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Peen Naam Tao & Peen Piah: Stringed Instruments of northern Thailand

LISTENING TO the unique and soothing music of northern Thailand, “Lanna”, one might wonder, “Am I really in Thailand?”. The rhythm, the harmony, the combination of soft string, wind and percussion instruments of the Lanna Kingdom of old continue on today in a traditional form of music that perfectly matches the gentle serene nature of northern Thailand.

Stringed instruments which have a sound box or resonance chamber and use the fingers or a plectrum to set the string into motion are types of musical instruments which, musicologists tell us, had their origin in the East. The instruments were later adopted and adapted by the West, becoming to be known as the lute, guitar, mandolin and banjo, to cite but a few examples. This group of stringed instruments having the sound produced by plucking have been given the Thai name of “Peen”, originated from the Pali word of “Peen” and the Sanskrit name of “Vina”.

Peen Naam Tao (พี"น้ำเต้า)

The first instrument is probably originated by the Brahmins. There is an old song called, “The Brahmin plucks the gourd” (พราหม"์"ี"น้ำเต้า), and the reference is probably to this instrument described here. The resonance chamber was probably made of a gourd shell because one of the oldest instruments of this peen naam tao (พี"น้ำเต้า) __ meaning “a stringed instrument made from a bottle gourd”. This type of instrument is spoken of on a stone tablet which dates from the Sukhothai period (1257 _ 1378 A.D.) “percussion sounds, string sounds and vocal sounds”. The peen naam tao itself may be the instrument referred to, or perhaps the word peen, translated in the above quotation as “string”, may mean one of the other early types or one of the other plucked instruments mentioned in the following section.

The name refers to the material used for the resonance chamber, that is, the bottle gourd. A gourd of suitable size is cut in half and the half with the stem is used. A hole is made in this short stem piece and by a means the gourd is fastened to the long, narrow wood body or neck, which is called thuan (ทวน). One end of this body is curved upwards, and to it, one end of the single string is attached. The string and the thua are 78 cm. (31”) in length. On the other end of the body, a hole is made into which is fitted a peg onto which the other end of the string is attached. By turning this peg, called loogbid (ลูกบิ"), which is 25 cm. (10”) in length, the string may be tightened or loosened to achieve the desired pitch, much on the same principle as the modern Western stringed instruments, except that the peg on this instrument is much larger. The gourd is attached near the end containing the peg, or the base end. In the olden days a piece of cane was used for the string ; later, silk was used. Today, a brass wire is used. To help to hold the string tight, a cord is put around the wire string and the body near the point where the gourd is attached, and the string and body are bound tightly together. This is called raad ok (รั"อก) __ literally, “to squeeze the chest”. The curved end of the body is often beautifully decorated with carving and designs, usually a stylized version of the head or tail of a snake. The handle of the peg is also often turned on a lathe and decorated with concentric rings and knob at the end for the hand to grasp. Sometimes the two ends of the body and the entire peg are made of ivory.

To play the peen naam tao, the player usually wears no garment covering his chest. He holds the instrument on his chest. He holds the instrument in his left hand and presses the open part of the gourd against the left side of his own bare chest which acts as another resonance chamber, further supporting the tone of the string which is none too loud at best. The left hand also fingers the string to produce the desired pitch while the right hand plucks the string. The skilled player also moves the gourd on and off his chest to change the quality of the sound. The player accompanies himself on the instrument while singing, which requires even further skill to give a fluent and smooth performance. In the old days, they used the term deung peen ("ึงพี") __ literally, “to cause vibrations on, or to pluck the peen”. Perhaps at that time the instrument was played somewhat in the manner of the Western harp.

Peen Piah (พี"เปี๊ยะ)

The instrument is called peen piah, or sometimes simply piah. It is mentioned in the history of the royal dynasty of Laan Chaang, one of the dynasties covering the present-day northern Thailand and Laos. Known as a rhythm accompaniment to royal ceremonies and celebrations, it is also mentioned in an epic poem : “At an auspicious time, lay out the ceremonial rice in honor of the King. “Let the beat and song sound clearly; let the drums and gongs play victoriously with the brave sound of the ching; the jakhay (จะเข้) and peen piah together make a heavenly sound”.

The peen piah has two or four strings. The neck or thuan is a little over a meter in length (40”). The pegs are 18 cm. (7 ผ”) in length. The strings are anchored to the neck by cords tied around the strings and the neck to help regulate the sound. The body is also made from half a gourd or half a coconut shell, or sometimes a dried half portion of the thick rind of some melon. When the instrument is played, the open part of the gourd is held against the bare chest of the player who may move it away from his chest or hold it tightly against his chest, depending upon the tone quality desired. As the strings are plucked the music is amplified through the cup. Music from the peen piah, therefore, is music from the heart.

In northern Thailand the peen piah was used to accompany a singer. It was also used by the young men who wandered about the village in the evening courting their girls. This is mentioned in several classic poems: “They play the instrument, using many different techniques, walking and accompanying themselves, singing out to their loved ones”. When we asked a Master of peen piah, should a woman play this instrument, would the sound have the same quality?. The Master replied the sound wouldn’t matter but the sight of a woman playing would certainly be much more beautiful.


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