Music Thailand
by
Pamela A. Moro
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0156

Introduction

The musical traditions of Thailand are diverse, reflecting a nation that has been shaped by manifold flows of people, culture, and resources across history. While this bibliography focuses on English-language works that are available globally, music researchers within Thailand have produced an important body of work as well, often based on local ethnographic study, or on the researchers’ experiences as culture bearers. Some of these Thai-language works are referenced in the publications included here, especially those by Thai authors writing in English. The music associated with royal and noble courts, and with religious life, is commonly referred to as Thai classical music. During the 20th century, this music came to be identified as part of the nation’s official cultural heritage, supported by government institutions, the educational system, and the royal family. Today, the music is also embraced and supported by Thai living abroad. Thai classical music is the most thoroughly documented music in the nation, and most scholarship on the music of Thailand, whether in the form of academic publications or graduate theses, focuses on it. Researchers have utilized a variety of scholarly approaches to document Thai classical music, including comparative analysis, laboratory study, analyses of musical structures and performance practices, history, and ethnographic fieldwork. The worldview associated with Thai classical music is articulated in ritual practices that have been the subject of several scholarly studies. The traditional music of northeastern Thailand—part of a musical system shared with Laos—has also received significant scholarly attention, though from a small number of prolific authors. The most popular genre of commercial music from northeastern Thailand, pleng luk thung, has been the subject of analyses focusing on political economy, the social significance of lyrics, and the identity and prestige status of the region. Sparser are studies of northern Thai music—itself a distinctive tradition—and the music of ethnic minorities. Commercial genres of Thai popular music outside the Northeast have been the subject of recent social and political analyses.

General Overviews

General overviews of Thai classical music are available through a small number of book-length works, outside of the Thai-language literature. Most are extensions of doctoral dissertations. The standard work most frequently cited by subsequent writers is Morton 1976, while Duriyanga 1990 offers a concise English-language overview by a Thai author. Swangviboonpong 2003 is the most complete descriptive analysis of Thai vocal music, and includes an exceptionally detailed bibliography of Thai-language scholarship. Myers-Moro 1993 introduces basic elements of Thai music but emphasizes the social context of performance. While the title of Wong 2001 might lead readers to expect a narrowly focused work, the book is an important historical and ethnographic overview of Thai classical music and related performing arts.

  • Duriyanga, [Phra] Chen. Thai Music. 6th ed. Bangkok, Thailand: Promotions and Public Relations Sub-Division, Fine Arts Department, 1990.

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    Government-issued booklet introduces basics of Thai music and musical instruments to English-language readers, often using vocabulary from Western music theory. First edition was published in 1948. Important because it is frequently cited by other authors.

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  • Morton, David. The Traditional Music of Thailand. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

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    Pioneering, oft-cited account of the Thai classical tradition, based on research in the late 1950s and late 1960s, with emphasis on instrumental music. Documents musical fundamentals, instruments and ensembles, modes, and compositional forms and techniques. For the mid-20th-century period, this is the most important study of Thai music by a scholar working in Western ethnomusicology.

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  • Myers-Moro, Pamela. Thai Music and Musicians in Contemporary Bangkok. Center for Southeast Asia Studies Monograph 34. Berkeley: Center for Southeast Asia Studies, University of California at Berkeley, 1993.

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    Based on research in 1985–1986, this extension of a doctoral dissertation adds to the account of music principles given in Morton 1976, and includes chapters on the social organization of musicians, religious cosmology and ritual, and the social and institutional contexts of Thai classical music as it reemerged in the last decades of the century.

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  • Swangviboonpong, Dusadee. Thai Classical Singing: Its History, Musical Characteristics, and Transmission. SOAS Musicology Series. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

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    Detailed analytical description of Thai vocal music, extending a PhD thesis from the University of London. The bibliography and audiography are especially valuable because they include thorough lists of Thai-authored/recorded works, not easily accessible to readers of English, with vocabulary transliterated and translated.

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  • Wong, Deborah. Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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    Detailed, theoretically insightful account of the ritual for honoring teachers and deities (wai khruu) and how it regulates the transmission of musical knowledge among Thai master musicians. Based on ethnographic research and Thai-language historical sources, this work extends a 1991 doctoral dissertation. Appendices include lists of deities, ritual repertory, instruments, and commercial recordings.

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Doctoral Dissertations

Doctoral research on Thai music has taken up a range of foci, including musical analyses as well as inquiries from social science perspectives. Works included here are those that have not appeared elsewhere in published form. Ketukaenchan 1989, Silkstone 1993, and Sumrongthong 1997 all address the relationship between composed melody and improvisational performance, in the idioms specific to individual instruments. Phoasavadi 2005 traces a single feature influencing the performance of Thai music—the competition—across history, while Ware 2006 studies hybrid forms of Thai music since the mid-19th century. Eamsa-ard 2006 is a rare doctoral study of Thai popular music in social context, notable for its attention to four disparate genres.

  • Eamsa-ard, Lamnao. “Thai Popular Music: The Representation of National Identities and Ideologies within a Culture in Transition.” PhD diss., Faculty of Communications and Creative Industries, Edith Cowan University, 2006.

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    Considers Thai popular music in relation to different identities in the nation, connected to class, gender, and ethnicity. Examines four major genres: pleng luk grung (urban pop), pleng luk thung (country music), pleng string (associated with elite urban youth), pleng puea chiwit (with lyrics expressing political discontent and social critique.) Uses qualitative methodology and argues against reducing Thai identity to any monolithic category.

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  • Ferguson, Jane Martin. “Rocking in Shanland: Histories and Popular Culture Jams at the Thai-Burmese Border.” PhD diss., Cornell University, 2008.

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    Based on two years’ fieldwork with Shan former insurgents and stateless migrants, this works rethinks nation and ethnicity by examining popular culture, including Burmese and Shan rock music.

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  • Ketukaenchan, Somsak. “The Thang of the Khong Wong Yai and Ranat Ek: A Transcription and Analysis of Performance Practice in Thai Music.” PhD diss., University of York, 1989.

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    Two-volume work analyzes thang (main melody) of three compositions, as rendered by two instruments, by a scholar who participates in the musical tradition. Volume 1 compares transcriptions of multiple versions of each composition’s thang, highlighting variations in the tradition. Volume 2 explores rules of performance practice, identifying fixed and free components in the performance of melody.

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  • Phoasavadi, Pornprapit. “From Prachan to Prakuad: The Process of Officializing Traditional Music Competition in Contemporary Bangkok.” PhD diss., School of Music, University of Washington, 2005.

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    Traces the historical development of music competitions, emphasizing a change from the original village context to royal patronage in late 19th century, and then to post-1950s government sponsorship. Emphasizes the use of music competitions in the 1980s to preserve cultural heritage and promote national identity. Identifies changes such as the involvement of children, the use of mahoorii (light entertainment) genre, and a a panel of judges.

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  • Silkstone, Francis. “Learning Thai Classical Music: Memorization and Improvisation.” PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1993.

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    Explores how techniques for musical performance are taught in the Thai oral tradition, with a focus on bowed string instruments. Identifies three elements of importance to teachers that must be taught to students: the basic melody or composition, melodic realizations characteristic of the saw (bowed fiddle-type instruments), and complex techniques for improvisation. Considers the larger issue of the parameters of variability in musical practice.

