Legend Of Javanese Gamelan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


gamelan is a musical ensemble from Indonesia, typically from the islands of Bali or Java, featuring a variety of instruments such asmetallophonesxylophonesdrums and gongsbamboo flutes, bowed and plucked stringsVocalists may also be included.

The term refers more to the set of instruments than to the players of those instruments. A gamelan is a set of instruments as a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together — instruments from different gamelan are generally not interchangeable.

The word “gamelan” comes from the Javanese word “gamels”, meaning to strike or hammer, and the suffix “an”, which makes the root a collective noun. Real hammers are not used to play these instruments as heavy iron hammers would break the delicate instruments.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

gamelan is a musical ensemble from Indonesia, typically from the islands of Bali or Java, featuring a variety of instruments such asmetallophonesxylophonesdrums and gongsbamboo flutes, bowed and plucked stringsVocalists may also be included.

The term refers more to the set of instruments than to the players of those instruments. A gamelan is a set of instruments as a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together — instruments from different gamelan are generally not interchangeable.

The word “gamelan” comes from the Javanese word “gamels”, meaning to strike or hammer, and the suffix “an”, which makes the root a collective noun. Real hammers are not used to play these instruments as heavy iron hammers would break the delicate instruments.

 History of Gamelan Music

Musicians performing musical ensemble, bas-relief ofBorobudur.

The gamelan predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture that dominated Indonesia in its earliest records and instead represents a native art form. The instruments developed into their current form during the Majapahit Empire. In contrast to the heavy Indian influence in other art forms, the only obvious Indian influence in gamelan music is in the Javanese style of singing.

In Javanese mythology, the gamelan was created by Sang Hyang Guru in Saka era 167 (c. AD 230), the god who ruled as king of all Java from a palace on the Maendra mountains in Medangkamulan (now Mount Lawu). He needed a signal to summon the gods and thus invented the gong. For more complex messages, he invented two other Gongs, thus forming the original gamelan set.

The earliest image of a musical ensemble is found on the 8th centuryBorobudur temple, Central Java. Musical instruments such as the bamboo flute, bells, drums in various sizes, lute, and bowed and plucked string instruments were identified in this image. However it lacks metallophones and xylophones. Nevertheless, the image of this musical ensemble is suggested to be the ancient form of the gamelan.

In the palaces of Java are the oldest known ensembles, the Munggangand Kodokngorek gamelans, apparently from the 12th century. These formed the basis of a “loud style”. A different, “soft style” developed out of the kemanak tradition and is related to the traditions of singingJavanese poetry, in a manner which is often believed to be similar to performance of modern bedhaya dance. In the 17th century, these loud and soft styles mixed, and to a large extent the variety of modern gamelan styles of Bali, Java, and Sunda resulted from different ways of mixing these elements. Thus, despite the seeming diversity of styles, many of the same theoretical concepts, instruments, and techniques are shared between the styles.

 Varieties of gamelan ensembles

Sundanese Gamelan Degung.

The all-bamboo Gamelan jegog from Bali


Varying forms of gamelan ensembles are distinguished by their collection of instruments and use of voice, tunings, repertoire, style, and cultural context. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same, and those that arose in prestigious courts are often considered to have their own style. Certain styles may also be shared by nearby ensembles, leading to a regional style.

The varieties are generally grouped geographically,… with the principal division between the styles favored by the BalineseJavanese, andSundanese peoples. Sundanese gamelan is often associated withGamelan Degung, a Sundanese musical ensemble that utilises a subset of modified gamelan instruments with a particular mode ofpelog scale. Balinese gamelan is often associated with the virtuosity and rapid changes of tempo and dynamics of Gamelan gong kebyar, its best-known style. Other popular Balinese styles include Gamelan andkecak, also known as the “monkey chant.” Javanese gamelan was largely dominated by the courts of the 19th century central Javanese rulers, each with its own style, but overall is known for a slower, more meditative style than that of Bali.

Outside of the main core on Java and Bali, gamelans have spread through migration and cultural interest, new styles sometimes resulting as well. Malay gamelans are designed in ways that are similar to the Javanese gamelan except they lack most of the elaborating instruments and are tuned in a near-equidistant slendro, often using a western Bb or C as a tuning basis. Javanese emigrants to Suriname play gamelan in a style close to that found in Central Javanese villages. Gamelan is also related to the Philipino kulintang ensemble. There is also a wide variety of gamelan in the West, including both traditional and experimental ensembles.

