About sound communication

Last update: May 18, 2021

"According to the conceptions of Hindu cosmology, the world has no substance. It is a divine dream, an illusion to which the creative power gives an appearance of reality. The world is only pure energy, tensions, vibrations, whose simplest expression appears in the sound phenomenon." Alain Daniélou (our translation)


The sound is the result of a mechanical event, fortuitous or intentional, ephemeral, putting in vibration the elementary particles of the air. Once this event is over, what is left to the world, to the researcher, to investigate the impalpable? The intention has dissolved, the biological is dead, perhaps a mineral tool remains somewhere. Unless the initial voluntary intention has been recorded and has crossed time. But what could we understand about it?

Faced with such an observation, we must consider several levels to approach the nature of the sound universe of the ancient Khmers. The first of these is the natural environment over which man has little control. He cannot prevent the torrents from pouring their waters, nor the ebb and flow of the sea, nor the wind from blowing in the trees, nor the thunder from rumbling. However, by modifying his environment through deforestation, the introduction of new plant species, the digging of canals and water reservoirs, the domestication of animals, he consequently modifies his sound universe. Angkorian iconography offers us a formidable panorama of the wild and domesticated animal species present at that time. The second sound plane is the result of human activity, construction, rural and domestic work, children's cries, conversations, laughter, crying, arguments, work songs... A varied, changing universe, linked to the language, to the technologies of the place and the time. Today, in the Cambodian countryside, we can find a part of these atmospheres if we are lucky enough to hear neither motor, nor television, nor radio... An environment in retreat! The third plan is linked to the use of sound instruments and communication strategies: choice of materials, shaping, assembling and vibrating, choice to create for example a bell in bamboo rather than in bronze, with three clappers rather than one, to attach it to the neck of an agitated ox rather than to that of a docile cow. These choices change the immediate sound universe.

In many cases, it would be more appropriate to speak of "sound tools" rather than musical instruments. Why is this? Because the notion of musical instrument implies a musical use. But what is music? There are a number of definitions, each as imperfect as the other, entangled in their cultural ethnocentrisms. For thousands of years, human societies have developed sound forms reproducing spoken language or substituting it, have sought to imitate the sounds of nature, to simulate and appropriate voices, those of spiritual entities born of the collective imagination: can we really gather under the term "music" all these sound forms? The term "music" is itself an innovation subsequent to the creation of sound organizations. Moreover, many contemporary societies do not have an equivalent generic term. The sound forms are either not designated by name, or bear the name of the ritual that they accompany. If, in certain societies, one seeks an equivalent to the term "music", it is sometimes proposed the name of an instrument, a part of it or the most socially important instrumental ensemble (drum, string, gong ensemble...). Communication drums, signal whistles or animal bells are sometimes classified under the term "musical instrument". Therefore, the generic terminology "sound instrument" is more appropriate. When an instrument - the terms "object" or "tool" are also appropriate - is assimilated to a sound generator, it does not become a musical instrument. Only an observed, generalized use, in a given society, allows to classify it as such. Thus, for example, the bell of the playground, signalling tool par excellence, becomes a musical instrument in the hands of carillonneurs. In short, the use takes precedence over the initial function of the object to qualify it as a sound or musical instrument.

The global communication system

Communication plays an essential role in the process of socialization of individuals and allows the community to install harmony or to restore it if it has been broken. But beyond this communication at the service of the community, humans must also communicate with other worlds: animal, vegetable, mineral and spiritual (deities, genies, spirits, spirits...). Here again, it is necessary to establish or restore harmony with these different worlds.

Each type of communication is part of a global system (multisensory and extrasensory communication) whose procedures are established by tradition and are constantly evolving. The ancient Khmers were able to create and adapt, over time, their instruments and their sound universe at the crossroads of several worlds: their own, in all its Khmerness, that of the adopted culture, mainly Indian, and that of all the social satellites made up of various indigenous or migrant ethnic minorities.

Sound communication is undoubtedly the most important for humanity; it is part of a more global system that calls upon other senses than hearing: visual communication (writing, ideograms, symbols, sculpture, painting, gestures, dance, masks, smoke signals...), tactile communication (hugs, caresses, strikes...), olfactory communication (perfumes, incense...), gustatory communication (food and drink). Without forgetting the extrasensory systems of communication dedicated to the exchanges with the spiritual entities; they are articulated sometimes only around thoughts in which the word, even if it is not emitted in an audible way, holds an essential part.

Three spaces of sound communication

We have created the concept of "three-spaces of sound communication" in order to free ourselves from the definition of the term "music" which becomes blurred when the voice or the sound tools are not intended to sing or play music per se, but rather to communicate. In a very pragmatic way, these three spaces are defined as follows:

  1. The space of close communication (Communicate here)
  2. The space of distant communication (Communicate there)
  3. The space of communication with the beyond (Communicate beyond).

All peoples of the world have developed tools and strategies to communicate in these three spaces. Cambodia, in all eras, has not been left behind. To mention only the Angkorian period, the bas-reliefs are full of examples involving voice, gestures and sound instruments. This site echoes them...

The space of close communication

It is a space with variable geometry. Geographically, its limits are generally the family property as well as the places where the community lives, works, celebrates and holds ceremonies. On a physical level, the distance between the center of the sound emission and the reception is of the order of a few tens of centimeters to a few tens of meters. This distance depends on the context, the type of sound emission, the content of the communication and the environment. In this space is established a vocal and/or instrumental communication aiming at the unilateral disclosure or the exchange of information between the individuals, as well as the sharing of moments of conviviality. We include some forms of communication with the animal world. Beyond its physical borders, this space is generally circumscribed by linguistic and/or cultural barriers.

