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Buddhist Music of Myanmar (Burma)*

Orthodox Theravada Buddhism frowns upon music as being decadent. Despite this cultural backdrop, the Burmese monarchy as well as the infusion of different regional music styles, have created several classical traditions of Burmese music. The oldest influences may perhaps come from China, which shares a similar pentatonic musical scale as classical Burmese music.  Other influences include Mon music (called Talaing than or "sounds of the Talaing "), particularly in the Mahagita, the complete body of classical Burmese music

Traditional music from Burma is melodious, generally without harmony, and usually in 4/4 time (na-yi-se) or 2/4 (wa-let-se) or 8/16 (wa-let-a-myan). There are "the segments combined into patterns, combined into verses, combined into songs that make Burmese music a multileveled hierarchical system.  The Burmese musician manipulates the various levels of the hierarchy to create the song.  A prevailing genre called Yodaya  is essentially a class of Burmese adaptations to songs accompanied with the saung gauk and come from the Ayutthaya kingdom (modern-day Thailand) during the reigns of Bayinnaung (1551–1581) and Hsinbyushin (1753–1776), which brought back a variety of cultural traditions including the Ramayana. The primary indigenous form is called thachin.

Burmese classical music ensembles can be divided into outdoor and indoor ensembles. The outdoor musical ensemble is the sidaw--also called sidawgyi, which was an outdoor ensemble in royal courts used to mark important ceremonial functions like the royal ploughing ceremony. It consists of a hnegyi, a large double reed pipe and sidaw, a pair of ceremonial drums, as well as the si and wa , a bell and clapper and the gandama, a double-headed drum. Today, sidaw music is played at festivals. Other instruments used in classical music include the saung (harp; right) and pattala (xylophone). The indoor form is the chamber music ensemble, which is basically a female singer accompanied by a traditional ensemble consisting of the saung , pattala , migyaung (zither), palwe (flute) and in the past, included the tayaw (fiddle) and hnyin (small mouth organ)

For political reasons, and due to the relative austerity of Theravada chant practice, there has been almost no scholarly research on Buddhist music in Burma.  Recent years have seen increased accessibility and interest.   Paul D. Greene (“The Dhamma as Sonic Praxis: Paritta Chant in Burmese Theravāda Buddhism” Asian Music  35.2 (2004): 43–78) seems to be alone in his
examination of this region’s Buddhist music traditions.  Greene examines the use of chant in Burmese Buddhism as a means of memorizing Buddhist teachings and fostering proper mindfulness; furthermore, he analyzes the sonic and expressive attributes of Paritta chant in Burma to explore how, though Paritta chant varies geographically, it retains the functions of promoting mindfulness and facilitating memorization of the teachings of the Buddha. 

Here are a few excerpts from Greene's article, which may be accessed on JSTOR:

Available historical and literary evidence suggests that during the first three centuries of Buddhism, the entirety of the Buddha's teaching--the Dhamma-was composed, learned, and propagated orally throughout Asia in the form of memorized and regularly rehearsed sound. The oral nature of this literature is evident in the fact that the historic Buddha Siddhartha Gautama chose to deliver his sermons and teachings in the vernacular language of Pali, rather than in Sanskrit, the language of elite religious writing of the time. There is evidence that already during the Buddha's lifetime his teachings came to be memorized and chanted: Mark Allon (1997:2) cites passages in Pali texts which recount monks hearing dhammas from the Buddha and reciting them, "line by line" (padaso dhammam vaceyya): i.e., retaining not only content but also stylistic features of alliteration, assonance, poetic and prosaic rhythm, and possibly other, more "musical" features as well.  Monks are described as being learned because they have "heard much" and are therefore able to apprehend th e Dhamma.  The famous monk Ananda, often considered the Buddha's favorite disciple, was said to be unequaled in his knowledge of the Buddha's discourse, of which he had memorized 82,000 (according to the Theragathdas).  Shortly after the Buddha's death a council (sangiti) was convened in order to rehearse and pass on his teachings and also those of his important followers, and some of the teachings were divided among groups of monks, each with the responsibility of memorizing and regularly chanting certain discourses (suttas).  Most of the paritta suttas are attributed to the historical Buddha and are commonly believed by Buddhists to be among the most ancient of the extant Buddhist dhammas, discourses. The history and also contemporary experience of the Dhamma by the vast majority of Buddhists is actually rooted, at least initially, in sonic experience.

It was not until the first century B.C., in Sri Lanka, that the earliest Buddhist texts were written down, primarily in Pali.  At this time, warfare and famine threatened the activities and lives of the monks who were retaining the texts through memorization and oral transmission. Evidently,  the motivation for putting the discourses into writing was as an emergency measure to safeguard them against being lost, rather than a desire to create authoritative, fixed documents. Althought he dhammas were gradually transcribed as written texts, oral teaching, memorization, and chanting has continued over the ensuing twenty-one centuries. The vast majority of Buddhists around the world have learned and know dhammas in this way, rather than through reading and studying written texts. An exclusively textual approacht to the study of Buddhist dhamma would under-represent the centrality of the  guru-disciple relationship in monastic chant instruction.  And although written dhammas have undoubtedly  affected the many ongoing practices of oral transmission and chant, written documents are not always regarded as more authoritative, reports an instance in which Buddhist monks corrected errorsi n a written text on the basis of their memorized and orally-chantevd version. 

No less importanitn the life of Buddhism today are what could be called the more "musical" elements of dhamma incantation: melodic contours, pitch centers, rhythmic and metric patterns, vocalization techniques, responsorial patterns, and punctuating sounds of bells and gongs. It is, of course, unknown what musical features and possibly even instruments may have been used in the earlyc enturieso f Buddhismb, uti t is evidenti n contemporarpyr acticet hatc hantt odayu nfoldsm usically,i n many significant ways. Musical features of paritta chant give an aural shape to recited passages that affects the way the words are heard, experienced, and contemplated. Burmese monks tell me that melodic, rhythmic, and timbral features are intended to inspire certain kinds of mindfulness of the truth of the dhamma, and lay people also describe the beneficial effects these features have in drawing attention to the texts in significantw ays. A Burmese lay person in Brooklyn  t ells me: "The reason monks become popular is not always because of their teachings, but because of their melodies. There is a music to it. Those monks who have a good voice are successful in teaching to laypeople. It is more interesting. We understantd hem and heart hemm ore.  M onotonec hanting is less good: people get sleepy, have a difficult time listening, even if subject is interesting.  "Practitioner also say that melodic and rhythmic features of two to one. Whati s remarkablaeb outt he metero f the Buddhistd hammasis thati t seems not to be fully consistentw ith the metricp atternsk nownt oexist in the majorityo f Indianl iteratureo f the period. Although some passagess can readilyi nto ganas thata re well-knowni n the literatureo f the time (includingv ariationso f the two auspiciousA rya ganasl2) others seem to resist such scanning..

Below is a video of Thai (not Burmese) forest monks.

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Further reading (compiled from Paul D. Greene, Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen and Hwee-San Tan, "Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey," in The World of Music,Vol. 44, No. 2, Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures (2002), 135-175 (VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002).
  • Becker, Judith 0.  "The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma." Galpin Society Journal (1967) 20:17-23.
  • Singer, Noel F.  Burmese Dance and Theatre. New York: Oxford University, 1995.