Introduction to Indonesian Music

Indonesian Music

Indonesian music has various aspects, but in this article, we will be looking at the gamelan, a miniature orchestra which is the national instrument of Indonesia.

A Gamelan orchestra consists of 50 to 80 instruments, made up of tuned bells, gongs, drums, metallophones, flutes, bowed and plucked strings, and sometimes vocalists as well.

A History of Gamelan

Gamelan music is an ancient and traditional art form, predating even the Hindu-Buddhist culture that dominated Indonesia in the earliest records. Javanese mythology states that the gamelan was created in around 230 CE by Sang Hyang Guru, a god and the king of all Java. As a signal to summon the gods, he invented the gong. To transmit more complex messages, he invented another two gongs.

The oldest known gamelan ensembles date back to the 12th century, the Munggang and Kodokngorek, which form the basis of a loud style of gamelan. In the 17th century, this style merged with another “soft style” from the kemanak tradition, and this mix has largely formed the basis of the modern gamelan styles of Bali, Java and Sunda, which deviate in their different ways of mixing the elements. As such, the major gamelan styles of today are still very similar since they came from the same roots.

Characteristics of Gamelan

“Gamelan” comes from the Javanese word “gamel”, meaning to strike or to hammer, and the suffix “-an”, making the root word a collective noun. Gamelan music is made up of layers, containing a central core melody known as the balungan, and the other layers consisting of the rest of the instruments elaborating on this core melody. With the exception of sacred pieces, gamelan music does not have a fixed score and is open to improvisation. In this way, it is said to be dynamic because the music is always changing and new pieces are always being created.

The other layers of music are free to elaborate on the balungan, although the notes of each layer has to relate to the balungan. At the end of each musical phrase, all these notes generally coincide, known as seleh in Javanese.

Gamelan ensembles can vary widely in their use of tuning, vocals, repertoire, style and their cultural context. Each gamelan ensemble is considered to have its own style, with the ensembles around a certain region possibly having similar styles. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same.

The ensembles are mostly grouped by region, divided into Balinese, Javanese and Sundanese styles. Each of these styles have their own distinct characteristics. For instance, Balinese gamelan tends to be bright and fast-paced, while Javanese gamelan is usually slower and more meditative. Nowadays, gamelan has spread to other regions out of emigration and cultural interest, and new styles have formed that are different from the traditional Balinese, Javanese and Sundanese.

Instruments in Gamelan

For most traditional gamelan, the instruments are made of brass, bronze and iron and traditionally painted gold and red. A copper and tin bronze alloy in the ratio of 10:3 is usually considered the best material. However, there are also gamelan ensembles comprising entirely of bamboo flutes, zithers, or acapella vocals.

The main instruments in Balinese or Javanese gamelan are their metal percussion instruments, including metallophones, gongs, gambang (xylophone-like instruments) and kendang (drums).

The most important instrument in Javanese gamelan is the Gong Ageng, which is believed to be the main spirit of the entire gamelan.


In Balinese gamelan, instruments usually come in pairs and are tuned a quarter tone apart, producing interference beats which give a shimmering-like quality to the music. In religious ceremonies, these interference beats are believed to give the listener the feeling of a deity’s presence or a transition to a meditative state.

Javanese gamelan uses two main tuning systems – the slendro and pelog. The slendro scale consists of five evenly spaced notes in an octave, while the pelog scale has seven unevenly spaced notes in an octave, although only a selection of five notes out of the seven are usually played.

Most gamelan ensembles will have both tunings represented at any one time, although each instrument can only play according to one tuning. The precise tuning is never exact and varies per ensemble. As such, the repertoire of each ensemble may vary as well, even if they are playing similar pieces.

In recent times, efforts have been made to somewhat standardize the tunings of gamelan ensembles for easier transportation at festival time. There is one such gamelan ensemble, Manikasanti, that can play the repertoire of many other gamelan ensembles.

Due to the different tuning systems, it can be quite difficult to accurately replicate gamelan music using typical acoustic Western instruments, which is one reason why fusion orchestras do not always mix both gamelan and Western instruments. In modern times, the use of pitch shifting can be applied to tune electronic instruments similarly to the gamelan.

Cultural Uses

Gamelan music has traditionally been used in Indonesia for dance, wayang puppet performances, rituals or ceremonies. The musicians are usually familiar with dance moves and poetry as they play their instruments alongside such performances, and dancers are likewise able to play in the ensemble. In wayang puppet performances, the dalang (puppeteer) is required to have an extensive knowledge of gamelan as they are the one who give the cues to the ensemble.

The music is vital to rituals and ceremonies. Gamelan is usually played when there is royalty associated, such as when the Sultan visits. It is also played for religious ceremonies, such as the celebration of Muhammad’s birthday and Catholic ceremonies in Indonesia. The gamelan pieces are designated as “starting” or “ending” pieces, and when the ending piece is played, the audience will know the ceremony is nearly over and will start to leave.

Traditionally, gamelan music is thought to be sacred and certain pieces are believed to have magic powers, like the ability to ward off evil spirits. Musicians are respectful to the gamelan instruments and sometimes offer it incense or flowers. Spirits are said to guide the gamelan instruments, requiring musicians to take off their shoes when playing the instrument. It is also considered forbidden practice to step over a gamelan instrument because doing so would sever the connection the instrument has to the spirits.

Gamelan music is practiced as a collective effort. In Bali, the instruments are all kept together in the balai banjar, a large community meeting hall with a roof and open walls. It is believed that the instruments belong to the whole community and nobody has ownership over any one instrument. The gamelan ensemble will practice in this space as well, the open walls allowing for the music to flow out for the rest of the community to enjoy.

In Java, gamelan music is played in the pendopo, a similar open pavilion with a double-pitched, cavernous roof, open wallsIndonesian Music, and a marble or tiled floor. The instruments reside on a platform to one side and the acoustics of the place allow the music to reverberate off the roof.


1179 Words


Dec 11, 2019


3 Pages

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