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  • Sumrongthong [Binson], Bussakorn. “Melodic Organization and Improvisation in Thai Music, with Special Reference to the Thaang Ranaat Eek.” Unpublished PhD diss., University of York, 1997.

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    Close examination of melody and improvisation as performance practice, by a scholar who is trained in the tradition. Provides an overview of all Thai melodic percussion instruments, but focuses on melodies as rendered idiomatically on the wooden-key xylophone, ranaat eek. Includes detailed analysis of one musical work, Saathukaan.

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  • Ware, Vicki-Ann. “Stylistic and Cultural Transformations in Bangkok Fusion Music from 1850 to the Present Day, Leading to the Development of Dontri Thai Prayuk.” PhD thesis, Monash University, 2006.

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    Traces the development of Westernized Thai musical forms in several genres. Considers changes in instrumentation, form, and context, with special attention given to Thai classical music in adapted forms, identified by participants as prayuk. Includes attention to influences from outside of the West, as well.

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Textbooks and Reference Works

For readers desiring a concise introduction to the musical traditions of Thailand, textbooks and the standard reference publications are outstanding starting points. Two reliable textbooks situate Thai classical music, as well as northeastern Thai music, within the broader region of mainland Southeast Asia: Douglas 2010 and Miller and Shahriari 2012. Morton 1983 is a chapter devoted to Thailand in an older textbook. The authoritative reference works on music provide straightforward accounts of Thai classical music and major regional forms. These are excellent first stops for the novice reader: Koskoff 2008, Miller and Williams 1998, and Roongruang 2007–2014. Clewley 1994 is a brief and entertaining introduction, with attention to many forms of music in Thailand.

  • Clewley, John. “The Many Sounds of Siam.” In World Music: The Rough Guide. Edited by Simon Broughton, et al., 440–448. London: Rough Guides, 1994.

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    Concise, eclectic overview covers a wide variety of musics in Thailand, including classical, regional folk, and pop. Mentions well-known artists. Fun to read, found in many libraries, but contains errors. Ends with a short discography.

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  • Douglas, Gavin. Music in Mainland Southeast Asia: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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    Introductory level textbook for classroom use, stressing the common and contrasting features in the musical traditions of the region. Pays attention not only to classical or national traditions, but to musics of ethnic minorities, commercial pop, political protest music, and Buddhist chant. Thai classical music and music of northeastern Thailand are placed in the context of mainland Southeast Asia. Includes CD with thirty-two tracks.

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  • Koskoff, Ellen, ed. 2008. The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. New York: Routledge.

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    Two-volume condensation of Garland Encyclopedia of World Music and Dance. Volume 2 includes Southeast Asia.

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  • Miller, Terry E., and Andrew C. Shahriari. World Music: A Global Journey. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

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    An introductory discussion of Thai music is included in a chapter devoted to mainland Southeast Asia, with attention to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and northeastern Thailand (pp. 131–180). Intended for use as a textbook in world music survey courses, and draws on the authors’ extensive experience as instructors. Includes listening guides, website, and audio CD.

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  • Miller, Terry E., and Sean Williams, eds. Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 4, Southeast Asia. New York: Garland, 1998.

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    Part of a multivolume reference publication, this comprehensive resource assembles informative entries by a variety of authors on the entire region of Southeast Asia. Covers genres, practices, and performers. Recommended as an essential initial resource. Also available by subscription via Alexander Street as Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Online.

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  • Morton, David. “The Music of Thailand.” In Music of Many Cultures. Edited by Elizabeth May, 63–82. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

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    Introductory overview, by the period’s preeminent English-language scholar of Thai classical music. Unusual as a chapter devoted to Thai music in a publication intended for use as a classroom textbook (most pedagogical publications in ethnomusicology do not include Thai music). Publisher no longer provides accompanying recordings.

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  • Roongruang, Panya. “Thailand, Kingdom of (Thai Prathet).” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007–2014.

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    Essential overview focusing mostly on Thai classical music, with brief attention to popular and regional styles. Introduces ensembles, musical principles, genres, performance contexts, and composers. Recommended as an initial resource. Grove Music Online also includes, by other authors, entries on numerous Thai composers and scholars of Thai music.

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Issues in the History of Thai Classical Music

Few authors working outside of the Thai-language literature have contributed focused studies of the history of Thai classical music. The most significant historical study is Miller and Chonpairot 1994, which considers Thai music as represented in Western documents across four centuries. Miller 1992 and Myers-Moro 1990 introduce the various forms of Thai musical notation, with attention to historical development. Myers-Moro 1988 explains the system of distinctive names and titles bestowed to musicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Silapabanleng 1975 is a brief primary source translated into English. Additional information on the history of Thai classical music is woven into Wong 2001, cited under General Overviews.

  • Miller, Terry E. “The Theory and Practice of Thai Musical Notations.” Ethnomusicology 36 (1992): 197–221.

    DOI: 10.2307/851914Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Authoritative discussion of various forms of notation used in Thai music—Western staff, solfege, and numerical or cipher—with emphasis on practicalities and details of application. Notation is used by scholars and beginning students, rarely by skilled performers, and is a supplement to rote instruction. This account traces notation over time, in historical context.

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  • Miller, Terry E., and Jarernchai Chonpairot. Special Issue: A History of Siamese Music Reconstructed from Western Documents, 1505–1932. Crossroads 8.2 (1994).

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    This monograph-length special issue of the journal Crossroads traces European and American accounts of Siamese music, from the early 16th century to the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Working with about sixty sources, the authors extract information regarding genres, instruments and ensembles, rituals, and performance contexts. Indigenous accounts of Thai musical history are nearly absent.

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  • Myers-Moro, Pamela. “Names and Civil Service Titles of Siamese Musicians.” Asian Music 19.1 (1988): 82–92.

    DOI: 10.2307/833868Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explains the system of ranks, conferred names, family names, and nicknames of Thai master musicians in the late 19th and 20th centuries, emphasizing social and political changes affecting performing artists. Includes fifty-nine names created by King Rama VI, in a list that conforms to a rhyming poetic scheme.

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  • Myers-Moro, Pamela. “Musical Notation in Thailand.” Journal of the Siam Society 78 (1990): 101–108.

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    Surveys the history and forms of Thai musical notation, emphasizing the functions and motivations for use. Myers-Moro distinguishes between notation used for purposes of preservation and for pedagogy. Includes graphic examples of each style of notation.

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  • Silapabanleng, Prasidh. “Thai Music at the Court of Cambodia: A Personal Souvenir of Luang Pradit Phairoh’s Visit in 1930.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 2.2 (1975): 3–6.

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    Descriptive account of international travel by the preeminent composer, performer, and teacher Luang Pradit Phairoh. This brief account is significant as a memoir contributed by Luang Pradit’s son. Also published in Journal of the Siam Society 57 (1970):121–4.

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Comparative Studies

Researchers and performers of Thai classical music have long been interested in what it shares with the music of neighboring traditions. Comparative studies have followed two trajectories: studies that emphasize primarily musical features such as structure and instrumentation, and studies that explore shared social and historical contexts for music.

