About early music

Last update: December 3, 2023

This section is devoted to Khmer music and musical instruments from the 7th to the 16th centuries.

Documentary sources

Because of its monsoon climate, the sources of old information are limited. The study of ancient musical and sound instruments is based on various documentary sources:

  • The pre-Angkorian, Angkorian, Indian and Javanese iconography
  • The stone inscriptions in Old Khmer and Sanskrit
  • The classical texts in Sanskrit of classical India
  • Some Chinese texts
  • Sound instruments from official and wild excavations
  • The ethnological material and intangible sources.

Among the many open temples, few offer an iconography with musical or sound instruments. Most have dancers, but musicians are lacking. Here is the short list of referring sites in alphabetical order: Angkor Wat, Banteay Chhmar, Banteay Samre, Banteay Srei, Bayon, Baphuon, Elephant Terrace, Phnom Bakheng, Phnom Chisor, Preah Pithu, Preah Vihar, Sambor Prei Kuk, Terrace of Yama (said ‘Terrace of the Leper King’), Wat Baset, Western Mebon. This iconography is visible on site or in museums (National Museum of Cambodia, Guimet Museum for the most part).

Spatiotemporal marks for iconography

The chronological list below indicates the date of probable realization of the iconography of the various referring sites:

Sambor Prei Kuk: 7th century

Lolei, Preah Ko, Bakong: 9th century

Preah Vihar: early 10th century

Prasat Kravan: 921 A.D.

Banteay Srei, Phnom Bakheng: 10th century

Phnom Chisor: 11th century

Baphuon, Wat Baset (Battambang): 11th century

Angkor Wat, west & south galleries: early 12th century

Banteay Samre: 12th century

Elephant Terrace, Terrace of Yama also called “Terrace of the Leper King”: 13th century

Banteay Chhmar, Banteay Kdei, Bayon, Preah Khan of Angkor, Preah Pithu, Prasat Chrung southwest, West Gate of Angkor Thom: late 12th - early 13th centuries

Angkor Wat, north gallery: mid. 16th century

Angkor Wat, frescoes of the central tower: probably 16th century.

Colorization of the iconography

The iconography is essentially composed of bas-reliefs and high reliefs. However, many of them are eroded. So, in order to allow a quick reading, we sometimes colorize certain elements: instruments, characters, clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, architecture. Some bas-reliefs were originally painted or lacquered. It remains visible traces particularly in the covered galleries of Angkor Wat. Our approach has no ambition to restore the original colors but only to offer an immediate readability.

The music of the ancient Khmer

What was the basis of the musical system(s) of the ancient Khmer? That's a delicate question because they left us no written record or fixed-note instrument that would have allowed us to determine it. In the light of contemporary ethnology, it can be said, given the geographical populations' partitioning, that before the Indianization of Cambodia there existed musical devices specific to each tribal entity and, within each one, music dedicated to each social function. Perhaps there are traces of it today, especially in the rituals of possession, but it would be pure speculation to assert it. We can argue that the basis of the musical system came from India as opposed to currents of thought and liturgical and sound tools. Indigenous, Sino-Thai, Malayo-Indonesian, from palatine and popular influences that make Khmer music an aesthetic entity different from that of India at the same time should of course not be excluded. There is, in answer to this question, an interesting observation which substantially differentiates the Khmer Empire from India. Since the first texts of the 7th century until now, Cambodia has fixed notes musical instruments. First of all, the harp and then, beginning in the 16th century, the gong chime, xylophones and, later (?), metallophones with blades. This structural conservatism has made it possible to inscribe Cambodia in continuity.

The musicologist Alain Daniélou wrote: "It is difficult to determine with certainty in what proportions the classical Cambodian system, based on instruments with fixed sounds, resembles one of the ancient Indian systems or represents an independent tradition. Some melodic percussion have always existed in India, and it seems highly probable that the Gandhara-grama system (a seven-tone scale called the "celestial range"), already considered lost by the Sanskrit authors of the classical era, Refers to a melodic scale that is only found today in Indochina and Siam."

The number 7 plays an important number in Vedic cosmology since it appears in conjunction with the name of the entire country, Sapta Sindhu, with the additional ideas of seven rivers, seven continents, seven islands, seven mountains, seven r.sis (the Pleiades), seven musical notes, and seven worlds.

