The Significance of Popular Music: The Rise of Western Music in Thailand and Japan


This academic article emphasizes on the importance of popular music on Thai society through a discussion of definitions and benefits. The article is divided into three main topics as follow:

1.      The relationship between popular music and society: This section discusses the history and implications of this art form on society and related anthropologic studies. It explores the connection of humanity, social phenomenon, and common values which are driven by music.

2.      The history and roles of western music from the past to the present within the context of the kingdom of Thailand.

3.      The history and the significance of policy on music education in Japan. This section points out an importance of laying a policy foundation for music education in a country.

The overall objective of this article is to encourage understanding of popular music and its importance to the public and our society.


Keywords: Popular Music, Society, Thailand, Japan



Mainstream popular music was rooted from English-speaking culture, which is better known as Anglo culture. Due to the expansion of the British empire over a century ago, the culture travelled to America. As the empire continued to grow over large territories into islands and parts of Africa, cultures collided and melted together. The result was various contemporary art forms in today’s modern society. The birth of blues (around the 1900s) brought about a new composing format in popular music. It is when the verse and the chorus started to appear as a backbone of a composition. Some songs contained a bridge which was a separated section that fills the gaps before returning to the verse and the chorus.                This gave ways to a much simpler rhythm.  Such format and its features emerged in the 1960s, continuing to exist in the present days (Stanley, 2001).

In the meantime, Japanese policy makers managed to pass a policy which included western music into their standard education starting from primary school to higher education. This policy played a part in cultivating a competitive edge of Japan’s modern music industry and its success in the global arena. Through creativity, artists such as X Japan, an international music sensation in the 1990s, was an example of a pioneer. Their success expanded Japanese music to the global audience and encourage newer generations of Japanese musicians. In 2001, the government founded Cultural Affairs Council to encourage music literacy among the public through standard education. The vision of the organization was to increase appreciation in arts for relaxation (Leung, 2008: 26). While in Thailand has a different story shown in the second topic.

1.   The relationship between popular music and the society

Over the past century, the growing popularity of popular music attracts investments to the industry. The fund droved music production and creativities, allowing the birth of various music genres. Through curiosity about roles of international music in a global arena and the relationship at present, which could be seen in music and as entertainment for people who had access to medias such as internet, radio, television, concerts, and entertainment venues. Therefore, music could be enjoyed by all without a class divide in the past when it was mainly related to ceremonies and the upper class. This enabled people to easily access music nowadays. The fact that the society was driven by music also created diversity in ideas through contents of lyrics, which impacted taste, fashion, and social values. However, it was a social context that determined a direction of the impact, beauty standards, and excitements. 

Not everyone in the society perceives music in the same way. The sound elements of music are complex, birthed by complex thinking and imagination. These are many factors that made music different in the mind of everyone. Their interpretations were based on their unique experiences and contexts. In addition, music literacy and skills played a big part in an understanding of music. In many cases, lyrics were able to convey a message, and entertained groups of people. However, not everyone shared a deep knowledge and comprehension of musical key signature and notes, nor possessed an ability to perform. Based on an observation of different people whose vocal performances were categorized by their ability to follow the right key signature and rhythm. It could be concluded that human vocal was naturally the most touching, following by musical noise, rhythm, and lyrics. There were the needs for both professional and amateur musicians, and audiences to drive the music industry forwards, and create a variety in the industry. Through this, music could become a daily activity, influencing a culture, and driving the economy at the same time (Sawangchoti, 2562: 33).

Music elements had a power to attract people both with and without musical skills. The rhythm was fundamentally a repetition, emphasizing and magnifying a message into a transitional phrase of a song or an emotion. It was a musical form that exists since time immemorial (Phatcharadethpaisal, 2555: 89,91). An average person could understand contents of a song. Through a language, it was often used in communicating thoughts, idealism, or simply used as a source of entertainment. All this was subjected to an individual and their interpretations. The more autonomy an artist was from the media, record labels and the government, a higher level of artistry of the music he or she could achieve.

Through the power of the media, popular music influenced and became popular culture. The trend was influenced by major powerhouses such as United States of America and the United Kingdom. Through their influences, Jazz evolved from 20th century classical music and blues in the early 20th century. However, mainstream music is ever changing. The popularity of mainstream music in each era reflected those of the major powerhouses, whose role was to produce mainstream music for the global markets. A similar music would be later tailored and reproduced for domestic markets. This trickle-down effect generated a local popular music industry in various countries, leading to the birth of many local artists. However, in the early period, there was a lack in originality and creativity. Local artists simply duplicated the music and personal styles of an international artist. One such example is Melvis, an Indonesian artist who carried a nickname of “Elvis of Hong Kong.

