Music of Malaysia

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Music of Malaysia is the generic term for music that has been created in various genres in Malaysia. A great variety of genres in Malaysian music reflects the specific cultural groups within multiethnic Malaysian society: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, Orang Asli, Melanau, Kristang and others.


In general, music of Malaysia may be categorised as classical, folk, syncretic (or acculturated music), popular and contemporary art music. Classical and folk music emerged during the pre-colonial period and exists in the form of vocal, dance and theatrical music such as Nobat , Mak Yong , Mak Inang , Dikir barat , Ulek mayang and Menora . The syncretic music developed during the post-Portuguese period (16th century) and contains elements from both local music and foreign elements of Arabian, Persian, Indian, Chinese and Western musical and theatrical sources. Among genres of this music are Zapin , Ghazal , Dondang Sayang , Mata-kantiga , Joget , Jikey , Boria and Bangsawan . [1]

Both Malaysian popular music and contemporary art music are essentially Western-based music combined with some local elements. In 1950s, the musician P. Ramlee helped in creating a Malaysian music that combined folks songs with Western dance rhythms and western Asian music. [2]

Ethnic traditions

Besides Malay music, Chinese and Indian Malaysians have their own forms of music, and the indigenous tribes of Peninsula and East Malaysia have unique traditional instruments. [3]

Malay music

Traditional Malay music spans from music for various theatrical forms such as wayang kulit, bangsawan and dance dramas as well as story-telling, to folk songs and music for dances, royal ceremonies, martial arts ( silat ), life cycle events, and religious occasions. [4] Many forms of traditional Malay music and performing arts appear to have originated in the Kelantan-Pattani region with influence from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia. The music is based around percussion instruments, the most important of which is the gendang (drum). There are at least 14 types of traditional drums, including kompang and hadrah drums. [5] Drums and other traditional percussion instruments are often made from natural materials. [5] Besides drums, other percussion instruments (some made of shells) include: the rebab (a bowed string instrument), the serunai (a double-reed oboe-like instrument), the seruling (flute), and trumpets. Music is traditionally used for storytelling, celebrating life-cycle events, and times like harvest. [4] It was once used as a form of long-distance communication. [5]

In East Malaysia, gong-based musical ensemble such as agung and kulintang are commonly used in ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. [6] These ensembles are also common in neighbouring regions such as in the southern Philippines, Kalimantan in Indonesia and Brunei. [6]

Malays playing gongs GongMalay.jpg
Malays playing gongs

The Malays of Kelantan and Terengganu are culturally linked to peoples from the South China Sea area, and are quite different from the West Coast of Malaya. The martial art of silat Melayu developed in the Malay peninsula since the beginning of common era [7] [8] [9] [10] also popular in Malaysia, while essentially still important as a branch of the self-defence form. Similar to t'ai chi, though of independent origin, it is a mix of martial arts, dance and music typically accompanied by gongs, drums and Indian oboes.

The natives of the Malay Peninsula played in small ensembles called kertok, which performed swift and rhythmic xylophone music. This may have led to the development of dikir barat. In recent years, the Malaysian government has promoted this Kelantanese music form as a national cultural icon. [11]

Johor art performances such as Zapin and Hamdolok as well as musical instruments including Gambus and Samrah have apparent Arab and Persian influences. [12] Arabic-derived zapin music and dance is popular throughout Malaysia, and is usually accompanied by a gambus and some drums. Ghazals from Arabia are popular in the markets and malls of Kuala Lumpur and Johor, and stars like Kamariah Noor are very successful. In Malacca, ronggeng is the dominant form of folk music. It played with a violin, drums, guitar, bass, synthesizer, button accordion and a gong instrument. Another style, Dondang Sayang is slow and intense; it mixes influences from China, India, Arabia, and Portugal with traditional elements.

