Burmese Music(181 k.)

Burmese Music

The structure of Burmese music is, regrettably, too little known outside of Myanmar due to the political isolation which has been imposed since 1962. There has been consequently little study of it and even writings by Burmese scholars are extremely rare. It is generally related to the music genres of South East Asia and generally uses gong chime instruments roughly similar to those of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Burmese music also draws upon the rich heritage of Hindu Buddhist traditions. Burmese music is nonetheless strongly distinct from the music cultures of its neighbors. Within the realm of Burmese traditional music, there are two distinct modes of performance, a chamber music ensemble which prominently uses the Burmese harp, Saung Gauk.(163 k.), and the outdoor gong and drum ensemble known as hsaing(138k). Both ensembles share a single vast repertoire. This body of music is known as the Maha Gita, or great song, and was used during the many reigns of the Burmese Monarchy. The final Burmese dynasty, the Alaungpaya, which began in 1752, lasted until 1885 when it was overthrown by the British.

Tonal System

In essence, Burmese music consists of a series of seven tone scales called athan(1). While there is a particular and unique name for each of these athan, there is no term in Burmese equivalent to the Javanese patet, or the Indian raga. A distinctive and clear performance practice, however, indicates a conscious awareness of a highly developed and clearly defined modal system among Burmese musicians. In theory, a series of seven tone are recognized as basic. Each of these seven pitches can be used as a starting tone for one or more "modes". The term athan generally refers to the pitch of the starting tone, although in the case of certain athan, for example, chauk pauk or chauk thwe nyunt, the reference is to a 'mode' in which the emphasis and finalis is on a pitch one third higher than the starting tone. In each case, the basic 'mode' would be given a different name. Thus, than you has as starting tone the pitch, than hman whereas chauk pauk shares the same pitches but has its tonal center a third higher. Clearly, the Burmese usage implies a practice closer to Javanese patet or even Indian Raga than the straighter directly transposable pitch series of Thai music.

It is also important to note in Burmese tradition that certain athan are appropriate for certain compositions and for transpositions from other like athan, whereas others are not. In the traditional performance of all night theater, either the pwe, theater with live actors, or the You Thei, puppet theater, certain athan were used for different periods of the theatrical night. Furthermore, in each athan there is a basic pattern of emphasized tones, in which five out of the basic seven tones available in each athan are emphasized, most often in either a pattern of I II III V VI or I III IV V VII. The other two tones in each case would be used as passing tones, exchange tones, and for temporary modulations to other athan. The two patterns of pitch emphasis give each of these systems a distinct character. All of this defines a practice more like 'modes', 'patet', or even 'raga' than simply a series of scales on various starting pitches.

Skeletal Structure

Fundamental to the technique of Burmese music is the use of two semi independent voices for the instrumental interpretation of all compositions in the classical repertoire. When performed on an instrument like the saung, the player executes the melody and at certain points, adds the secondary or harmonic tone. However, in the performance of instruments such as the xylophone or the drum circle, and subsequently, the piano, one hand plays the melodic line while the other either plays the secondary notes, and periodically jumps up to aid in the articulation of the melody line. The melody is in the upper range while the lower voice supports the melody with a few supporting tones. In this form each of the hundreds of poems in the Maha Gita repertoire is memorized. This skeletal form is the instrumental basis for further embellishment and improvisation. It is used both in the chamber music medium of performance, for the hsaing ensemble, as well as by solo instruments, like the piano.

Basic to this principle is the concept that certain melodic tones, particularly those which help to outline the tonal structure of the poerty on which the song is based, are supported by a second tone. Some secondary tones are an octave lower than the emlody note, others, a fourth or fifth below. Certain pitches appear as appoggiaturas, others as falling thirds and still others are harmonized as ninths or sevenths, etc. This pattern of support tones delineates and clarifies the tone pattern of the spoken Burmese language and follows the poetic line of the song text, even in entirely instrumental settings. The skeletal pattern of the melody, sometimes moving along in a two part setting with supporting octaves, fourths, fifths, ninths and sevenths as well as falling ornaments, and at other times becoming, for a short period, a single melody is the standard performance mode of Burmese music. These patterns follow the stress and duration tones of the spoken language. The falling ornaments, for example appear on tones which are assigned to those spoken tones which are ennuciated with a sharp falling pattern. Their appearance in even instrumental performances of Burmese music become part of the formal matrix for further ornamentation by Burmese musicians in all settings. This pattern delineating as it does, the stressed tones, accents, and falling tones of the language, give the Burmese listener a constant reference to the text and poetry of the original composition.

It should be noted here that in the Burmese tradition, pitches are counted down from the finalis. Thus what we would ordinarily refer to as the second degree of the scale is called the seventh by the Burmese. The names of the pitches are taken from the fingerings of the hne, the double reed pipe of the hsaing ensemble. In this system the fundamental or finalis is called Than Man. The subsequent pitches are named from the fingerholes going downward from Than man, Hnit Pauk, the "second hole", actually the Western seventh, Thoun Bauk, the "third hole," (Western sixth), Leibauk, "fourth hole," (fifth), Nga Bauk, "fifth hole" (fourth), Chauk Pauk, the "sixth hole" (third) and Hkunathan Gyi, the "great seventh," actually the second degree in the Western system. For convenience, I follow the Western convention whenever necessary.

It is also a part of the Burmese music tradition to make use of a set of phonemes(2) which are associated with each kind of sound produced instrumentally. In this manner, single tones, octaves, ninths, thirds, and falling tone in the language,for example, each have a particular phoneme associated with them. This system is further differentiated by the particular degree of the scale type or athan on which they are found.

The Kyo song, Tan Taya, usually the first piece to be learned in the Burmese tradition, is a good example of the use of this onomatopoeia in the body of the song text.

Such systems of onomatopoeia are common in many traditions of music in Asia. They serve as excellent mnemonic aids and provide an efficient tool for teaching as well(3). Each of these syllables alone implies the harmonic second tone which supports it. By the use of syllables such as these in teaching Burmese music, the master can not only sing the song text and melody but without even playing on an instrument, refer to the two part accompanying pattern with single sung syllables. This system of syllables is then further delineated to accommodate particular playing patterns for the traditional instruments like the drum circle, bamboo xylophone or harp.

There are two principles common in Burmese music that are so frequently encountered that even in this short elucidation of Burmese music they deserve mention. One is the use of modulation to other tonal centers in the course of a composition and the second is the use of melodic sequences. Modulation is part of the formal structure of almost the entire Maha Gita repertoire. The device of the the sequence is used so frequently in Burmese that often the listener may at first believe he has previously heard a particular piece which makes use of it

The two part structure of Burmese music creates two effects. One of these is the providing of the consonant tones which support and delineate the main pitches of the athan and thus clarify it, as well as providing tone combinations which underlie the secondary pitches along with those identifying the distinctive Burmese spoken falling tone. The second effect is to alternate with the melodic line in creating a single melodic line while in fact being divided over two parts. This underlying framework provides the basic structure over which variations in the form of tempo changes, often quite dramatic, and additional variation and ornamentation are applied. It is this same structural pattern which can be detected as the generating force in the piano music of U Ko Ko.

email to rgarfias@uci.edu
last updated 31 October 1995