Gavin Douglas


Nation/Culture(s). The Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma) is located in mainland Southeast Asia. Its borders include India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. To the south lies the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The country stretches from the snow covered Himalayas, 2000 kilometers south to the beaches of the Malay Peninsula. Mountainous jungles line the borders and surround the lowlands of the Ayeyarwaddy, Chindwin and Sittaung River valleys where much of the country's arable land and population are concentrated.


The population of approximately 60 million is comprised of over 130 ethnic groups with a wide variety of languages and cultural traditions. The largest ethnic group in the country, the Burman (Bama) at approximately 65%, lives predominantly in the lowland areas while the highlands contain a multitude of other ethnicities. The country is administrated through seven states (largely Burman) and seven provinces (Rakine, Kachin, Chin, Shan, Kayin, Kayah, Mon) named after the most populous ethnic group in that region.


There are approximately 100 different languages spoken in the country from four different language families. Burmese is spoken by the majority and is the language of government and education. Use of minority languages has largely been discouraged in the past century while English is increasingly finding acceptances in the urban, commercial and educational spheres.


While there is no official religion in Myanmar the 89% Buddhist majority (largely Theravada) has a strong influence on the culture. Christian and Muslim ethnic minorities are dominant in certain ethnic minority regions and have frequently struggled with religious persecution.


Throughout the past century Myanmar has struggled with political and economic instability. After shedding the yoke of British colonialism in 1948, a military dictatorship isolated the country from the world in 1962. Multiple political uprisings (most significantly in 1988 and 2007), along with the devastating Cyclone Nargis (2008, 140,000+ deceased) unsettled the military dictatorship that finally relinquished power in 2011. Noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is currently a member of parliament after seventeen years under house arrest for pro-democratic political activity. The second decade of the 21st century finds sweeping changes to many areas of Myanmar: increased press freedom, rebuilding of universities, economic development and normalizing of foreign relations.



Features, Genres (Art, Folk/Traditional, Popular). An immense variety of musical styles can be found throughout the country and few generalizations are possible. The most prominent indigenous tradition of court music is known as thachin gyi (great songs). The texts of these 18th and 19th century songs have been documented in a number of written sources collectively known as the Maha Gita (from the Pali, maha-great; gita-music). Though royal patronage for this tradition faded with colonization the tradition has been maintained through its associations with and adaptation into local theatre (anyeint, zat and yokthe), dance, film, the state schools founded after WWII, and private apprenticeship.

Two ensemble types are found in this tradition. The hsaing waing ensemble found in festival, theatrical, and ritual contexts, consists of a drum circle of 21 tuned drums (patt waing), several sets of tuned gongs (kyi waing, maung), a reed aerophone (hne) and an assortment of percussion instruments. In contrast, instruments such as the harp (saung) and the bamboo xylophone (pattala) play much of the same repertoire in smaller, intimate, indoor settings. In the 20th century the styles of thachin gyi mixed with popular and foreign influences for new contexts such as film and radio and adapted the traditional styles to Western instruments such as the piano, guitar and violin.


Most minority traditions do not have royal, state or institutional support and vary greatly in their context and function. Traditions differ with location, access to resources, and distance from the centers of political, education and media influence. Mon music in the south of Myanmar shares many qualities (and instruments) with Burman traditions, Shan (a Tai group) in the northeast share linguistic, religious and musical elements with neighbouring Thailand. Indigenous traditions of many upland groups (Karen, Kachin, etc) use instruments formed from gong and bamboo and increasingly have adopted Christian hymnody.


Popular music throughout the country is strongly influence by Western, J-pop and K-pop styles. Most popular music in Myanmar is referred to as "copy tune" and "own tune" to describe the origins of the melody. Revisions of international pop/rock songs with censor board-approved lyrics has dominated the industry throughout the last four decades. Heavy metal was quite popular throughout the 80s and 90s and hip-hop has had a strong following in the past ten years. Lyrics, dress, and stage performance were aggressively censored during the years of military dictatorship (1962-2011). In 2012 the highly influential and controversial censor board shut its doors allowing musicians, authors, poets, and others to distribute a much wider body of expression.


While not regarded locally as music, an extensive tradition of monastic chant (in Pali and Burmese) is found throughout the country in Buddhist monasteries.


Notable Musicians. In both the court/classical and the popular music contexts, notable musicians are revered for their contributions and yield significant influence.

Hlaing Win Maung (b. 1969-). harpist, teacher at the University of Culture.


Inle Myint Maung (1937-2001). Harpist (saung) and teacher.


Ko Ko, U (1928-2007). Pianist and film composer.


Kyauk Sein (b. 1966-). hsaing waing trouple leader and virtuosic patt waing player.


Kyaw Kyaw Naing (b. 1964). virtuosic patt waing player currently living in the U.S.


Lay Phyu (b. 1965). Burmese rock vocalist/guitarist.


Sai Htee Saing (1950-2008). Popular singer throughout the 80s and 90s of Shan descent.


Sandaya Hla Htut (1936-2000) Pianist and film composer


Zaw Win Tut (b. 1964). rock, country, and blues singer, and the lead vocalist of the band Emperor.


Notable popular bands include: Iron Cross, Emperor, Generation Wave, Me ne ma girls


Music Schools. Instrumental music is rarely found in the Myanmar school system. Vocal music is normal through 6 standard (4th grade) but not often found in upper levels. In the 1950s several state schools of traditional music began offering apprentice programs in music. In 1993 the University of Culture (Yangon) opened its doors offering bachelor degrees in music, theatre, visual arts and dance. The Mandalay campus of the University of Culture opened in 2003. Multiple independent music schools exist throughout the country but there is no standardized curriculum or program shared.



University of Culture, Yangon

Gita Meit Music Center.


Recommendations for Listening.

Burma: Classical Theatre Music. Archives Internationales De Musique Popularie VDE 1317/1318, 2010.


Ko Ko, U. Burmese Piano. UMMUS UMM 203. 1995.


Hlaing Win Maung. Pleasing Melody. Eastern Country Productions. 2006.


Music of Myanmar: Buddhist Chant in the Pali Tradition. Celestial Harmonies 14219-2. 2008.


Mying Maung, U and Daw Yi Yi Thant. Mahagitá: Harp and Vocal Music of Burma. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. SFW CD 40492.


White Elephants and Golden Ducks. Shanachie 64087. 1997.


Recommendations for Reading.

Douglas, Gavin. 2010. Music in Mainland Southeast Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Garfias, Robert. 1975. “A Musical Visit to Burma.” World of Music 17(1): 3-13.


Keeler, Ward. 1998. “Music of Burma,” in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Southeast Asia. Edited by Terry Miller and Sean Williams, pp. 363-400. New York: Garland Publishing.


Lu, Hsin-chun Tasaw. 2009. “The Burmese Classical Music Tradition: An Introduction.” Fontes Artis Musicae 56(3): 254-71.


MacLachlan, Heather. 2011. Burma's Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors, Censors Rochester: University of Rochester Press.