Music of Thailand

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

Thailand retains cultural connections with the two great centers of Asian civilizations, India and China. Though Thailand was never colonized by Western powers, pop music and other forms of European and American music have become extremely influential. The two most popular styles of traditional Thai music are luk thung and mor lam; the latter in particular has close affinities with the Music of Laos.

Aside from the Thai, minorities of Laotians, Lawa, Hmong, Akha, Mien, Lisu, Karen and Lahu peoples have retained traditional musical forms.


Thai music was part of an oral culture and developed no traditional system of notation. "As an integrated, unique system the traditional music of Thailand is probably not more than six hundred years old." (Morton 1978, p.1) The classical or Bangkok period beginning 1782 may be considered "a culmination of musical evolution that probably started, as nearly as can be ascertained from the references, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the rise of Ayuthaya as the capital," (ibid) in 1350. Music flourished for the next few centuries, in spite of occasional oppression from monarchs like Rama I and the burning of Ayuthaya, including its art collections and libraries, in 1767 the result of which is a loss of most knowledge necessary to reconstruct the history of Thai music before the Bangkok period.


Pop, Rock, Cultural, Classic, Techno and Spiritual

Classical music

The earliest Thai ensembles were called piphat, and they included woodwind and percussion instruments, originally in order to accompany traditional theatre and religious rituals. Another ensemble type, khruang sai, consists primarily of string instruments, while the mahori mixes strings with melodic percussion instruments and flute.


"Thai music is nonharmonic, melodic, or linear, and as is the case with all musics of this genre, its fundamental organization is horizontal...Thai music in its horizontal complex is made up of a main melody played simultaneously with variants of it which progress in relatively slower and faster rhythmic units." (ibid, p.21) This is known as heterophony or polyphonic stratification: instrumentalists improvise idiomatically around the central melody. Rhythmically and metrically Thai music is steady in tempo, regular in pulse, divisive, in simple duple meter, without swing, with little syncopation (p.3, 39), and with the emphasis on the final beat of a measure or group of pulses and phrase (p.41), as opposed to the first as in European-influenced music. The Thai scale includes seven equal notes, instead of a mixture of tones and semitones.

Traditional or folk

Luk thung

Luk thung, or Thai country music, developed in the mid-20th century to reflect daily trials and tribulations of rural Thais. Ponsri Woranut and Suraphol Sombatcharoen were the genre's first big stars, incorporating influences from Latin America, Asia and, especially, American film soundtracks and country music. Many of the most popular artists have come from the central city of Suphanburi, including megastar Pumpuang Duangjan, who pioneered electronic luk thung. The first all luk thung radio station was launched in 1997.

Mor lam

Khene player wearing sarong and pakama at the Ubon Candle Festival
Khene player wearing sarong and pakama at the Ubon Candle Festival

Mor lam is the dominant folk music of Thailand's north-eastern Isan region, which has a mainly Lao population. It has much in common with luk thung, such as its focus on the life of the rural poor. It is characterized by rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals and a funk feel to the percussion. The lead singer, also called a mor lam, is most often accompanied by the khaen.

There are about fifteen regional variations of mor lam, plus modern versions such as mor lam sing. Some conservatives have criticized these as the commercialization of traditional cultures.


The people of Isan are also known for kantrum, which is much less famous for mor lam. Kantrum is played by Cambodians living near the border with Cambodia. It is a swift and very traditional dance music. In its purest form, cho-kantrum, singers, percussion and fiddles dominate the sound. A more modern form using electric instrumentation arose in the mid- 1980s. Later in the decade, Darkie became the genre's biggest star, and he crossed into mainstream markets in the later 1990s.

Pop and rock

Wax figure of Khru Eua Sunthornsanan
Wax figure of Khru Eua Sunthornsanan

By the 1930s, however, Western classical music, showtunes, jazz and tango were popular. Soon, jazz grew to dominate Thai popular music, and Khru Eua Sunthornsanan soon set up the first Thai jazz band. The music he soon helped to invent along with influential band Suntharaporn was called pleng Thai sakorn, which incorporated Thai melodies with Western classical music. This music continued to evolve into luk grung, a romantic music that was popular with the upper-class. King Bhumibol is an accomplished jazz musician and composer.

Pleng phua cheewit

By the 1960s, Western rock was popular and Thai artists began imitating bands like Cliff Richard & the Shadows; this music was called wong shadow, and it soon evolved into a form of Thai pop called string. The following decade saw Rewat Buddhinan beginning to use the Thai language in rock music. The 70s also saw the rise of protest songs called pleng phua cheewit (songs for life).

The earliest pleng phua cheewit band was called Caravan, and they soon emerged at the forefront of a movement for democracy. In 1976, police and rightwing activists attacked students at Thammasat University; Caravan, along with other bands and activists, fled for the rural hills. There, Caravan continued playing music for local farmers, and composed what is now their most famous song, "Khon Gap Kwaii".

In the 1980s, pleng phua cheewit re-entered the mainsteam with a grant of amnesty to dissidents. Bands like Carabao became best-sellers and incorporated sternly nationalistic elements in their lyrics. By the 1990s, pleng phua cheewit had fallen from the top of the Thai charts, though artists like Pongsit Kamphee continued to command a large audience.


String pop took over mainstream listeners in Thailand in the 90s, and bubblegum pop stars like Tata Young, Bird McIntyre and Asanee-Wasan became best-sellers. Simultaneously, Britpop influenced alternative rock artists like Modern Dog, Loso, Crub and Proud became popular in late 1990s. In 2006, famous Thai rock bands include Clash, Big Ass, Bodyslam and Silly Fools.


A group of independent artists and records which produces music for non-commercial propose also found in Thailand: Bakery Music (now under BEC-TERO) ; Smallroom ; FAT radio ; City-Blue ; Coolvoice ; Dudesweet ; Idea-radio and Panda Records .

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