Geographic Region: Southeast Asia
Country of origin: Indonesia
Climatic type: Tropical
Time period: Latter part of the 1st millennium CE or the early part of the 2nd.
Classification: Multi Classed Ensemble
Is an Ensemble?: Yes
Related Instruments: Suling ,Gender,Saron,Rebab,Kendhang,Bonang,Celempung,Kempul,Gambang,Kenong,Gong (Javanese),Bedhug
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Gamelan is an ensemble that consists of predominantly metallophone and gong type instruments. The instruments produce tones when struck with mallets. The ensemble, in various sizes and forms, can be found in a number of Indonesian islands. In Java and Bali, gamelan has developed into an expansive ensemble, while a variety of smaller ensembles continue to exist. In Java alone, several forms of gamelan ensembles exist. There are two well known main gamelan styles: Sundanese (West Javanese) and Javanese gamelan. The following descriptions focus on Central Javanese gamelan.
Instruments and their functions in the ensemble
The Javanese gamelan ensemble is known for its expansive ensemble employing a rich variety of instrument types. In a full set of gamelan, besides metallophones and gongs, there are other types of instruments, which include a set of drums (kendhang), bowed- and plucked-strings (rebab and celempung), xylophone (gambang), and a bamboo flute (suling). A "solo" female vocalist (pesindhen) and male chorus (gerong) are also presence in gamelan ensemble.
Each instrument and vocal part has a particular function in the ensemble, although there is a degree of flexibility. Generally, the instruments may fall into the following three functional categories: (1) instruments that delineate the structure of the piece; (2) instruments that guide temporal flow in the music; (3) and instruments that carry melodies in both simple and elaborate forms.
Instruments in the first category include large and medium hanging gongs (gong ageng and gong suwukan), small hanging gongs (kempul), large standing gongs (kenong), and a pair of small standing gongs (kethuk-kempyang). The stroke of a large hanging gong marks the end of the main musical unit (gongan), while other gongs (kenong, kempul, and kethuk-kempyang, respectively) subdivide it in the order of its importance. A set of two-headed drums (kendhang) are in the second category are. The drumming style is defined by the use of a particular kendhang or a combination of them. The drumming may consist of a repeated, simple rhythmic configuration (kendhang satunggal and kendhang kalih) or elaborate and animated rhythms (kendhang ciblon) that are associated with dance movements.
The third category consists of three instrumental groupings: (a) instruments that carry the melodic skeleton of the piece (balungan): saron, demung, and slenthem; (b) instruments that carry elaborate forms of the melody, encompassing wide melodic registers (rebab, gambang, and voice), medium registers (gender barung) and narrow registers (celempung, gender panerus, and suling). Generally, the broader their register, the more important the melodic function; (c) instruments whose functions are to mediate between group a (balungan) and group b (elaborating instruments): bonang barung, bonang panerus, and peking. The anticipatory nature of the melodies of these instruments (especially bonang barung) has given them the status of melodic guidance of the ensemble.
Gamelan instruments can also be grouped according to the volume of the sound they can produce: soft-sounding and loud-sounding instruments. The soft-sounding instruments are positioned in the middle- and left-front of the middle row -rebab, gender gambang, celempung, suling, slenthem- together with the singers. The loud-sounding instruments are in the right-front, middle, and back rows: bonang, kendhang, a group of saron, ketuk-kempyang, kenong, kempul, gong. The soft-loud category is an important basis for the playing style of gamelan and the ensemble's interplay.
Tuning System, Pathet, and Gendhing
A full gamelan set employs two tuning systems, slendro and pelog (thus, the full gamelan is actually a double set, usually the slendro set faces the front and the pelog set the side. The two sets are never played simultaneously, however. The slendro tuning consists of five notes per octave (1 2 3 5 6 [C- D E+ G A]). The five intervals consist of small and medium steps. The difference between each interval is so small, however, they are often described as equal or nearly equal intervals. The pelog has seven pitches per octave (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 [C+ D E- F# G# A B]), but a gendhing is composed on the basis of the combination of sets of five pitch positions (1 2 3 5 6; 1 2 4 5 6; 2 3 5 6 7). In this sense, pelog is a pentatonic system, employing not only one but three basic five-pitch scales. Unlike slendro, narrow and wide intervals in each of these scales are apparent.
Another musical concept associated with the tuning system is a modal classification called pathet. It is a system of the hierarchical use of tones (and/or different use of scale degrees, especially in pelog), supported by characteristics of instruments or vocal idioms to be used to approach these tones and the register of the tones used in composition. Pathet circumscribes the general mood or emotive content of a composition. There are three pathet in each of the tuning systems.
Composition in gamelan (gendhing) is determined and arranged by a number of parameters. First, a gendhing is composed in a particular tuning system and pathet. Secondly, a composition is framed by one of the formal structures (gongan). There are a dozen formal structures defined in binary form by the stroke of gong, kenong, kempul, and kethuk. Thirdly, the melodies of gendhing are arranged in a metrical unit of four notes (gatra).
Performance Contexts and History
Gamelan may be performed independently, i.e., to be listened for its own sake. But gamelan is also an essential accompaniment for theatrical performances, such as dance drama and wayang shadow puppet play. Whether accompanying theatrical events or not, gamelan is performed in several different contexts, especially in rite-of passages events and communal festivals. As history and technology advance, other contexts have been created, including gamelan performance on radio and television stations.
Based on limited historical evidence, it is safe to say that smaller ensembles, whether they accompanied singing or not, characterized music ensembles during the early period of Javanese history. In the 16th to 17th century, the ensemble began to develop into a larger unit. This was achieved by synchronizing loud- and soft-sounding instruments and vocal repertoire into an integrated musical concept. The result, large ensemble with an expansive repertoire can be found in today's gamelan and gamelan practice.
Kunst, Jaap. 1968. Hindu-Javanese Musical Instruments. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Sumarsam. 1995.Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central
Java. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sumarsam. 1999. Introduction to Javanese Gamelan. Middletown: Music Department,
Wesleyan's first gamelan, an iron set of instruments, was donated in the early 1960s by the late Harrison Parker (a connoisseur of Javanese performing arts who used to work for USAID in Jakarta). Wesleyan's next gamelan set was acquired from the 1964 New York World's Fair.
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