Musical Analyses

Several scholars have been fascinated by the inherently similar features shared by Thai classical music and other musics of Southeast Asia, especially in the music of large percussive ensembles. Listed in this section are works that focus on musical structures. Hood 1975 and Morton 1975 are foundational works that identify key similarities in Southeast Asian ensemble music, emphasizing textural relationships between instrumental lines as well as improvisation. Maceda 1986 similarly takes a broadly comparative, pan-regional approach. Hughes 1992, Miller and Sam 1995, and Sumrongthong and Sorrell 2000 are narrower inquiries, seeking similarities and contrasts between Thai music and musical examples from Java and Cambodia.

  • Hood, Mantle. “Improvisation in the Stratified Musical Ensembles of Southeast Asia.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 2.2 (1975): 25–33.

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    Outlines the characteristics of improvisation, noting its blurry boundary with composition, before noting distinctive features of improvisation within the musical structures of large ensembles in Thailand, Bali, and several regions of Java. From a major Western scholar of Southeast Asia music in the middle decades of the 20th century.

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  • Hughes, David W. “Thai Music in Java, Javanese Music in Thailand: Two Case Studies.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 1 (1992): 17–30.

    DOI: 10.1080/09681229208567198Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Musical analysis contrasts the setting of two pairs of melodies—a Javanese adaptation of a Thai melody, and vice versa. Author considers tuning, phrase structures, polyphony, and the degree to which each melody has been incorporated into the receiving tradition’s style.

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  • Maceda, Jose. “A Concept of Time in a Music of Southeast Asia.” Ethnomusicology 30 (1986): 11–53.

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    A detailed consideration of transcribed musical excerpts identifies persistent patterns in organization of musical textures (especially the drone with melody form) across the region. Includes drum and gong ensemble from the Phu Thai of northeast Thailand. Based on the Charles Seeger Memorial Lecture for the Society for Ethnomusicology, 1984.

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  • Miller, Terry, and Sam-ang Sam. “The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand: A Study of Distinctions.” Ethnomusicology 39 (1995): 229–243.

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    Provides descriptive overview of instruments, ensembles, function, colotomic structures, tuning, scales, modes, notation, and performance practices in Thai and Khmer musical traditions, noting essential similarities and differences.

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  • Morton, David. “Instruments and Instrumental Functions in the Ensembles of Southeast Asia: A Cross-Cultural Comparison.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 2.2 (1975): 7–15.

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    This influential article establishes a fundamental similarity in musical structures performed by the large gong-chime ensembles of Java, Bali, and mainland Southeast Asia. Morton emphasizes the form of heterophony that is called, by scholars of this region, polyphonic stratification, distinguishing the main melody, elaborating melodies, and colotomic structures.

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  • Sumrongthong, Bussakorn, and Neil Sorrell. “Melodic Paradoxes in the Music of the Thai Pi-Phat and Javanese Gamelan.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 32 (2000): 67–80.

    DOI: 10.2307/3185243Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers processes of improvisation and elaboration by which performers (in key ensembles of Thailand and Java) render melody. Argues that, in both traditions, performers realize an unheard, unperformed essential or skeletal melody according to theoretical constraints and performance practices. Documents musicians’ metaphors and understandings of melody.

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History, Ethnography, and Reviews of Scholarship

A number of researchers have considered consistent themes in the history and social context of Southeast Asian musics. Listed here are works that consider Thai classical music alongside related cases throughout Asia. Kartomi 1995 is a comprehensive overview of the research in this area, including attention to works by scholars from the region. Moro 2004 and Moro 2005 investigate ways of thinking about the concept of the classical in Thailand, Indonesia, and India. Mrázek 2008 and Wong and Lysloff 1991 take a narrower approach, comparing the experience of performance in Thailand and Java.

  • Kartomi, Margaret J. “‘Traditional Music Weeps’ and Other Themes in the Discourse on the Music, Dance, and Theatre of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26 (1995): 366–400.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022463400007141Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Delineates persistent themes in scholarship on the music of Southeast Asia, emerging in works by both Southeast Asian–born scholars and those from abroad. Kartomi considers priorities and assumptions shaping research, including the history of colonialism.

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  • Moro, Pamela A. “Constructions of Nation and the Classicisation of Music: Comparative Perspectives from Southeast and South Asia.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 35 (2004): 187–211.

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    Social and historical comparison of how elite music became canonic or viewed as classical in relation to the emergence of national culture in India, Indonesia, and Thailand. Points to the growth of the middle class, mass education, the institutionalization of music theory and knowledge, and the changing roles of performers, patrons, and audiences.

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  • Moro, Pamela A. “Defining the Classical in Studies of South and Southeast Asian Music: A Review and Evaluation of Pertinent Scholarship.” E-AsPac (2005).

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    Documents and attempts to account for the persistence of the term “classical” (especially as part of a high/low culture dichotomy) in the study of music of Thailand, Indonesia, and India. Moro considers implications and biases in the scholarship, emphasizing anthropology and ethnomusicology since the mid-20th century.

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  • Mrázek, Jan. “Xylophones in Thailand and Java: A Comparative Phenomenology of Musical Instruments.” Asian Music 39 (2008): 59–107.

    DOI: 10.1353/amu.0.0011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Innovative attempt to document embodied aspects in learning to play the primary Thai xylophone (ranaat eek), with some comparison to related instruments—the Javanese gambang and Thai ranaat thum. Mrázek draws on personal experiences that lead to different conclusions than standard, morphologically based organology.

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  • Wong, Deborah, and René T. A. Lysloff. “Threshold to the Sacred: The Overture in Thai and Javanese Ritual Performance.” Ethnomusicology 35 (1991): 315–348.

    DOI: 10.2307/851966Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Authors compare musical works from Thailand and Java that serve similar functions: as preludes to larger musical performances and as frames that demarcate performance in a ritual context. Draws on ethnographic fieldwork and ritual theory.

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Education and Thai Classical Music

The role of teachers and the nature of musical transmission is a subject of keen interest both to researchers and to participants in the musical traditions of Thailand. Campbell 1995 introduces various ways that Thai classical music has been taught throughout the past two hundred years, and as an overview this work is a good starting point for readers. Myers-Moro 1991, similarly, is an accessible and succinct introduction to both Thai classical music and methods of teaching. Two works focus on particular teachers: Tippayaprapai 2006 and Wong 1991. Volk 2006 is intended for application by music educators outside of Thailand. Some book-length studies of Thai classical music also include significant attention to methods of teaching, such as Wong 2001 and Myers-Moro 1993 (both cited under General Overviews).

  • Campbell, Patricia Shehan. “The Making of Musicians and Musical Audiences in Thailand.” International Journal of Music Education 25 (May 1995): 20–28.

    DOI: 10.1177/025576149502500103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Descriptive overview of Thai classical music and its contexts in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a readership of music educators in mind. Assesses current status of the music, with a focus on three systems of musical training, emphasizing how both performers and audiences become acquainted with the music.

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  • Myers-Moro, Pamela. “Teachers on Tape: Innovation and Experimentation in Teaching Thai Music.” Balungan 5 (1991): 15–20.

