Gamelan ensembles are found predominantly on the islands of Java and Bali and comprise mainly bronze metallophones and gongs. They are led by drummers (one in Javanese ensembles, two in Balinese ensembles) who play double-headed drums and give rhythmic signals to the other performers regarding tempo and dynamic changes.  Gamelan has spread internationally since the 1960s and today it is played in many ensembles associated with university music departments and embassies around the world. The Indonesian and international gamelan scene features both traditional and contemporary music. It is also strongly associated with the sophisticated puppetry and dance traditions of Indonesia.

Javanese gamelan originates from the courtly cities of Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta but there is also a strong village tradition.  The music is described in Javanese literature as “flowing water” or “blossoming flowers” and frequently features vocals, a bowed fiddle (rebab) and bamboo flute.

Bali’s Gong Kebyar style (played by GTJ) is characterised by unpredictable rhythms and wild dynamic contrasts. Entirely comprised of bronze metallophones and gongs, it has a vibrant and complex sound, and the music shimmers and pulses with a broad range of sound from tiny high tinkling metallophones all the way down to massive booming gongs.

What does the word gamelan mean?

“Gamelan gets its name from the low Javanese word ‘gamel’, which means a type of hammer, like a blacksmith’s hammer. The name ‘gamelan’ refers to the method of playing the instruments - by striking them - as they are almost entirely percussion.”

(Lindsay, J. (1979). Javanese Gamelan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.9)

Description and Function of the instruments in the Javanese gamelan

Kendang - drums
The kendang is the rhythmic leader of the group.Drums

 

 

 

The kethuk, kempyang, kenong, kempul and gong support the kendhang in defining the structure and setting the speed. Their names are onomatopoeic; the names sound like the sounds made by the instruments.

 

The slenthem (left) and saron (right) play the balungan - the skeleton of the melodic line. The saron family includes the saron panerus (the smallest member), saron barung (middle-sized) and demung (the largest member).

 

 

Bonang
The bonang plays an elaboration on the melodic line. It acts as the melodic leader in ensembles of the louder instruments.

Bonang

Elaborating instruments

The gender, rebab, gambang, suling and celempung, also elaborate on the melodic line. They are used in an ensemble of softer instruments and in quieter pieces. The gender or rebab acts as melodic leader in such ensembles or pieces.
The gambang is the one instrument in the ensemble with wooden keys.

Voices (sindhen and gerong)
Singers have a role in gamelan that is comparable with other instruments. The singers are usually organised as a solo female voice (pesindhen) and a male chorus (gerong).

Instruments in the Balinese Gamelan Gong Kebyar

(based on Wikipedia entry)

  • Pokok instruments - these instruments play the core melody
    • jublag - medium pitched, 5-keyed bronze metallophones
    • jegogan - low-pitched, 5-keyed bronze metallophones
  • Punctuating Instruments
    • kempli - small gong on a stand; keeps the beat.
    • gong - largest suspended gong (sometimes two are used) (G in notation)
    • kempur - medium-sized suspended gong (P in notation)
    • kemong (also called klentong or kenong) - small suspended gong (T in notation)
  • Elaborating Instruments
    • gangsa - the group of bronze metallophones that play most figuration and faster melodies, consisting of:
      • kantilan (small, high-pitched);
      • pemade (medium-pitched);
      • ugal (low-pitched) (usually taller and may play solo passages)
    • reong - a row of 12 tuned gong chimes that play either interlocking melodic figuration or rhythmic parts together with the drum and ceng-ceng
Reong

Reong

  • Rhythmic Instruments
    • kendang - drums—higher pitched kendang lanang (female); lower pitched kendang wadon (male)
    • ceng-ceng - cymbals on a stand (often shaped like a turtle)
What are the instruments made of?

“The bronze gamelan instruments are made from a mixture of copper and tin; three parts tin to ten parts copper.” (Lindsay,1979, p.19)

How are the instruments made?
Gong Forge in Surakarta, Central Java (Photo: Pippa Strom)

Gong Forge in Surakarta, Central Java (Photo: Pippa Strom)

The bronze is forged in fire.

Watch a video of gong-making here.

Tuning systems

Each set of gamelan instruments is tuned slightly differently from each other as there is no standard reference point (such as A440) in gamelan music. None of the tunings match a western diatonic scale.

In a complete set of Javanese gamelan, there are two tuning systems called pelog (7 notes) and slendro (5 notes). In West Java another ensemble called gamelan degung (also known as Sundanese gamelan) has its own 5 note pelog tuning system.

In Bali, pelog tuning predominates with ensembles such as Gong Kebyar using a 5 note pelog system and Semar Pegulingan using 7 notes. Balinese Gender Wayang ensembles, played in shadow puppetry, use a 5 note slendro scale. A feature of Balinese tuning is to tune pairs of instruments slightly apart so that when played together, the sound ‘beats’, creating the characteristic shimmering sound.

More information about gamelan music

Javanese gamelan