Traditional Music

Saung (Myanmar Harp)
Myanmar harp is said to be used starting from Pyu period. According to records, it was played abroad by Myanmar musicians in about 9 century AD. Though the shape of it has changed in the successive ages, the basic shape has not changed. The harp was used in Bagan Period (10-13 Century AD). We can still see the figure of harp in a mural at the Ananda Temple, one of famous pagodas in Bagan.
A relief, in year 809, Pyu period
One note-worthy fact in Konbaung Period (1752-1885 AD) is that professional and amateur harpists used to write letters such as "karaweik Than" (The voice of Karaweik bird), Mya Chu Than (the voice of an emerald jingle) and "Zinwazo Than" (The voice of swift bird) at the place "phala" at the back of their harps.
Saung was played well at courts. It was cherished and appreciated by kings, queens, ministers and courtiers. Prominent harpists were Nat Shin Naung, the king of Taungoo, Ma Mya Galay, the queen of western palace and Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa, a minister.
Myanmar songs are performed with musical instruments played on the prescribed musical scales. Myanmar musical instruments are tuned primarily on Saung musical scales. Songs such as Kyo, Bwe, Thichin Khant, etc are played on Hnyin Lone scale. Patpyo, Lei Htwe Than Kut, Lokanat than, etc are played on Aukpyan scale, Bawlei, Yodia songs are played on Palei scale, Shit Sei Paw Tay Htat and Dain songs are played on Myin Saing scale.
In ancient time, three strings were used. Later, it became seven. In Konbon Period, Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa, the then noted minister invented 13 strings. Later a harpist by the name of Saya Nyein invented 14 strings. During the second world war, the then famous harpist Alanka Kyaw Zwa U Ba Than used 16 strings adding two more stings. The added two strings are called Done Kyo.
3 strings
7 strings
14 strings
Myanmar Saung (harp) has two portions-the body and the curved hand (Letyone). The body is made of wood of Gum-Kino tree (Pterocarpus macrocarpus) and it is 28 inches long. A harp needs to be thick at three places and thick at three places when carving. The three places to be thick are at the back, the bend and the bottom. The three places to be thin are sides and at the area where the deer skin are covered. Thickness is 1/4 inch and thinness is 1/16 inch.
Parts of a harp are,
1.Nyaung Yut (the shape of banyan leave)
2.Let Yone (the bending stick of 1 1/4 - 1 3/4 inch diameter made of acacia)
3.Bwe Kyo (stings tied to Letyone)
5.Nethamee Pauk
6.Saung Owe (the body)
7.Phala (the back part)
8.Myauk Gaung (The shape of a monkey's head)
9.Khin Ten
10.Saung Kyo (Strings to be tuned and played)
There are three types of curved structure. They are
1.Thezin Khwe (the shape of a kind of orchid stem)
2.Myauk Htine (the sitting posture of a monkey)
3.Hman Pya (the shape of a circular mirror)
Left-Up:Thezin Khwe Right:Myauk Htine
Left-Down:Nga Mya Kyei
Their shape can be changed according to finished conditions. All parts of Saung are glued, lacquered, gilded except for Letyone and the area to be covered deerskin.
The stand for Saung is called Saung Che. It is impossible to place a Saung for its bottom is an oval shape. The Myanmar carefully keeps Saung on the stand because they adore it a lot.
In ancient time, the silk strings made by harpists themselves were used. But nowadays, there is almost anyone who knows the art of making skill strings. They usually use nylon strings instead of silk stings for they become very rare.
Silk or nylon strings are tied to the strings called Bwe Kyo. And they are attached to Min Yoe at the Let Yone, the bended stick. The system of tying the string is called Bulethi khet (clove hitch). When all stings are attached, they can be tuned one by one. The tuning may change according to the type of songs.
Nowadays, there are harps which can be tuned with the used of pinion like guitar. One can easily tune the harp with the use of pinions, which are attached to Letyone. But, the professional harpists do not like that. Amateur harpists want to finish the tuning quickly.
If you want to change the tuning of a harp with the use of Bwe Kyo it will take you 30 second to one minute to tune a string. For 16 strings it will take you at least 10 minutes. If you use the pinions it will take you only three to five seconds. But it the easy method is used, Myanmar is likely to lose very good traditional method of tuning. Therefore most harpists use the old traditional one to be able to hand down the method to future generations.
Moreover, Myanmar harp was especially played in Bago Yoma and Shan State. Then, there were seven strings. To do the tuning pinions were attached to Let Yone (the hand).
Myanmar music has seven tunes. They are said to derive from the harp. Myanmar harp is one of the earliest musical instruments. It can be assumed that musical tones such as Palei and Aukpyan developed from it.
In using the above-mentioned musical scales, the methods prescribed for them have been traditionally followed. But when the easier technique is used, for example C note from international music scale is used as the basic. They take Hint Pauk (1/4 lower from B), Nga Pauk (1/4 higher from F), Chauk Pauk (1/4 lower from E) and etc. The traditional method of tuning begins to lose ground. But there are Saung players who can manage to preserve the tradition.
The government holds annual performing arts competition every year to preserve Myanmar tradition. The purpose is to regain Myanmar traditional music, to help develop it and to hand down these arts to posterity.
© U Minn Kyi


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