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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - World Music - Gamelan

Gamelan music is a traditional form of music from Indonesia, particularly from the islands of Java and Bali. It is known for its intricate rhythms, percussive sounds, and the use of tuned metal percussion instruments. Gamelan ensembles typically consist of a variety of instruments, including metallophones (such as the gendér, slenthem, and saron), gongs, drums, bamboo flutes, and sometimes stringed instruments like the rebab.


1. Instruments:

  • Metallophones: These are among the most prominent instruments in a gamelan ensemble. They come in various sizes and tunings, including the gendér, saron, and slenthem. Each metallophone consists of metal bars mounted over resonators.

  • Gongs: Large gongs, such as the gong ageng, play a significant role in the ensemble, marking the beginning and end of musical sections.

  • Drums: Various types of drums, such as kendhang and ketipung, provide the rhythmic foundation for the ensemble.

  • Bamboo Flutes: These flutes, called suling, add melodic elements to the music.

  • Stringed Instruments: Instruments like the rebab (a two-stringed bowed instrument) and gender wayang (a small, high-pitched metallophone) may also be present in some gamelan ensembles.

2. Tuning Systems:

  • Gamelan instruments are tuned to specific scales or modes, known as pelog and slendro in Javanese gamelan. These scales are different from the Western equal-tempered scale and contribute to the unique and exotic sound of gamelan music.

  • Pelog and slendro scales consist of five or seven notes, and the intervals between these notes vary from one gamelan ensemble to another.

3. Composition:

  • Gamelan compositions can be divided into two main categories: traditional and contemporary.

  • Traditional compositions often have a cyclic structure, with sections called gongan, and feature intricate interlocking patterns and repeating motifs.

  • Contemporary gamelan music explores more experimental and avant-garde approaches, incorporating modern elements while still respecting traditional roots.

4. Performance:

  • Gamelan performances are often accompanied by dance or wayang kulit (shadow puppetry), adding a visual and theatrical element to the music.

  • Musicians in a gamelan ensemble sit on the floor in a circular formation, with the instruments arranged in a specific order.

  • The kendhang player (drum) often plays a crucial role in directing the ensemble, signaling transitions and changes in the music.

5. Cultural Significance:

  • Gamelan music is deeply intertwined with Indonesian culture, and it plays a vital role in various ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, and temple rituals.

  • It is also associated with Javanese and Balinese court traditions and has been performed at royal palaces for centuries.

  • Gamelan music is not just a form of entertainment but is considered a spiritual and communal experience in many Indonesian communities.

6. Influence:

  • Gamelan music has had a profound influence on Western classical composers, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers like Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók incorporated elements of gamelan music into their compositions. Debussy, for example used close intervals to imitate the ambiguous tonality of Gamelan music, as well using pentatonic scales and repetitive patterns

  • It continues to influence contemporary musicians and composers in various genres, from world music to experimental and electronic music. Plaids song "Get What You Gave" is one of many examples of how this music from Indonesia has influenced them.

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