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    Describes old and new methods of instruction, especially in the teacher-disciple mold. Myers-Moro emphasizes innovation and experimentation on the part of teachers, with examples from fieldwork in Bangkok in the 1980s.

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  • Tippayaprapai, Patsri. “Uncle Samruay: The Last of the Thai Traditional Music Teachers.” SPAFA Journal: A Publication of the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts 16.3 (2006): 19–31.

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    Accessible, reader-friendly account honoring an influential Bangkok teacher, Maestro Samruay Premjai. After the introduction, the author uses a question-and-answer format to explore Samruay’s biography, his musical instrument collection and workshop, his students, and his teaching methods.

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  • Volk, Terese M. “An Application of Thai Music for General and Instrumental Music Programs.” International Journal of Music Education 24 (2006): 243–254.

    DOI: 10.1177/0255761406069660Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Brief introduction to Thai music, followed by suggestions for adapting Thai ensemble music to Western instrumentation for use in school music classrooms. Author includes suggestions for adapting Orff instruments to Thai tuning system. Intended for a readership of music educators.

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  • Wong, Deborah. “Across Three Generations: A Solo Piece for Thai Gong Circle.” Balungan 5 (1991): 2–9.

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    Case study of “Phya Sok,” from the Thai solo repertory, as it has been taught in the lineage of master composer Luang Pradit Phairo. Includes description of the instrument featured in the case study (khong wong yai, the large gong circle). The article is followed by a transcription of the work, on pages 10–14.

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Laboratory Studies of Thai Music

Empirical, scientific methodology has been pursued in studies of Thai music, primarily from the classical tradition, to answer questions related to musical tuning, vocal timbre, and pain management. A historically notable node in the scholarship on Thai music appeared in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, exploring the relationship between Thai linguistic or speech tones and vocal melody in several genres of Thai music.

Tuning, Timbre, Health

Researchers in a number of disciplines have studied the musical traditions of Thailand, folk and regional forms as well as classical, using scientifically empirical methods in laboratory settings. This body of work takes up questions in a number of directions. The distinctive tuning system of Thai classical music, usually described as equidistant, is tested in Attakitmongcol, et al. 2004. Rachakul 2003 and Lee and Thoo 2003 are acoustic studies of pitch intervals, addressing examples of folk or regional musics. Two acoustic studies, Latartara 2012 and Morton 1974, investigate the timbre of Thai classical singing, using the laboratory equipment of their respective eras. Further afield, researchers in the health sciences and nursing have studied possible uses of Thai music in pain management, as in Kusolleartjariya 1997 and Phumdoung and Good 2003.

  • Attakitmongcol, K., R. Chinvetkitvanit, and S. Sujitjorn. “Characterization of Traditional Thai Music Scale.” In Proceedings of the 5th WSEAS International Conference on Acoustics and Music: Theory and Applications (AMTA ’04). Athens, Greece: World Scientific and Engineering Academy and Society, 2004.

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    Empirical study of klui phiang au (middle range vertical flute) and ranat ek lek (metal xylophone) finds that pitch intervals in the equidistant scale are not consistent. This contradicts earlier claims as well as common understandings of Thai musicians. By researchers in the field of engineering.

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  • Kusolleartjariya, S. “A Study of Comparison between Folk Music and Classical Music to Decreased Labour Pain.” Thailand Journal of Health Promotion and Environmental Health 20 (1997): 32–42.

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    This empirical test concludes that neither Thai classical music nor northeastern Thai folk music significantly reduces pain in women in labor. Contributes to the scientific literature on use of music as a form of pain relief.

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  • Latartara, John. “The Timbre of Thai Classical Singing.” Asian Music 43 (2012): 88–114.

    DOI: 10.1353/amu.2012.0013Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses spectrographic images (computer visualizations of fundamentals, overtones, and noise) to identify distinctive timbral characteristics in uan, the five wordless vocalizations common in Thai vocal music. Compares performances from different generations and lineages, and finds relative consistency of timbre.

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  • Lee, Yew Yong, and Lee Ming Thoo. “Pitch-Interval Studies from Random Samples of the Music of Thailand.” In Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics: A Field and Laboratory Study of Musical Cultures and Systems in Southeast Asia. Vol. 1. Edited by Joe Peters, et al., 86–92. Singapore: ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information, 2003.

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    An acoustic study comparing “waterfall plot” diagrams of four-second segments of recordings from four regions of Thailand. This study appears in a larger publication seeking to identify, through laboratory methods, distinctive sonic properties in the musical systems of the region.

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  • Morton, David. “Vocal Tones in Traditional Thai Music.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 2.1 (1974): 88–101.

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    Analysis of pitch, tuning, and modes in specially made recordings of vocal music, without customary percussion accompaniment, utilizing the Seeger Melograph to produce graphic images of sound. Careful attention is given to patterns in pitch usage and tuning, in what the author identifies as the two primary modes of the musical system. Confirms earlier scientific claims that Thai music uses a seven-tone equidistant tuning system.

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  • Phumdoung, Sasitorn, and Marion Good. “Music Reduces Sensation and Distress of Labor Pain.” Pain Management Nursing 4.2 (2003): 54–61.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1524-9042(02)54202-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Empirical application of Thai classical and folk music, in a study conducted by professors of nursing at two universities in Thailand. Contributes to scientific literature on use of music as a form of pain relief. Authors recommend the use of soft music during the active phase of women’s labor.

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  • Rachakul, Nat. “The Tuning Systems of Folk Music in Thailand.” In Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics: A Field and Laboratory Study of Musical Cultures and Systems in Southeast Asia. Vol. 2. Edited by Joe Peters, et al., 438–495. Singapore: ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information, 2003.

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    A multisited study that includes contributions from several distinguished Thai ethnomusicologists, representing the major regions of the country. Provides a brief descriptive overview of musical traditions, as background to pitch-interval studies and analysis of tuning systems.

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Speech Tones and Vocal Melody Relationship

A notable focus of interest for empirical studies of Thai music has been the relationship between the speech tones of the Thai language, which is tonal, and sung notes in vocal melody. Most publications on this topic pursue the question of how, and to what extent, sung melody and the tones of spoken Thai correspond. List 1961 finds disparate levels of correspondence in different genres of performance; Mendenhall 1975 discovers different levels of correspondence in syllabic versus melismatic singing, while Tanese-Ito 1988 identifies the formulae by which vocalists adapt speech tones when singing. Morton 1974 measures pitch intervals in vocal recordings in an attempt to identify intervals precisely. Stevens, et al. 2011 is a recent work in the psychology of music, asking if native speakers of tonal and non-tonal languages develop different abilities to perceive pitch contours.

  • List, George. “Speech Melody and Song Melody in Central Thailand.” Ethnomusicology 5 (1961): 16–32.

    DOI: 10.2307/924305Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Groundbreaking study of tones in spoken central Thai and various genres of vocal performance. Informants were native speakers of Thai at Indiana University. List found varying degrees of coordination between speech and musical tones, with high correspondence in recitation, a moderate level in classical music, and little correspondence in popular music.

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  • Mendenhall, Stanley T. “Interaction of Linguistic and Musical Tone in Thai Song.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 2.2 (1975): 17–24.

