As in dance, music in modern Malaysia is divided into traditional and western types. Traditional music is usually associated with the traditional theatre forms such as Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit, Joget Gamelan, Hadrah, Dabus, Kuda Kepang, Gendang Kling, Mek Mulung, and a host of other minor entertainment activities. This type of music is based on either the pentatonic 5-tone or heptatonic 7-tone scales; and is performed mainly by percussion-dominated ensembles which include combinations of three types of instruments, namely the:
Aerophone (wind instruments), such as the serunai, pinai, seruling and selumprit flutes.
Membranophone (drum-sounds produced by membrane-covered musical instruments) such as the gendang, geduk, gedombak, rebana, kompang, tar and jidor drums.
Idiophone (percussion instruments of fixed immovable surface), such as gong, kesi, canag, saron, kenong, gambang kayu, bonang, etc; and
Chordophone (string instruments), such as the rebab.
Traditional music reached its zenith during the Melaka Sultanate (1411-1511) when it was an integral part of the ritualistic and secular entertainment of both court and folk life. Thenceforth, the various royal courts in Peninsular Malaysia maintained their own dance and music troupes. The common people, too, developed their respective forms of folk music.
When the British gained complete political, administrative and economic control of the country (1905-1957), they established their own educational system through which western music – namely Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, was introduced first to the Malay aristocracy, and later filtered down to the masses.
In post-Independence Malaysia, the movies, especially Broadway musicals, also had a hand in popularising western music. Malay movies followed suit with songs of Malay flavour based on western tempered scale and arrangement. The songs of the late Malay movie legend P. Ramlee bear testimony to this fact.
A great majority of the present-day local recording artistes, such as Fauziah Latiff, Ella, Search and Wings, while singing Malay lyrics actually imitate their western counterparts as far as melodic structure and arrangement are concerned. Some, like Zainal Abidin, M. Nasir and Sheqal, try to blend eastern and western music, and do come up with an interesting new sound.
However, despite the onslaught of this foreign influence and inroads by television and video entertainment, traditional music in Malaysia still survive and flourish in a wide variety of forms. It is performed during ceremonial occasions, and as an accompaniment to dance and drama for entertainment. Dance and drama themselves are of course closely related to music.
The basic element in traditional music is the drum (gendang), of which there are at least 14 types, four of which are beaten without the accompaniment of any other musical instrument. These are the rebana besar, rebana ubi, kompang and tar.
The nobat is a special royal orchestra consisting of usually four or five members, using the flute, trumpet, gong and drums; and only performed during state ceremonies. There are four such orchestras in the Peninsular at present, the oldest in Kedah, and the others in Terengganu, Perak and Johor. The number of musical instruments in the nobat varies from one group to another. However, there are five basic instruments which include the:
- Nafiri – the royal trumpet
- Serunai – the flute
- Gendang nobat besar – the main drum
- Gendang nobat kecil – the double-sided drum
- Gendang negara – the one-sided drum
There are certain traditional steps or requirements observed when the nobat is to be performed. It can only be performed for the Sultan, the Crown Prince, the Bendahara and the Temenggong. The most important use of the nobat is during the coronation of the Sultan, where it is believed that he will not be accepted as the ruler unless the nobat is played.
The rebab is a type of three-stringed violin played in the Mak Yong dance-drama. Other musical instruments played during the Mak Yong performance are the gendang and gong. There is also singing involved in the Mak Yong, both solo and in a group. There are more than 30 types of Mak Yong songs, among them the Pakyung Muda, Kijang Mas, Sedayung and Sedayung Mak Yong.
The Wayang Kulit music is another type of music popular in the Malay community. Music is very important in the performance of the wayang kulit because it enhances the story by making it more interesting and entertaining. The wayang kulit orchestra usually consists of 12 instruments, the most important being the flute (serunai).
There is also music that accompanies traditional dances such as Tarian Asyik and other Malay folk dances. Gamelan music is a form of traditional music widely performed in Malaysia during ceremonial occasions. The instruments used include gongs, xylophones and a cylindrical drum.
There are also various forms of traditional music in Sabah and Sarawak. The Kadazans and Dayaks also like to play the gong. There are four types of gongs mainly the Tawag-tawag, cenang, gong agung and tenukol. There are also many types of flutes made from bamboo. The Kadazans play a two-stringed guitar called sundalang; and the sumputon, a trumpet-like instrument made from pumpkin and bamboo.