The harmonious heritage of traditional musical instruments

Delving into the realm of the old and exploring 5 of these traditional instruments 


AMONG the various threads of Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage lies a golden treasure of traditional musical instruments — each with its unique origins and forms. These instruments have not only served as a source of pride but also as a means to connect with our cultural heritage. 

There are so many traditional musical instruments that need to be shared with the masses so that these instruments can be appreciated and played by music-goers and enthusiasts. 

The Music Gallery exhibition at the National Museum is another attraction for music enthusiasts. Often, there are additional exhibits outside of the museum complex. The location is on the exterior of the building, which is about a 30m walk away. 

It houses all kinds of musical instruments used in every state in Malaysia. Uniquely, each state has its own musical instrument, ranging from tambourines, rattles, drums, gongs and many more. 

Each musical instrument comes with a historical explanation associated with it, making it easier for visitors who want to understand in-depth. 

Let’s delve into the realm of the old and explore five of these traditional instruments. 

Marzelan is the leader of Nada Nusantara, a project that explores music through experimental play and study (pic HUSSIEN SHAHARUDDIN/TMR)

Saron (Gamelan) 

Gamelan is a music ensemble that originated in Indonesia and then became part of the culture in several Malaysian states such as Pahang, Terengganu and Johor. Each state uses the same keynotes, but Pahang and Terengganu include dance performances, while Johorean gamelan is used in “wayang kulit” performances. 

According to University of Malaya (UM) Department of Music and Arts senior lecturer Dr Marzelan Salleh, gamelan generally consists of six instruments, but the particular instrument that we want to look at is the “saron”. 

The “saron” comes in three types: “Saron demong”, “saron barung” and “saron perkin”, each differing in terms of its octave range. Typically, it features seven bronze bars placed on top of a resonating frame and is played on the floor by a seated performer. 

Classified as an idiophone class of instrument, Marzelan said “saron” could not stand on its own. 

“It needs to be accompanied by the rest of gamelan’s instruments in order to achieve a perfect harmony of sounds,” said Marzelan to The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). 

Harmonium needs to be played together with the rest of the Ghazal ensemble to create harmony (source: Jabatan Muzium Malaysia)

Harmonium (Ghazal) 

Ghazal is expressed in a form of poetry and music that has its roots in the Middle East, yet has gained vast popularity in South Asia, specifically India and Pakistan. Whenever they perform a Ghazal, the singer will sing in the form of Qasida (poetry) while being accompanied by music. 

Harmonium is one of the five instruments being used in a Ghazal ensemble. It is a small, portable keyboard instrument that can produce melodic and harmonic support. It is classified under the free-reed aerophone class, which is similar to the accordion and the melodica. 

It has several key components, such as the keyboard, the bellows, reeds and knobs. Bellows serve as a way to force air through the instrument and be pumped by the player’s left hand. 

Metal reeds are present inside the harmonium and are the heart of the instrument; whenever air flows into the reeds, it will vibrate and cause different pitch sounds depending on the length, tension and thickness of the reeds. 

Just like the gamelan, Marzelan emphasised the significance of playing this instrument together with the rest of the ensemble. 

Sitar has a similar form of shape as a guitar but instead of having 6 strings, it only has 3 strings in total (pic: Bernama)


The sitar is a traditional musical instrument that originated from India. It has a similar form of shape as a guitar but instead of having six strings, a sitar only has three strings in total. It is often used in Indian classical and folk music. 

It is divided into seven different components: The resonator, neck, pegs, bridge, strings, frets and gourd resonator. Each of these components has its role to ensure that a sitar produces a perfect sound. 

“The three strings are not the unique part of a sitar,” said Marzelan, who is one of the leaders of Nada Nusantara, a project that explores music through experimental play and study. 

“The beauty of it is that you can change the scale by pulling the lever to change the length of the frets, which results in unique sounds that you won’t be able to hear from a modern guitar,” he said. 

Unlike the first two instruments, the sitar is a standalone instrument that can be played solo. We are grateful to have a chance to see this instrument being played in Malaysia due to our multicultural history. 


The erhu, also known as the “Chinese Violin” or “Chinese two-string fiddle”, is a Chinese musical instrument that was created during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). 

According to Marzelan, the erhu is divided into several components: The resonator, neck, strings, bow and sound holes. The bow is made of horsehair, which is attached to two strings. 

To play it, the player needs to hold the erhu vertically in front of them and use their left hand to press and adjust the tension of the strings against the neck. 

“It’s a stringed instrument, but you have to play it with a bow, in which you have to swipe on the strings like a violin,” Marzelan told TMR. 

Sape music is often used by the indigenous tribes to convey their stories, legends and cultural narratives (pic: Bernama)


If you have been to Sabah and visited the long-house at the rivers of Kayan, you may have seen this instrument being played by their natives. Sape is a traditional Dayak string instrument that comes from Borneo origin and is commonly developed in northern, eastern and western Kalimantan. 

Sape is a stringed lute instrument and it is known for its elegant and distinctive appearance. It consists of the body, neck, strings, tuning pegs and sound hole. To play it, you need to use a technique similar to playing a guitar, where you can pluck or strum the strings with your fingers. 

Sape music is often used by the indigenous tribes to convey their stories, legends and cultural narratives. It is regarded as an integral part of their oral tradition, passing down the knowledge of the past and their history in the form of song. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition