Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Javanese Gamelan

Because we had no submissions this week, we've decided to follow through with our earlier threat and force upon you knowledge regarding a musical term about which no one has ever heard. Without further ado, a paper on the Javanese Gamelan, circa 1995:

Javanese Gamelan

The island of Java is a part of Indonesia located about three thousand miles south east of India. The Javanese gamelan is the orchestra of the royal courts of Java. The gamelan technically can be any sort of musical ensemble for the Javanese. However, the court orchestra is the main type of gamelan for the Javanese culture. This orchestra can be compared to that of the European Symphony Orchestra.

The gamelan contains a wide variety of instruments. There are variously sized stringed instruments as well as a family of different sized gongs. Other instruments include bowed chordophones, chimes, xylophones, a fiddle, a female singer, a male chorus, a zither, drums, and a flute in some of the soft passages. This orchestra has approximately 30 to 40 performers and 75 to 80 instruments. Not all of the instruments are played at the same time. The most important instrument of the gamelan is the great gong. The rhythm and compositions are controlled mainly by this instrument. “At full strength the gamelan is a powerful producer of rich and varied tones, and like many other musical ensembles, depends largely on the effects of its percussion.” (Blom, gamelan).

The music of the gamelan is drastically different from that of western music. The elements however, can still be defined within the same terms. The rhythmic cycle of the gamelan is the gongan cycle. One gongan is equivalent to the time elapsed between strokes of the great gong. The texture of the music is heterophonic, and the melody consists mainly of complex irregular patterns. There are three levels of melody within the gamelan: basic, punctuating, and elaborating. The basic part of the melody is the controlling meter. It is a comfortable medium pace. The punctuating level is somewhat slower than the basic level, and the elaborating level is faster than that of the basic level. Contrasts and enhancements to the melody are made by the singers, the fiddle, and the flute. The “strong style” of the orchestral compositions is forceful, powerful, and aggressive. The “soft style” is more mysterious, and sensuous.

The basic structure of a composition begins with a solo introduction by one of the elaborating instruments. Following this solo, the drum joins in. When the great gong sounds, the entire orchestra joins in playing the melody at the pace of their instrument. Each composition ends with the sounding of the great gong.

The performance of the gamelan is a very important social, religious, ritual, and personal event. The music often contains a spiritual element. The performance marks significant events in all realms such as: the rice harvest, a wedding, a birth, a circumcision party, a funeral, the arrival of an important person, the commemoration of Indonesian Independence Day, and the fond farewell party for a beloved friend.

It is apparent that the gamelan offers many uses within the Javanese culture. This non-western style of music is very important to the culture of Indonesia as well as other areas into which the style has spread.


1. Blom, Eric. “Gamelan,” Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians: Fifth Edition, Volume III. St. Martin’s Press, Inc., New York. 1954.

2. Davis, Shelley and Signell, Karl. Music: A Multi-Cultural Experience. College Park, MD. 1992

3. Schaareman, Danker. Balinese Music in Context. Amadeus Verlag. 1992.

4. Tejada, Irene. Brown Bag Ideas from Many Cultures. Davis Publications, Inc. Worcester, Massachusetts. 1993.

5. Tenzer, Michael. Balinese Music. Periplus Editions, Inc., Republic of Singapore. 1991.