The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers


Joseph Lilly

The khaen is a free reed mouth organ indigenous to the people of Laos and northeastern Thailand. It looks similar to a pan flute, with rows of long tubes secured together and stacked upon each other. In the middle of the tubes is a wind chest, which contains the reeds and serves as a mouth piece. The instrument is held vertically. It is played by blowing or drawing air through the wind chest and across the reeds. The finished instrument is similar in nature to the Chinese sheng or the Japanese shô. Its sound has been compared to a cross between a harmonium, accordion, and harmonica. Khaen come in four types which are differentiated by the amount of tubes (notes); the six-tubed khaen hok, the fourteen-tubed khaen jet, the sixteen-tubed khaen baet, and the eighteen-tubed khaen gao.

The reed itself is made of thin metal and is symmetrical so that it will vibrate when air is either blown across or drawn through it. For the past 100 years, the metal has typically been from old Laotian coins that are pressed into thin sheets. The khaen maker pounds the sheets to the correct thickness using a block of wood into which is set a railroad spike. He then cuts the reed using a small chisel. The traditional cutting surface is an elephant's leg bone. The reed is set into the pipe at one fourth the length of the pipe. The placement is at a pressure antinode of the second harmonic, and as a result the second harmonic is very strong and the fourth harmonic is very weak in the spectrum of the khaen.

The pipes are made from a specific type of bamboo, called mia hia, which grows as long as 12 feet and is very thin in diameter. They are cut to the proper length without using any measuring tools! Holes are cut in the sides of the tube which serve to determine the acoustical length of the tube. The reeds are then set into slots in the tube. The reed is partially tuned by adjusting the amount of reed that is in the slot and then fine tuned by slightly adjusting the length of the tube. Finally, finger holes are burned into the tube using a hot poker. These finger holes destroy the resonance of the tube so the note will not sound unless the finger hole is closed. [Reference 1].

The tubes are set inside the windchest and secured with a sticky black wax called kisoot. Kisoot is obtained from a small insect called the maeng kisoot. The kisoot is pounded until it is soft and pliable, and is then sealed around the tubes. The tubes are further held together by a thick, strong grass called yah nang. It is soaked until it is workable, then wrapped tightly around the pipes.

The khaen has been in existence since at least the late 1700's. Until the early part of this century, however, there were no recorded descriptions of khaen making or playing. This is partly because the wet, warm Asian climate tends to ruin such records, and partly because records were destroyed during various wars in Laos. As a result, much of what is known about the khaen is folklore. According to Lao legend, it was created by a woman who was trying to reproduce the sound of the garawek bird which she heard while on a walk one day. The journey was long and difficult, so she decided to invent an instrument that would bring the sound to her. When she returned to her village, she experimented with many different instruments, including percussion, wind and plucked and bowed strings. Finally she cut a piece of bamboo and inserted a reed into it. Upon playing it, she realized that it sounded much like the garawek bird. She continued to improve the sound until she felt it was worthy for the king's ears. When she was ready, she went to the palace and began playing for the king on her newly invented instrument, which was at this point nameless. At the end of the first song, she asked the king if he liked the piece. He said it was fair, and instructed her to continue playing. After her last song, she again asked the king if he was pleased. His reply was "Tia nee kaen dae," which means "This time it was better." He then instructed her to call the instrument, according to his words, the kaen. Western spellings include khaen, khene, and kaen, but the word is pronounced approximately "can," as in "tin can."

Learning to build the khaen is passed on in families through an apprenticeship period. Interestingly, the khaen is considered to be a "female" instrument by those that make and play it. However, the privilege of khaen making and playing has been reserved for the males in a village. (Only since the latter part of this century have women begun to play the khaen, and only in a non-traditional, educational setting.) When a young man shows aptitude in music, a relative such as a grandfather or uncle decides to teach him the process of khaen making. The apprentice offers his master a bowl full of banana leaf cornets filled with flowers and candles, called a Khan a Khan pet, some silver, a piece of cloth called sin, and a scarf. These are ritual offerings in payment for the cost of apprenticeship. Over the next few months, the young man learns how to make the khaen. Since few makers of khaen use their trade as a primary source of income, he will also spend much of his time fishing, farming, etc., Although the apprenticeship may be fairly short, the khaen maker will never forget his teacher. He sets up an altar over his work space in honor of his masters. On this altar he will not fail to lay an offering on the 7th and 8th days of the waxing and waning moon. Should he forget, the spirit of the khaen would punish him by inflicting illness upon him. [Reference 3].

