Music Theory/South East Asian

Mor lam (Lao: ໝໍລຳ; Thai/Isan: หมอลำ) edit

is a traditional Lao form of song in Laos and Isan. Mor lam means 'expert song', or 'expert singer', referring to the music or artist respectively. Other romanisations used include mor lum, maw lam, maw lum, moh lam, mhor lum, and molum. In Laos, the music is known simply as lam (ລຳ); mor lam (ໝໍລຳ) refers to the singer.

The characteristic feature of lam singing is the use of a flexible melody tailored to the tones of the words in the text. Traditionally, the tune was developed by the singer as an interpretation of a klon poem and accompanied primarily by the khene (a free reed mouth organ). The modern form is frequently composed and uses electrified instruments. Traditional forms (and some Lao genres) use a slower tempo than the quicker tempo and faster deliveries of more modern lam music. Strong rhythmic accompaniments, vocal leaps, and a conversational style of singing distinguish lam from American rap.

Typically featuring a theme of unrequited love, mor lam often reflects the difficulties of life in rural Isan and Laos, leavened with wry humor. In its heartland, performances are an essential part of festivals and ceremonies. Lam has gained a profile outside its native regions from the spread of migrant workers, for whom it remains an important cultural link with home.

Musical form edit

Lam singing is characterised by the adaptation of the vocal line to fit the tones of the words used. It also features staccato articulation and rapid shifting between the limited number of notes in the scale being used, commonly delivering around four syllables per second. There are two pentatonic scales, each of which roughly corresponds to intervals of a western diatonic major scale.

The actual pitches used vary according to the particular khene accompanying the singer. The khene itself is played in one of six modes based on the scale being used.

Because Thai and Lao do not include phonemic stress, the rhythm used in their poetry is demarcative, i.e., based on the number of syllables rather than on the number of stresses. In gon verse (the most common form of traditional lam text) there are seven basic syllables in each line, divided into three and four syllable hemistiches. When combined with the musical beat, this produces a natural rhythm of four on-beat syllables, three off-beat syllables, and a final one beat rest:

In actual practice this pattern is complicated by the subdivision of beats into even or dotted two-syllable pairs and the addition of prefix syllables which occupy the rest at the end of the previous line; each line may therefore include eleven or twelve actual syllables. In the modern form, there are sudden tempo changes from the slow introduction to the faster main section of the song. Almost every contemporary mor lam song features the following bassline rhythm, which is often ornamented melodically or rhythmically, such as by dividing the crotchets into quavers:

The ching normally play a syncopated rhythm on the off-beat, giving the music a characteristically quick rhythm and tinny sound.


  1. Mor lam - Mor lam - Wikipedia