Gamelan Music

History of Gamelan Music

Gamelan is a national orchestra of the peoples of Indonesia. It is built on traditions, customs, beliefs, and history of the Indonesian people. As a form of collective music-making, it originated about three thousand years ago. In its classical form, gamelan was formed in XIV-XV centuries. The basis of gamelan constitutes percussion instruments. Sometimes, flute and plucked instruments are added. A sound of gamelan usually accompanies dances, ceremonies, rituals, and presentations of the national puppet theater. These days, gamelan music is popular all over the world. The purpose of this research paper is to study the origin, location, and influence of gamelan music.

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Geographical Location and Culture of People Listening to It

The context of gamelan music becomes clear in the process of getting acquainted with its cultural and historical roots. The Indonesian archipelago is the largest and most powerful chain of islands in the world. 13,677 islands are scattered across 5 thousand kilometers of tropical seas (Spiller, 2008). It is historically known to Europeans as the “Spice Islands” (Yamashita & Eades, 2003). The Republic of Indonesia is a developing country with a kaleidoscope of peoples, languages, and cultures. More than 100 different ethnic groups speak more than 300 different languages. Islam is considered the official religion in Indonesia (Spiller, 2008). However, the cradle of gamelan music – the island of Bali – is an enclave. Its inhabitants are Hindus and need gamelan for successfully conducting numerous religious ceremonies taking place annually, since the Hindu gods love lavish musical entertainment (Spiller, 2008). In Bali, music is omnipresent and universal. It has a rich tradition. It is a synthesis of ancient rituals based on mysticism and related religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Besides music, the Balinese love poetry, dancing, and festivals. They are extremely capable in arts and crafts. They are also passionately fond of gambling, particularly cockfighting.

The first mention of gamelan orchestras is found in chronicles dating back to the XIV century (Spiller, 2008). With the conquest of the country by the Dutch in 1908, Balinese palace culture underwent drastic transformation (Sutton, 2007). Its power and sources of income fell sharply. Palaces ceased to function as cultural centers. The majority of gamelan orchestras dispatched to warehouses. Unable to assume the traditional roles as artists, many palace musicians sold their instruments to village musicians, thus transferring the care of art in the hands of ordinary villagers. The whole orchestras transferred to forms that satisfied lively and vibrant tastes of the masses. After music left palaces and moved to the villages, its rapid development started. It began to live a new life becoming louder, faster, and more accessible to wider audiences (Sutton, 2007). Village gamelan sounded more energetic and passionate than the slow haunting Javanese style that dominated the palaces of Bali up to the XX century.

The word gamelan is derived from the ancient roots of “gamel” (Java) and “gambel” (Bali). Most Indonesian languages interpret gambel as a “sound from the strike. However, the earlier languages define the term as “contact” or “hold” as a musician refers to the instrument or keeps it. Some definitions interpret the word “gamel” as a hammer. Indeed, many instruments in gamelan are played with wooden hammers (Yamashita & Eades, 2003). However, its main meaning is an Indonesian orchestra or music played by the orchestra. In the book Focus: Gamelan Music of Indonesia, it is stated that, “Gamelan music of all sorts is about playing together with other people in a unified group in which mutual cooperation is rewarded with harmonious music” (Spiller, 2008, p. 4). In such a way, the main meaning of gamelan is unification.

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For centuries, the artistic tradition of Indonesian culture absorbed the best from foreign music and art (Sutton, 2007). This fact explains the variety of instruments and the extent of the aesthetic quality of gamelan music. Gamelan components include a variety of combinations of options and sizes. All of them have certain religious or secular functions.


In Bali, there are as many types of gamelan because there are reasons to listen to the music of these ensembles. Accordingly, instrumental compositions and sizes of ensembles vary greatly. The composition of instruments includes all kinds of gongs, xylophones, glockenspiels, and drums and their number may be from 10 to 80 instruments (Sutton, 2007). Each ensemble has a distinctive set of instruments, a scale, and a special sonority. Some orchestras have a reduced composition to be able to play on the move.

Depending on the varieties, instruments in the ensemble can be divided into three groups such as gongs, glockenspiels, and drums. Depending on the functions performed by instruments in gamelan, they can be distinguished into four groups such as instruments playing the melody, instruments that adorn the melody, instruments establishing the metric structure, and instruments “sweetening” the melody.

