The main source for the music of the hsaing ensemble is the rich repertoire of songs used in the days of the Burmese kings. The texts of these songs are compiled into a collection known as the Mahagita, the great or royal songs. The Mahagita contains a number of different song types of which the Co, Bwe, and Tahein ghan are the oldest. Also included are the Patt Pyou and Yodaya songs. The Patt Pyou songs were popular at court during the last few hundred years. Yodaya songs are those modeled on the style of music introduced into Burma from the Kingdom of Ayuthia in Thailand. There are numerous other categories of songs in the Mahagita.
In addition to all of the Mahagita songs, there is a special repertory of instrumental pieces for the hsaing ensemble generally called hsaing ti loun. These compositions are almost always unique to the particular hsaing, usually having been composed by the leader of the group or, at times, by one of the other musicians. The hsaing ti loun are often used to open concerts or to end the performance when the hsaing accompanies a drama or a puppet show. In this context they may be referred to as panama ti loun, “beginnings,” or “opening music,” but in fact either of the terms hsaing ti loun or panama ti loun indicates an instrumental composition intended to demonstrate the dexterity of the musicians in the ensemble, their cohesive organization, and the imagination of the composer.
There are a few compositions based on songs in the Mahagita which are most often performed instrumentally, for example, the ye gin, “Music of the Royal Watch,” and the myin gin “Music of Horsemanship.” These may appear on a concert program as slow instrumental pieces like the hsaing ti loun, but they differ in that they follow the form of the original Mahagita composition. In the case of the ye gin, a number of composers have found the structure so fascinating that there are several different instrumental compositions now in the ye gin form.
In essence the hsaing ensemble plays not only to provide a particular music for a function, but to draw attention to the skill and creativity of their particular group. Each group is defined by: the talent of its leader and supporting musicians; the originality of its compositions; the skill with which it executes dramatic changes of tonality and tempo; and its deft integration of material from the broad spectrum of Burmese music.
Frequently in Burmese entertainments one or two persons stand in the orchestra for the purpose of engaging in comic dialogue during the breaks between compositions, or between the phrases of a single piece. These men, called Nau hta (“those who stand behind”), ask the musicians foolish questions or make comments on what is being played, thereby giving the audience a greater appreciation and awareness of the subtleties of the performance. Thus, a traditional Burmese hsaing performance appears as a series of compositions, some brilliant ensemble works, some songs interspersed with instrumental interludes, and all heavily intertwined with interruptions, questions, and slapstick antics of the Nau hta as well as joyful outbursts from the audience. The practice of interrupting the composition for dialogue even after only a single phrase of the melody has been heard often makes it difficult for the uninitiated to know clearly when one composition has ended and another begun.