PostHeaderIcon Balinese and Javanese Gamelan

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Australia License.

Indonesia is a country that consists of 13,677 islands, of which around 3,000 are unpopulated. Over 300 different dialects are spoken and more than 100 different ethnic groups exist although each region is aware of their own musical traditions and history.1 Indonesia's defining musical icon is the gamelan ensemble. Music and the gamelan ensembles are a natural and intrinsic part of Indonesian culture. The three main styles of gamelan are Balinese, Javanese and Sudanese, with many regions adopting a mixture of the three. In the fourteenth century Islam was introduced to Indonesia and Hindus were exiled to Bali for hundreds of years. "Every generation of musicians in Bali puts their personal stamp on the music. An added variation here, a new section there, or another composition for a particular ritual, add up considerably over six hundred years."2 "Gamelan has always existed in its instrumental form, as well as in its supportive role when combined with dance, wayang kulit [shadow puppetry], or dance drama (wayang orang)...Today gamelan exists both as instrumental music, which incorporates elements of poetry, dance, and wayang, and as an integral part of those art forms themselves."3

In both Bali and Java, the gamelan has become a fundamental part of the performing arts. The Balinese gamelan is diverse, creative and open to musical invention. Bali is a source for more contemporary genres of gamelan. Western influences into Bali have created a gamelan fusion genre that encourages many different types of composition. Javanese gamelan is more traditional and suited to palaces and temples, it is a gentler and lower pitched style of gamelan that accommodates vocalists and rhythmic patterns.

"The Balinese gamelan is superficially the same as the Javanese but, in fact, the ensembles are different and the music pronouncedly so. The Balinese gamelan underwent a revolution early in this century when a new form of playing and dancing called kebyar evolved. This is much more exuberant than the more courtly and dignified music of Central Java. Unpadded wooden mallets give a brighter, louder and more 'tinkly' sound to the metallophones than the padded mallets of Java."4

There are two different tuning systems used in Indonesian gamelan orchestras, slendro and pelog. Most ensembles will have at least two of each instrument, one tuned to each system. The two are placed at right angles and musicians face the instrument tuned to the scale that the composition requires while practicing and performing (see Appendix A, Figure 1). In slendro the octave is divided into five equidistant intervals (each one approximately 1.25 tones) that are not meant to be exactly equivalent and vary slightly between each gamelan.

"The Western love of standardization means that such a situation could be regarded as unsatisfactory, but the Javanese attach great importance to embat, or intervallic structure. Much of a gamelan's unique personality depends on its embat, and a good ear will appreciate the subtle differences between the notes of slendro or pelog from one gamelan to another."5

Central Java is one of the most highly populated areas in the world and has the most artefacts and stories related to the origins of the gamelan. It is the Javanese belief that the slendro system came from the original gamelan Lokananta owned by the god Guru. This god owned three gongs of different pitches that were used to signal and send messages to the other gods.6 The three tone system has been increased to a five tone system and in Java, three different modes (called patet which means 'to restrain') of slendro are used (patet nem, patet sanga and patet manyura). The patet that is used determines the musical importance of each tone. In one patet a tone may act like a tonic and be repeated frequently, but the same note might only be used for special effect in rare occasions if a different patet is being used.7 Slendro is mainly reserved for performances of shadow puppetry (wayang kulit).

The pelog system divides the octave into seven intervals of varying sizes. In Bali, three different modes of pelog are used (selisir, tembung and sunaren). All seven tones are on instruments tuned to the pelog system but generally only five of these are used for any one composition. The omitted tones are spaced apart two or three notes, for example, in selisir the fourth and seventh tones are omitted and in tembung the third and seventh are omitted. In a similar way to the Javanese system, certain tones are given a greater importance.8

"The bronze instruments of the gamelan can be divided into two main groups: those with keys and those consisting of a gong or a group of gongs. Other types of instruments include barrel shaped drums, bamboo flutes, cymbals, the bowed rebab, and a variety of other inventive music-making devices."9 (See Appendix A, Figure 2)

The gender and saron are familles of instruments found in the gamelan ensembles of both Java and Bali. They are slab (or keyed) instruments and are hit with panggul (mallets) similar to the Western xylophone. They can be classified further into their own families. Balinese ensembles occasionally include a saron but it is standard in Javanese gamelans. The saron family consists of the saron and gambung, both of which have a wooden trough that acts as a resonator for the sound. Bronze keys lay on rubber pads above this trough and are held in place with wooden posts. The gender family uses a different method of construction involving individually tuned bamboo (or tube-like) resonators under the keys. The Javanese use the slenthem and gender while Bali has a much larger array of instruments from the gender family.