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    This highly empirical study by a linguist builds on List 1961, using the computer keypunch technology of its era. Studies twelve songs in one repertory category (sepha), examining the level of consistency between linguistic tones and song pitches in two-syllable, two-pitch sequences. Finds greater consistency in syllabic as opposed to melismatic singing.

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  • Morton, David. “Vocal Tones in Traditional Thai Music.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 2.1 (1974): 88–101.

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    Reviews basic information on pitch intervals and modes in Thai classical music (also documented in the author’s 1976 book), and contributes a pilot study of pitch intervals in recorded examples of solo vocal music. The Seeger Melograph was used to measure musical cents and acoustic cycles per second.

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  • Stevens, Catherine, Peter E. Keller, and Michael D. Tyler. “Tonal Language Background and Detecting Pitch Contour in Spoken and Musical Items.” Psychology of Music 41 (2011):59–74.

    DOI: 10.1177/0305735611415749Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares perception of pitch contour in spoken vocabulary and musical intervals among speakers of Thai (a tonal language) and Australian English (a non-tonal language). Confirms researchers’ hypothesis that early language environment shapes the ability to rapidly distinguish pitch contour, in both language and music.

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  • Tanese-Ito, Yoko. “The Relationship between Speech-Tones and Vocal Melody in Thai Court Song.” In Musica Asiatica. Vol. 5. Edited by Richard Widdess, 109–138. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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    Close analysis comparing musical melodies and the melodic patterns of song texts (because Thai is a tonal language.) Author finds that vocalists draw upon a system of melodic formulae to adapt the speech tones of song texts to the basic melody of a musical work. Many, though not all, classical tradition melodies are adapted to fit the requirements of the tones in song texts.

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Assessments of the Status of Thai Classical Music

The contexts of Thai classical music changed radically during the 20th century, with alterations in the patronage, audiences, means of transmission, and music’s significance in terms of national policy and perceptions of heritage. It is no surprise, then, that writers within and beyond Thailand have been interested in assessing the status of the music and its vigor. The vitality and sustainability of Thai classical music has been a concern, or at least a provocative topic for discussion, to many. Narkong 1998 is a valuable source due to the writer’s status as a well-respected performer and scholar, but it is difficult to access. Gaston 1991 is essentially a primary source, contributing translated interviews with three preeminent musicians. Wongratanapitak 2010 is a useful overview of how Thai music has been affected by Westernization and globalization, while Miller 1992 provides a snapshot of Thai music as played by a US student ensemble. Myers-Moro 1989 describes the nostalgic outlook of many Thai musicians of the 1980s. Nagavajara 2008 points to Thai music as an exemplary example of participatory music-making.

  • Gaston, Bruce. “Thailand: Music since World War II.” In New Music in the Orient: Essays on Composition in Asia since World War II. Edited by Harrison Ryker Buren, 115–156. Buren, The Netherlands: Frits Knuf, 1991.

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    Translation of interviews between Gaston (an American-born composer and performer of Thai music) and three significant figures: the master musician Boonyong Gatekong, the poet Naowarat Pongbaiboon, and the composer of modern/experimental music Dou Huntrakul. The interview with Boonyong is detailed and wide-ranging. Includes thorough list of repertory composed in late 19th and 20th centuries.

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  • Miller, Terry E. “Thai Classical Music Comes to America: Cultivating a Rare Species in a Musical Greenhouse.” Journal of the Siam Society 80.2 (1992): 143–148.

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    Description of the development of a Thai ensemble for students at Kent State University, Ohio, starting in 1978. Highlights challenges in establishing a non-Western performance ensemble, as well as contributions from skilled Thai instructors, especially Kovit Kantasiri. Speaks to attitudes toward the vitality of Thai music, within and beyond Thailand.

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  • Myers-Moro, Pamela. “Thai Music and Attitudes towards the Past.” Journal of American Folklore 102 (1989): 190–194.

    DOI: 10.2307/540681Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Identifies nostalgia among Bangkok musicians for a past when classical music thrived under prestigious, elite patronage, amid a climate of invigorated popular and institutional support, and new performance contexts, in the mid-1980s.

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  • Nagavajara, Chetana. “Music-Making versus the Commodification of Music: A Call to Enlightened Amateurs.” Manusya: Journal of Humanities 11 (2008): 36–52.

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    Polemical essay by an emeritus professor of German from Silpakorn University, advocating participatory music-making with little divide between professionals and amateurs, producers and listeners. Suggests that Thai classical music provides an ideal example, and supports this view with reference to European philosophical principles.

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  • Narkong, Anant. “General Observations on Traditional Music in Modern Thai Society.” In Cultures in ASEAN and the 21st century. Edited by Edwin Thumboo, 257–278. Singapore: UniPress, 1998.

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    Reflections and commentary on participation, patronage, commodification, and opportunities for performers of Thai music, by a preeminent scholar-performer from Chulalongkorn University.

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  • Wongratanapitak, Paphutsorn. “Thai Music Culture in the 21st Century: Thai Music and Its Others (The Westernization, Modernization and Globalization of Thai Classical Music): Case Study of Thai Musical Instruments and Innovation.” Rian Thai: International Journal of Thai Studies 3 (2010): 185–206.

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    Overview of the development of Thai music since the mid-19th century (with most detail post-1930s), with an emphasis on how change and modernization have been informed by contact with the West. The final section, “Case Study of Thai Musical Instruments and Innovation,” presents new information—not found in other English-language works—about the creation of chromatic versions of Thai musical instruments, and their mixed reception.

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Rituals and Ceremonies Associated with Music in Thailand

A distinctive feature of Thai performing arts, crucial to their maintenance and transmission, is the wai khruu ritual that honors teachers and deities. This ritual has drawn the attention of several researchers. The definitive study is Wong 2001, while Yupho 1974 provides a concise overview. Myers-Moro 1993 (cited under General Overviews) includes a chapter on wai khruu as well. Binson 2009a is important as a rare account of the ritual outside of the Thai classical tradition; Binson 2009b focuses on the use and meaning of food offerings in the ritual.

  • Binson, Bussakorn. “Rites and Beliefs of Music in Thailand’s Lanna Region.” Fontes Artis Musicae 56 (2009a): 299–313.

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    Documents a quasi-Buddhist ceremony honoring teachers of music (wai khruu) as carried out in the eight provinces of northern Thailand, based on interviews with more than one hundred musicians. Emphasizes the role of the ritual in maintaining continuity of musical knowledge across generations, and the maintenance of high respect for teachers.

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  • Binson, Bussakorn. “The Role of Food in the Musical Rites of the Lanna People of Northern Thailand.” Rian Thai: International Journal of Thai Studies 2 (2009b): 45–69.

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    Informative account of the various foods incorporated as offerings in ceremonies honoring teachers and deities associated with music, as practiced throughout the northern provinces. Considers symbolic and cultural meanings of the various foods, and their role in the rituals and as human nourishment, with brief attention to cross-cultural comparison.

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  • Wong, Deborah. Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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    This seminal work is a sophisticated study of Thai classical music’s institutional context, power structures, and cosmology, with a focus on the wai khruu ceremony for honoring teachers and deities associated with the transmission of music.