The first and the main group is glockenspiels performing a melody. The second group includes accompanying instruments. They play variations at the same pace as the group of glockenspiels and add decorations above the main theme. The third group plays rhythmic paraphrases of the main theme. The fourth fills the structure with thin rhythmic figures. This group consists of four types of suspended or horizontal gongs.

Musicians play mostly small durations on instruments with a high range. On instruments with a low range, large durations are played. In such a way, a proportional balance of high and low sounds is achieved. Instruments that accompany special dances or dramas include a bamboo flute and a two-stringed sitar resembling a violin. These special instruments are most commonly found in small chamber ensembles.

A bamboo Jew’s harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world. It was developed in Indonesia in the X century. Having only two centimeters in width and 20 centimeters in length, it is made from a short, thin, dried rib of palm leaves with a long vibrating reed (Spiller, 2008). The instrument is held in front of the mouth while the finger pulls the thread attached to the other end causing the instrument to vibrate. Being a drum and a melodic instrument, this harp creates a nasal melody and a hypnotic rhythm. The oral cavity serves as a resonator instrument. The sound changes by opening or closing the mouth, as well as changing the breathing strength. “Breathing” a melody, a skilled musician can make this ancient instrument sound amazingly.

Despite the fact that there is no brand master in gamelan, the orchestra is completely and accurately controlled by two drummers. They are frequently the most skilled musicians of the group, whose drums are called kendangs. The musicians keep them on their laps and play using hands or rounded sticks. They sit in front of the orchestra spewing a stream of incredible rhythms and setting the pace and emphasizing accents of the melody. Knowing music and dances, drummers with certain gestures provide signals about changing of the melody or dance to other musicians.

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Drums, gongs, and cymbals represent a wide variety of pitch and timbre. All instruments have fine-tuning. Each gong-like instrument is configured with respect to its neighbor, combining the orchestra into a musical unit that by the sound is more like one instrument than a few. Each instrument is configured with respect to its partner a little higher. This fact creates a shimmering tremolo characteristic to gamelan. Even octaves on a particular instrument can be set slightly higher than the corresponding lower tones. Taken together, they produce a rich pulsing sound.

The most skilled gamelan instruments craftsmen in Bali live and work in villages. They are highly respected and have in-depth knowledge of metallurgy, bronze forging, instruments settings, and woodworking. All gamelan instruments are framed in shiny inlaid, painted, and gilded stands. More sophisticated and expensive frames depict scenes from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. There is a belief that every gamelan and each instrument has its spirit. For the Balinese, it is unthinkable to step over a lying instrument, because it might offend the musician. Gamelan instruments and works performed are sacred.

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In Bali, gamelan instruments are all stored together in Balai Banjar (Spiller, 2008). It is a big apartment where all the musicians gather. Instruments are kept together, because the Balinese believe that they pertain to the whole community more rather than to one person.

Music Texture

Gamelan orchestras have two settings: pelog and slendro. Slendro has five nearly equidistant intervals in the octave. Pelog has seven unequal intervals per octave (Spiller, 2008). A full gamelan orchestra has two sets of instruments, one of which is configured to slendro and the other to pelog. A variety of settings is a source of pleasure for the Indonesians who like to compare the emotional quality of the settings of various ensembles. Some settings are considered to be happy, some – brave, some – flirty, and some – melancholic. There are no two equally tuned gamelans because all the instruments of the gamelan orchestras are manufactured and configured by sets rather than one by one. Therefore, each set of instruments is personified by the Balinese who like to give gamelans fanciful names like “Sea of Honey” or “Floating Clouds”. Sudden changes, a shift in emphasis, explosions of fast, accurate, and highly syncopated play, increase and decrease of volume, and a highly developed counterpoint based on simple melodies produce an impression on most people in the West that is similar to improvisational jazz. However, it is not true. Moreover, if a musician of the orchestra begins to play their own tune, they will be immediately expelled from the ensemble. Musicians of the gamelan orchestra do not improvise but perform music, which was drafted and scheduled during the rehearsals, and then memorized and carefully coordinated and brought to perfection. Musicians do not use notes during their performance.