Unlike most modern Western instruments, the khaen is tuned relatively and not absolutely, which means that the intervals between notes on one instrument are in tune, but no effort is made to establish consonance between instruments. Interestingly, notes in the khaen are very close to those in a Western A natural minor scale. The following measurements were taken on a strobe tuner and illustrate this point:

This illustrates that, within a few cents, intervals between pipes are in tune. This is quite a feat since the khaen maker uses no tuning devices other than his own ear! The notes in the chart above are arranged as they appear on the khaen, and will be explained in further detail later in this paper.

Beginning to play the khaen is somewhat of a chore for Western musicians because the way it is played is not similar to that of any Western instruments. The khaen's wind chest, or dao, (Lao for "breast"), is held between the hands and the tubes are leaned against one arm. The lips are puckered and placed upon, but not over, the dao. Since the khaen reeds can be played by either inhaling or exhaling, the khaen player needs simply to exhale into the instrument, and when he runs out of breath, inhale.

Once the fingerings are memorized, and the lai understood, playing the khaen becomes much easier. Although the notes as they are arranged on the khaen make no sense to Western theory, they fall under the fingers quite nicely once the player has gotten used to them. (This was compared by one observer to the arrangement of a keyboard on a typewriter. Although the arrangement makes no sense relative to the Western alphabet, it works in practice.) In the case of the khaen baet, the thumbs control the first tube, and each finger thereafter controls two. Usually one or two pipes are plugged with kisoot to sound drone notes. Although the music is very different from Western music, it does use modes and cadential patterns that are similar in application to those of the West. Playing the khaen, as it is an improvisational form, is not reduced to "modes" or "scales" as such. The lai are not known as a scale that ascends or descends, but rather as simply a series of notes in a structure. Therefore, if a khaen player is asked to play a certain lai, he will begin improvising within that structure, rather than playing an ascending or descending form of a scale. This allows the same type of variance in pieces as Westerners find in their folk music.

There are five lai that are used in khaen music; lai yai, lai noi, lai bo-sai, lai soi, and lai sootsanaen. Since their functional use is quite different from that of any Western scale or modes, it is useless to define them in terms of Western music theory. Since they do, however, contain intervalic relationships that are similar to those of the West, they have been listed here with drone notes:

Traditionally, that is, over the past 100 years, the khaen has had two main uses. First, it is used to accompany Mawlum singing, a highly improvisational theatrical exchange between a male and female vocalist. In this context khaen playing is very understated. The job of the player is to follow mode changes and provide harmonic support for the singers. The khaen as used with Mawlum singing is a "backup" instrument of sorts.

It is as a solo instrument that real virtuosity is found in khaen playing. This style of playing is also very highly improvisational. Since the khaen has no absolute tuning, it is difficult to find two instruments that are in tune with one another. This prevents khaen ensembles from coming into being.

Thus far, the khaen has played a tremendous role in Lao culture. It is undoubtedly the most important and best known Laotian instrument, and is in a class by itself in the lives of the people to which it is important. In past generations the khaen was used for entertainment and courting and had a distinct function in society.

Modernization and the popularization of radio has brought Western music into popularity in areas that were formerly dominated by the traditional music of the khaen. In recent years the khaen player has experienced decreased status, which is reflected in the wage he receives from accompanying at a mawlum performance. In Introduction to Playing the Khaen, Dr. Terry Miller writes, "As recently as a generation ago the northeast region was quite isolated because of a lack of good roads, railroads, or other modern forms of communication. Though administered from Bangkok, immigration patterns were pretty much one way -- towards Bangkok. It is not surprising, then, that northeastern music flourished simply because there was little competition. During the 60's and 70's good roads were built, communications developed, and modern culture has penetrated to the provincial towns as well as some district towns. Northeastern music now competes with both fixed and traveling movie houses, video stores, central Thai likay theatre, rock and roll shows, and television." [Reference 2].

Traditional music of the khaen has started to become less popular a form of entertainment. Today there is a new style of khaen music which uses a drum set, electric bass, and singer.* Mawlum singing is still alive and the khaen is still being played as a solo instrument, but it seems that this new style of music appeals to the younger generation.

There are two other uses for the khaen in Lao society today, outside those already mentioned, that are becoming quite common. Lao schools have taken up the khaen as an instructional instrument. This would seem to serve the dual purpose of teaching music and instilling a sense of ethnic awareness in a society whose traditions and customs are being increasingly diluted by the West. The other common use for the khaen is as a beggar's instrument. Many older khaen players are blind, and will sit on sidewalks in large cities, playing their instrument in an effort to solicit donations from sympathetic passers-by.

