.

The music practice, in which the notes are identified in descending order, resembles that of other Southeast Asian countries: the octave is divided, theoretically, into seven equal intervals. Whatever mode is used to play a melody, the structure of the scale remains the same.

Improvisation plays an important part in the traditional version. Whereas in most parts of the world the instruments of the orchestra are meant to be played in unison, in the traditional Burmese orchestra they start from a common melody but are free to play whatever variations they like, provided they join up with the ensemble from time to time. Sometimes the results could be called “heterophonic”, but they do not lack harmony for all that.

It is closely linked to the performing arts, notably plays, puppet-shows, shadow theatre, dance-drama and opera. In drama, the Indian influence is preponderant. All the characters, whether heroes or gods, originate in the Ramayana or Mahabharata epics, or in the Jataka, narratives relating episodes from the Buddha’s previous incarnations. Performances, which often take place in the open air, may last for several hours, sometimes even for days with a strong drum element.

myanmar classic dance music

Burmese classical music


Myanmar drum played by a lady

Drum music in Myanmar


The melodies have not escaped the contagion of Western pop, which is widely broadcast by the media. Some musicians have tried to create a synthesis by adapting Burmese lyrics to Western rhythms or by performing translated French and English songs to a local backing.

This so-called “new Myanmar music” is a hybrid genre whose artistic value is at best uncertain. But it is popular with the young, and the influence of radio, television and cinema will eventually establish its grip.

Yet the “Golden Land” remains the land of 100,000 pagodas, for each village has at least one monastery and a pagoda. The chimes of bells and metal gongs, carried on the wind, are relayed from community to community in an uninterrupted chain.

This sounds will long remain an irreplaceable feature of the landscape. Author Khin Mya Kyu