SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Lessons for Schools: 5 Thailand

By Jutamas Poprasit

Historical background

Thailand is a kingdom situated in Southeast Asia which borders Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. The origins of the Thai race can be traced back 4,500 years to the province of Szechuan in China. Thailand as a nation came in to being in the thirteenth century and since this period has never been colonized, retaining its independence right up to the present day. It was known as Siam up until 1949 when the name was changed to Thailand which literally translates as "Land of the Free". The country’s focal point for the majority of its citizens, is its monarchy. The present king, Bhumibol has reigned for 62 years and his royal palace is situated in the capital city, Bangkok. Uniquely, the Thai translation of Bangkok represents the longest name place name in the world:

  • krungthep mahanakorn
    The great city of angels,
  • amorn rattanakosin mahintara yutthaya mahadilok phop
    the supreme unconquerable land of the great immortal divinity (Indra),
  • noparat rajathani burirom
    the royal capital of nine noble gems, the pleasant city,
  • udomrajaniwes mahasatharn
    with plenty of grand royal palaces,
  • amorn phimarn avatarnsathit
    and divine paradises for the reincarnated deity (Vishnu),
  • sakkatattiya visanukam prasit
    given by Indra and created by the god of crafting (Visnukarma).

Look at Thailand on the map. It has never been conquered by an external army. What are the advantages and disadvantages of not having been colonized?

What role has the monarchy played in providing Thailand with political stability during its history?

Suggested Sources

Thai classical music

Thai classical music is one of the most significant symbolic aspects of Thai culture. The music has always reflected changes in society since the nation was established 700 years ago. Although, there are Indian and Khmer influences in the music, it has evolved over hundreds of years into an original and unique Thai art form. Today, Thai classical music is taught widely in schools and receives financial assistance from not only the government but also the royal family.

The key components of Thai classical music are the compositions, performances, singing styles, ensembles, scales and the wide range of musical instruments played.

Suggested source :

David Morton (1976) The Traditional Music of Thailand. Berkeley University of California Press

Questions for discussion:
  • How important a factor is time in respect of the development of classical music? For example should it require hundreds of years to evolve or could the process be much quicker?
  • Why is classical music deemed to be such an important part of many nations’ heritage? Why would young people wish to preserve their nation’s classical music when they have many other choices of music to enjoy such as Pop, Rock, Jazz and Blues?
  • Why should governments subsidise classical music?

The scales used in Thai classical music

The system of pitches used in the melodic percussion aspect of Thai classical music consists of seven notes divided by equal intervals within an octave. With respect to string instruments sharp and flat variations can be achieved by musicians. Thai classical music’s scale system has been preserved for many hundreds of years and is one of the most unique characteristics of this musical genre.

The instruments of Thai classical music

This can be divided into four categories

  1. Plucked instruments - Chakhe (a three-stringed floor zither) and Krachappi (long-necked plucked lute which has 4 strings)
  2. Bowed instruments – So Dung (two strings within a high pitched fiddle),
    So U (two strings within a low pitched fiddle) and So Sam Sai (three stringed fiddle)
  3. Percussion instruments
    1. Melodic – Ranat Ek (high pitched xylophone), Ranat Thum (low pitched xylophone), Khong Wong Yai (a big circle of gongs) and Khong Wong Lek (a small circle of gongs), Ranat Ek Lek (high pitched metal xylophone), Ranat Thum (low pitched metal xylophone).
    2. Rhythmic – Ching (small hand cymbals), Chap Yai (large-sized hand cymbals), Chap Lek (medium -sized hand cymbals), Krap (wooden clapper), Klong Khaek ( a pair of Indian influenced drums ), Klong That ( a pair of large barrel-shaped drums), Taphon (a barrel-shaped and two-faced drum), and Thon Rammana (a pair of drums in the shape of a vase).
  4. Woodwind instruments - Pi (oboe) and Khlui (flute)

