Khmer traditional music, by Jacques Brunet

Last update: December 5, 2023

About Jacques Brunet

From 1963 to 1982, Jacques Brunet, a French pianist turned musicologist, made a series of recordings of traditional music from Southeast Asia. Started in Cambodia, the sessions will quickly cover the neighboring countries, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia. We owe him many recordings, documentaries and articles of unparalleled quality.

A music intimately linked to dance, theater and epic

The original article in French was published in Le Monde diplomatique in October 1963. We take the liberty here of offering an English translation for those who do not read French. We have provided links to the article.

Whatever the influences that have modified it, Khmer music has nonetheless followed its own path. Open to all currents and influences, it nevertheless has a particular character due to the originality and musical spirit of the Cambodian musicians who have shaped a music of prodigious interest over the centuries.

Any traveler visiting Cambodia cannot help but stop for a moment at the call of the conch shells of the mahouts or fishermen in the evening, or be moved by the simple melody of a fiddle and the delicate ornamentation of the xylophone player. Anyone walking through Cambodia cannot fail to notice how music is an integral part of the life of the Khmer people. Indeed, whether it is a wedding, a village feast, a funeral service or the taking of the habit of a monk, all ceremonies are usually accompanied by musicians. Some orchestras have developed more in certain provinces. Thus in the province of Battambang each pagoda has an orchestra called "Piphat music", an orchestra of melodic percussion instruments consisting of roneat (xylophones in the shape of a tray with sixteen bamboo blades), kong thom, sets of horizontal and circular gongs composed of sixteen small bronze timpani, skor thom (large buffalo skin drums struck by a large piece of very hard wood), a sampho (small horizontal drum with two resonant skins whose performer is the leader of the orchestra), chhing (small copper cymbals) and a sralay (oboe), the only melodic instrument of the orchestra. The instrumental technique is similar to that of Siamese musicians and is quite different from that of other regions of the country. On the other hand, in the provinces of Siemreap or Kompong-Thom, folk music reaches a degree of perfection, both from the technical point of view and from the point of view of inspiration, which is not common in the rest of the country. Folk music orchestras generally consist of four instruments: the tro-ou, a two-stringed fiddle tuned in fifths, with a coconut as a sounding board; the tro-chhey, another two-stringed fiddle with a cylindrical sounding board carved from a buffalo bone or a piece of wood; the tro-khmer, a three-stringed fiddle, with a difficult technique; finally the cha-pei, a double-stringed lute with a finely decorated wooden extension at the end; to these instruments can be added the pei-or, a bamboo oboe with a cylindrical bore and a full, low tone. Sometimes a sadeou player (monochord on calabash) participates in the execution of the music but the frail sound of this instrument is better suited to accompany a singer. Sometimes, two skor (small drums) players give rhythm to the piece while singing alternately.

The poetic art of the Khmer peasant is particularly evident in his songs. Sometimes the musician sings alone, more often he improvises with another singer, a real contest of sensitivity, finesse, vocal skill and also humor. They then open up all their feelings. They sing especially about love, but also about sadness and nature. Animals are very important. It is rare that they are not alluded to in Cambodian songs: birds, insects, flowers even, are addressed with words that one knows must be heard by the friend who is not far away and to whom they are addressed. The singer will also tell his emotion in front of a sunset or in front of an animal that has just given birth. Children are not forgotten, either by singing lullabies (very numerous), or by inciting them to play or to become men. Sometimes the singer, in the form of advice to his wife, will show his concerns with a restrained humor:


Woman, pile the rice


without letting the pestle rest, pile, pile,

eat the old rice; keep the new rice

with which you will make cakes for your husband;

try to feed your husband, he will make children for you.


or again:


Women, oh dear women,

You are ugly in this life,

You will be beautiful in a later life;

Do not be cruel to the desires of men

To be perfect in your future existences.


These songs, always improvised, are the interpretation of the emotion of the musician and the atmosphere that reigns around him.

Sometimes other singers are accompanied by a player of pei-pok, oblique flute in bamboo with a low sound but with a reduced ambitus, or a khloy, small acute flute of bamboo with six holes.


