Asia

Gamelan

One of the most influential types of music-making in Indonesia is that of Gamelan. Gamelan describes a type of ‘orchestra’ made up mainly of tuned percussion instruments, which often accompanies performances of rod or shadow puppetry.

Musical features

The word 'gamelan' means 'to hammer'. Gamelan music is found mainly in Bali and Java. The two styles differ but are based on the same principles.

Gamelan music:

  • is heard at celebrations and theatre performances
  • is based on oral tradition - players learn by mastering techniques and memorising the music and notation is not used
  • is played together as a group and emphasises community over individual values

Structure

The music is made up of interlocking layers. Each layer is played by a different instrument. The layers are usually based on a core melodic line called a balungan. The texture is heterophonic.

Gamelan music is characterised by the following:

  • the lower the pitch, the longer the note values
  • the highest layers are for virtuoso solo instruments played with notes of shorter duration
  • the lowest gongs are often played by beginners
  • the music is divided into four beat groups called keteg
  • gongs of different sizes are used to mark cycles of music known as the gongan

Tonality

Two different tuning systems are used - slendro, a five note scale and pelog, a seven note scale. Tunings vary, but here are the approximate pitches:

Instruments

A gamelan is a set of instruments consisting mainly of gongs, metallophones and drums. Some gamelans include bamboo flutes (suling), bowed strings (rebab) and vocalists. Each gamelan has a different tuning and the instruments are kept together as a set. No two gamelans are the same.

Listen to Jauk Masal played by Gong Kebyar. The first instruments you'll hear are the kendang (two-headed drum) and the ugal (two-octave metallophone).

Jauk Masal played by Gong Kebyar