 Cultural context

In Indonesia, gamelan usually accompanies dance wayang puppet performances, or rituals or ceremonies. Typically players in the gamelan will be familiar with dance moves and poetry, while dancers are able to play in the ensemble. In wayang, the dalang (puppeteer) must have a thorough knowledge of gamelan, as he gives the cues for the music. Gamelan can be performed by itself — in “klenengan” style, or for radio broadcasts — but concerts in the Western style are not traditional.

Gamelan’s role in rituals is so important that there is a Javanese saying, “It’s not official until the gong is hung.” Some performances are associated with royalty, such as visits by the sultan of Yogyakarta. Certain gamelans are associated with specific rituals, such as theGamelan Sekaten, which is used in celebration of Mawlid an-Nabi(Muhammad‘s birthday). In Bali, almost all religious rituals include gamelan performance. Gamelan is also used in the ceremonies of theCatholic church in Indonesia. Certain pieces are designated for starting and ending performances or ceremonies. When a “leaving” piece (such as “Udan Mas“) is begun, the audience will know that the event is nearly finished and will begin to leave. Certain pieces are also believed to possess magic powers, and can be used to ward off evil spirits.

Javanese gamelan ensemble with two female sindhen (choral singer) during traditional Javanese wedding at Sasono Utomo, Taman Mini Indonesia IndahJakartaIndonesia

Gamelan is frequently played on the radio. For example, the Pura Pakualaman gamelan performs live on the radio every Minggu Pon (a day in the 35-day cycle of the Javanese calendar). In major towns, the Radio Republik Indonesia employs professional musicians and actors, and broadcast programs of a wide variety of gamelan music and drama.

In the court tradition of central Java, gamelan is often played in thependopo, an open pavilion with a cavernous, double-pitched roof, no side walls, and a hard marble or tile floor. The instruments are placed on a platform to one side, which allows the sound to reverberate in the roof space and enhances the acoustics.

In Bali, the Gamelan instruments are all kept together in the balai banjar, a community meeting hall which has a large open space with a roof over top of it with several open sides. The instruments are all kept here together because they believe that all of the instruments belong to the community as a whole and no one person has ownership over an instrument. Not only is this where the instruments are stored, but this is also the practice space for the sekaha (Gamelan orchestra). The open walls allow for the music to flow out into the community where the rest of the people can enjoy it.

The sekaha is led by a single instructor whose job it is in the community to lead this group and to come up with new songs. When they are working on a new song, the instructor will lead the group in practice and help the group form the new piece of music as they are practicing. When the instructor creates a new song, he leaves enough open for interpretation that the group can improvise and as a group they will be writing the music as they are practicing it.

The Balinese Gamelan groups are constantly changing their music by taking older pieces they know and mixing them together as well as trying new variations on their music. Their music is always constantly changing because they believe that music should grow and change; the only exception to this is with their most sacred songs which they will not change. A single new piece of music can take several months before it is completed.

Men and women usually perform in separate groups, with the exception of the pesindhen, the female singer who performs with male groups.

In the West, gamelan is often performed in a concert context, but may also incorporate dance or wayang.


Celempung — Indonesian Embassy inCanberra.

The tuning and construction of a gamelan orchestra is a complex process. Javanese gamelans use twotuning systems:sléndro and pélog. There are other tuning systems such as degung (exclusive to Sunda, or West Java), andmadenda (also known as diatonis, similar to a European natural minor scale). In central Javanese gamelan, sléndro is a system with five notes to the diapason (octave), fairly evenly spaced, while pélog has seven notes to the octave, with uneven intervals, usually played in five note subsets of the seven-tone collection. This results in sound quite different from music played in a western tuning system. Many gamelan orchestras will include instruments in each tuning, but each individual instrument will only be able to play notes in one. The precise tuning used differs from ensemble to ensemble, and give each ensemble its own particular flavour. The intervals between notes in a scale are very close to identical for different instruments within each gamelan, but the intervals vary from one gamelan to the next.

