The country of Indonesia is made up of over 13,000 islands which stretch from the south of Malaysia eastwards towards Northern Australia. There is a great deal of musical diversity between the islands and the two which are best known for gamelan music are Java and Bali - only a few miles apart but with very different musical styles.

Gamelan is a generic term used to describe the tuned percussion instruments of Indonesia. A 'gamel' is a blacksmith's hammer. Adding the letters 'an' to a word indicates an action. Hence gamelan quite literally means the action of a hammer!

Gamelans differ in size, function and musical style. There are small gamelans like the four person Balinese gender wayang which accompany shadow puppet plays, and large ones - the Javenese court gamelans may have forty people - and everything in between.


Gamelans are treated with great respect. A player always takes his shoes off before playing, will never step over an instrument, and will conduct himself with humility, usually moving around the instruments with bowed head. It is believed the gamelan is of divine origin, the first gong having been made as a signal between gods. Gamelan refers to the instruments and not the musicians. Players may come and go but the instruments always stay together. The group rehearses as an ensemble - no one takes an instrument home to do individual practise! All musicians are expected to be proficient on most of the instruments.

Music usually accompanies something else. It may be a ritual or ceremony such as a wedding, cremation, tooth filing, or for social occasions such as dance dramas or shadow puppet plays. The latter is an extremely popular form of entertainment, and may last all night! Most of the music is traditional and anonymous, although there is also new composition. There are many different styles of music commonly heard in Java and Bali, and these include:

Karawitan The classical music of Central Java.
Degung West Javanese (Sunda) chamber gamelan. Rather 'poppish' and enormously popular.
Siteran Popular street gamelan played on plucked siter and one or two other instruments.
Jaipon Sundanese night club music.
Keroncong Portugese influenced music often using guitar and violin.
Gong Kebyar Modern Balinese gamelan, very fast and explosive!
Gender Wayang Four metallophones which accompany the Balinese shadow puppet play.
Jegog Bamboo gamelan from West Bali.
Calung Bamboo gamelan from Banyumas, East Java.


The most important instrument is the Gong Ageng - the largest gong. It is highly respected and even feared. It is "an invisible voice to and from the spirit world" (Becker 1980). Offerings will be placed before a gong at the start of a performance, usually consisting of flower petals, rice and incense.

The main instruments in a Central Javanese ensemble are:

Gong Ageng The largest hanging gong.
Gong Suwukan The next largest gong. Occasionally there are two.
Kempul Smaller hanging gongs.
Kenong 'Pot' gongs laid horizontally on a frame.
Kethuk/kempyang Smaller 'pot' gongs.
Sarons Keyed instruments used to play the core melody. There may be up to three sizes in one gamelan, covering different octaves: Demung, the largest; barung (usually just called saron), in the middle; and the smallest, peking, or saron panerus.
Slenthem Thin keys suspended over resonators.
Bonang Small 'pot' gongs arranged on a wooden frame in two parallel rows. There may be two sets: Barung the lower, and panerus the higher. Bonangs usually embellish or ornament a nuclear melody.
Kendang Double headed drum.

There are additional instruments such as the suling (bamboo flute), rebab (two stringed bowed lute),gambang (a kind of wooden xylophone), gender (similar in appearance to the slenthem but played with two hammers - one in each hand so that each plays a note and simultaneously damps the previous note. Very difficult!), siter (plucked stringed instrument rather like a zither), and, of course, voice - both men's chorus and solo female singing.


Indonesian tunings don't correspond with those in the West. In fact there isn't any kind of fixed standard tuning such as we have, with 'A' having a frequency of 440Hz, etc. A gamelan is tuned to itself and no other gamelan will sound quite the same. The size of the intervals between notes varies from one set of instruments to another. This is regarded as desirable - each gamelan will then have its own unique sound.

Two tuning systems or scales, 'laras' are used:

Slendro has five roughly equal divisions of the octave and is said to express deep happiness or deep sadness.

Pelog has seven notes with intervals as small as semitones and as large as approximate minor thirds! It is rare for all seven notes to be used in a piece. Pelog is said to be majestic, noble and calm.

Both slendro and pelog are further divided into patet. This is difficult to translate (it literally means 'constraint'), but is a very rough equivalent to the Indian raga - a group of pitches which convey a mood or flavour.

"Is is a limitation on the player's choice of variation so that while in one patet a certain note may be prominent, in another patet it may be avoided, or used only for special effect. Through the awareness of this limitation, the musician similarly can restrain and refine his own feelings and emotions, which is the highest aim of playing gamelan music."

Lindsay 1979

Slendro is considered to be the older laras and is used in the Ramayana and Mahabarata epics. Slendro is used in more recent indigenous Javanese stories such as the Panji cycle. In Bali too, slendro is considered the older scale and is used in Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet play) performances while a 5 note pelog scale is used for Gong Kebyar - the very popular modern style.

A Javanese gamelan will usually have a set of instruments in each tuning, laid out at right angles to one another.


Other Groups

Cragg Vale - Another English group, whose instruments are home made.

MonkeyC - Non-Javanese gamelan using gamelan instruments, slide guitar and rhythm!


There are also two excellent and easily obtainable journals if you want to keep up to date with what's going on:

Seleh Notes is the newsletter of the UK Gamelan Network with details of concerts, workshops and courses in the UK. Contact Sheila Cude, Flat 3, 69 Hillfield Avenue, London N8 7DS, England. Only 4 a year!

Balungan is published by the American Gamelan Institute and has scores and information about gamelan throughout the world. Contact Jody Diamond, Box 1052, Lebanon, New Hampshire 03766, USA.


There are a number of books available on gamelan music:

Judith Becker Traditional Music in Modern Java, University Press of Hawaii, 1980
Becker, Judith & Alan H. Feinstein eds., Karawitan: Source Readings in Javanese Gamelan and Vocal Music, 3 vols, University of Michigan, 1984, 1987, 1988
Jaap Kunst Music in Java, 2 vols, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973
Jennifer Lindsay Javanese Gamelan, Oxford University Press, 1979, reprinted 1995
Colin McPhee Music in Bali, Yale University Press, 1966
Neil Sorrell A Guide to the Gamelan, Faber, 1990
Graham Vulliamy & Ed Lee eds., Pop, Rock and Ethnic Music in School, Cambridge University Press, 1982