The space of distant communication

This space does not have theoretically defined limits, if it is not those of the physical range of the sound instruments or of the organization of the routing of the communication such as relays. Man seeks, in this space, to free himself from distances to communicate with his fellow men, wild and domestic animals.

The space of communication with the beyond

In this space, it is about the communication established with the spiritual entities. We include under this term, the unique god of the religions of the book as well as all that one names divinity, spirit, genius or spirits. The contours of this space are physically undefined since certain entities live, according to the beliefs, in unknown places of the universe. In the same way as within the framework of the communication of proximity, it is a bilateral communication.

We have passed over in silence the communication with the vegetable and mineral worlds; let us simply note that in many traditional societies, the man communicates with the spirit of plants and minerals, in particular when he has to dispossess nature of a part of its fruits.

The temporal space

Having thus defined these three physical spaces, let us now expose the temporal limits related to our subject. Historians consider the Angkorian world according to three periods: pre-Angkorian, from the beginning of the Christian era to the middle of the 8th century; Angkorian, from the 9th century to the abandonment of Angkor in 1431 or 1432; and finally, post-Angkorian, from that date to the present day. The historical field swept by this essay covers the periods from the 7th century, the first iconography and epigraphy, to the frescoes and bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat in the 16th century.

The sound tools

Organologically, instrumental archetypes are few in number throughout the world, compared to their variants. Many of them were invented in prehistoric times (according to the western definition) and have come down to us intact. Some instruments have evolved, others remain as they were on the first day. Why such perennity? The sound instrument is a tool in the same way as the flint blade, invented by prehistoric man to cut up game or later to harvest cereals. The principle of the cutting edge is still there, present in all the peoples of the earth. These tools have endured because they are necessary for survival. If the cutting edge is essential to hunting and harvesting, the sound instrument is also essential because one cannot imagine any hunting or grain harvesting being carried out without a communication strategy.

Beyond the word, man has developed tools that allow him to communicate with his fellow men, animals and the invisible world to better establish his domination: seduction, healing, distant or magical communication. The sound instruments represent the emblems of this power at least since the Upper Paleolithic. Power is fought over, snatched away, and so are sound instruments. Gift, barter, theft, purchase, facsimile, they pass from hand to hand. Their use is acquired by impregnation, teaching or initiation.

The case of the ancient Khmers

The instruments depicted in the iconography of the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian periods, as well as those mentioned in the inscriptions, come mainly from India. The former may have been imported from the subcontinent by trading ships, others made locally by men who came with their know-how, and still others fashioned by Khmers. All these tools, like the fundamental texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, were designed to serve these imported currents of thought. Their evolution into various forms, ornamentation, playing techniques, instrumental combinations, is the result of a specifically Khmer cultural adaptation. Over time, the currents of thought have changed, as have the sound instruments and their role.

Name of musical instruments

Musical instruments are a bit like tea, coffee and chocolate, they often travel from one country to another with their name. In this case, the original term bends to local phonetic constraints, resulting in a wide variety of derived terms.

Traditional musicians are travelers, carrying their words and culture beyond their village, their region, their country or even their continent. The object "musical instrument" fascinates the traveler by the strangeness of its form, its decoration, its sound. The musician, especially if he is a professional, is always in search of novelty to seduce his audience. He appropriates and adapts repertoires and tools. Sound instruments from India came to Cambodia with their original names. We have traces of them in Sanskrit and Old Khmer lapidary inscriptions. The Sanskrit terms may refer to instruments known or unknown to the Khmers, or even to instruments different from those they originally designated in India. If the Indian texts are transcribed in their original version, it is understandable that the nature of objects born on the other side of the seas may escape even the most educated Khmer, let alone the common Khmer. On the other hand, the texts in old Khmer provide us with a precious source of denominations, some clear, others obscure. Let us note here that the poetic texts and the eulogies are written in Sanskrit while the lists of endowments in personnel and material of the temples are in Old Khmer.

One also finds, throughout the world, the same term to designate different sound instruments: errors of understanding, interpretation, fashion phenomena, disappearance of an instrument and substitution by another fulfilling the same functions with conservation of the old name. In the same way, an instrument is sometimes designated by several terms according to its size, its use, its place of life. As we can see, the terminology related to musical instruments, whatever one may say, is a matter for specialists. One only has to look at the translations of Sanskrit and Old Khmer to see some incredible absurdities: how many guitars and lutes are used to designate zithers and harps, how many flutes are substituted for oboes and horns! As for the iconographic investigation, how many drums have been qualified as gongs, oboes and trumpets as flutes, even the tips of palanquin confused with trumpets! In short... The inextricable world of instrumental terminology is made up of all this.

Problematic of the denominations of the Angkorian instruments

Certain names of instruments found in inscriptions, in Sanskrit and in Old Khmer, remain obscure. On the one hand, iconography provides us with a palette of instrumental representations, on the other hand, inscriptions offer us lists of names, all this without being able to establish a correspondence between the one and the other. Moreover, Sanskrit dictionaries are full of names of instruments collected in Indian classical literature, but the interpretations are sometimes so fanciful that the whole remains unreliable. This relational process is further complicated by the terminology related to the mode of playing. In the West, the word "play" applies to musical instruments of all kinds. It is sometimes specified: hitting a drum, plucking a string. However, hitting or plucking are not universal notions. What do we hit or pluck, with what and in what way? These nuances are at the origin of specific vocabularies known by specialists, but unaware Here are some of the problems we have to face.