Based on an aspect of anthropology, focusing on an analysis of human history, behavior and preference, music had an emotional impact on political ideas and social values. It influenced feelings and emotions though basic intermediaries such languages, sounds and symbols, while pointing out identities of sub-cultures within a society. The birth of Blues, a music from a sub-culture in a society, was a good example. The genre later was evolved and paved ways for a variety in popular music today. Each genre represented diversity within a society and provides an understanding on the origin of social values.

In the past, music tended to be separated from the society especially within a context of religious. It was often isolated and positioned above everything completely unrelated to the society. This resulted in a wrong thinking regime and interpretations in the later eras (Denora, 2003). In contrast, music was inseparable in a political context. This was because music was a constant reflection of its society. Music in different era often reflected political ideas and was used in driving a message or a topic within a society, for example, a movement that natured a music market among adolescents after the Second World War since the 1950s, and the birth of rock and roll music which revolved around the protestation against old social norms and values. Instead, the young generation of the time pursued individuality through a more deliberating entertainment. Over the period of 65-70 years until today, this thinking paradigm continued to resurface over again in various music genres of the later years, such as, in heavy metal, punk rock, reggae, hip hop, dance, and electronic music (Bennett, 2001).

Simon Frith, an English anthropologist, stated that entertainments in the media were not only existed to entertain the public, but also to nurture a public conscience at the same time. The newly arrived record industry was a result of a movement among of the young generation who demand more liberation of self-expression. This cultural movement gave birth to rock music, such as, Rock and Roll during the 1950s. the movement continued into 1970s. The effects of the movement rippled to the present. It was a foundation of a rebellious movement among old social norms, driven by adolescents, middle-class people, and blue collar (Swangchoti , 2562: 21 – 22). It was undeniable that Blues remained a key influence in modern popular music. The influences were clearly visible in both composing format and music structure. Additionally, the content of Blues also revolves around social class and space which was generally a similar message of most popular music today. The only difference was purely the different contexts and norms which change overtime.

From the aspect of education, popular music was now included as a part of general education, starting from primary school to higher education in many countries. The approach and the focus differed as some were included as a part of liberal arts, while some were considered autonomous music studies. Despite the differences, the objectives of music education remained universal in grooming music professionals with multiple skills in vocal performance, musicology, composing and producing and ethnomusicology. 

2.   The history and roles of western music in Thailand

Music had always been a key driving force in spreading ideology within a society. Politically, it was used in pursuing the masses and building cohesion within the society. The integrity of the message itself depended on the context of a society. Music could be used as a communication tool by various players, starting from an individual, an organization, to a national level. In many cases, it was exploited as a weapon of idea in political struggles. Music was an easy tool for anyone to present an aspect of a society through storytelling or to spread an ideology. In the case of political parties, it held a role in communicating the views and policies. Across the history, governments all over the world wanted to build peace through music. This was to direct the thoughts and beliefs, and finally cultivated appropriate values and culture within a society. National anthems were good examples of this strategy. “God Save the King”, the United Kingdom’s national anthem, was played among its colonial countries. During the reign of King Rama IV of Siam Kingdom, this song was often played in territory of the kingdom. However, it was for an educational purpose only. It was as a part of a modernizing scheme through cultural exchange. Such scheme brought about the needs for learning how to practice western music, which was on loan as a tune accompanying a military march at the time. During the reign of King Rama V, the practice was found inappropriate since the song is used as a national anthem of another kingdom and was played among its colonial countries. The song was strongly associated with colonialism. King Rama VI arranged a national composing competition to tailor Siam’s royal anthem as a symbol of the kingdom (Thongcheun, 2556: 11-13).

During the reign of King Rama VI, the king personally composed patriotic songs to encourage domestic development with the aim to rival the level of the western powers. However, since the kingdom was governed under absolute monarchy, most songs of the era were composed with the objective to increase the allure of the monarchy. Later in 1932, the country embraced democracy. The regime changed from absolute monarchy to constitution monarchy. Political power fell into the hands of the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon). The party consisted of a mix of conservatives and socialists who were scholarship students and educated in major European countries. They encouraged the use of music as a tool for promoting new democratic ideas in lieu of the old regime. The current Thai national anthem was a product of the attempt to replace a royal anthem, which used to hold a status of a national anthem. The new national anthem was composed by Piti Wathayakon (Phra Chenduriyang). It could be concluded through this act that the People’s Party had gained a considerable power in managing the country. Now it had a freedom to utilize the power of music as a political tool to encourage a common idea within the society.

