A gamelan is a musical ensemble of Indonesian origin typically featuring metallophones, xylophone(s), drums, and gongs. Traditionally, the term "gamelan" is used to refer to either the set of instruments making up the ensemble, or the players of those instruments at any given time.


Varieties of gamelan ensembles

Gamelan orchestras are common to the islands of Java, Madura, Bali, and Lombok (and other Sunda Islands) in Indonesia in a wide variety of ensemble sizes and formations. In Bali and Lombok today, and in Java through the 18th century, the term "gong" is or was preferred to or synonymous with gamelan. Traditions of gamelan have long been established in Malaysia and Suriname due to emigration, trade, or diplomacy, and more recently, through immigration, cultural exchange, and local enthusiasm, gamelan ensembles have become active throughout Europe, The Americas, Asia, and Australia.

Although gamelan ensembles sometimes include solo and choral voices, plucked and/or bowed string and wind instruments, they are most notable for the large number of percussion instruments, particularly metal percussion instruments. A central Javanese gamelan ensemble may include sarons and gendrs (sets of metals bars laid out in a single row and struck like a glockenspiel), bonangs and kenongs (sets of large, drum-shaped gongs, likewise laid out horizontally on stands), gambangs (similar to sarons or genders but with wooden bars instead of metal ones) and a variety of hanging gongs and drums. Metals used include bronze, brass, and iron, with a 10:3 copper-to-tin bronze alloy usually considered the best material. In addition, there are gamelan ensembles composed entirely of bamboo-keyed instruments, of zithers, or of unaccompanied voices with the functions of metallophones or gongs in the metal ensemble transferred to surrogates.


The tuning and construction of a gamelan orchestra is a complex process. Gamelans use four tuning systems: slndro, plog, degung (exclusive to Sunda, or West Java), and madenda (also known as diatonis, similar to a European "natural" minor scale). In central Javanese gamelan, slndro is a system with five notes to the octave, fairly evenly spaced, while plog has seven notes to the octave, with uneven intervals, usually played in five note subsets of the seven-tone collection. Many 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. Colin McPhee (1996) remarks, "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 is a view that is contested by some teachers of gamelan, and there have been efforts to combine multiple ensembles and tuning structures into one gamelan so as to ease transportation issues at the times of festivals. One such ensemble is gamelan Manikasanti, which can play the repertoire of many different ensembles.

A peculiarity of gamelans is that, although the intervals between notes in a scale are very close to identical for different instruments within each gamelan, the intervals vary from one gamelan to the next. The occasion for the word approximately is that it is common in Balinese gamelan that instruments are played in pairs which are tuned slightly apart so as to produce interference beating which are 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.

Influence on Western music

The gamelan has been appreciated by several western composers of classical music, most famously Claude Debussy who heard an ensemble play at the Paris Exposition of 1889 (World's fair). (The gamelan Debussy heard was in the near-diatonic madenda scale and was played by Sundanese 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). Direct homages to gamelan music are to be found in works for western instruments by Bla Bartk, Olivier Messiaen, Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten. In more recent times, American composers such as Barbara Benary, Lou Harrison, Dennis Murphy, Michael Tenzer, Evan Ziporyn, Daniel James Wolf and Jody Diamond as well as Australian composers such as Peter Sculthorpe, Andrew Schultz and Ross Edwards have 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. Experimental pop group Xiu Xiu uses Gamelan percussion in many songs.

Gamelan outside Indonesia

The Netherlands

The first gamelans outside of Indonesia were in the Netherlands, which had colonized the islands. Before Word War II, the Javanese dancer Jodjana had a small gamelan group in the Netherlands, which accompanied his performances. He had to train Dutch musicians. Early during the war the resistance fighter Bernard IJzerdraat Sr. was murdered by the Germans. His son Bernard then left home and in Amsterdam heard a group of stranded javanese sailors play a gamelan at the Colonial Museum (later: Museum of the Tropics). He took lessons with them and soon started his own group with friends from his school in Haarlem. This became Babar Layar, the first serious gamelan group in the Netherlands. Babar Layar played in Yogya style after Bernard studied one full year in the kraton. They often accompanied Mas Pakun, a Yogyanese dancer who studied theology in Amsterdam. When Mantle Hood came to Amsterdam to write his dissertation on pathet, Bernard trained him to play gamelan. (Mas Pakun died a few years later in a tragic traffic accident after his return to Indonesia.) Mantle Hood later taught enthnomusicology in the US, and is regarded as the founding father of gamelan in that country. Bernard married a Sundanese wife and emigrated to Indonesia in 1954, where he became known as Suryabrata, working for RRI Jakarta and Univeritas Nasional.

In 1970, the ethnomusicologist Ernst Heins invited K.R.M.T. Ronosuripto of the Mangkunagaran to Amsterdam. This gave a new impetus to gamelan playing in The Netherlands. Heins's group gave many concerts, and Rien Baartmans, who as a child had been taking lessons from Bernard IJzerdraat, studied kendhang with Pak Ripto which very much stimulated his own group Ngesthi Raras in Haarlem.

In 1978 the new gamelan society Naga acquired a gamelan from Solo. This gamelan was used by several groups. When in 1995 Naga was dissolved, this gamelan was given to the Raras Budaya foundation, and used by groups conducted by Elsje Plantema (a pupil of Pak Ripto) and Jurrien Sligter (a musician who is interested in modern compositions for gamelan).

Today, several Javanese and Balinese gamelan groups are active in The Netherlands. Javanese style groups exist in Amsterdam, Delft, Den Haag, Renkum and Arnhem. Balinese groups can be found in Amsterdam and Den Haag (The Hague). A Sundanese group exists in Leiden (Leyde).

North America

Many schools, universities and other institutions in North America own sets of Gamelan instruments. These gamelans are typically played by mixed-gender groups of students, a practice that's rare in Indonesia for religious reasons. Among the earliest such groups were Wesleyan University [1] ( and UCLA [2] ( Established institutional gamelan ensembles in the U.S. include Gamelan Galak Tika at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gamelan Lila Muni at Eastman School of Music, and Gamelan Semara Santi at Swarthmore College.

A few professional gamelan ensembles also exist, including Gamelan Son of Lion, a group that focuses on newly composed music by non-Indonesian composers. Since 1979 a few gamelan ensembles have been organized as community arts organizations or clubs. The first Javanese community group was the Boston Village Gamelan[3] ( in Massachusetts and the first Balinese community group was Gamelan Sekar Jaya [4] ( in California.

See also

Further reading

  • Balinese Music (1991) by Michael Tenzer, ISBN 0945971303. Included is an excellent sampler CD of Balinese Music.
  • Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java (1995) by Sumarsam, ISBN 0226780104 (cloth) 0226780112 (paper)
  • Music in Java: History Its Theory and Its Technique (1949) edited by Jaap Kunst, ISBN 9024715199. An appendix of this book includes some statistical data on intervals in scales used by gamelans.
  • Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music (2000) by Michael Tenzer, ISBN 0226792811 and ISBN 0226792838.
  • Music in Bali (1966) by Colin McPhee. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

External links

id:Gamelan it:Gamelan jv:Gamelan ms:Gamelan nl:Gamelan ja:ガムラン ru:Гамелан fi:Gamelan


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