Chinese music

The Hua Yue Tuan (华乐团), or "Chinese orchestra," is made up of traditional Chinese musical instruments and some Western instruments. The music itself combines western polyphony with Chinese melodies and scales. Although the bulk of its repertoire consists of music originated from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, many local Chinese orchestras also regularly perform Malay folk tunes with various local composers making a definite effort to absorb elements of surrounding musical cultures, especially Malay, into their compositions. In Malaysia, Chinese orchestras exist nationwide in urban areas which have large concentrations of Chinese Malaysians. Sponsored largely by various Chinese organisations including schools, clan associations and Buddhist societies, a typical orchestra consists of between 12 and 50 members. The orchestra is usually made up of four sections: bowed string instruments, plucked strings, the wind section, and percussion. Also commonly found are percussion troupes with drums, gongs and cymbals that provide rhythm for performances of Lion Dance.

There is no lack of virtuoso performers in the Chinese classical tradition in Malaysia. Advanced training is however not presently available with most Malaysian virtuoso musicians obtaining their advanced training either in China or Singapore. Various professional and semi-professional Chinese orchestras are in existence. Malaysian western trained classical conductors are employed full-time. Much of the music played is imported from China. There are however some accomplished Malaysian composers for this medium such as Saw Boon Kiat and Chew Hee Chiat.

There has been a local Malaysian Chinese recording industries since the 1960s with generations of Chinese singers involved in Mandopop music. In the 1960s singers such as Poon Sow Keng (潘秀瓊) achieved notable success in the region, [13] and in the 1970s and 80s, Malaysian Chinese pop singers such as Wong Shiau Chuen, Lan Yin, Donny Yap, and Lee Yee were popular. [14] In more recent times, popular singers include Eric Moo, Lee Sin Je, Fish Leong, Z Chen, Penny Tai and Daniel Lee.

Indian music

Traditional Indian music may be associated with religious tradition and faith. As its origins in India, there are two systems of traditional or classical Indian music in Malaysia: Carnatic music and Hindustani music. Since Tamils from South India are the predominant group among the Indian population in Malaysia, it is the South Indian Carnatic music which predominates. Simply speaking, Hindustani classical music is more lyric-oriented, while Carnatic classical music emphasises musical structure.

Indian classical music as it is performed in Malaysia has remained true to its origin. There is practically no other cultural influence. Other than reflecting Indian life, the purpose of Indian classical music is to refine the soul.

The fundamental elements of Carnatic music are the raga and the tala. A raga is a scale of notes, while the tala is the time-measure. A Carnatic music concert usually starts with a composition with lyrical and passages in a particular raga. This will be followed by a few major and subsequently some minor compositions.

In Malaysia, traditional and classical Indian music are studied and performed by Malaysians of Indian ethnic origin with material that still comes from India. Musical productions are mainly in the form of dance dramas incorporating instrumental ensemble, vocal music and dance. Musical instruments used in the performances are imported from India.

Over the years, Punjabi music has established itself in Malaysia. One example of famous Punjabi music is bhangra. Many Malaysian songs today have the Punjabi influence. For example, the sound of the dhol, an instrument used mainly by the Punjabis, has been incorporated in many Malay, Chinese and Indian songs in Malaysia.

Indigenous tribal music

Two Dayak tribesmen playing Sapeh in Sarawak YanAriefSapeh.jpg
Two Dayak tribesmen playing Sapeh in Sarawak

The Orang Asli groups of West Malaysia, Semang, Senoi, and Orang Melayu Asli, have their own musical traditions. The Semang people are nomadic and their musical instruments are disposable and created when needed, and instruments used include nose flute (salet, nabad), Jew's harp and tube zither (kərɑtuŋ) which are also used by the Senoi. Instruments used by the Senoi are more long-lasting and include kərəb (a two-string chordophone). The Orang Melayu Asli however have closer contact with Malay and Chinese populations and used a wider range of musical instruments ranging from thigh xylophone (kongkong) to violin. The instruments may be used for shamanistic purposes such as singing and trance-dancing ceremonies, and healing rituals. [15]

