Khaen Performance Techniques

Basic Traditional Techniques

About the Basic Traditional  

Traditional Lao and Northeast Thai khaen playing consists of two layers: drone and melody. The melody is often play in parallel octaves, fifths and fourth  and may also be elaborately ornamented.

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If drones are used, they may be held by one of the fingers or stopped with putty. If a drone is stopped with a finger, note that this will constrain the hand position. For example, if the third finger holds the a on the right side of the instrument, the second and fourth fingers will be limited to playing notes below and above the a respectively.

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Traditional khaen playing is based on five melodic modes, or lai, each with characteristic drones and idiomatic melodic figures. These five modes are shown in the above video in their most basic form, with alternative doublings for some notes and with different drones (diamond-shaped notes) that are typically used. The hand configurations within these modes are very idiomatic and comfortable. 


If a composer wishes a passage to sound idiomatic within a traditional mode, it is preferable to simply indicate the mode by name and the desired drones, and write out a single monophonic melody. The performer will be able to realise the melody with characteristic doublings and ornamentations.   

Grace Notes 

Grace notes are frequently used as melodic articulations. These may be played singly or in octaves, fifths, or other combinations, and may cover any interval provided the fingers are available. Grace notes may be performed very quickly (see video below for a demonstration). 

Finger Tremolo

This traditional technique is often used when playing a melody in parallel octaves. The lower melody note is held while the upper note is rapidly repeated with finger motion and the breath is held steady.

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Swing Tempo

This technique involves using a normal notation for writing but assigning a symbol on top to show where the player should play in a swing tempo. 

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1. Straight 
2. Swing feel or shuffle 
3. Syncopation 

New Performance Techniques

New techniques that are referenced here are from western music and derived by Sombut Simla (Khaen Player), Dr. Christopher Adler (Khaen Player) and myself.


The Extended Technique Western Notation in Khean. Most khaen players learn how to play by ear. They listen and imitate by feeling. The video below, "Improvisation with new techniques" demonstrates how new techniques displayed in this section can be played.

Double tonguing

This is notated with two points above or below the note head.

Flutter tonguing

This is written using a “Tremolo” symbol and with the word "flutter," "ft.J" or "flz." This technique works better when the player is blowing out than blowing in. 

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Vibrato / Breath Tremolo

Players of woodwind instruments generally create vibrato by modulating their air flow into the instrument. Khaen can create this effect using a throat vibrato. This instruction is written using the "vib." word and a wavy line. 


This is indicated by writing the word "Half-Hole" above or below the note head. When blowing in and a little bit open, the sound should be a little bit higher than if the note were played normally. The player should blow slowly to create a good sound.


This techniques is limited on the khaen, but it can be done in some form. The glissando can’t include a full scale. Musicians should blow and play slowly. This effect is indicated by the word “gliss” or a diagonal wavy line.

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Singing and blowing together can be done on the khaen, but this technique has some limitations.

1. It is not possible to play and sing very fast
2. Singing notes and notes that are played in the same sound (unison) should be performed for the best effect
3. If the notes sung and played are different, the song should be slow. Otherwise the sound balance might be not good.

4. Singing can be louder than khaen playing sound

For notation, the top line of music shows played notes and a lower line of music shows sung notes. 

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Breathing Sound

Blowing through the instrument can create a sound of wind blowing. The timing can be defined through inhalation and exhalation. This technique focuses mainly on the sound of the wind. It is written using "inha." and "exha." for inhalation and exhalation respectively.

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Open and Close position

One hand can be used to close and open the bottom of the can while blowing. This creates a sudden colour difference. Because players have to use one hand to hold the bottom of the instrument, this technique will create some limitations on the pitches the player can play. Not all notes will be possible to play.

Notation can be done in two ways:

1. Writing "con sord." to indicate a closing of the bottom and  "senza sord." to indicate an opening of the bottom

2. Writing "+" to indicate a closing of the bottom and "o" to indicate an opening of the bottom

"Ord." for "ordinary," indicates that everything should go back to normal.

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Blow Bottom Bamboo

Blowing through the bottom of the bamboo will make sounds of different pitch and colour. For this case, the composer can assign rhythmic values and write the techniques’s name above.

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Guiro Effect 

For this effect, the player uses a fingernail to scratch the bamboo to make a percussive sound. This effect is indicated with rhythmic values and the word “guiro.”  

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Khaen for Composer by Christopher Adler


Tontrakul Kaewyong