The original Khmer musical scale is equiheptaphonic, that is, all intervals between the seven degrees of the scale are equal. The advantage of this system is its adaptability to accompany voices of different heights. On a harp, in this case, when the musician wishes to change pitch, it is enough to change his tonic and play his melody on the same intervals without worrying about the alterations. The mechanical movement of the fingers remains unchanged. The corollary of such a system lies in the creative poverty, the very one which perhaps prompted the Indian musicians to abandon their instruments with fixed notes. Thus, it can be said that the Khmer Empire (straddling Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) became the Conservatory of the ancient traditions of India since the harp was played there at least until the 13th century and the equiheptaphonic musical system have remained there until our days. It should be noted, however, that the French Protectorat in Cambodia gradually "diatonized" the system, preparing the ear of a whole people for the Western musical wave!

Music through the text of Tcheou-Ta-Kouan

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Zhou Daguan 周達觀), nickname Ts'ao-t'ing yi-min, was a native of Yong-kia in Tchö-kiang. In 1296-1297, he accompanied a Chinese embassy which spent nearly a year in Cambodia. Back in China, he wrote a book that had disappeared but was partially copied in Chinese annals of 1380. The author brings a few elements on the presence of music. We quote here those translated by Paul Pelliot.*

Zhou Daguan et Paul Pelliot, Mémoires sur les coutumes du Cambodge de Tcheou Ta-Kouan, vol. 3, Adrien Maisonneuve, coll. « Œuvres posthumes », 1er mars 2003, 71-03 éd. (1re éd. 1951), 178 p.


Funeral music

For the dead there are no coffins. Only mats are used, and are covered with a stuff. In the funeral procession, these people also use flags, banners and music.


The exit of the sovereign

I spent more than a year in the country, and I saw him come out (the prince) four or five times. When the prince goes out, troops are at the head of the escort; then come the standards, the pennants, the music. (...) Every day the sovereign holds twice an audience for government business. There is no set list. Those of the officials or the people who wish to see the sovereign sit on the ground waiting for him. After some time, distant music can be heard in the palace and outside the palace people blow into conches as a welcome to the sovereign. (...) Ministers and common people join hands and strike the ground with their foreheads; when the noise of the conches has ceased, they can raise their heads. The sovereign immediately afterwards goes to sit down.


Comment: Even today, one can still hear the conches the author speaks of, at the Royal Palace of Cambodia in Phnom Penh during important ceremonies or, better still, at the Thai court in Bangkok, which has preserved the small conches (Turbinella pyrum) used in the Angkor period. Cambodia adopted, at an unknown time, conches made of the gastropod species Charonia tritonis; the Palace has eight of them, played by as many Brahmins (Baku).


No Buddhist instrumental music

The tch'u-ku [zhugu 苧姑] (monk) shave their heads, wear yellow clothes, reveal their right shoulders. For the lower part of the body they tie a skirt of yellow material, and walk barefoot. (...) Their temples can be covered in tiles. The interior contains only one image, very similar to the Buddha Sakyamuni, and which they call Po-lai. She is dressed in red. Modeled in clay, it is painted in various colors; There is no other image than that. The Buddha towers are all different. They are all melted in bronze. There are no bells, drums, cymbals, banners, or canopies. (...)


Deflowering of young girls

When a daughter is born in a family, the father and the mother don't fail to issue for her this vow: “May you in the future become the wife of a hundred and a thousand husbands!”

Between seven and nine years for the daughters of rich houses, and only eleven years for the very poor, a Buddhist priest, Taoist is charged to deflower them. This is called tchen-t'an. (...)

That night we organize a big banquet, with music. (...) In the evening, with palanquins, parasols and music, we go to fetch the priest and bring him back.

With silks of various colors, two pavilions were built; In one of them the young girl is seated; In the other seated the priest. One can not grasp what their mouths say; The sound of the music is deafening and that night it is not forbidden to disturb the night.

I heard that when the time comes, the priest enters the girl's apartment; He defiles it with his hand and collects his first fruits in wine. It is also said that the father and mother, parents and neighbors all mark their heads, or that they taste them. Some also claim that the priest is really united to the young girl; Others deny it. As the Chinese are not allowed to witness these things, the exact truth can not be known.

When the day dawns, the priest is escorted back with palanquins, parasols and music.

The night of tchen-t'an [chentan 陳毯] there are sometimes in one street more than ten families who perform the ceremony; In the city, those who meet the monks or the Taoists cross the streets, there is no place where one can not hear the sounds of music.


Festive calendar

The eighth month, there is ngai-lan [ailan 挨藍], we dance. We call actors and musicians who come every day to the royal palace to do the ngai-lan. There are also fighting pigs and elephants. The sovereign also invites foreign ambassadors to attend. It is so for ten days. I am not able to recall exactly what the other months are.