A number of ethnic groups such as the various Dayak tribes (e.g. Iban, Murut), Kadazan, and Bajau are found in Sabah and Sarawak. The music of these people include vocal music for epics and narratives; songs for life-cycle events and rituals associated with religion, healing, growing rice, hunting game, and waging war; songs for dancing and community entertainment; as well as a wide variety of instrumental music. Instruments used include drums, gongs, flutes, zithers, xylophones, and Jew's harps, of which the bronze gongs are the most significant. Ensembles of gongs of various sizes are played to welcome guests and in ceremonies and dances. A well-known instrument in Sarawak is the sapeh , a plucked lute of the Kayan and Kenyah people which is used for entertainment and dancing. Other instruments include the xylophone jatung utang, bamboo flutes (suling, seruling, kesuling, ensuling, and nabat), and sets of bamboo tubes called togunggak which were formerly played in headhunting ceremonies of the Murut. [16]

World music

Ethnic music has also found a new and vigorous following, with world music festivals like the Rainforest World Music Festival, held annually since 1998 in a scenic open-air setting in Sarawak. The first Malaysian "ethnic fusion" group to play on this international platform was Akar Umbi - comprising Temuan ceremonial singer Minah Angong (1930–1999), Antares and Rafique Rashid. Unfortunately, the charismatic Minah Angong (better known as Mak Minah) died just three weeks after winning over the hearts of a whole new audience at the RWMF 1999. This left Akar Umbi with only one posthumously released CD to its name ('Songs of the Dragon,' Magick River, 2002).

Private companies like Trident Entertainment have begun to invest in the production, distribution and promotion of the "ethnic fringe" in Malaysian music.

Classical music

Within Malaysia, the largest performing arts venue is the Petronas Philharmonic Hall. The resident orchestra is the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). [17] Malay popular music is a combination of the music from all ethnicities in the country. [3] The Malaysian government has taken steps in controlling what music is available in Malaysia; rap music has been criticised, [18] heavy metal has been limited, [19] and foreign bands must submit a copy of a recent concert before playing in Malaysia. [20] It is believed that this music is a bad influence on youth. [19]

Fusion music

In the field of Malaysian contemporary music a number of composers have gained international recognition, for example award-winning composers Chong Kee Yong, Dr Tazul Izan Tajuddin, Yii Kah Hoe, Saidah Rastam, Adeline Wong and others, encompassing a diverse range of styles and aesthetics.


Malaysia's pop music scene developed from traditional social dance and entertainment music such as asli, inang, joget , dondang sayang , zapin and masri, which were adapted to Anglo-American dance band arrangement by Bangsawan troupes in the 1920s and 1930s. [21] The Bangsawan troupes are in fact a type of Malaysian opera influenced by Indian opera at first known as Wayang Parsi (Persia) which was started by rich Persians residing in India. They portrayed stories from diverse groups such as Indian, Western, Islamic, Chinese, Indonesian and Malay. Music, dance, and acting with costumes are used in performance depending on the stories told. The musicians were mostly local Malays, Filipinos and Guanis (descendants from Goa in India).

One of the earliest modern Malay pop songs was "Tudung Periok", sung by Momo Latif, who recorded it in 1930. In the 1950s, P. Ramlee became the most popular Malay singer and composer with a range of slow ballads such as "Azizah", "Dendang Perantau" and the evergreen "Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti".

In the 1960s, a genre of pop music influenced by The Beatles and other British rock and roll bands called 'Pop Yeh-yeh' appeared in Malaysia. The term "pop yeh-yeh" was taken from a line from the popular Beatles song, "She Loves You" ("she loves you, yeah-yeah-yeah"). [22] In the 1960s and 1970s, a modified rock combo called kugiran (an abbreviation of "kumpulan gitar rancak", meaning rhythmic guitar bands) was also common, and was often used to accompany singers. [23]

In the mid-1990s, Dangdut experienced a resurgence after lying dormant since the early 1980s with the debut of Amelina. Her least successful album sold in the 100,000s, a feat that is yet to be repeated in the 2010s. Composer Ruslan Mamat , who pioneered the modern Dangdut, credited Ace of Base for the tempo reference. [24]

Contemporary pop music exchanges between Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei are normal since the Malay language is widely spoken in all four countries.

Hip Hop

KRU is the most successful Hip Hop dance group in Malaysia. After bringing Rap music to the masses in 1982, they established their own record label creating the first Malaysian girl group Feminin and R&B crooners Indigo. Feminin debuted at RTM Eid ul-Fitr special in 1993 marking the start of the 80s girls group era.

