Gamelan Ensembles: Instruments, Overview, and History

Gamelan is a sort of percussion ensemble that originated in Indonesia. The ensembles are sometimes thought of orchestras as a result of they comprise not solely a wide range of idiophones, membranophones, and metallophones but additionally usually embrace winds and strings. 

I first realized about gamelan ensembles throughout my undergrad for instrumental music training. Music Historical past III provided me many insights into this distinctive and traditionally decadent percussion group. I’m excited to share what I’ve realized after taking place lots of what I prefer to name “gamelan rabbit holes.” 

The place did Gamelan originate? 

Gamelan originated in Indonesia. The phrase Gamelan comes from the Javanese “Gamel,” which suggests to hammer. 

The origin of the Gamelan is shrouded in thriller, so it’s arduous to say which a part of Indonesia can declare the sort of music. The primary written file of a gamelan ensemble goes again to the parable of Sang Hyang Guru, from round 230 CE Java. Guru was mentioned to be a Hindu god. 

The god supposedly wanted a approach to talk with the opposite gods, who had been very distant—so it’s mentioned that Gamelan was made. Gamelan has been influenced by each Hinduism and Buddhism over time.

What does Gamelan sound like? 

If you’re solely accustomed to listening to Western-style music, Gamelan could sound dissonant and jarring to you at first. Nevertheless, my tastes have modified as I’ve listened to extra world music. Gamelan ensembles sound metallic and complicated, with interweaving elements and a mosaic of rhythms. 

Varieties of Gamelan Ensembles

Gamelan ensembles may be divided into two essential classes: Javanese and Balinese. Whereas there are different forms of Gamelan, these two are essentially the most well-known.  A bunch of youth enjoying Javanese gamelan. Picture by Galih Yoga Wicaksono

Javanese gamelan ensembles are (fittingly) from Java, and Balinese-style Gamelan are from Bali. Every area makes use of totally different modes, and there’s some variation in instrumentation and mallet kinds. 

Balinese Gamelan tends to sound extra energetic and shiny, whereas Javanese Gamelan feels tranquil and comfortable. Furthermore, whereas the Javanese and Balinese gamelan use the same set of devices, the fashion they play them is vastly totally different. 

Facet notice: One other kind of Gamelan you might have heard of is Sudanese. Sudanese Gamelan originated in West Java and makes use of a singular mode of the degung scale. You may as well hear devices with resonators, distinctive to this subset of Javanese Gamelan. 

What forms of devices make up a gamelan ensemble? 

Percussive devices that make a gamelan ensemble embrace: xylophones and metallophones, gongs, and drums (membranophones). Nevertheless, most devices in Gamelan are struck idiophones, which means that the sound is created from vibrating by itself.

Gamelan can have as much as 50 or 60 various kinds of devices. Listed below are among the customary devices that you simply would possibly discover:

  • Kendhang
  • Bonang
  • Gambang
  • Saron 
  • Gong

Kendhang is a membranophone (drum) with a drum head on both aspect. The heads are normally made with goatskin leather-based. You’ll most frequently hear this drum throughout fast sections. 

The position of enjoying kendhang is sort of important, because the instrumentalist helps set the tempo and really feel of every part. Kendhang gamers additionally assist lead the group when accompanying shadow puppetry (Wayang). You’ll sometimes see not less than two or three sizes of kendhang in every ensemble. 

A bonang is a kettle-type gong that you will notice in units, supported by a wooden body. One attention-grabbing reality about bonag is that the wooden body is commonly produced from the lumber of the jackfruit tree. 

The bonag kettles/ pots themselves are manufactured from bronze. This instrument may be present in Javanese gamelan ensembles. Bonag-type devices in Balinese Gamelan are referred to as reong. 

There are a number of various kinds of bonag. The units of kettles are named by pitch and normally are available in a gaggle of 12-40. There’s a small and high-pitched bonag (bonag panerus), a mid-range bonag (bonag barung) and a low bonag (bonag panembung). The instrument appears like a gong. 

Gambang are pitched devices with wood bars that look just like a xylophone. Many individuals confuse this instrument with the saron, one other barred instrument. 

Nevertheless, the saron is normally a lot smaller, and the bars are manufactured from metallic. One other important distinction is how the devices are used. Saron play easier and shorter traces when in comparison with the advanced melodies of the gambang. 

The gong, or gong ageng, is likely one of the most significant devices within the ensemble. This gong signifies the landmarks within the music; the start, when to transition to a different cycle, and when it’s the finish of the piece. The gong ageng is a metallic idiophone, and nearly seems to be like metallic cooking pots on a wood bench.

