Courtly Music from Burma/Myanmar

Grade Level
4-5, 6-8, 9-12, C-U

SelectionSong with Flute and Xylophone
Recorded: by Robert Garfias in Mandalay, Myanmar, 1973-4
Performers: Sein Be Da; na, oboe; saing waing, gong chime circle; pah waing, drum circle; large drum; clappers; bell; cymbals

Activity 1: Heterophony with Recorders and Orff Xylophones (Grades 4-5, 6-8, 9-12, C-U)

Make sure to tell the students the names of the instruments and show pictures/diagrams to them.

  1. Play the recording, asking students to listen in order to respond to these questions:
    • Who is singing? (solo male singing.)
    • What instruments are playing? (pitched drums: saing waing, pattata - bamboo xylophone, reed wind instrument: hne.)
    • How are the melodies performed by the singers/players related? (pitched percussion complements melody with countermelodies while occasionally doubling. Hne and pitched percussion then takeover, roughly doubling each other.)
  2. Organize the students into groups of two, with one player using a recorder and one player using an Orff xylophone in the key of C. Have the xylophones remove all D’s and A’s from their instrument. Explain that the instruments are performing a composed melody set in a specific mode (set of notes.) Show the class the common Burmese mode called Than you hcau’pau which correspond roughly to a pentatonic scale using the following pitches: C, E, F, G, and B. Demonstrate a short and simple melody (10 sec) to the students using this mode. This melody should be prepared in advance and NOT improvised on the spot.
  3. Teach the demonstrated melody to the students using oral transmission/rote (NOT notation.) Perform together as a class.
  4. Play a short portion of the recording again, highlighting that the hne and saing waing are playing the same melody at the same time.
  5. Have each student group work together to make up their own melody using the Than you hcau’paumode. The melodies should be about 10-20 sec in length and can utilize any rhythm. Both players should be playing the exact same melody+rhythm at the same time (though changing octave as necessary is fine.) Give the students about 5 minutes to do this. After 5 minutes, every group will perform their melody for the class.
  6. Play the instrumental portion of the recording again. This time, have the students listen for if the instrumentalists are playing exactly the same melody or not. The student should recognize that the performances of the melody are not exactly identical; occasionally a performer will throw in an extra note or add a different rhythm. This is called heterophony (as opposed to monophony.)
  7. Have the students revisit their melodies in their groups. The xylophones can return D’s and A’s back to their instruments. Give the students 5 minutes to practice in which the same basic melody is performed, but either performer may embellish the melody individually in order to create heterophony. Embellishments are often going to be using notes outside of the mode (in this case D’s and A’s.) After 5 minutes, each group will perform for the class again.

Activity 2: Discussion of Burmese Court Music (Grades 6-8, 9-12, C-U)

  1. Describe the music as having originated from Burmese court music, music that was performed in the royal courts by highly trained musicians serving royalty. Though this music eventually spread away from the courts, it is not originally the music of the common folk due to the expensive instruments and highly specialized training required. The melodies in the recordings are quite complex and are not improvised, these were transmitted orally and taught by rote from musician to musician.
  2. Have the students brainstorm what type of music they know that is sponsored by an organization (governments, schools, sports teams, churches, etc.) and used for special occasions. What examples can they think of (military marches, national anthems, classical musicians such as Haydn, etc.) Has any of this music migrated into the general public sphere?
  3. Explain that for Burma, sometimes foreign musicians and artists (especially Thai) were captured in conflict and brought their music/art to the royal courts. Some of the most prominent Burmese court music has its origins in foreign lands. Have the students brainstorm any music they know that came from elsewhere and was popularized in their home country or music that originated in captured/enslaved peoples (e.g. Afro-American spirituals, etc.)
  4. Lastly, discuss the value of preserving this type of music. If the Burmese royal courts do not exist anymore and the general Burmese/Myanmar populace do not regularly listen to this type of music, what is the value in perpetuating it? Why would people continue to train and study as musicians of this music?

    Consider a similar situation in the students’ home country. Is there music for which the original context either doesn’t exist or is very different? Is preserving this music important? Why or why not?


Five Significant Traits of Cantometrics, Considered
Though my lesson did not include singing, here are the traits of Cantometrics present in the original recording.

1.) Repetition: most of the song lyrics sung only once.
2.) Tonal blend of the vocal group: solo singer (with instrumental accompaniment.)
3.) Vocal width - Wide, upper range seems to be at the very edge of singer’s chest voice range. Only dips into lower range occasionally.
4.) Melisma - Some melisma, especially at the end of phrases.
5.) Social organization of the vocal group - Only one solo singer.


Lesson Plan by Chris Mathakul