Music Southeast Asia
Christi-Anne Castro
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0153


Southeast Asia is comprised of ten countries. Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are part of the mainland, while Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei (on Borneo), and the Philippines are island nations, and Malaysia is both. Additionally, regional and comparative studies often distinguish between highland and lowland peoples, the diversity of ethnic groupings, and urban and rural populations. Others stress dominant and minority religions, a history of trade, former kingdoms, and European colonization in investigations of musical similarities and differences. Ethnomusicological writings are not uniformly distributed among sites. Indeed, the history of ethnomusicology and the study of Indonesia are tied particularly closely, explaining the relative breadth and number of available sources in English. The Dutch musicologist Jaap Kunst (b. 1891–d. 1960), who coined the term “ethno-musicology,” studied Indonesian music, as did Mantle Hood (b. 1918–d. 2005), the scholar who established the first ethnomusicology program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Within Indonesian studies is a preponderance of work on the different gamelan ensembles, particularly Central Javanese and Balinese. Conversely, other countries of Southeast Asia are understudied for different reasons. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have been difficult to access and have been off limits to scholars at various times. Singapore and Brunei have attracted even less attention, perhaps because of perceptions that their musical expressions are merely localized versions of traditions found in China, India, or other Southeast Asian countries. Despite the many studies on the region as a whole, there is much music scholarship to be done, especially in the aforementioned places. Vietnam has more available works on music, though many are located in Vietnam and present a language barrier. The writings by Trần Văn Khê (b. 1921–present) were the earliest to receive widespread international distribution, and most are in French, but there are a number of more recent studies in English by foreign and Vietnamese scholars. The Philippines, too, has a good number of contemporary sources in English. Many Filipino musicologists and ethnomusicologists were trained abroad, particularly in the United States. José Maceda (b. 1917–d. 2004), considered to be the father of Filipino ethnomusicology, received his doctoral degree from UCLA under Mantle Hood. The resources of this article tend toward published and more easily accessible monographs and books, but there are also essays in edited collections, journal articles, and dissertations included when scholarship has been less copious.

General Overviews and Multi-Country Studies

Most of the included multi-country studies are edited collections of scholarly essays by experts in the field. Surveys, such as Becker 1993, Malm 1996a, and Malm 1996b are useful as classroom texts or references for student research papers. Music styles and practices covered in the remaining multi-country studies are sometimes held together by an overarching theme, such as music education in Brand 2006, popular music in Lockard 1998, and drama in Osman 1974. At other times, as with Abels and International Institute for Asian Studies 2011 and Morton 1975, the essays are simply grouped by region, and individual essays deal with single genres that are specialty areas of their authors. Catlin and Mahoney 1992 more tightly focuses on the lesser-studied countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

  • Abels, Birgit, and International Institute for Asian Studies. Austronesian Soundscapes: Performing Arts in Oceania and Southeast Asia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011.

    Collected essays. Of interest are chapters on the music of Kalinga (Philippines) peace pacts by Glenn Stallsmith, Sundanese dance by Henry Spiller, Malay-Islamic Zapin music and dance by Mohd. Anis Md Nor, Chinese music in Sabah (Malaysia) by David Wong, and vocal music in Eastern Flores (Indonesia) by Dana Rappoport.

  • Becker, Judith. “Southeast Asia.” In Ethnomusicology: Historical and Regional Studies. Edited by Helen Meyers, 377–391. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

    Survey of the region in a collection that is part of the Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music Series. Very brief entries for each country simply provide an overarching view of the diversity of music traditions. Of interest to students and others, the chapter contains a country-by-country bibliography that is a good starting point for further research.

  • Brand, Manny. The Teaching of Music in Nine Asian Nations: Comparing Approaches to Music Education. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2006.

    A rare glimpse into music education in Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Brand presents the stories of fifteen music teachers in various settings. The prose is ethnographic, reflexive, and accessible and is about the author’s experiences with teachers rather than music or theories of pedagogy.

  • Catlin, Amy, and Therese Mahoney, eds. Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 9: Text, Context, and Performance in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Los Angeles: Department of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992.

    Valuable collection of essays on well- and less-studied traditions. Following the introduction advocating a hermeneutical approach are four sections on regional ethnic minorities, Khmer arts in Cambodia, traditional and popular music in Laos, and traditional Vietnamese music. Two essays on Buddhist music of Northeast Thailand and Vietnam are also included.

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

    Survey of the history and political implications of important popular music genres in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Useful as a resource and textbook, this book documents some five decades of pop from a global and comparative perspective. The bibliography is a strong starting point for further studies.

  • Malm, William. “Island Southeast Asia from the Philippines to Indonesia.” In Music Cultures of the Pacific, The Near East, and Asia. By William Malm, 37–63. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996a.

    In a survey of instruments and musical practices in textbook style prose, this chapter on islands is divided into music of the Philippines, Borneo, and Indonesia.

  • Malm, William. “Southeast Asia.” In Music Cultures of the Pacific, The Near East, and Asia. By William Malm, 142–166. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996b.

    In a survey of instruments and musical practices in textbook style prose, this chapter on mainland music takes a comparative approach, grouping different regional genres under headings such as instrumental ensembles, vocal music, folk music, and theatrical and popular music.

  • Morton, David, ed. Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology: Southeast Asia. Vol. 2. Los Angeles: Department of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1975.

    Early unthemed collection of essays. Articles and topics not easy to find elsewhere include an English chapter by Trần Văn Khê, one on improvisation in stratified ensembles by Mantle Hood, one on kyo songs of Burma (Myanmar) by Muriel Williamson, and one on a northern Thai long drum by Gerald Dyck.

  • Osman, Mohd. Taib, ed. Traditional Drama and Music of Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka, 1974.

    Collection of essays on different regional arts, many of which examine music. Section A on shadow puppetry focuses on narratives and aspects of theater, Section B on dramas and dance, and Section C on music. (See Brunet 1974, cited under Cambodia; Trimillos 1974, cited under Philippines: Regional, and Brunei Delegation 1974, cited under Brunei.)

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