Also:       khene      kaen       

Title: Music of Northeast Thailand; Songsak Pathomsin, khaen. Label: King Record Co. Format: CD. Catalogue#: KICC 5159. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The khaen mouth organ is a free-reed aerophone of the Lao people who inhabit Thailand's northeastern province and the neighboring country of Laos. It is associated with the common folk rather than the elite stratum of society. Although the instrument is now taught in modern schools to both males and females, in its natural habitat--the village--it is played only by men. Interestingly, the instrument itself is considered female in character. The khaen can be performed solo, but is used most often to accompany singing for storytelling (usually Buddhist jataka tales) and courtship (which takes the form of a dueling male and female singers). Contexts of performance, in Northeast Thailand at any rate, are at calendrical rites, Buddhist festivals, and rites of passage. In southern Laos the khaen may also be used for national festivals, healing rites, cremations, and new house celebrations, among other occasions. The instrument is an icon of Lao identity.


The sixteen bamboo pipes of the khaen pictured here identify it as a khaen paet (paet = eight). The two rows of eight tubes each run through a wooden windchest (dao = gourd), and are sealed in place with beeswax (kroot). A rectangular free reed of a copper-silver alloy is mounted on an opening in the pipe wall inside the windchest. Each pipe has a cylindrical bore; all natural nodes have been removed so the tubes are open, save for two of them that are closed at their bottom end. Just above the windchest each tube has a fingerhole drilled in its wall that must be covered in order to sound the pipe. By covering the fingerhole the necessary backpressure is created in the tube to set the free reed into motion regardless if the performer is inhaling or exhaling. Most pipes do not resonate at their full length; for example, the instrument's four longest pipes, all the same physical length, produce the pitches: A2, B2, C3 and C4. This is so because a rectangular opening is cut in each tube's wall to set its acoustical length, which is always shorter than its physical length. These holes are out of sight, suggesting that the neatly graduated exterior lengths of the pipes are an aesthetic rather than practical choice.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A performer, either seated or standing, holds the instrument roughly vertically between the palms of his hands, which cradle the windchest and leave all ten fingers free to cover the fingerholes. He inhales and exhales through an opening situated at one end of the windchest, and because of this the instrument can be sounded continuously for long periods of time. The sixteen pipes produce a diatonic scale with a compass of two octaves from A2 to A4 (two of the tubes are tuned to the same pitch, G3). The pitches are distributed across the two rows of reeds to facilitate customary fingering patterns; they are not arranged in scalar order. For any given piece, depending on its mode (lai), two pipes in the instrument's upper register are used as drones.  Their fingerholes are stopped with small beads of beeswax to keep them sounding continuously at the interval of an octave, a fifth, or a fourth. This leaves all ten of the performer's fingers to produce a melody against the drone by successively covering individual fingerholes, and occasionally sounding up to eight pipes simultaneously to produce distinctively voiced pentatonic clusters.


While free reed mouth organs are found throughout much of East and Southeast Asia and in some places, such as China, are known to have been in use for many centuries, there is no published information about the invention and evolution of the Lao khaen. Like so many other instruments of the common folk, it was of little interest to elites who held the power to represent such things as musical instruments in temple carvings and literary works.

Bibliographic Citations

Miller, Terry E. 1984. "Khaen [kaen, khène, khen]," NGDMI v.2: 420-421.

________. 1998. "Laos." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 4. Southeast Asia. ed. Terry E. Miller and Sean Williams. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 335-362.

________. 1998. "Thailand." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 4. Southeast Asia. ed. Terry E. Miller and Sean Williams. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 218-334.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: Southeast Asia

Nation: Laos

Formation: Lao

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

412.132 aerophone--set of free reeds (lamella vibrates through a closely-fitting slot): interruptive free reeds

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation and inhalation through mouth creates airstream through instrument; bidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: encased free reed mounted on wall of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - multiple single-pitch tubes bundled together and activated directly by player


42 in. length of longest tubes 31 in. length of shortest tubes 4.1 in. width .35 - .45 in. range of tube diameters

Primary Materials

reed - metal

Entry Author

Roger Vetter