The play of Balinese gamelan usually consists of four or five stories, each of which is divided into four stages: solo, opening theme, culmination, and rapid final. All the pieces always end suddenly as if in the middle. Typically, these are program compositions borrowing their names from the actions or characters of animals – A Raven Stole the Eggs, Fight Cats, An Angry Alligator, or A Golden Butterfly (Walton, 2007). In the book Facing the Music, it is affirmed that “In gamelan music, there is a broad distinction between religious music and music for entertainment” (Schippers, 2009, p. 159). Some tunes are considered extremely sacred. Musicians cannot perform them without a special ritual ceremony. Even before an ordinary commercial performance, the priest is always called to bless the place ofperformance, musicians, dancers, and instruments. The priest neutralizes any evil spirits that might disturb the performance.

Gamelan constantly changes its musical repertoire (Walton, 2007). Musicians compose well-know musical fragments or try something new. Gamelan music always changes. It is associated with the fact that musicians believe that music should always ameliorate and grow. However, there is one exception. It is the sacred songs which are considered immutable. Before the performance, a new fragment of music is rehearsed for several months. These days, some ensembles are affected by western music. Thus, gamelan music is often performed using traditional motifs with jazz fusion and other modern styles.

Different types of gamelan ensembles are distinguished by a set of instruments, the use of voice, repertoire, style, and cultural context (Walton, 2007). It is impossible to find two identical gamelans. In every region of the island, a certain gamelan style is dominant. Despite the tiny size of the island, 145 kilometers in length and 80 kilometers in width, the performance style in the south part of Bali is more refined and flexible (Spiller, 2008). It is radically different from the frantic style of the northern part of Bali.

Gamelan plays a very important role in the rituals. In the book Balinese Gamelan Music, it is noted that “The Hindu-Balinese religion requires gamelan for the successful completion of most of the tens of thousands of ceremonies undertaken yearly” (Tenzer, 2011, p. 15). Some performances accompany royal ceremonies. Practically every religious ceremony in Bali includes music of a gamelan ensemble. Gamelan music is also played in the rituals of the Catholic Church in Indonesia. Some works are played only at the beginning or at the end of speeches or ceremonies, while others are considered to posses magical powers and are used to drive away evil spirits.

Musicians of Gamelan Music

Gamelan musicians are not professionals. They are representatives of all segments of society – farmers, shopkeepers, postal clerks, etc. Their age ranges from 8 to 80. Some have played together for 50 years (Schippers, 2009). Composers of gamelan music are elected from the best musicians of the orchestra. Music is performed by heart. The Balinese have developed a system of notations. Nevertheless, the records of orchestration and melody are almost never used. Achievement of a rich sonic complexity and subtlety of Balinese music without printed music requires lengthy rehearsals.

In every band, a leader and a treasurer are assigned. Musicians do whatever they can to ensure the success of their group – pay money, buy new instruments, and train new musicians. In gamelan, everyone is equal and talks in a calm tone. When a band gets a reward for performance, money usually goes to the costs of transporting, setting, and maintenance of old or acquisition of new instruments or costumes (Schippers, 2009). Profits are divided equally during Galungan – New Year in Bali.

Echoes of Gamelan in Different Countries

For the first time, European audiences encountered the music of Southeast Asia in 1889 at the World Exhibition in Paris, when performances of ethnic musicians from China, dance ensembles from Java, and Indonesian gamelan took place. The process of phasing out Eurocentrism took almost the whole XX century (Schippers, 2009). The performance of gamelan made a strong impression on Claude Debussy who was in the process of searching for a new artistic inspiration. By the mid-90s, the style of Debussy not only gave rise to the French musical impressionism but also identified musical thinking of the XX century (Schippers, 2009). The echoes of gamelan are felt in a number of the composer’s piano works, for example, in Pagodas. Debussy’s younger contemporary Maurice Ravel also used gamelan music in one part of the orchestral suite Mother Goose. In such a way, gamelan music has had an influence on numerous European composers. These days, it is also popular all over the world and is the basis of different musical pieces.


Gamelan is a Balinese music ensemble, which uses such instruments as glockenspiels, xylophones, drums, gongs, bamboo flutes, and stringed instruments. Vocalists may be also involved. The term “gamelan” is usually applied not only to the artists but to a set of instruments. Gamelan is the unity of instruments that are selected and tuned to each other. In such a way, generally identical instruments from different gamelans cannot replace each other. Gamelan is a set of traditions and cultures of the past with a unique mixture of new musical tendencies.


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