Songs of the blind and bamboo harps

Another admirable music: the songs of blind people. They usually perform on feast days, sitting in the shade of a tree or a pagoda, accompanying themselves with an instrument, mainly the cha-pei. They sing an episode from the life of the Buddha or some epic legend well known to all Cambodians. Many new facts, generally marvelous, appear in the legend, coming out of the imagination of the singer who will magnify by poetic descriptions the places where his story takes place; here also the animals and the nature have a great importance. The blind man sings in long phrases to which he adds nonsense syllables in order to prolong the melody, alternating with the solo of his cha-pei during which he seeks his inspiration. The poetic genius of these men is remarkable in every way.

In the countryside, some archaic instruments are still sometimes used such as the bamboo or metal jew's harp (ang kouon) or the leaf (souch) that the musician makes vibrate in his mouth. These instruments probably come from ancient minorities currently Khmerized, such as the Kouy or the Samré. I met near the center of Mongkol-Borey a peasant playing a metal Jew's harp with a frail and soft sound under the window of his beautiful girl in order to attract her attention without attracting the attention of her parents.


Funeral music

Funeral music is often performed with two large gongs tuned in sixths, a sralay, a kong thom and a skor thom. Another musical formation is the "Mohori music" orchestra. This orchestra is composed of melodic percussion instruments, wind instruments and various stringed instruments including the takkhe (Siamese for crocodile), a three-stringed wooden zither on an elongated sounding board and mounted on three legs. This orchestra is nowadays only used in the royal palace.


Folk dance

Folk dance has almost entirely disappeared in Cambodia. It is still performed at certain festivals. In the Cha-Yam, the only instruments used are small gongs and drums with elongated bodies suspended from the necks of masked dancers who perform a pantomime. With orchestras with a high proportion of percussion instruments, animal dances (buffalo dances, for example) are also performed on various occasions. But they have almost completely disappeared and can still be seen in a few villages. Let us point out the animal dances of Pailin danced once or twice a year by the Burmese minority of the village. They are all the more interesting as they are no longer danced in Burma.



Khmer music is accompanied by rites in all its manifestations. Whether it is the making of instruments, the performance of a piece or the training of new students, each act related to music is preceded by offerings or invocations. This is the case of the royal dances, where, before each performance, offerings are placed in front of your musicians so that the show goes on without accident for them and for the dancers. I quote here the inquiry made of an old music master in Pursat province about the rites accompanying the students' learning:


"To teach the opening tune Sathukan to a student, the music master has an offering prepared that is necessary for the invocation ceremony. The offerings include: two five-tiered "baysei" made of paper or rolled banana leaves. Three betel leaves, candles and incense sticks are placed on each tier and placed on a stool. One also brings two trays of desserts, four plates of cooked rice which one arranges at the feet of the stool. Then the musical instruments are arranged logically. The master then orders each of his students to bring a silver coin and a piece of cloth and to make an invocation to the "Prah Piksar", with folded hands, so that the student may have a good memory, a sharp intelligence and learn quickly the master's teaching. The students prostrate themselves three times. After that the music master calls the roneat-ek wielder. With three strands of thread he forms a knot on his wrist, saying, "I tie your left wrist to make you remember, I tie your left wrist to make you learn easily." The teacher does the same with all the students. Then he calls an old man who ties knots on his own wrists. The old man, while making bracelets of cotton threads, says to the teacher, "We wish to make you, a music master, the one who can teach them music in the shortest possible time." After this ceremony the teacher calls his students to the instrument. He immediately teaches them the first four or five notes."



The notes of Khmer musical instruments do not have an absolute pitch. The maker tunes his instruments according to the judgement.

For the roneat, for example, the blades are given the following names: No, Mô, Châ, Yo, Lu, Thom, A, A. E, Ei, O, Ou, Ru, Lu. For the musician, the sound of Mon is a little higher than the sound of No, the sound of Cha is a little higher than the sound of Mon, etc.