Between 1938 to 1944, many patriotic songs were produced under the government of Field Marshal Pleak Phibunsongkhram, who led the country under authoritarianism. He tried to reform aspects of the nation under his 12 declarations of statism. This marks a pivotal moment of a cultural change, which was also reflected in an official recognition of “Thai Standard Dance” by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand (Seangthong, 2552: 64). However, the most development in music at the time was with objectives to cultivate nationalism. A song called “Blood of Supan” was an example, reflecting an ideology of the movement. The content of the song revolved around battles between an ancient nation of Siam and its neighboring Burma. Despite a potential diversion from the actual history, the objective was to encourage the people to remember their roots. This political move reflected a clear disregard of historical facts and evidence in an attempt to build a sense of patriotism. To create a shared way of thinking, it was a common practice for leaders to identify an antagonistic force against a historical backdrop and focused on a struggle of building a nation. The action essentially led to fostering more political power for the regime, which at the same time, changed the name of the country from the nation of Siam to Thailand. The content and the focus of national anthem was changed to nationalism. During this period, a custom of paying respect to the nation was born. The custom that required civilians to stand at attention during the national anthem is played every day at eight o’clock in the morning and six o’clock in the evening.

The building of nationalism in Thailand during the time followed a dictatorship state in Europe, which became more common during the period of Second World War. The regime highlighted the military, which gained an image of a defender of freedom of the nation. In fact, this led to wars throughout the history. The Nazi Party at the time also utilized the same strategy as Siam’s People’s Party by using music as a part of their persuasive communication. However, the growing emphasis on music by a government did not translate to higher emphasis on music education. Meanwhile, in Thailand, religious was established as a national institution to improve harmony in the society. However, an agenda of developing western music education was weaker than in Japan (Ishii, 2018: 65). In Thailand, it was exclusively used in official ceremony by the government.

Thai government was a leading force in producing propaganda music. Meanwhile, “Life Folk Music” was created by the general people during the later years of the government of Field Marshal Pleak Phibunsongkhram and remained popular throughout the period of absolute military dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1957. The genre reflected the poverty and the struggle of the poor. The lyrics openly criticized the society and reflected real social issues and the helplessness of the people from the bottom of the society. Examples of songs with such contents were “Song of a Garbage Collector and a Palm Juice Harvester” by Seangnapa Budrasri, also known as “The Poor’s Representative”, “Buffalo’s Representatives” by Sanay Khomarachun, and “You Killed Those Who Disagree” by Khumron Sompunnanon. These songs reflected people’s discontent and a hope for a rise against the military dictatorship power who led the country to inequality. Eventually, “Life Folk Music” was banned. However, it remained popular among progressive people who supported the reform and development of the nation. Meanwhile, nationalist songs were remade and reproduced. Romantic love songs became popular among people in high society. At the same period, “Songs of a Star Light of Faith” by a philosopher named Jit Phumisak was an inspiration for later generations. The song was composed while he was imprisoned as a political prisoner in Lard Yao penitentiary.

Despite limited freedom of speech, civilians continued a freedom movement via music. In 1962, The Communist Party of Thailand communicated their ideology through music on their radio channel, known as People’s Radio. This strategy was to fight against the government in gaining a communication platform and communicating persuasive messages for their political cause, while recruiting followers at the same time. Songs about revolution from all over the world were played on this radio channel. Many songs from Jit Phumisak, a local activist, philosopher and artist, were rearranged by both Thai and Chinese musicians. A Chinese orchestra rearranged Chit’s idealistic song such as “The International” into instrumentals. However, this made the message of the songs ambiguous and lost its persuasive power. In the meantime, it was imperative for the Thai government to respond by using music and arts in their public relation champaign. Their message was to antagonize Communist beliefs which originated from countries such as Russia and China. The message immensely agitated and created fears of communism among the population in urban areas. 

The event of 14 October 1973 took place during a long political conflict between the military government and the Communist Party. On that day, students and civilians gathered on the streets to protest for a reform to democracy. However, the incident led to a decision to dissolve the protest by force. Many of unarmed protestors were killed during the incident. The event led to resignations and exiles of key decision makers within the government. This marked a beginning of a period of experimental democracy by a civilian government. Musicians of the time also commemorated the event by playing “Music for Life”. It still carried the message of life through folk music but was adapted more to the mainstream music of the time such as American country music, folk rock and rock and roll. The content of the songs remained the same and focused on criticizing social issues and inequality (Seangthong, 2552: 70-71). Socialist ideas were communicated through more than two hundred songs during the time. Again, songs by Jit Phumisak were rearranged into folk music by various musicians such as Kammachon, Caravan, Komchai, etc. Later on, the style was adopted by newer musicians such as Carabao, Su Su and Pongsit Kampee. “Music for Life” began even before the period of experimental democracy and continued until the present day. Its popularity resulted in a variety of music genres, following the ever-changing mainstream music trend. Despite the change in genre, such as heavy metal, indy rock, and hip hop, the message remained the same.