Name the instruments in the table below and describe the sound. Musical examples of each are available online

In numerical order the names of the instruments are as follows; 1. So Sam Sai 2. So Dung 3.So U 4.Chakhe 5. Khlui 6. Pi 7. Ranat Ek 8. Ranat Thum 9. Khong Wong Yai 10. Khong Wong Lek 11. Taphon 12. Klong That 13. Thon- Rammana 14. Klong Khaek 15. Ching 16. Chap Yai 17. Chap Lek 18.Mong 19. Krap Mai 20.Krap Puang


Today, three types of ensemble perform Thai classical music, namely Khrueang Sai, Piphat, and Mahori ensemble.

Khrueang Sai Ensemble (Stringed Ensemble)

This kind of ensemble has existed for 400 years. It consists of the Saw Duang (high-pitched fiddle), the Saw U (low-pitched fiddle), the chakhey (three stringed floor zither), the Khlui (bamboo flute), the Thon – rammana (a pair of drums) and the Ching (small hand-cymbals). The ensemble plays mainly at wedding ceremonies and entertainment functions.

Piphat Ensemble (Thai classical percussion ensemble)

Piphat is an ensemble for percussion instruments and also the pi or oboe. As well as the oboe, it consists of the Ranat Ek (high-pitched xylophone), Ranat Thum (low-pitched xylophone), Khong wong yai (large gong circle), Khong wong lek (small gong circle), Taphon (two-faced drum), Klong That (barrel-shaped drums), and the Ching (small hand-cymbals). The Piphat ensemble is used in Buddhist ceremonies and in honoring music teachers in a very significant Thai ritual known as Wai Khru. It also accompanies the Khon (a masked dance- drama).

Mahori Ensemble

Khrueang sai (stringed ensemble) when combined with the Pi-phat (Thai classical percussion ensemble) creates the third and final important Thai classical music ensemble known as Mahori. The four categories of Thai musical instruments; plucked, bowed, percussion and woodwind are included in this ensemble. It is normally used for Thai weddings, house-warming ceremonies and auspicious social functions.

Activities for students –

Listen to examples and identify the type of ensemble – discuss the differences in timbre.
Recommended listening –

  • Siamese Classical Music, Volume 2 The Piphat ensemble by Fong Naam
  • Siamese Classical Music, Volume 3 The string ensemble by Fong Naam
  • Siamese Classical Music, Volume 5 The Mahori Orchestra by Fong Naam

CD of The Prasit Thawon’s ensemble by Nimbus Records: (for download)

Extra exercise for the Classroom Music website:

Loy Krathong Score

Learning a Thai song using western musical instruments (eg assuming that the class does not possess Thai instruments, the xylophone or recorder and the western one face drum can be used in this task)

The selected song is called Loy Krathong which is one of the most popular compositions in Thai music. It is usually played during the Loy Krathong annual festival which is held in middle of November. The melodies and the rhythms of Loy Krathong are performed in a joyful and lively style.

The notation and drum pattern in respect of this song are shown in the appendix.

Activities for students

The students are required to learn the melody on a xylophone or a recorder and then to recreate the drum sounds. There are two distinct drum sounds; pa and thoeng.

The ‘thoeng’ consist of a light blow on the rim of the drum with the percussionists outstretched fingers held straight and closely together. The player’s fingers are then withdrawn allowing the drum-head to vibrate freely resulting in a long tone.

The ‘pa’ sound is made up of a sharp blow to the drum skin with the player’s fingers spread open resulting in a shorter tone.


The teacher should then encourage the students to work in pairs with one playing the drum rhythm and the other performing the melodies. The students should aim to perfect their performance and then play the song in front of the class.

NB.- At the beginning of the song, the drum pattern is played four times, after which the melodies played on a xylophone or recorder join in. Please note that the song is repeated twice.
- Towards the end of the song, the tempo gradually slows until the piece is completed.