A variety of gongs are used in the gamelan orchestra, from large hanging gongs that can be 1.25m diameter to sets of smaller horizontal gongs. In both cases, the role of the gong is primarily to keep the beat, which is strongest at the end of each cycle. In Indonesia today there is very few pande left with the skill to hand craft the large bronze gongs that were used in earlier centuries. Those that exist are members of the "Pande clan, an exclusive lineage that has been entrusted with the sacred responsibility of casting musical instruments and other important metal objects (such as krisses) for centuries."10 As gamelan instruments have spread into the western world the materials used to create them have also changed. These days gamelan construction is being cheapened by materials such as iron or aluminium but traditionally bronze is the main metal used in their construction. "The word for 'gamelan' in high Javanese is gangsa, a word in common Javanese etymology supposed to be formed form the two words tembaga (copper) and rejasa (tin), or from the numbers tiga (three) and sedasa (ten) expressing their proportions."11 "Some old gongs are so revered that they must not even be played, and only approached at certain times in accordance with established ritual."12

The kendang is perhaps the most important instrument in the gamelan orchestra. This particular drum is one that leads the entire ensemble. If it is missing or the performer is not paying attention, confusion ensues and the flow is disrupted. The drummer that plays this instrument must know exactly what is happening in the gamelan repertoire being performed. It requires strength, dexterity and endurance to master the kendang and proficient Balinese performers will often dance while playing the highly complex rhythms. Most drummers also organise rehearsals and compose their own works making them an essential part of any successful gamelan orchestra.13

Components of the gamelan orchestra are not solo instruments. In order to learn one of these instruments, gamelan students need to find other people to play and perform with to develop their understanding of the workings of a gamelan ensemble.14 In this way, gamelan becomes a very community orientated activity that breaks down barriers of social hierarchy and importance.

Balinese and Javanese styles of gamelan have the same origins but have evolved differently. The Balinese style is still evolving rapidly today. It is this creativity and intensity that has made Balinese music so popular in the Western world.15 The more restrained Javanese system is equally striking but is a gentler form that is quite often easier to listen to. Gamelan exists in both the regal and traditional style and as something as contemporary and ever-changing as Western pop music. As the popularity of gamelan music increases and different approaches and functions are found for it, this evolution will continue and spread into different forms and countries.

Appendix A:

A basic layout of the instruments
Figure 1 - A basic layout of the instruments (From J Lindsay, Javanese Gamelan, 33)

Central Javanese gamelan instruments
Figure 2 - Central Javanese gamelan instruments (From J T Titon [ed.], Worlds of Music, 235)


  1. L E Peterman Jr. and J Logan, Indonesian Music - Part One (2002, accessed 6 October 2005); available from
  2., A History of Gamelan (2005 accessed 6 October 2005); available from
  3. J Lindsay, Javanese Gamelan, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 57
  4., Gamelan (2005, accessed 6 October 2005); available from
  5. N Sorrell, A Guide to the Gamelan (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 56
  6. J Lindsay, Javanese Gamelan, 4-6
  7. J Lindsay, Javanese Gamelan, 40
  8. M Tenzer, Balinese Music (Berkeley, California: Periplus, 1991), 32
  9. M Tenzer, Balinese Music, 33
  10. M Tenzer, Balinese Music, 29
  11. J Lindsay, Javanese Gamelan, 35
  12. N Sorrell, A Guide to the Gamelan, 19
  13. M Tenzer, Balinese Music, 48
  14. J Lindsay, Javanese Gamelan, 62
  15. B Deschênes, Javanese and Balinese Gamelan Music (2002, accessed 2 September 2005); available from

Bibliography: A History of Gamelan. 2005, accessed 6 October 2005; available from

Deschênes, B. Javanese and Balinese Gamelan Music. 2002, accessed 2 September 2005; available from

Lindsay, J. Javanese Gamelan, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Peterman, L E Jr. and J Logan. Indonesian Music - Part One. 2002, accessed 6 October 2005; available from

Sorrell, N. A Guide to the Gamelan. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

Sutton, R A. Chapter 7: Asia/Indonesia. Edited by J T Titon. Worlds of Music, 2nd ed. Belmont, California: Thomson Schirmer, 2005.

Tenzer, M. Balinese Music. Berkeley, California: Periplus, 1991. Gamelan. 2005, accessed 6 October 2005; available from

Comments (2)Add Comment
ano ang balinese at javanese?
written by jomari, August 07, 2010

bkt ganun ? yan ba tlaga ang sagot ? smilies/wink.gif smilies/grin.gif smilies/sad.gif smilies/smiley.gif smilies/cool.gif smilies/tongue.gif
i um gay
written by jordan craven, March 12, 2014
i like penises

Write comment

security code
Write the displayed characters