Western music courses began to gain a real demand and required actual training and education from official educational institutions such as universities. In 1978, a curriculum on western music was established at Bansomdejchaopraya Rajabhat University. At the time the university was a training university, focusing on perfecting professionals in teaching and education. Later in 1992, an existing music program was divided into western and traditional Thai music programs. To broaden its purposes in creating various professionals for the growing labor market, the training university was re-established as a general university in 2004. Music programs were placed under the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2014, the program was recognized as a separated College of Music until present with an objective to better focusing on music studies and producing music professionals. There are many universities nationwide, providing western music programs. Many of the programs are recognized as separated entities and reward a degree in Bachelor of Music upon completion. While other are subjected to Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences or Faculty of Liberal Arts and reward a degree in Bachelor of Liberal Arts. Music programs remain a popular choice for students, who are passionate in working in music industry. However, music is alienated from standard curriculums in primary and secondary education. Based on the National Education Masterplan (2017-2036), music was classified as an entertaining activity in the same category as cultural arts and sports. There is no concrete plan in teaching or establishing music as a subject. The term “music” was only mentioned once in the two-hundred-twenty-eight-paged plan. It was mentioned under topic 3.3, a topic about strengthening and modifying public conscious and social values to create desirable behavior. The topic is a part of Strategic Plan 1, focusing on education for public and social security. As a result, students, who aspire to study in a western music program in university, are often lacking in basic knowledge about music.

3.   The history and the significance of policy on music studies in Japan

In 1872, the fifth year under reign of Emperor Meiji (1867-1912), there was an initiation in modernizing Japanese education system for the first time in Japanese history. Music and arts were included in the plan. This Japanese education reform was based on countries such as France and the Netherlands. However, promoting western music in Japan was a failed attempt due to the resistance from traditional music practitioners across the country. In the meantime, civil servants in educational sector who were educated abroad, such as Shuji Isawa, an education professional from Aichi prefecture, wrote down a memoir about his first encounter with western music when he was a government scholarship student in the United States in 1875. He described the experience as unremarkable because he lacked the understanding of western music until his encounter with Luther Whiting Mason (1818-1896), who was an expert in music education for primary schools in the United States. It could be concluded that Mason was already a known figure in Japanese education sector before meeting Isawa since he later took a post in Japan and published the first Japanese textbook in western music. A collaboration with Mason helped boosting Isawa’s understanding in western music which led to his promotion of western music in Japan and its acceptance and adoption in later years. 

In 1878, Isawa and some high-level officials such as Baron Tanetaro Nekata requested supports from the Japanese Ministry of Education for promoting western music education. Two years later, Isawa came back to Japan and began executing his plan. Western singing and music theory started to appear in standard curriculum, introducing foreign concepts such as major scales. This led to music research in various areas. Isawa’s initiatives led to the fusion of Japanese sensibility and technical aspect of western music. Japanese poems were widely combined with western music. However, there were many restrictions within the society due to the Japan’s feudal regime where music focused on the divinity of the monarch and the royal family through classical music and marching bands. Meantime, a cultural exchange took place in a form of the West adopting Japanese music and singing. Originally, there is a link between traditional Japanese singing system and those of ancient Greek, India, and China. The integration of western music into Japanese education was a major reform. Following an American music education practice folk songs, such as “The Blue Bells of Scotland” from Scotland and “The Last of Summer” from Ireland, were used as examples to develop knowledge and understanding among Japanese students in primary schools. This regime of teaching was adopted in the 19th century and continued to blend with traditional Japanese music education until the present day. Notably, after 1920, Japanese composers composed more songs in western style. They are similar to Shoka, songs which combined western and Japanese music together by applying western’s major scales on pentatonic scales, which is a system commonly used in parts of the world and Asia (Kensho, 2001:51).

In 1887, Tokyo Music School was established in Japan under the leadership of Shuji Isawa and the Ministry of Education. The main objectives of the school were to modernize and produce western music teachers for schools nationwide (Kensho, 2001: 48). The curriculum focused on training and producing professional musicians and teachers by merging music with social studies such as music history, western music theory, and music appreciation. In 1907, there was an initiative in teaching traditional Japanese music by using western music notes. At the school, historical records on the history and origin of tradition Japanese music were also compiled and studied. This marked a major development in Japanese music education which incorporate modern ideas of musicology into the studies of both traditional Japanese and western music. The development led to 300 pieces of traditional music being recorded in western musical method by Shohe Tanaka, who is a prominent Japanese musicologist with many renowned students. One of his students is Hiso Watanabe, a violinist and a specialist in Asian music who became the first chairman of Asian Music Association in 1936. There are over 700 members at present (Sonada, 2014: 111-119).

