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Classical Dance Music


photographed by Richard Vogel

Music had always played an important part in Khmer culture.  There are different orchestras for different occasions like: pleng khar also known as pleng-khmer for weddings and is also considered to be the most traditional of all orchestras, pleng pin-peat for monastic functions, pleng khlong khek for funeral purposes, pleng mohori for entertainment as well and for some other rituals, pleng-arak for healing and warding off black magic, just to name a few.  Music is just one of the many art forms that survived today and is very fragile because, it is taught orally from father to son or from teacher to student.  Traditionally music was never written down and it is incredible that a musician will know how to play countless compositions and musicial pieces without any scores or notations.

However Khmer culture suffered very badly under the Khmer Rouge regime including many other art forms including classical dance, masked theatre, shadow theatre and many others.  They destroyed any documentation or notation that was written.  They killed off many musicians. Today music is still an important aspect of Khmer culture and will live on in those who keep this highly expressive art form alive.  Although with the influx of modern entertainment it doesn't seem to actually have any impact on the performing arts because, the government is aware of what could happen, therefore keeps them apart from new music and modern culture, thus keeping Khmer arts in it's original and pure form.


The pin-peat orchestra is the best known orchestra and the most often played in Cambodia.  The pin-peat orchestra is also by far the oldest orchestra in Cambodia dating to the Angkorean period.  There is also evidence about the existence of the orchestra carved on the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat.  A procession of musicians playing wind and percussion instruments consisting of suspended gongs, gong-chimes, drums, oboes, trumpets and horns.  The pin-peat orchestra was often associated with robam boran khmer (Classical Cambodian dance), lakhon khol (masked theatre), nang sbek (shadow theatre), as well as royal rituals, monastic functions that was composed of the best musicians in the kingdom.  Some of the musicians were descended from a long lineage of palace artists, while others were recruited among musicians from the countryside through competitions.



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Nang sbek (shadow theatre)

Pin-peat orchestra shared many common characteristics of it's neighbouring countries such as Laos, Thailand and Burma (Myamar).  In Thailand and Laos the pin-peat orchestra is called pi-phat and in Burma it's called hsaing-waing.  These orchestras include gong-chimes mounted on rattan frames called khong-vong in Cambodia and Laos, khong-wong in Thailand and kyi-waing in Burma.

Apart from gong-chimes the orchestra also includes bamboo or hardwood keyed xylophones that are suspended on boat shaped and trough shaped resonators called roneat in Cambodia, ranat in Thailand and Laos, pa'tala in Burma.


Robam Boran Khmer (Classical Cambodian Dance) photographed by Giovanni Diffidenti


The pin-peat orchestra would normally comprise of wind and percussion instruments. Stringed instruments such as pin (harp or vina) which once formed part of the pin-peat orchestra but have been replaced many centuries ago, thus string instruments have no place in this orchestra.  In classical dance the orchestra is accompanied by a choir of three to six singers usually made of up both men and women singing texts that recount stories while the dancers mime the story lines through expressive gestures and movements.  During the reign of King Sisowath (1904 -1927), there were twenty-singers, two first female singers, and two readers.  The pin-peat orchestra would comprise of four instrumental groups of the following:

  • and finally, the percussion instruments, comprised of a horizontal drum mounted on a stand (skor samphor), two large bass drums (skor thom), and little copper cymbals (chhing) replacing the sets of bamboo clappers that had disappeared in the 1940's.  In the past the bamboo clappers (krapp) accompanied the choirs.


The pin-peat orchestra can be small or large depending on how many musicians are available to play the musical instruments and also the function.  A small pin-peat orchestra (vong pleng pin-peat toch) would normally comprise of one xylophone (roneat ek), one large gong-chime (khong-vong thom), one oboe (sralay toch or sralay thom), one horizontal barrel drum mounted on a stand (skor samphor) and two large bass drums (skor thom).


Vong pleng pin-peat toch (small pin-peat orchestra)



Vong pleng pin-peat thom (large pin-peat orchestra) performed by royal palace musicians in Phnom Penh from the 1950s photographed by D.R.

In the larger pin-peat orchestra (vong pleng pin-peat thom) would comprise of three xylophones (roneat ek, roneat thung and roneat dek), two gong-chimes (khong-vong thom and khong-vong toch), two oboes (sralay thom and sralay toch) and sometimes a   bamboo flute (khloy) will replace the sralay, a pair of small thick cymbals (chhing), a horizontal drum mounted on a stand (skor samphor) and two large bass drums (skor thom).

In Battambang Province during the late 19th to early part of the 20th century, when Cambodia was still under French Colonial rule, there was a pin-peat orchestra that was owned by a local Lord Governor of the Province.  His excellency's orchestra consisted of about thirteen musicians making the orchestra very well known throughout the whole of Battambang Province.   During monastic occasions and local festivals, local pagodas would hire his excellency's orchestra to perform in the religious and other rituals. The Lord Governor's orchestra comprised of :

  • two pairs of large bass drums (skor thom).
  • a horizontal barrel drum mounted on a stand (skor samphor).
  • one bossed gong (khong khrol).
  • one gong-chime (khong-vong toch).
  • two oboes (sralay nok and sralay nay).
  • three xylophones (roneat ek or roneat rut, roneat tharng and roneat thuong).
  • and two pairs of thick cymbals (chhing toch and chhing thom).

Vong pleng pin-peat thom at Bon Om Tuk (Water Festival)