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Mahagita (Burmese: ??????; from Pali: Mahagita; lit. 'great songs'); also rendered into Burmese as Thachingyi (Burmese: ???????????) is the complete body or corpus of Burmese classical songs. The songs descend from the musical traditions of the Burmese royal court, and form the basis of Burmese classical music today. Mahagita songs continue to be played during Buddhist rituals, weddings, and public festivals, and performers frequently appear on government-sponsored television shows.

Table of contents
  1. History
  2. Collections
  3. Ensemble
  4. Anthologies
  5. Modern-day usage
  6. Recordings
  7. See also


The Mahagita evolved into a single style from Pyu, Mon, and Burman musical traditions. The Mahagita also incorporates musical traditions of conquered kingdoms; the Yodaya songs are modeled on the musical style of the Ayutthaya kingdom, while the Talaing songs are based on the songs of the Mon people.

Pre-colonial origins

Kyo, bwe, and thachingan songs are considered to constitute the oldest parts of the Mahagita repertoire, and served as the main court music before the Konbaung dynasty. The earliest genre of kyo songs date to the late Kingdom of Ava era. Kyo, which literally means "string," were used as repertoire to teach traditional classical singing and the saung. The oldest songs of the kyo genre are the "Three Barge Songs," which describe a king's passage up the Irrawaddy River to Tagaung in c. 1370, have variously been dated to the late Toungoo period (1531-1752). The "Three Barge Songs" include "Phaung Ngin Kyo," (?????????????) played as the barge is towed out; "Phaung La Kyo," (?????????????) played as the royal barge is underway; and "Phaung Saik Kyo," (???????????????), played when the barge makes port.

Bwe songs honor the king, while thachingan songs honor the Buddha or the king as a protector of the Sasana. Both genres date to the Konbaung dynasty, c. 1738. Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa was the most prominent composer of songs in the bwe and thachingan genres.

Patpyo songs were popular in the late Konbaung dynasty, and are the most numerous in the corpus. These songs have a rhythmic foundation resembling drum beats, and require the highest level of performance technique and knowledge. Ledwethankhat songs constitute a minor genre, and are characteristically sharp and active, with fast, short rhythms. These songs are always followed by myingin songs traditionally performed at equestrian, martial arts, and archery events.

Bawle songs, which are plaintive songs, date to the 1800s; the earliest song, "Sein Chu Kya Naung" (????????????????), composed by a Konbaung princess to persuade her husband to return to her side, was composed after 1838.

Colonial era evolution

From the 1910s to the 1950s, with the advent of British colonial rule in Burma, a new genre of traditional music, variously called khit haung (??????????; lit. 'old era'), hnaung khit (???????????, lit. 'late era'), and kala paw (???????, lit. 'current [era]') emerged. While the roots of this genre lie in the pre-colonial court tradition, compositions from this genre gradually incorporated Western musical instruments (e.g., the piano, guitar, banjo, etc.) and foreign musical influences in terms of melody, tunings, and rhythm (e.g., harmony in thirds, accented rhythm in vocals), which did not adhere to the strict rules of the royal court musical tradition. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the introduction of recording technology created a sizable local market for khit haung music. The Ministry of Information completed the first volume of khit haung music transcriptions in 1999. The Burmese government MRTV publishes multi-volume written compilation of songs from this genre.

Modern-day preservation

The Mahagita has faced challenges with preservation. The oral tradition remains the primary mode of musical transmission. In the 1990s, the Burmse government, under the Ministry of Information, began to standardise and notate the entire repertoire of classical Burmese music. However, this approach has been limited by the Western notation system, which cannot capture the flexibility of Burmese rhythm, the two-part style, and a loose floating rhythmic organisation, including free-style embellishments, all of which distinguish traditional Burmese music from other musical traditions in the region (e.g., Thailand, China, India).


