Thailand is known for its amazing beaches, incredible food, and beautiful temples, but its music is not as well known. Despite that, it has a fascinating and rich musical heritage that dates back thousands of years.
Traditional Thai instruments play a vital role in folk festivals and celebrations. Most of these are crafted by hand, reflecting age-old social and intellectual influences.
Thai instruments are divided into three categories. We have string, percussion, and wind instruments. Now let’s take a closer look at 12 traditional Thai instruments you should know.
1. Ranat Ek
Up first, we have the Ranat ek, a renowned traditional Thai musical instrument that belongs to the keyboard percussion family.
It is similar in appearance to the xylophone, but its design and construction are quite different. The instrument features a concave shape that resembles a ship, with 21 keys suspended by cords along the top.
Modern versions of the Ranat ek now have 22 keys, which are typically made of rosewood. These keys vary in size to generate a range of sounds when struck with two mallets. The lowest-toned key measures 15 inches in length and 1.5 cm in thickness, while higher-toned keys tend to be thicker.
The sound produced by the Ranat ek is influenced by the type of mallet used. Hard mallets create louder, sharper notes, which are well-suited for faster playing. On the other hand, soft mallets yield gentler, mellower sounds that complement slower playing styles.
The Ranat ek is commonly featured in piphat ensembles, which are traditional Thai groups consisting of wind and percussion instruments. However, it can also be heard in various settings, such as mixed ensembles during Buddhist temple festivals or as background music in restaurants and theme parks.
Next, we have the Taphon, a key instrument in both piphat and mahori ensembles, and is highly regarded in Thai classical music. As the primary drum in these ensembles, the Taphon plays a central role.
This barrel-shaped drum is crafted from wood and measures approximately 20 inches in length. It features two animal skin drum heads, predominantly made from calf hide, which vary in size. The central section of the drum is often adorned with intricate designs.
When playing the Taphon, the performer positions the drum on its side for easier access. They use their fingers and palms to strike the drum heads, rather than relying on mallets.
Due to its auspicious nature, the Taphon is frequently played during Buddhist rituals in shrines. It is believed to appease the resident deity and is therefore regarded as a sacred instrument. As a result, the Taphon is often placed in an elevated position compared to other instruments.
Next, we have our first Thai string instrument called Krachappi (also called Grajabpi). This ancient instrument has been with the Thai people for more than 2000 years.
The Krachappi has a lute-like appearance and consists of four strings in two courses. It is made of teakwood or jackfruit and has a turtle-shaped soundbox. The instrument also features an elongated decorative tail made of wood and is played using a plectrum.
To play the Krachappi, the performer places the instrument on their lap for convenience. They position the head at a 45-degree angle and hold the pick using the right hand. The performer flicks on the strings up and down, depending on the song’s rhythm and melody.
The Krachappi has been used in central classical Thai music to accompany singing. It is also often found in mahori alongside four to eight other instruments. The Krachappi’s unique sound adds depth and character to any performance.
4. Khong Wong Yai
Often referred to as the “circle of gongs,” the Khong Wong Yai is a traditional Thai musical instrument that is commonly used in piphat ensembles. It is the Thai equivalent of a gong and is a vital component of traditional Thai music.
The instrument is made up of 16 large gongs, which are arranged in a semi-circle within a rattan frame. They are positioned in ascending order, from the lowest to the highest pitch.
The gongs are traditionally made from bronze, but nowadays, they are commonly crafted from brass. Quite uniquely to any instrument you might have come across, to tune the gongs, beeswax is applied beneath them. The amount of beeswax applied determines the pitch of the gongs, with less beeswax producing a higher pitch and more beeswax resulting in a lower pitch.
To play the Khong Wong Yai, the performer sits in the center of the semi-circle and uses two mallets to strike the gongs. The sound produced can range from gentle to high-pitched, depending on whether the mallets are soft or hard.
The Khong Wong Yai is renowned for its resonant and melodious sound. Its primary function is to provide the foundational melody for the other instruments in the piphat ensemble. Historically, gongs were used as a signal in wars, but nowadays, they are more commonly used in various rites and ceremonies.
5. Ranat Thum
The Ranat Thum is yet another percussion instrument that is a vital component of the Thai piphat ensemble. It is the lower-pitched counterpart to the Ranat Ek.
While the Ranat Thum and Ranat Ek share similarities, the former has a lower profile and appears wider than the latter. The Ranat Thum has a boat-like, box-shaped base that suspends 17 or 18 wooden keys, which are crafted from the same material as those of the Ranat Ek.
The Ranat Thum produces a deep, bass-like sound, which is reflected in its name, “Thum,” meaning lower tone. It is played with two mallets that are usually made of bamboo.
The Ranat Thum emerged as an adaptation of the Ranat Ek during the early Rattanakosin Kingdom period, around the time of Rama III. Today, it continues to be an essential instrument in Thai classical music, often used in ensembles for traditional dances and ceremonies.
6. Pong Lang
Historically, the people of the Kalasin Province used the Pong Lang for entertainment and to drive animals away from their farms. Today, the instrument plays a significant role in various celebrations and ceremonies, frequently accompanying festivities and other events.