Unlike Western folk instruments such as the recorder or lute, which are not in common use today, the khaen has managed to evolve with the life and times of the Lao. Although the khaen is now serving a different function than it was 50 years ago, that does not mean that its significance is lessened. Given the highly evolutionary nature of this instrument, one cannot help but wonder where the khaen will be in another 50 years.

This question presents an interesting problem. Since the khaen so quickly and easily adapts to changes in Lao culture, it is difficult to say whether the changes of the past 30 years are permanent. They very well may be just a down trend in a cyclical pattern such as can be seen in aspects of American culture. Popularity trends in American music, for instance, are highly cyclical. Following this logic, there exists two possibilities for the khaen. Either the role of the khaen will continue to adjust to its society, thus holding its popularity at a stable level, or Westernization and other trends will continue, and the traditional music of the khaen will all but disappear.

It seems the khaen's highly evolutionary nature could continue to allow it to adjust to the changing Lao society. As mentioned above, recent changes in Lao music include the popularization of more "modern" forms of music. These forms are in some ways an abandonment of Lao tradition in that the customary instruments have largely been abandoned for instruments such as the electric guitar, electric bass, electric lute, and drums. The only distinguishing factor between an American rock group and these ensembles is that the khaen is also used. Since the khaen is tuned to a system surprisingly close to the European system, that is, near diatonically, it fits in with these equal-tempered instruments quite nicely. In fact, the tuning of the khaen may very well be what keeps it alive through all these changes. Unlike an instrument such as the bee bai dawng glui, whose tuning is not compatible with European modes, the khaen is easily adapted to more Western applications. In fact, the first instructional book on khaen playing, written in 1973 by Kham Ouane Ratanavong, taught Western pieces rather than traditional Lao music. [Reference 4].

The khaen is also gaining popularity as a research instrument for ethnomusicologists, as evidenced by this paper and Dr. Miller: "Interest in ethnomusicology is on the increase in the United States and Europe and slowly penetrating Africa and Asia as well." He continues with a brief discussion of Asian nationalism. "Some Asians, seeing their cultures being changed very rapidly by modernization, are seeking to study and to preserve the positive qualities that their cultures had" [Reference 1]. Although these applications are clearly neither traditional nor enough to keep the khaen alive by themselves, such sparks of interest may be important to the survival of the khaen. As far as adaptability, then, the khaen has a lot going for it.

There are also signs that point toward a different future for the khaen, though. In the more modern ensemble of which it is a part, the khaen is often the only instrument that is not amplified.* Not surprisingly, it is inaudible when played with an amplified bass, lute, drum set, singer, etc. So although it is a part of these new groups, it may not be playing a very important role in them. Secondly, areas in which khaen were built were becoming more and more scarce as much as 30 years ago; there are continually less and less villages in which khaen making is performed. Obviously, if no khaen are built, then no khaen can be played. Finally, higher education in Laos seems to be to the detriment of khaen playing. Dr. Terry Miller writes, "Attitudes towards conservative arts such as playing the khaen have not been overly positive. Though a person may have been raised in a village and been exposed to traditional arts, these are ignored when the education level rises much above secondary school." [Reference 1].

Higher education on a global level is causing increased interest in the khaen, while higher education in Laos is causing reduced interest. Better communication is opening up new venues of entertainment for young Laotians, which is drawing them away from khaen music. Regions in which the khaen is built are becoming more scarce. Thus far, however, the khaen has managed to evolve. In a world filled with change, it is a constant for the people to whom it is important.

*This information was obtained through an interview with Dr. Terry Miller.


1. Miller, Terry E., Traditional Music of the Laos: Khaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in North-East Thailand. Greenwood Press 1985.

2. Miller, Terry E., Introduction to Playing the Khaen. World Music Enterprises 1991.

3. Berval, Rene de, Kingdom of Laos. France Asie 1959.

4. Ratanavong, Kham Ouane, Aprenez à le khene, learn to play the khene, essai d'une methode moderne, Editions Bulletin des Amis du Royaume Lao, Vientiane, 1973.

5. Picken, L.E.R., "Making of the Khaen: The Free-Reed Mouth Organ of North-East Thailand." Musica Asiatica 1984, vol. 14, pg. 117-154.

6. Yupho, Dhanit, Thai Musical Instruments. University of Bangkok Press.

About the Author

Joseph Lilly is a student at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He expects to graduate in 1999 with a double major psychology and music. As part of an honors project in music he is currently expanding this paper to an honors thesis to be entitled, "A Western Musician's Guide to the Khaen."

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