World Music Research

Indonesian Gamelan

Gamelan is the indigenous music of the Indonesian archipelago, primarily Java and Bali. Predominantly played using tuned percussion and metallophone instruments, Gamelan also employs bowed strings, plucked strings, wind instruments and voices and is frequently heard accompanying traditional Wayang shadow puppet plays.

Gamelan is musically territorial in that the genre as a whole generally makes use of a five or seven note scale but the tunings for the scale vary from region to region ensuring that the texture of the performance changes as one travels throughout the country.

One striking idiosyncrasy of Gamelan is the use of pairs of instruments tuned slightly apart (by only a few Hertz) which, when played at the same time, produce interference beats in the resultant note (imagine playing an octave on a guitar then slightly sharpening one of the strings). This generates an extremely rich and shimmering tone in the performance when played by a number of instruments in the orchestra. This effect is “Ombak” and is strictly regulated within the orchestra. The number of interference beats per second is expected to be uniform between the instruments in a particular register.

A second feature worthy of note is that the word Gamelan also refers to the instruments in the orchestra as well as the musical style. The instruments in the gamelan are usually tuned relative to one another meaning that a Bonang (instrument composed of a set of small gongs) from one Gamelan could probably not be used in another.

The primary instruments in a Gamelan are:

  • The Bonang
    • A collection of small, tuned kettle gongs.
  • The Gendèr
    • A metallophone usually made up of 10 to 14 tuned metal bars. Played in pairs of instruments, they can be heard providing the Ombak effect mentioned above.
  • The Saron family
    • Seven bronze bars held over a resonating frame, each instrument is tuned an octave higher than the last, the lowest being the Saron Demung, the middle, the Saron Barung and the highest, the Saron Panerus or Peking.
  • The Kenong
    • Tuned gongs suspended on their sides providing rich overtones.
  • The Gong Ageng, Gong Suwuk, and Kempul
    • Sets of tuned gongs used to punctuate the music.
  • The Ceng-Ceng
    • Collections of small overlapping cymbals attached to a frame and used to add accents.
  • The Kendhang (drums)
    • Drums of various sizes are played with the hands to provide effects, punctuation and texture.

There have been several notable Gamelan composers from the last century who have bridged the gap between East and West including Aloysius SuwardiSlamet Abdul Sjukur and Sutanto. They have helped to ensure that the traditions and sounds of Gamelan continue in Indonesia and are heard around the world.

With its repetitive and hypnotic sound, it’s of no surprise that many Western composers have introduced aspects of Gamelan into their compositions. Satie, Cage, Oldfield and Bartók have used the style and techniques to great effect and for many it has become an unintentional representative style with the Gamelan tunings providing the “Eastern Sound”.

Click here for an overview of a couple of Gamelan tracks.

Continuing with the Eastern theme, here’s a splendid track from Japan: The Art of Parties


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  1. Pingback: Considering Chance and Serial music | Music From The Present To The Past

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