Colin McPhee remarked, “Deviations in what is considered the same scale are so large that one might with reason state that there are as many scales as there are gamelans.” However, this view is contested by some teachers of gamelan, and there have been efforts to combine multiple ensembles and tuning structures into one gamelan to ease transportation at festival time. One such ensemble is gamelan Manikasanti, which can play the repertoire of many different ensembles.

Balinese gamelan instruments are commonly played in pairs which are tuned slightly apart to produce interference beats, ideally at a consistent speed for all pairs of notes in all registers. It is thought that this contributes to the very “busy” and “shimmering” sound of gamelan ensembles. In the religious ceremonies that contain gamelan, these interference beats are meant to give the listener a feeling of a god’s presence or a stepping stone to a meditative state.


Traditionally gamelan music is not notated and began as an oral tradition; however, in the 19th century, the kratons of Yogyakarta and Surakarta developed distinct notations for transcribing the repertoire. These were not used to read the music, which was memorized, but to preserve pieces in the court records. The Yogyanese notation is a checkerboard notation, which uses six or seven vertical lines to represent notes of higher pitch in the balungan (core melody), and horizontal lines which represent the series of beats, read downward with time. The fourth vertical line and every fourth horizontal line (completing a gatra) are darkened for legibility. Symbols on the left indicate the colotomic structure of gongs and so forth, while specific drum features are notated in symbols to the right. The Solonese notation reads horizontally, like Western notation, but does not use barlines. Instead, note values and rests are squiggled between the notes.

Today this notation is relatively rare, and has been replaced bykepatihan notation, which is a cipher system. Kepatihan notation developed around 1900 at the kepatihan in Surakarta. The pitches are numbered (see the articles on the scales slendro and pélog for an explanation of how), and are read across with dots and lines indicating the register and time values. Like the palace notations, however, they record only the balungan part, and to a large extent what is heard relies on memorized patterns the performers call upon during performance. However, teachers have also devised certain notations, generally using kepatihan principles, for the cengkok (melodic patterns) of each elaborating instrument. In ethnomusicological studies, transcriptions are often made onto a Western staff, sometimes with unusual clefs.

The Bonang

The bonang has no equivalent in Western music. Some people call the bonang “gong chimes.” The bonang are in fact related to gongs. Each kettle on the rack is basically a small tuned gong oriented so that the button is on top. These kettle gongs are suspended on cords and do not have any resonators.

Bonang are played with both hands using cord wrapped beaters. Because a player uses both hands to play the instrument, he or she must also dampen notes with the beaters themselves.

The Javanese gamelan has two pairs of bonang instruments: the bonang barung and the bonang panerus. There are two of each bonang to play in the two gamelan scales.

Bonang Barung

The bonang barung is the lower of the two instruments. Melodically, it is one of the more important instruments in a Javanese gamelan ensemble. In many loud pieces, it is the melodic leader playing an elaborate version of the basic melody.

Bonang Panerus

The bonang panerus plays an octave higher than the bonang barung. It usually plays a fast melodic strain based on that played by the bonang barung.

In some pieces, both bonang play a fast interlocking pattern calledimbal. You can hear an example of this in Playon Gambuh.

The Saron (Demung, Barung, and Peking)

The saron form the backbone of the Javanese gamelan ensemble. Typically, they play the melody along with the slenthem. This melody line, the balungan(literally “skeleton”), is the part from which all of the elaborating instruments (like the bonang and gendèr) derive their parts.

Because Javanese gamelan has two scales, pélog and sléndro, each saron of a large set come in pairs. When playing the saron, one strikes the metal bars with a hammer in one hand and dampens notes with the other.

The Demung

The demung is the largest and lowest of the saron. It is played with a hammer with a wooden head.

The Saron

The saron (also known as saron barung) is somewhat smaller than the demung. Its bars sound an octave higher than those of the demung.

The Peking

The peking (also known as the saron panerus) is small and plays high notes (an octave higher than the saron). When playing the peking, one uses a hammer made from an animal horn. The peking usually playes an elaboration on the basic melody.