Different Devices In Gamelan

Non-percussion devices in Gamelan embrace: 

Many name a gamelan ensemble a ‘gamelan orchestra’ as a result of the group usually consists of reeds vocals, zithers, violin-like devices, and flutes (suling). Gamelan is often known as a “Sekaha.” 

A rebab is a violin-shaped instrument with two strings as an alternative of 4. One fascinating factor in regards to the rebab is that it doesn’t have a fingerboard! Bowed strings are considered a more recent addition to the Gamelan ensemble. 

Refrain typically accompanies Javanese Gamelan. The group performs in unison. Vocalists in Gamelan are additionally known as gerong. The phrases are normally sacred Javanese poetry, or macapat

A suling is a sort of bamboo flute and may be both transverse or vertical. These 4 to six-hole wind devices present sound results like slurs to a tremolo-like sound. 

Gamelan Tradition

Gamelan gamers usually bow earlier than performing to indicate their respect. That is widespread in Hindu and Buddhist cultures and represents bowing to the divineness throughout the different individual. 

In contrast to right here within the west, the devices that make up this distinctive percussion ensemble belong to nobody. Quite the opposite, they imagine music and devices belong to everybody. 

The Gamelan is historically housed in a constructing with skinny partitions. All devices are handled with the utmost respect and are at all times to be stepped round (not over) for concern of offending the spirits. 

What scales are utilized in Gamelan? 

Gamelan music is modal, which means they use scales outdoors the realm of main and minor. (Central) Javanese Gamelan usually makes use of the next scales: slendro and pélog.

Slendro is a pentatonic tuning made up of 5 notes. It nearly appears like a Western-style whole-tone scale. The slendro method of tuning is taken into account older than pélog. Pélog is a 7-note scale/tuning, with practically a half-step on the prime of the size. 

Different modes that you simply hear about embrace degung and madenda. 

Keep in mind that whereas Gamelan scales may be likened to Western scales and notation, they use a wholly totally different system. We don’t normally use quarter tones right here within the US (until you might be Jacob Collier!) So it’s arduous to match tomatoes with apples, even when they’re each fruits. This brings me to the subsequent level: notation. 

Is the Music Notated or Performed by Rote? 

Balinese gamelan gamers all play by rote, and Gamelan music started by rote—that’s, it isn’t historically recorded on paper. 

That being mentioned, you could find some sheet music at this time. If gamelan music is notated, it’s sometimes accomplished in charts or numbers slightly than Western-style sheet music. Sadly, there is no such thing as a one approach to file gamelan music, as many gamers have made their very own particular person notation system.

Javanese musicians use numbers if music is notated, whereas the older college of notation makes use of names derived from physique elements (notice #1 is the phrase for head, notice #2 is the phrase for neck, and so forth). 

Gamelan (Javanese) instruments laid out ready to be played. A gamelan is a kind of musical ensemble of Indonesian origin

The place is Gamelan Used?

Gamelan ensembles usually accompany Wayangwhich is a sort of theatre. However Wayang is totally different from the theatre you might be imagining. First, it includes puppets and shadows slightly than actors. Second, Wayang tells tales of the gods of previous. 

Gamelan will also be heard on the radio, and ensembles carry out for particular events equivalent to dancing and ceremonies.

Gamelan in Western Tradition

Claude Debussy was one of many many European musicians taken by Gamelan. He first heard Gamelan when he was at a good and noticed an exposition in Paris. There are whole books devoted to Debussy’s music after publicity to Gamelan, equivalent to “Echoes from the East“ by Kiyoshi Tamagawa.

Different musicians impressed by the ensemble embrace ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok and minimalist composer Philip Glass. You’ve most likely heard Gamelan in some motion pictures you’ve seen, like the primary Avatar and The Hobbit. Whereas it might appear unlikely, there are dozens of gamelan ensembles within the US alone. 


As Gamelan unfold, it modified. One ensemble that’s the results of Gamelan is kulintang from the Philippines. Kulintang’s origins are nonetheless thought of historic. The group shares a number of devices with Gamelan, together with the metallic gongs. Kulintang had a major resurgence within the Nineteen Fifties via the Nineteen Seventies when Western folks started utilizing it for religious functions, combining it with their devices and fusing it into Western genres.


Gamelan ensembles have certainly unfold far and huge since 230 CE. So in the event you ever get the chance to see this distinctive and sonically wealthy group, take it!

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