Burmese Music

A partnership in melodic sounds

What is Burmese music like? To ears accustomed only to Western music, ours may at first be a little disconcerting. It may seem more like a medley of spontaneous, unrelated sounds than a careful composition. And its rhythmic patterns may be hard to follow at first hearing. But I think that if you will listen to some of it a few times—and the Burmese Folk and Traditional Music record in the Ethnic Folkways Library offers a good sampling—you will discover that ours is actually a fully developed musical art. Historically, the traditions of Burmese music go back at least fifteen hundred years. For we know from a fascinating description in a Chinese chronicle of the year 802 A.D. that our musical instruments, and compositions for them, were already highly perfected at that time.

To begin with the fundamentals, let us first analyze our Burmese scale. It sounds as though it might have quarter tones and microtones, but actually it does not. It is the same as your European diatonic scale, but with this difference, that the fourth and seventh notes are both "neutral," so that the succession of notes is different. The makers of our early instruments did not provide for the accidentals in an octave. Yet our music does modulate from the tonic to the dominant—say, from C major to G major—and frequently from the tonic to the subdominant — C major to F major, and back again. But we have no F sharp, or B flat. What we do is to put our F halfway between F natural and F sharp, and our B halfway between B flat and B natural.

Since we do not have the chromatic scale, our music may sound a bit flat to Westerners. Another basic point of difference is its essentially two-dimensional nature. The development of harmony has given Western music enormous depth. Because our instruments were not suitable for harmony, our music has instead developed a complexity of pure melodic patterns. You derive your musical satisfaction from marching in depth with chords. We have to get ours by going in the single file of notes, twisting and turning in graceful patterns. Even our drums play tunes. Thus our putt waing, a circle of tuned drums, is not merely for percussion, but plays a melody itself.

The rhythmic systems of Burmese music may have been determined by the nature of our language, which is not accentual but tonal. Rhythm in English depends largely on differences of emphasis on the syllables in the words and the words in the sentence. Burmese verse depends rather on the schematic arrangement of words with certain sounds recurring at fixed points. This means that timing and caesuras have great importance. In fact, in our singing the caesuras are even more important than the syllables or words in each measure. Often the singer keeps time with a pair of tiny bells and a small clapper in his hand.

The most usual time in our music is a simple duple or a simple quadruple beat. In the duple, the bells and the clapper go alternately. In the quadruple there is a rest on one or the other of the middle beats. No great importance is attached to the variation. In one and the same piece the quadruple may sometimes change into the duple, or become faster or slower. But never must a musician get out of rhythmic time. So far as I am aware, compound time has never been used in our music.

Turning to the instruments which are now most in use, we must give pride of place to the graceful, boat-shaped harp, the thirteen-stringed saung kauk (see Plate 23 in art section). The Burmese orchestra is called a saing. Its ensemble includes the picturesque putt waing, with the player seated in his circle of drums, a circle of gongs (the kyee waing), the big putt ma drum, cymbals, clappers, and wind instruments such as the hnè (like an oboe) and the palwé (a bamboo pipe). The saing accompanies our stage performances (zat pwès), our ritual dances (nat pwès), and others of the many festal occasions that enliven Burmese life.

Even though Buddhist doctrine has sometimes frowned on music as appealing to the senses, we Burmese must be one of the most music-loving peoples in the world. Folk music is very much alive in our villages, where several interesting kinds of drums are especially popular.

The bucolic dohpat (which can be heard on Side II, Band 4 of the Folkways record) presides over village roisterings and goes along with itinerant singers. The pot-shaped ozi, boon companion of the bamboo flute, may be trusted to go off on such a spree of tune and rapid rhythm as to make one's limbs twitch to dance. The big bongyi (Side II, Band 3) is lord of the paddy fields, where its thundering rhythm eases the toil of those who are transplanting the rice. The byaw drum (Side I, Band 2) has its day in such home ceremonies as our almsgivings and shinpyu head-shavings.

Our classical music is far more elaborate than the instinctive rural drumming and singing, and scholars usually divide it into six main categories, most of which are represented on the Folkways record. But I must not risk tiring you with too many strange names and will say only that these classical compositions are usually songs, ranging in theme and tone from simple lyrics to courtly measures eulogizing the king or the royal city and solemn chants composed in adoration of Lord Buddha.

Presented by

U Khin Zaw

U KHIN ZAW, a Burman, is Director of the Burma Broadcasting Service and a musicologist who has given intensive study to Burmese classical and folk music. He is also a leading literary figure, writing poems, stories, and essays in English. His autobiography, Burma in My Lifetime, will soon be published here. U Myo Min, a Burman, is Permanent Secretary to Prime Minister U Nu. He is also Professor of English Literature at Rangoon University and an authority on many aspects of Burmese culture.

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