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  • Yupho, Dhanit. The Custom and Rite of Paying Homage to Teachers of Khon, Lakon and Piphat. Thai Culture, New Series, No. 11. Bangkok: Promotion and Public Relations Sub-Division, Fine Arts Department, 1974.

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    This short government-issued pamphlet introduces the wai khru ceremony for honoring teachers of classical dance, theater, and music. Brief, but cited in the scholarship and valuable as a source by a Thai author. First edition published in 1961.

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Northeastern Thai Music

Traditional music in Thailand’s northeastern provinces, a region known as isan, is part of a broader tradition shared with Laos. Readers should be aware that key vocabulary is transliterated inconsistently. For example, the important bamboo aerophone appears in the literature as kaen, khaen, khen, and khene. English-language documentation of music in this region is significant, though contributed by a small number of researchers. Works include general accounts of both instrumental and vocal forms, often with attention to features shared with the music of Laos, and analyses of commercial country music, often emphasizing social and political perspectives.

General Studies

Since the 1980s, the most important documenters of northeastern Thai music have been Terry E. Miller and Jaroenchai Chonpairot. Miller 1985 is the definitive work on the kaen and its related vocal form, lam. Miller 1980 is an instructional volume that includes useful information on the underpinning music theory. Picken 1984a and Picken 1984b are organological studies. Chonpairot 2003 analyzes how northeastern vocalists generate semi-improvised melody from text. Miller 1992 turns its attention to lesser-studied vocal genres associated with Buddhism in the region. Two works consider contemporary forms of northeastern music: Kitiarsa 2006 explores the meaning of lam sing, a stage-entertainment genre of Northeastern music, for the region’s many migrant laborers; and Miller 2005 considers the growing chic of northeastern culture within Thailand broadly.

  • Chonpairot, Jaroenchai. “Music of Northeastern Thailand: How a Molam Klon Singer Creates a Lam Melody.” In A Search in Asia for a New Theory of Music. Edited by José S. Buenconsejo, 307–322. Quezon City, Philippines: UP Center for Ethnomusicology, 2003.

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    Chonpairot is a well-known professor and researcher in the region, trained in ethnomusicology in the United States. This articles describes the techniques and knowledge necessary for vocalists to perform the lengthy, semi-improvised texts of the lam klon genre (usually performed by one male vocalist, one female vocalist, and one kaen player). Details the rhyme scheme, poetic meter, and overall form of the performances.

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  • Kitiarsa, Pattana. “Modernity, Agency, and ‘Lam Sing’: Interpreting ‘Music-Culture Contacts’ in Northeastern Thailand.” Crossroads 17.2 (2006): 34–65.

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    Traces development of the contemporary performance genre lam sing, which grew out of traditional molam of the northeastern region. The genre features concert-style performance for entertainment. Kitiarsa argues that the genre is a meaningful source of cultural agency for young, Lao-speaking migrant workers.

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  • Miller, Terry E. An Introduction to Playing the Kaen. Kent, OH: T. E. Miller, 1980.

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    Privately published, ninety-one-page work that introduces modes, music theory, important melodies, and instructions for playing the bamboo mouth organ of the region. Available through libraries.

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  • Miller, Terry E. Traditional Music of the Lao: Kaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

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    Definitive scholarly book, based on ethnographic research, documenting the music culture shared by northeastern Thailand and Laos. Extends the author’s unpublished 1974 doctoral dissertation. This work established Miller as the primary English-language scholar of the area.

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  • Miller, Terry E. “A Melody Not Sung: The Performance of Lao Buddhist Texts in Northeastern Thailand.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 9 (1992): 161–188.

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    Documents several genres of text-based vocal performance, all associated with Buddhism, among the Lao of northeastern Thailand. The performances are not identified as music by participants, but are closely allied forms. Based on field recordings with performers, the article includes numerous transcriptions. Closes with observations about the power of music in ritual contexts.

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  • Miller, Terry E. “From Country Hick to Rural Hip: A New Identity Through Music for Northeastern Thailand.” Asian Music 36.2 (2005): 96–106.

    DOI: 10.1353/amu.2005.0014Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Chronicles changing attitudes across Thailand toward the people of isan, or the Northeast. The author attributes the newly positive image to a remodeling of the region’s music. Surveys numerous musical and theatrical genres, old and new.

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  • Picken, Lawrence E. R. “The Making of a Khaen: The Free-Reed Mouth-Organ of North-East Thailand.” Musica Asiatica 4 (1984a): 117–154.

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    Painstakingly detailed documentation of the construction of the kaen, including scientific analysis of how the reeds function acoustically.

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  • Picken, Lawrence E. R. “The Sound-Producing Instrumentarium of a Village in North-East Thailand.” Musica Asiatica 4 (1984b): 213–244.

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    Working with a Thai collaborator, the author encouraged residents of a village in Khon Kaen province to produce as many musical instruments as possible. This article describes the items constructed, though it does not provide context on the performance of music.

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Commercial Country Music (Pleng Luk Thung)

In the second half of the twentieth century, traditional instrumental and vocal forms of northeastern Thai music gave rise to a significant commercially disseminated genre, pleng luk thung (spelled pleng luuk thung or simply luuk thung [or luuk tung] in some accounts.) This commercial country music is available throughout the nation, but it retains strong associations with the Northeast. For an overview of the genre and its meanings, Jirattikorn 2006 is a useful starting point, while Marre and Charlton 1985 offers a succinct but superficial introduction. Most studies focus on the social significance of lyrics or on the political economy of the music’s industry; Siriyuvasak 1990 and Siriyuvasak 1998 are outstanding examples. Several publications explore pleng luuk thung post-1990s, when the music and isan culture in general have risen in prestige. The works of James Mitchell stand out: Mitchell 2009a studies a single artist in the context of change, while Mitchell 2009b and Mitchell 2011 explore connections between performers, audience, and media. Kitiarsa 2009 explores issue of gender and migrant labor through song lyrics.

  • Jirattikorn, Amporn. “Lukthung: Authenticity and Modernity in Thai Country Music.” Asian Music 37.1 (2006): 24–50.

    DOI: 10.1353/amu.2006.0004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Useful overview of luk thung as a genre, including its boom in the 1990s, with attention to individual artists. Author’s analysis focuses on constructions of authenticity, which emerge through the genre’s connections to Thai-ness as well as globalization.

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  • Kitiarsa, Pattana. “The Lyrics of Laborious Life: Popular Music and the Reassertion of Migrant Manhood in Northeastern Thailand.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10 (2009): 381–398.

    DOI: 10.1080/14649370902949374Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analysis of gendered identities of Thai male migrant workers, as depicted in northeastern Thai popular song lyrics, based on ethnographic research in Singapore. Examines how transnational labor, manhood, and song reaffirm dominant gender ideology and celebrate masculine identity of the workers.

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  • Marre, Jeremy, and H. Charlton. Beats of the Heart: Popular Music of the World. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

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    Chapter 11, titled “Two Faces of Thailand: A Musical Portrait,” describes the performance settings of luk thung and likay theater. Colorful reading that provides a glimpse of the era, from the perspective of Westerners encountering Thailand, but not trustworthy as a scholarly source. The book originated from a British TV series.