  However, music education was neglected during the period of the second World War in 1945 due to the government’s priority was shifted to promoting patriotism within the country. Following the model from western countries in form of marching bands, western music was used as propaganda tools. After the end of the war, classical music once again became the focus of music education in Japan. Simple Japanese traditional songs were selected and translated by western musical note system and studied in primary school level. Under the occupying of America, this is an approved method by the Ministry of Education to introduce children to western culture at an early age. This period resulted in an education reform and an integration of western culture into the main education system. In the 1950s, Japanese culture began to be appreciated internationally. The Japanese Ministry of Culture focused on elevating traditional music culture by combining it with western music, giving birth to Japanese contemporary music.

In the meantime, education system in Japan continued to follow the western counterpart. Western contemporary music was introduced into the country, changing the domestic preference from classical to contemporary music between the 60s and the 70s. Rock music began to replace other more traditional genres such as classical music and Japanese folk music. A new trend emerged in standard curriculum of music education for young children, where carefully chosen songs with positive and uplifting content became a focus. In the late 20th century, only a minority of schools remained focusing purely on classical music. Japanese culture was put in a delicate position where it was heavily blended with the western counterpart. With the aim of modernization, Japanese government adopted western models. Turbulences in governmental regime also led to change in education regime. However, contemporary music was a success case of cultural integration (Ishii, 20018: 60-61). From Meji era onwards, modern music education in Japan followed an architype from America. The change from feudal society to capitalism in late 19th century drove an aspiration for modernization and a desire to catching up with western countries. The trend continued to middle of the 20th century (Kensho, 2001: 51-52).

A new era of musicology in Japan took place in 1949 after the Second World War. During the period, as a defeated nation, Japan was under a control of America and the Allies. This was a turning point, leading to a reform in education. Music and arts were included as under Faculty of Fine Arts at University of Tokyo. Later the on, music was established as a separated faculty, providing majors such as musicology, composition, practical singing and music, and classical music. Traditional music was added as a new major in later years. In 1963, related master’s degree courses were added. In 1977, musicology was officially a part of the national standard curriculum, including history of western music and music critique. Musicology was included in curriculums of practical music majors to aid students when writing a thesis. (Sonada, 2014: 111-119).

Music was included in Japanese education policy from primary to secondary levels. Most Japanese students possess basic knowledge, thanked to the focus on reading musical notes which led to an understanding in music theory and appreciation of music and arts. In fact, it was a cultivation of deep values and thorough knowledge, reflecting Japanese sensibility. In 2006, Music Association of Japan and Association of Arts Studies of Japan created a movement demanding an opening of a course in music and visual arts in Tokyo. The objectives were to create a collective conscious that appreciate values of arts through studies of psychology, cognitive science and education studies, and to put emphasis on how arts played a part in forming taste and emotion development (Leung, 2008: 27)  

There is a different in areas of focus when comparing music education in Japan, United States of America and Sweden. In Japan, the main focus was on creating skills related to blending into the society, which is adopted from music education in USA. While in Sweden, the focus was on an individual and practical music with a music instrument. However, actual musical instruments were rarely included in Japanese classrooms. The focus was placed in reading and understanding of musical notes and proportion of rhythms while encouraging music activities, such as listening and playing music, in daily life outside of the classroom, and providing inn-class exercises assigned by teachers, designed to connect student’s individual’s interest on different instruments at the same time. This enabled Japanese students to participate more in music. Moreover, the content of the curriculum provided a readiness for students interested in expanding oneself in music with a degree of basic knowledge from an early age (Granstrom, 2015: 24-27).


Popular music was a fruit of creativity of musicians. Through their works which drive the global music industry, cultural ideas and taste of the people were formed. It brought about a phenomenon which music drove entertainment values and social conscious in its country of origin such as the United States and United Kingdom. Both nations influenced the media which dispersed popular music globally in a way of capitalism that every country is earning its place in mainstream creativity. In this article, the cases of Thailand and Japan were used as two case studies by exploring the history and importance of popular music and pointing out differences in policies related to using music and music education. Both countries shared a similar practice of using music in government ceremonies. However, Japan has been placing more importance in music education. The policy was carefully crafted which led the nation to its success in driving people’s understanding of music and the society, and appreciation of music. 




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