About old instruments

Last update: August 27, 2021

Little is known about the indigenous sound instruments of Cambodia prior to the pre-Angkorian period, as the monsoon climate has erased all organic traces. What remains are mainly stone, bronze and ceramics.

Two lithophones, at the National Museum of Cambodia, from the province of Kompong Chhnang, as well as numerous bronze cattle bells, rattle-drums, attest to ancient sound practices.

The first representations of musical instruments and the oldest inscriptions date back to the 7th century. In the 9th century, epigraphy gives us some names of musical instruments, but no iconography is known. In the 10th century, the temples of Banteay Srei and Phnom Bakheng show some drums and cymbals that are more symbolic than functional. From the 11th to the 13th century there was an iconographic explosion of instruments, still of Indian origin, but with a well-established Khmer style. In Angkor Wat, Bayon and Banteay Chhmar, an anthology of instruments for martial, palatine and religious use was displayed. In the 16th century, Angkor Wat offers us two frescoes in its central tower (Bakan) and two immense bas-reliefs in its northern gallery on which new instruments of exogenous origin appear.

What have become of these instruments? Come of them survive in Cambodia itself, in the greater South-East Asia region and on the Indian subcontinent. Some remain unchanged, others have changed. But the main change is their vocation and the structure of orchestral ensembles.


Sound instruments used for music or to communicate appear in different contexts:

  • Martial: scenes with warriors fighting, ceremonial processions
  • Worship: Brahmanic or Buddhist rituals. Some initially Buddhist temples such as Bayon or Preah Khan conceal elements belonging to later modifications of Brahmanic nature
  • Indian epics: Reamker (Khmer version of the Indian Rāmāyana by Valmiki), Mahābhārata
  • Palatal and popular entertainment: dance, acrobatics, juggling, fight, games
  • People and domestic animals with bells: children, jesters, dancers, elephants, horses, oxen.

Ancient classification

We know nothing about a possible classificatory approach to the Angkorian instruments. However, it can be seen that the lists of musicians assigned to the temples during the pre-Angkorian period present groupings linked to the terminology of the playing mode which could be translated thus: striking drums (and other instruments ?), clasping cymbals, plucking string instruments. The blown instruments don't have any terminology related of playing technique but are mentioned separately. This classification derives from that of India. In a chapter of the Nātya-shāstra, a work revealed in Bhāratha by the god Brahmā and probably a Sanskrit compilation of very ancient texts (prior to the 2nd century EC), musical instruments are classified into four categories according to morphological parameters that underlie their mode of sound production:

This study is supplemented by the voice, a sound instrument of primary importance among the ancient Khmer.