SonaOne is a Malaysian rapper with notable songs like "I don't care" and "No More"


Malaysian rock reached its peak in the 80s and early 90s with the local adaptation of a fusion of blues rock and ballad. The popularity even reached the neighbouring country of Indonesia.

Awie is an award winning Malaysian rock singer. Awie was extremely popular in 1990s

Other music genres represented in Malaysia

See also

Related Research Articles

Music of India Overview of musical traditions in India

The music of India includes multiple varieties of classical music, folk music, filmi, Indian rock, and Indian pop. Indian pop and Indian rock are derived from western rock and roll. India's classical music tradition, including Hindustani music, Bhartiya music and Carnatic, has a history spanning millennia and developed over several areas. Music in India began as an integral part of socio-religious life.

Silat Melayu Malay martial art

Silat Melayu, also known as Seni Persilatan Melayu or simply Silat, is a combative art of self-defence from the Malay world, that employs langkah ('steps') and jurus ('movements') to ward off or to strike assaults, either with or without weapons. Silat traced its origin to the early days of Malay civilisation, and has since developed into a fine tradition of physical and spiritual training that embodies aspects of traditional Malay attire, performing art and adat. The philosophical foundation of modern Malay Silat is largely based on the Islamic spirituality. Its moves and shapes are rooted from the basis of Silat movements called Bunga Silat, and Silat performances are normally accompanied with Malay drum assembles.

Music of Indonesia Music and musical traditions of Indonesia

The music of Indonesia demonstrates its cultural diversity, the local musical creativity, as well as subsequent foreign musical influences that shaped contemporary music scenes of Indonesia. Nearly thousands of Indonesian islands having its own cultural and artistic history and character. This results in hundreds of different forms of music, which often accompanies by dance and theatre.

Malays (ethnic group) Ethnic group

Malays are an Austronesian ethnic group and nation native to the Malay Peninsula, eastern Sumatra of Indonesia and coastal Borneo, as well as the smaller islands which lie between these locations — areas that are collectively known as the Malay world. These locations are today part of the nations of Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and Southern Thailand.

The music of Singapore has reflected the diverse influences that have shaped the country. Its various communities have their own distinct musical traditions: the Chinese people form the largest ethnic group in Singapore, with Malays, Indians, and smaller number of other peoples of different ethnicity as well as Eurasians. The different people with their traditional forms of music, the various modern musical styles, and the fusion of different forms account for the musical diversity in the country.

Brunei is a southeast Asian country located on Borneo between the states of Sabah and Sarawak which are part of Malaysia. There is a wide array of native folk music, and dance. Brunei shares some Cultural perspectives and links with the countries of South East Asia such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines. The strong Islamic influence means that dance performances and music are somewhat restricted.

Dondang Sayang literally love ballad, originated in Malacca sometime in the 15th century, influenced by traditional Portuguese folk music. A typical group is made up of 4 musicians who perform on the violin, 2 rebana and a gong or tetawak. The chief musician is usually the violinist who plays a primary role in dondang sayang, providing a counter melody to the vocal melody. Musicians may switch instruments in between performances, but the violinist seldom does, although this is permitted. If there are musicians to spare, up to 5 rebana may be used. Sometimes, the rebana may be substituted by the tambour and barrel drum or even the kompang. The music is slow, and a song usually consists of 32 bars, beginning with a violin introduction, with the rebana and then the gong entering, and the voice finally entering in bar 5. Its style is somewhat informal and its lyrics usually consist of love poems.. The musical instruments may also be augmented with an accordion.


Bangsawan is a type of traditional Malay opera or theatre performed by a troupe, and accompanied by music and sometimes dances. The bangsawan theatrical performance encompasses music, dance and drama. It is widely spread in Malay cultural realm in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. The artform is indigenous in Malay Peninsula, Riau Islands, Sumatra and coastal Borneo.

Zapin Malay-Indonesian traditional dance

Zapin is a Malay dance form that is popular in Malaysia, in Indonesia, especially in Malay-populated provinces in Sumatera and West Kalimantan, and in other Malay populated countries like Brunei Darussalam and Singapore. It is believed to have been introduced by Arab, Muslim missionaries from the Middle East in the fourteenth century.