The Slenthem

The slenthem frequentlyplays the same basic melody as that of the saron. Occasionally, it does have its own important part to play. It is low in pitch,and its sound sustains for a relatively long period of time becauseof thetubular resonators below each bar. It is a quiet instrument and its soundhelps to soften that of the saron.With the resonators and thin bars, the slenthem is related to the higher pitched gendèr. It is played with one hand holding a paddedwooden disk beater (with a handle) and the other hand for dampeningnotes previously struck. As with many other gamelan instruments, the slenthem come in pairs for the two scales.

The Gendèr

(pronounced gen – DARE) is a soft instrument with multioctave range. The thin metal bars are suspended by cords above tubular resonators that amplify and sustain the sound. There are two sizes of gendèr: gendèr barung (lower) and gendèr panerus (higher). Each plays an elaborate melody derived from the main melody of a piece of music, or balungan. Gendèr are played with two hands, each holding a mallet with a padded disk-shaped head. Because the instrument has incredible sustain, the sound must be dampened with the wrists after striking the next note (or notes). Gendèr come in threes (unlike most instruments, which come in pairs). One gendèr is for the sléndro scale, and there are two pélog gendèr for different pathet, or modes. One pélog gendèr has pitches 1 2 3 5 6, while the other has pitches 2 3 5 6 7. (Read more about the Javanese scales and cipher notation.)

The Gong Ageng, Gong Suwuk, and Kempul

In Javanese gamelan, the gongs are colotomic or punctuating instruments that mark the musical structure of the piece. They do not play constantly, instead they play at regular intervals (along with the kenongkethuk, and kempyang) to punctuate a piece of music.

Gong Ageng and Gong Suwuk

The gong ageng (the two dark-colored gongs in the photograph) are very important to the gamelan. They mark the end of major divisions called gongan. The big gong is also used when ending most pieces. The gong suwuk are large gongs of definite pitch. In some pieces, they are used to mark different gongan or when there are many gong strokes in rapid successesion (the gong ageng sounds muddy if played often).

The Kempul

The kempul are a set of pitched gongs. These instruments often subdivide a line of gamelan music. There are two racks of gongs because of the two gamelan scales, orlaras.

The Kenong

The kenong, like the gongs, are punctuating instruments. The kenong are related to gongs. Essentially, a kenong kettle is a small, but deep tuned gong that is suspended on cords in a rack. The musician sits in the middle of all of the instruments (which include kettles from both scales). Kenong beaters are large sticks with a padded end. Normally, the musician will play a kenong and let it ring. In some pieces, the kenong is played in rapid succession. The player must dampen the instrument with the beater so only the desired pitch is heard. In many pieces, the kenong play at the end of each line (called kenongan). A number of kenongan makes up a gongan, or one gong-cycle of a piece.

The Drums/Kendang

There are several drums or kendhang of different sizes in a Javanese gamelan ensemble: kendhang ageng, kendhang wayangan, kendhang ciblon, and kendhang ketipung (not all of the drums are necessarily played in one piece). The laced drums have skin heads on both sides are are played with the hand. Usually,one musician will play the drums, one or two at a time. The drummer supplies many of the signals to the restof the group. Some drum patterns may mean finish the piece, another may mean change to a new piece, while yet another drum pattern may mean switch styles of playing.

In a gamelan ensemble, the drums are not the only signal, other instruments like the bonang barung or rebab may lead the ensemble melodically. Because the drums are played with the hands, they have a wide variety of sounds from a high pitched “tak” to a low “dlong.”

The Kethuk and Kempyang

The kethuk and kempyang span are colotomic or structure-marking instruments in the Javanese gamelan ensemble. The parts are not melodious or even particularly challenging to play. However, the kethuk and kempyang are helpful in defining the beat and keeping the ensemble playing together.

Both the kethuk and kempyang are horizontal gongs much like the kenong or bonang. Frequently, both instruments will be played by one musician.


The kethuk is a single kettle-gong of definite pitch (the kethuk of the Kyai Telaga Rukmi ensemble is a pitch 2; see pages about the Javanese scalesand cipher notation for more information.) It is played in one of two ways depending upon the irama (speed) of the piece.

In a fast irama the musician strikes the button or knob of the instrument without letting the stick rebound or the note ring.

The sound of the kethuk is a dry “Thuk” (the name of the instrument mirrors its sound). In a slower irama the kethuk is played in a kind of “dribbling” pattern somewhat like“Thuk   thuk thuk thuk thuk“.