Often suspended from a post or a tree, the Pong Lang arcs towards the ground. The instrument is played using two sticks, typically made of bamboo, and produces a distinct sound that is both vibrant and lively.
Veering away from the string and percussion instruments, next have a duct flute called the Khlui. Played vertically, the Khlui is believed to have originated during or before the Sukhothai period (AD 1238–1583).
Unlike other wind instruments, it lacks a reed. Although it has undergone some adjustments and variations over the years, its core remains the same.
The Khlui comes in a range of sizes and can be made using hardwood, bamboo, or even plastic. The front of the instrument shows small holes in a row, which the player covers to change the pitch of the sound. The mouthpiece is a bamboo plug inserted on top of the flute.
The Khlui is not just played solo but also has an important role in ensembles such as khrueang sai, mahori, and piphat. Its sound complements other instruments in the ensemble and adds a unique character to the overall performance.
Our next instrument is Chakhe (also spelled Jakhe), a traditional plucked string instrument in Thai music. The name comes from chorakhe, which means “crocodile” because of its crocodile-like shape.
The Chakhe is a floor zither consisting of three strings made of different materials. The first two are made from silk, while the third string is made from bronze. The strings of the Chakhe are plucked with an ivory plectrum.
The Chakhe is made of wood, typically jackfruit wood, and measures about 51 inches long and stands around 8 inches in height. The frets are raised and made out of bamboo, which are attached to the fretboard using glue or wax. The instrument is played by placing it on the floor and sitting cross-legged in front of it.
The Chakhe is commonly used in the mahori ensemble and is usually played during stage and wedding performances. It is a popular instrument that adds a unique flavor to traditional Thai music.
9. Saw Duang
Another string instrument on our list is the Saw Duang, a traditional Thai spike fiddle that is commonly played in the wong khrueang sai ensemble.
The name of the instrument is derived from its shape, which resembles a trap used by people in northern Thailand to catch edible lizards!
The instrument has two strings and is played using a bow with its body, typically crafted from hardwood or ivory, while the bow is made from horsetail hair, and the strings can be made from silk, nylon, or metal. When played, the instrument produces bright and sharp tones that are characteristic of its sound.
Due to its light weight, the Saw Duang is usually placed vertically on the lap of the performer, who tilts the bow to go between the strings. In the wong khrueang sai ensemble, the Saw Duang serves as the lead instrument because of its distinct sound. It is often played during special occasions such as weddings and housewarmings.
10. Saw Sam Sai
The Saw Sam Sai is a unique bowed string instrument belonging to the saw family of fiddles. It is considered one of the hardest-to-play traditional stringed instruments in Thailand, requiring a great level of skill to master.`
The instrument’s body is made from a special type of coconut shell, with one end covered by animal skin to generate resonance. The neck is made from hardwood or ivory, and the bow is made from hardwood and horsetail. It has three silk strings that produce a distinct sound.
Performers of the Saw Sam Sai typically have a front-row seat in the ensemble. Before playing, they often glue a jewel on top of the animal skin to reduce its resonance.
In the past, the Saw Sam Sai was played in royal rituals and was a favorite of King Rama II, elevating its social status. Today, it is part of the mahori ensemble and string bands.
Up next is the Ching, which belongs to the percussion family. It’s a pair of bowl-shaped finger cymbals and is considered one of the easiest instruments to play. In fact, it is often played by dancers as they perform.
The Ching is made of heavy bronze and measures five centimeters in diameter. It has a cord running through the center to join the cymbals. This design allows the performer to hold each cymbal in one hand and strike them together to produce open and closed sounds.
In a traditional Thai ensemble, the Ching is played alongside fiddles, xylophones, gong circles, drums, and zithers. The Ching is used to mark time and regulate the melody in Thai music. The instrument’s sound is crisp and bright, making it a perfect complement to other instruments in the ensemble.
And finally, the last on our list is another wind instrument called the Wot, a type of vertical, circular panpipe usually made of 13 pieces of bamboo.
It has six finger holes and is played by blowing across the top of the instrument. It’s a versatile instrument that can produce a range of sounds, from soft and mellow to sharp and piercing.
One of the unique features of wot is its ability to produce a variety of vibrato effects, which are created by shaking the instrument while playing. This technique adds a dynamic and expressive quality to the music.
Traditionally, the Wot was played in ritual practices. It was an instrument to call on the god of the water to fall as rain before harvest.
Summing Up Our List Of Traditional Thai Instruments
As you can tell by now, the Thai people possess a long and rich history of music. It has been carried through generations over hundreds of years and is still intact today.
The traditional Thai instruments we discussed today make up an integral part of Thai culture. They’re one of the factors that give identity to Thai music and culture in general.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed learning about these instruments. They’re only a small part that comprises Thailand. But it’s a glimpse of what makes the country unique.
So next time you visit Thailand, make sure to take some time to listen to the beautiful sounds of these instruments and experience the magic of Thai music firsthand.