Dikir barat

Dikir barat is a musical form, native to the Malay Peninsula, that involves singing in groups—often in a competitive setting. Dikir barat may be performed either with a percussion instrumental accompaniment, or with no instruments at all. The dance is partially similar in movement to Endang except that actions of hand clapping are further incorporated to produce rhythm. The origins of dikir barat are unclear; it is found in both Malaysia and Thailand, and today the Malaysia National Department for Culture and Arts actively promotes it as an important part of Malaysian national culture.

The culture of Malaysia draws on the varied cultures of the different people of Malaysia. The first people to live in the area were indigenous tribes that still remain; they were followed by the Malays, who moved there from mainland Asia in ancient times. Chinese and Indian cultural influences made their mark when trade began with those countries, and increased with immigration to Malaysia. Other cultures that heavily influenced that of Malaysia include Persian, Arabic, British. The many different ethnicities that currently exist in Malaysia have their own unique and distinctive cultural identities, with some crossover.

Jaipongan Indonesian traditional dance of sundanese people

Jaipongan, also known as Jaipong, is a popular traditional dance of Sundanese people, West Java, Indonesia. The dance was created by Gugum Gumbira, based on traditional Sundanese Ketuk Tilu music and Pencak Silat movements.

Malaysian Malay Ethnic group given special status in the Constitution

Malaysian Malays are Malaysians of Malay ethnicity whose ancestry originates wholly or partly in the Malay world. In 2015 population estimate, Malaysian Malays form 50.8% of the total population of Malaysia or 15.7 million people. They can be broadly classified into two main categories; Anak Jati and Anak Dagang.

Nor Aniza binti Haji Idris in the Malaysian music industry, is known in her home country as the "Queen of Ethnic Pop". The genre she plays is known as "irama Malaysia", which fuses local traditional genres with Anglo-American pop music. Lyrically, her music includes references to the revival of traditional Malay music. She began her career as a wedding singer, and soon found herself in the recording studio after participating the Bintang RTM in 1985.


A qanbūs or gambus is a short-necked lute that originated in Yemen and spread throughout the Arabian peninsula. Sachs considered that it derived its name from the Turkic komuz, but it is more comparable to the oud. The instrument was related to or a descendant of the barbat. It has twelve nylon strings that are plucked with a plastic plectrum to generate sound, much like a guitar. However, unlike a guitar, the gambus has no frets. Its popularity declined during the early 20th century reign of Imam Yahya; by the beginning of the 21st century, the oud had replaced the qanbūs as the instrument of choice for Middle-Eastern lutenists.

Silat Southeast Asian martial art

Silat is a collective word for a class of indigenous martial arts from the geo-cultural area of the Indonesian archipelago. It is traditionally practised in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines and Southern Vietnam, the indigenous homes to the Malayo-Sumbawan and Javanese speaking peoples. There are hundreds of different styles (aliran) and schools (perguruan) which tend to focus either on strikes, joint manipulation, weaponry, or some combination thereof.

Kedahan Malay people

Kedahan Malay or commonly known as Orang Utara is a sub-group of Malays that is native to northern Malaysia and in southernmost parts of Thailand and Burma. They are among the earliest settlers in the Malay peninsula. Kedahan Malays comprised at least 15% of the total Malaysian Malay population.

Rosiah Chik or Rosiah Abdul Manaf (1931–2006) was Malay traditional singer particularly of asli and ghazal songs, made famous in the 1960s–1970s in Malaysia. She was also known as Mak We among the people of the industry and her fans.

Malaysian pop or abbreviated as M-pop or Malay pop refers to popular music forms in Malaysia. Although popular music in various languages such as Mandopop are popular and have been produced in Malaysia, Malaysian pop refers to music recorded primarily in the Malay language in Malaysia.

Pahang Malay people

Pahang Malays are a sub-group of Malay people native to the state of Pahang, in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. With population of approximately 1.08 million people, they constitutes 70% of Pahang state's population, making them the dominant ethnic group in the state. Their language, Pahang Malay is one of many Malayan languages spoken in the region that belong to the Malayo-Polynesian group of Austronesian family.


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