The kempyang consists of two kettle-gongs of higher pitch than that of the kethuk. Either one or both kempyang kettles may be stuck and allowed to ring with a “Pyang” sound. The two kettles are pitched about a note apart, so it can be a very disonant sound when they are struck together.

Influence on Western music

The gamelan has been appreciated by several western composers ofclassical music, most famously Claude Debussy who heard a Javanese gamelan play at the Paris Exposition of 1889 (World’s Fair). (The gamelan Debussy heard was in the slendro scale and was played by Central Javanese musicians. Despite his enthusiasm, direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been located in any of Debussy’s own compositions. However, the equal-tempered whole tone scale appears in his music of this time and afterward, and a Javanese gamelan-like heterophonic texture is emulated on occasion, particularly in “Pagodes”, fromEstampes (solo piano, 1903), in which the great gong‘s cyclic punctuation is symbolized by a prominent perfect fifth.

The composer Erik Satie, an influential contemporary of Debussy, also heard the Javanese gamelan play at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The repetitively hypnotic effects of the gamelan were incorporated into Satie’s exotic Gnossienne set for piano.

Direct homages to gamelan music are to be found in works for western instruments by John Cage, particularly his prepared piano pieces, Colin McPheeLou HarrisonBéla BartókFrancis PoulencOlivier Messiaen,Pierre BoulezBronislaw Kaper and Benjamin Britten. In more recent times, American composers such as Henry BrantSteve ReichPhilip GlassDennis MurphyLoren NerellMichael TenzerEvan Ziporyn,Daniel James Wolf and Jody Diamond as well as Australian composers such as Peter SculthorpeAndrew Schultz and Ross Edwards have written several works with parts for gamelan instruments or full gamelan ensembles. I Nyoman Windha is among contemporary Indonesian composers that have written compositions using western instruments along with Gamelan. Hungarian composer György Ligetiwrote a piano étude called Galamb Borong influenced by gamelan. American folk guitarist John Fahey included elements of gamelan in many of his late-60s sound collages, and again in his 1997 collaboration with Cul de SacThe Epiphany of Glenn Jones. The experimental art-rock band King Crimson, while not using gamelan instruments, used interlocking rhythmic paired guitars that were influenced by gamelan.On the debut EP of Sonic Youth the track ‘She’s not Alone’ has a gamelan timbre. Experimental pop groups The Residents23 Skidoo (whose 1984 album was even titled Urban Gamelan), Mouse on MarsHis Name Is AliveXiu XiuMachaSaudade, and the Sun City Girls have used gamelan percussion. The gamelan has also been used by British multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield at least three times, “Woodhenge” (1979), “The Wind Chimes (Part II)” (1987) and “Nightshade” (2005). Avant-garde performance bandMelted Men uses Balinese gamelan instruments as well as gamelan-influenced costumes and dance in their shows. The Moodswinger built by Yuri Landman gives gamelan–like clock and bell sounds, because of its 3rd bridge construction.

Recently, many Americans were first introduced to the sounds of gamelan by the popular anime film Akira. Gamelan elements are used in this film to punctuate several exciting fight scenes, as well as to symbolize the emerging psychic powers of the tragic hero, Tetsuo. The gamelan in the film’s score was performed by the members of theJapanese musical collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi. Gamelan and kecak are also used in the soundtrack to the video games Secret of Mana andSonic Unleashed. The musical soundtrack for the Sci Fi Channel seriesBattlestar Galactica features extensive use of the gamelan, particularly in the 3rd season,[17] as do Alexandre Desplat‘s scores for Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Golden Compass.

Loops of gamelan music appear in electronic music. An early example is the Texas band Drain‘s album Offspeed and In There, which contains two tracks where trip-hop beats are matched with gamelan loops from Java and Bali and recent popular examples include the Sofa Surfers‘ piece Gamelan, or EXEC_PAJA/.#Orica extracting, a song sung by Haruka Shimotsuki as part of the Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia soundtracks.


5 thoughts on “Gamelan

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  1. Hello,
    I’m from France and I wonder if you play in javanese gamelan group. If yes, do you have notations for gender pelog ?
    Thanks a lot for your great website.
    With best regards


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