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  • Mitchell, James. “Sorapet Pinyoo and the Status of ‘Pleeng Luuk Tung.’” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40 (2009a): 295–321.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022463409000162Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traces social, political, and academic changes that have led to increased scholarly attention on luk thung since 1997. Case study material focuses on the biography and lyrics of Sorapet Pinyoo, a well-known singer. This article is a useful companion to Miller 2005 (cited under Northeastern Thai Music: General Studies), though with a narrower focus on luk thung.

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  • Mitchell, James. “Thai Television and Pleeng Luuk Tung: The Role of Television in the Isan Cultural Revival.” Perfect Beat 10.1 (2009b): 81–101.

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    Argues that television has empowered and brought to the mainstream the Northeast minority through airing of the luk thung song genre. Covers history of the genre, and the social impact of significant television programs, with a case study of one drama series.

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  • Mitchell, James. “Khon Ban Diaokan or ‘We’re From the Same Village’: Star/Fan Interaction in Thai Lukthung.” Perfect Beat 12.1 (2011): 69–89.

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    Explores relationship between luk thung performers and their audiences, which derive from customary performer-audience relationships in more traditional genres of the Northeast. Notes opportunities for interaction between stars and fans in concerts and through fan clubs. Draws on literature distinguishing marginalized and dominant fandoms.

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  • Siriyuvasak, Ubonrat. “Commercialising the Sound of the People: Pleeng Luktoong and the Thai Pop Music Industry.” Popular Music 9 (1990): 61–77.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0261143000003731Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analysis of the industry behind the commercial luk thung genre, with an emphasis on political economy. Author explores the relationship between industry entrepreneurs (especially major recording companies) and artists, and relationship between DJ’s and audiences. Emphasizes possibilities for performers’ agency and creativity.

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  • Siriyuvasak, Ubonrat. “Thai Pop Music and Cultural Negotiation in Everyday Politics.” In Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Edited by Kuan-Hsing Chen, 184–204. London: Routledge, 1998.

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    Explores theoretical questions raised by the interplay of Thai folk music and Western pop-rock in pleng luk thung, especially the possibilities of resistance and accommodation. After a brief sketch of Thai popular music in general, the author analyzes numerous examples, with attention to both lyrics and musical sound. Special attention given to the mega-star Pumpuang Duangjan, and to implications of the disco beat.

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Northern Thai Music

The northern region of Thailand, known as Lanna and at one time an independent kingdom, maintains distinctive musical traditions that have begun to be documented in the scholarly literature. Readers should be aware that key vocabulary may vary among publications and is transliterated inconsistently. The most important overview, based on ethnographic and historical research, is Shahriari 2006. The changing status of northern music and its relationship to ethnic or regional identity is a persistent theme in the literature, as in Akins and Binson 2011, Dyck 1975, and McGraw 2007. Ferguson 2010 stands out as a rare ethnographic study of Thai adaptation of a Western performance genre alongside Lanna music.

  • Akins, Joel, and Bussakorn Binson. “Transmission of Traditional Lanna Music in Chiang Mai: Continuity and Change in a Contemporary Urban Environment.” City, Culture and Society 2 (2011): 243–254.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ccs.2011.08.001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Documents efforts to sustain performance traditions of northern Thailand on the part of academics, musicians, and students. Some performing arts have been adapted, and means of transmission updated, in order to reach larger numbers of participants. The authors are professors at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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  • Dyck, Gerald P. “The Vanishing Pia.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 2 (1975): 205–216.

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    Based on rural northern fieldwork in 1969, the author documents the then-rare chest-resonated stick zither. The article focuses on a single elderly musician, whose death is documented in the accompanying photo essay.

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  • Ferguson, Jane M. “Another Country Is the Past: Western Cowboys, Lanna Nostalgia, and Blues Aesthetics as Performed by Professional Musicians in Northern Thailand.” American Ethnologist 37 (2010): 227–240.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2010.01252.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ethnographic study of bluegrass bands, in Western cowboy attire, performing English-language songs and northern Thai music at Chiang Mai restaurants. Author argues that while the musicians point to an authentic Lanna past, they affirm Central Thai-authorized notions of separateness.

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  • McGraw, Andrew. “The Pia’s Subtle Sustain: Contemporary Ethnic Identity and the Lanna ‘Heart Harp.’” Asian Music 38.2 (2007): 115–142.

    DOI: 10.1353/amu.2007.0035Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Thorough yet readable work emphasizes the present-day popularity of an instrument that, according to Dyck 1975, had been on the verge of disappearing. The pin pia now has a prominent place in academia, tourism, and commercial venues. Author views the instrument and its repertory as emblematic of a revitalized northern Thai identity within multiethnic Thailand.

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  • Shahriari, Andrew C. Khon Muang Music and Dance Tradition in Northern Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus, 2006.

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    Detailed analytical description of traditional music and dance of the region, based on fieldwork. Documents the most significant dances, instruments, and ensembles, in the context of regional and national history. A very rare, or perhaps the only, English-language monograph on the performing arts of northern Thailand. The term khon muang means “people of the North,” and does not refer to any particular ethnicity.

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Music of Ethnic Minorities in Thailand

Aside from Thai-language scholarship and the important threads of literature on northeastern and northern regional music, studies of music among Thailand’s many ethnic minorities are unevenly available. Lau 2001 and Lau 2005 stand out as important studies of the significant Chinese community in Bangkok, while Sumrongthong 2008 is a very rare account of music among southern Thailand’s Muslims. Baba 2007 and Hartmann 2005 describe vocal music among the Tai-Lue ethnic group of Northern Thailand, while Larsen 1984 documents the Lisu, also of Northern Thailand. Oesch 1979 is difficult to access but stands out for its value as an overview. Wong 1998 takes up issues of identity and meaning when Mon-identified music is performed in a Thai ritual context.

  • Baba, Yuji. “Recent Changes in Tai-Lue Folk Song (‘Khap Lue’) in Northern Thailand and Yunnan, China.” In Authenticity and Cultural Identity: Performing Arts in Southeast Asia. Edited by Yoshitaka Terada, 91–105. Senri Ethnological Reports 65. Osaka, Japan: National Museum of Ethnology, 2007.

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    Compares antiphonal vocal performance, khap, as practiced by the Tai-Lue ethnic group in Nan province, northern Thailand, and in China. Introduces the genre, and describes its changing context in the two regions. Khap in Thailand is supported by preservation efforts, while its traditional context is greatly altered; in both Thailand and China, the status of khap is driven by national policy.

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  • Hartmann, John F. “Khàp Lue: Singing in the Lue Manner.” Tai Culture: Interdisciplinary Tai Studies Series 18 (2005): 6–10.

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    Concise introduction to the vocal music of the Tai-Lue ethnic group of northern Thailand.

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  • Larsen, Hans Peter. “The Music of the Lisu of Northern Thailand.” Asian Folklore Studies 43.1 (1984): 41–62.

    DOI: 10.2307/1178097Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Descriptive overview of the Lisu people, culture, and music, based on a review of scholarship and on fieldwork. Attention to instruments, musical principles, and functions and contexts of music. Author recorded extensive repertory from a single performer. Includes transcriptions of melodies and vocal lyrics.