According to tradition, Khmer music is not notated. In fact, Khmer music is always improvised; on a theme known to them, the musicians individually add various ornaments, off-beats, passing notes and variations to the melodic design. Music without notation, transmitted orally from the musician-teacher to the musician-student without any knowledge of solfeggio or harmony, is left to the freedom of inspiration and imagination of the instrumentalists. Generally the musicians start and finish in unison. During the course of the piece they alternate, respond to each other, oppose each other while keeping the primitive rhythm.

The scale used is usually pentatonic, sometimes heptatonic with pentatonic framework. The music of the blind is generally tetratonic and the chants of the monks, tritonic. There are no precise rules, the musicians having a great deal of freedom in the execution of the pieces. One can speak neither of mode nor of tonality. It seems however that one can distinguish two systems: one expressing gaiety and the other sadness.


Problems of Khmer music

First of all, the origins. These are difficult to define. Cambodia has been in contact, by its geographical position and its history, with several great civilizations. It is not yet possible to decide on the origin of Khmer music in the present state of research. A comparative study of instruments cannot be of much help, some of them being widespread throughout the Far East and even as far as Iran, nor can an organological study. The study of scales does not offer much possibility for this problem, the pentatonism being a universal scale. Of the music of the Angkor period, we know only a few things: the bas-reliefs give us information on the instruments used. No doubt there was once a cultural music in which the dance of the body and the dance of the soul were closely associated; warlike music too, which probably developed during the great Angkorian battles so that it could then be sung and reproduced in the splendor of the court, as an incentive to pride and moral firmness. As for the rest, it is necessary to imagine it by the study of the current popular music by the comparative analysis of the musical terms employed and undoubtedly by an analysis of the musics of certain ethnic minorities, probable residues of the music of formerly.

At present, popular music tends to disappear or, more precisely, to evolve under the influence of transistor radios spread in the most remote villages. In some villages we still see musical events that are quite well preserved. For the reasons already indicated above, the only possible and usable notation is the sound recording. The systematic recording of all the music and musicians is currently being undertaken, but it is a long-term task: the repertoire is immense and the country sufficiently vast. However, the undertaking is urgent: the old musicians no longer train students, Western music is increasingly permeating the countryside, and the young performers no longer respect the traditions. There are many legends that are unknown to young people and that the old people no longer bother to tell, such as this one about the origin of musical instruments told by an old peasant from Kompong-Speu:

"One day, the dignitaries of a village wishing to hear beautiful sounds called seven peasants who came empty-handed. When they had to play, the dignitaries said to them: "Well, musicians, with what do you play if you have no instruments? Come on, play, we are listening to you!" Two musicians who had the role of beating the drums sat down facing each other. Then with their hands they slapped their kneecaps and made sounds similar to the sounds of the drums. They shook their sides, shrugged their shoulders, and bowed their heads, which was pleasant to see. Other players took a small whip and rubbed it against a piece of wood, shrugging their shoulders and counting on their fingers. Then, pulling the leaves from the branch and putting them to their mouths, they blew with admirable high and low sounds. Other players took a bamboo stick and placed it on their bellies, and with the other hand they scraped the stick without a string. Men and women, young and old, looked sad to see musicians without instruments. Soon these musicians became famous, but their music was boring, because when you eat the same food over and over again, you lose your appetite. So the dignitaries had them make instruments with exactly the same sounds because they were very harmonious. This is how musical instruments were born in Cambodia. And since then this music is used in all weddings."

At present the service of "customs and habits" has a department devoted to all that concerns traditional music. In each province, correspondents investigate with musicians and little by little, archives are accumulating while waiting to be processed. On the other hand, the radio studios record musicians that they bring in for this purpose. Unfortunately the disorientation of the performers is always detrimental to the execution of the music, as we have noticed ourselves. The National School of Music should have the means to transform itself in the years to come into a true national conservatory in which all recordings made in the country by investigators trained for this work would be preserved and classified; an effort should be made in this direction before it is too late and for the greater glory of musicians and Khmer music.

There is not enough space to mention all the different types of music and instrumental forms. However, we must mention the fascinating work of conservation of the Royal Ballet (and consequently of ballet music) undertaken by Her Majesty the Queen (Sisowath Kossamak). Thanks to her, another form of music is maintained in the royal palace, in spite of an inevitable evolution, in the respect of the tradition.