The Mahagita is generally organized into songs by genre based on varying tuning methods, rhythmic patterns, frequently used melodies, preludes and postludes, as follows: In the Gitawithawdani anthology, the songs are grouped into 4 categories are known as apaing (???????). Each category has a specific tuning method, namely hnyinlon, aukpyan, pale, and myinzaing. The remaining 2 tuning methods, duraka and chauk thwe nyunt, are now extinct.


Mahagita songs are sung by a vocalist who controls the metric cycle by playing a bell (???, si) and clappers (???, wa). The vocal performances are accompanied by a chamber music ensemble, which includes the following instruments: The tayaw and sandaya are historically recent additions dating to the Konbaung dynasty (mid-to-late 1800s).

Sandaya: the piano

The piano, called sandaya (Burmese: ???????), was introduced to the Burmese musical repertoire during the mid-19th century Konbaung dynasty, first as a gift by the Italian ambassador to King Mindon Min. The instrument was quickly indigenized by Burmese court musicians and uses a novel playing technique adapted to play Mahagita compositions. Burmese musicians use a "technique of interlocked fingering with both hands extending a single melodic line allowed for agogic embellishment, fleeting grace notes in syncopated spirals around a steady underlying beat found in the bell and clapper time keepers." This playing technique is based on the two-mallet technique of the pattala, a bamboo xylophone, and the two-hand technique of the pat waing, a drum circle. By contrast, Western playing styles feature melody with the right hand, and supporting harmonies with the left hand. The Burmese technique allows for very rapid playing, enabling musicians to layer complex and distinct ornamentations, which evoke the expressive techniques used in traditional Burmese singing. The Burmese style is characterized by prominent use of virtuosity and ornamentation, with alternating sections of free and fixed, but flexible, rhythm. Prominent Burmese pianists often prefix their name with the honorific 'Sandaya' (e.g., Sandayar Hla Htut and Sandayar Chit Swe).


The national anthology, known as Naingngandaw Mu Mahagita (???????????????????) includes a selection of 169 songs, standardized and published in three volumes between 1954 and 1961 by Burmese Ministry of Culture. The National University of Arts and Culture, Yangon uses the Naingngandaw Mu Mahagita as the official anthology for teaching Burmese classical music. This anthology is also used for the National Performing Arts Competition (also known as Sokayeti) held annually in October.

The Naingngandaw Mu Mahagita anthology is based on an earlier anthology, entitled Gitawithawdani (???????????; from Pali Gitavisodhana, lit. 'purifying the songs'), published in 1923, which was based on the repertoire of the last Burmese court harpist, Dewaeinda Maung Maung Gyi (??????????????????????). The second edition was edited and recompiled by Ba Cho and republished in 1941, and is now in its sixth reprint.

The oldest extant song anthology was compiled c. 1788 by the Monywe Sayadaw (1766-1834), and comprises 166 sets of song texts. Several Konbaung dynasty anthologies exist, including an 1849 anthology compiled by Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa and another 1870 anthology, Thachin Gaungzin Potye Hmatsudaw (?????????????????????????????????) with 1,062 song titles under 27 genres, both compiled at the behest of Mindon Min, and an 1881 anthology named Mahagita Myedani Kyan (?????????????????), compiled by U Yauk in Pyay.

Modern-day usage

The popularity of the Mahagita genre in modern-day Myanmar has declined significantly with the advent of popular music. Some songs in the Mahagita corpus, such as a bwe song called "Aura of Immeasurable Auspiciousness" (?????????????????????????, Ataing Mathi Mingala Awba Bwe), a wedding processional song used in traditional Burmese weddings (analogous to the "Bridal Chorus" in Western weddings), remain staples for various traditional ceremonies. The style of Mahagita songs has also been adapted in more modern compositions, such as "Auspicious Song" (??????????, Mingala Tei) composed by Twante Thein Tan, and "Akadaw Pei" (??????????) by Waing Lamin Aung, both of which are commonly played at traditional Burmese weddings.


See also

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