About old instruments

Last update: December 3, 2023

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

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

The earliest depictions of musical instruments and the oldest "stone inscriptions" (Khmer: aksar thma អក្សរថ្ម) date back to the 7th century. In the 9th c. EC, epigraphy provides us with a few names of musical instruments, iconography being non-existent. In the 10th century, the temples of Banteay Srei and Phnom Bakheng show a few drums and cymbals that are more symbolic than functional. From the 11th to the 13th century, we witness an iconographic explosion of instruments, still of Indian origin, but with a clearly asserted Khmer style. At Angkor Wat, Bayon and Banteay Chhmar, an anthology of martial, palatial and cultic instruments unfolds. In the 16th century, Angkor Wat offered two frescoes in its central tower (bakan) and two immense bas-reliefs in its north gallery, featuring new instruments of exogenous origin.

Iconographic contexts of Angkorian temples

In diverse settings, sound instruments designed for musical or signaling purposes manifest in various contexts:

  • martial: battle scenes, ceremonial processions;
  • worship: Brahmanical and Buddhist rituals. Some initially Buddhist temples, such as Bayon or Preah Khan, contain elements of later Brahmanic remodeling;
  • Indian epics: Reamker (Khmer version of the Indian Rāmāyana), Mahābhārata ;
  • palatine and popular entertainment: dance, acrobatics, juggling, wrestling, sung jousting;
  • ensconced characters and domestic animals: children, jesters, dancers, elephants, horses, oxen.

Instruments past and present

What has become of all these sound instruments? The use of instrumental archetypes from the wider Angkorian period has survived the decline of the Khmer Empire and the onslaught of time. They survive in Cambodia itself, in the wider region of Southeast Asia and on the Indian subcontinent. Some instruments remain unchanged, others have undergone modifications. The main change lies in their vocation and in the structure of the orchestral ensembles.

Ancient classification

We know nothing about a possible classificatory approach to Angkorian musical instrumentarium. However, we can see that the lists of musicians assigned to temples in the pre-Angkorian period present groupings linked to the terminology of mode of play, which could be translated as follows: striking drums (and other instruments?), clashing cymbals, plucking stringed instruments. Blown instruments (trumpets) are not given any playing mode terminology, but are listed separately. This classification is modelled on that of India. In a chapter of the Nātya-shāstra, a work revealed to Bhāratha by the god Brahmā and which probably constitutes a Sanskrit compilation of very ancient texts (pre-dating the 2nd c. CE), musical instruments are classified into four categories according to morphological parameters underlying their mode of sound production:

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


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