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  • Lau, Frederick. “Performing Identity: Musical Expression of Thai-Chinese in Contemporary Bangkok.” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 16 (2001): 37–69.

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    Based on ethnographic research in the early 1990s, the author considers how amateur music clubs in Bangkok contribute to the formation of identity for Teochew-Chinese. He documents the Teochew in Thailand, and identifies deep-seated notions of history and homeland constructed through music.

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  • Lau, Frederick. “Entertaining ‘Chineseness’: Chinese Singing Clubs in Contemporary Bangkok.” Visual Anthropology 18.2–3 (2005): 143–166.

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    Author explores how musical performance is related to identity formation among urban middle-class Thai-Chinese. The fieldwork on which the study is based focused on clubs for singing Mandarin Chinese popular songs, which flourished during the early 1990s economic boom.

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  • Oesch, Hans. “The Music of the Hilltribes of Northern Thailand.” Journal of the National Research Council of Thailand 11.2–2 (1979): 1–26.

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    Overview of music among ethnic minorities of the North, by a Swiss musicologist who actively made field recordings among lesser-studied peoples of Southeast Asia. Includes attention to the relationship between vocal text and spoken language.

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  • Sumrongthong, Bussakorn. “The Blending of Thai-Muslim Musical Performances in Southern Thailand.” In Special Issue: Thailand’s Islamic Heritage. Edited by Pawan Mogya. Manusya: Journal of the Humanities 16 (2008): 99–113.

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    Well-rounded though succinct introduction to music and musical performance among Muslims in the southern provinces of Thailand, based on interviews with prominent musicians. Identifies core repertory and describes musical elements, transmission of musical knowledge, rituals, and beliefs. Important because extremely little scholarship addresses the music of the Muslim minority in Thailand, and because the southern Muslims constitute a distinct and significant population.

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  • Wong, Deborah. “Mon Music for Thai Deaths: Ethnicity and Status in Thai Urban Funerals.” Asian Folklore Studies 57.1 (1998): 99–136.

    DOI: 10.2307/1178999Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Documents near-exclusive use of Mon-identified musical practices at funerals, in the context of changing funerary practices and the growth of the urban Thai middle class. Author locates the popularity of Mon funeral music in a convergence of conceptions regarding the past, the present, and the Other. Draws on fieldwork in Bangkok in 1994, especially the funeral of a musician’s wife.

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Social and Political Analyses of Thai PopularMusic

Studies of urban Thai popular music, outside of the Northeast, have focused on questions of politics, economic structures, and the application of culture theory. Mitchell 2011 stands out as a timely analysis of music as used in the post-2006 Bangok political protests, while Lockard 1998 and Myers-Moro 1986 emphasize protest genres of the 1970s and 1980s. Mitchell 2012 and Siriyuvasak and Hyunjoon 2007 consider the flow of cultural forms between Thailand and other Asian nations, with attention given to theoretical implications. Another work with a theoretical emphasis is Hayes 2004, an overview of the political economy of the Thai entertainment industry. Sounsamut 2008 includes a very rare study of Thai religious hip-hop. Wong 1989 explores attitudes toward Thai pop, in contrast to Thai classical music, through visual images and material culture.

  • Hayes, Michael. “Capitalism and Cultural Relativity: The Thai Pop Industry, Capitalism and Western Cultures Values.” In Refashioning Pop Music in Asia: Cosmopolitan Flows, Political Tempos and Aesthetic Industries. Edited by Allen Chun, Ned Rossiter, and Brian Shoesmith, 17–31. London: Routledge, 2004.

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    From the field of cultural studies and criticism, this theoretically informed work details the Thai entertainment industry in relation to nationalism and capitalism. Describes major recording and distribution structures, and audiences, with a focus on urban popular music since the 1970s. Raises questions about the applicability of perspectives from US-based culture theory.

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  • Lockard, Craig A. Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998.

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    Comprehensive discussion of the role of popular music in politics across the region, mostly in the latter decades of the 20th century. The Thailand chapter (pages 162–206) focuses on genres that address the political system and social inequality: country luk thung 1970s-era songs for life, and 1980s folk rock, such as the band Carabao. Detailed scholarship, but readers do not need to be specialists; politics and music—emphasizing lyrics—are presented accessibly.

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  • Mitchell, James. “Red and Yellow Songs: A Historical Analysis of the Use of Music by the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and the People’s Alliance for Democracy.” South East Asia Research 19 (2011): 457–494.

    DOI: 10.5367/sear.2011.0058Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Recounts the use of music by two sides in Thai political protests (red shirts and yellow shirts) since 2005, and compares these protest songs to related genres of Thai politically significant popular music from earlier eras. Analysis pursues relationships between satire, memory, and hegemony as expressed through music.

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  • Mitchell, James. “The Quest for Soft Power Currency: Chinese and Japanese Cultural Currency in the Thai Popular Music Scene.” In Southeast Asia between China and Japan. Edited by Lam Peng Er and Victor Teo, 195–216. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2012.

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    Takes up theoretical questions regarding cultural influence or hegemony (“soft power”) through example of Thai performing arts, especially popular music. Recounts the history of Chinese and Japanese influence in Thailand, identifies East Asian influences on several genres of Thai pop, and discusses Thai efforts to market popular music to China and Japan.

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  • Myers-Moro, Pamela. “Songs for Life: Leftist Thai Popular Music in the 1970s.” Journal of Popular Culture 20.3 (1986): 93–114.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1986.2003_93.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Overview of the socially critical, politically motivated folk-rock genre pleng phua chiiwit, from its origins in the Thai democracy movement of the 1970s. Discusses social context, the genre amid other kinds of Thai music, musical and lyrical features (including rhyme scheme), and sources of symbolic or associative meaning.

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  • Siriyuvasak, Ubonrat, and Shin Hyunjoon. “Asianizing K-Pop: Production, Consumption and Identification Patterns Among Thai Youth.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 8 (2007): 109–136.

    DOI: 10.1080/14649370601119113Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Addresses Thai youth as consumers of Korean popular media artifacts, including popular music. Weighs rival interpretations, such as the possibility of cultural standardization across the region versus resistance through national ties. Thai youth may appropriate K-pop as part of their own national culture formation.

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  • Sounsamut, Pram. “Buddha Bless and Dharma Products: A New Trend of Teaching Dharma in Thailand.” Rian Thai: International Journal of Thai Studies 1 (2008): 107–128.

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    Social analysis of two contemporary efforts to teach Buddhist principles, beyond the level of identity and culture that the author notes characterize most Thai. The first of the two case studies addresses a hip-hop band, Buddha Bless, whose composer-performers include the five precepts (core moral principles of Buddhism) in lyrics. Based on research in 2006 and 2007, analysis focuses on lyrics of two songs, in translation.

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  • Wong, Deborah. “Thai Cassettes and Their Covers: Two Case Histories.” Asian Music 21.1 (1989): 78–104.

    DOI: 10.2307/834074Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Insightful comparison of attitudes toward Thai classical music and Thai pop, through reflection on the images on two commercial tape cassettes. Explores social understandings of performers’ identities and authenticity. Includes a descriptive overview of the Thai cassette industry and the role of tape cassettes in 1980s urban Thailand.

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