Learning Thai classical music : memorisation and improvisation.
As in other oral traditions, the core of traditional training in Thai classical music is that
the student memonses music given by the teacher. Teachers offer few explanations but
give musical examples that transmit each skill at the right time for the student. Training
on fiddles can be understood by considering three learned elements:
Basic Melody: the essential structure of each composition, encapsulated in its
most tangible form as the melody played on the large gong-circle, but
internalised in increasingly subtle and fluid forms as the student progresses;
Realisations of each composition for fiddles, improvised by the teacher and
memorised by the student during each lesson;
Various techniques of improvisation (ways of realising the Basic Melody of a
given composition as a new melody for fiddle).
Learning how to conceptualise the Basic Melody is inseparable from gaining
competence in fiddle improvisation. Teachers' explanations concerning melodies they
teach suggest transmission of a highly flexible conceptualisation of Basic Melody and a
complex technique of improvisation. Three etic explanations of the latter are:
'Filling-in': the player inserts notes between the notes of the less dense Basic
Melody so that the fiddle melody conforms to each pitch of the Basic Melody.
'Idiomatic elaboration': a fiddle melody is derived from the Basic Melody
according to a musical 'grammar' in which every pitch need not conform to the
v Basic Melody, though many pitches are likely to do so.
Formulaic manipulation: for each Basic Melody formula, the fiddle player
chooses one of several eligible fiddle-formulas, then spontaneously adjusts it in a
manner appropriate to that context and moment.
These three are sometimes alternative explanations of the same process, sometimes
distinct processes. In each rendition, a teacher moves between the three processes. All
three are necessary to the complexities and beautiful ambiguities of musical thought.