• Shelley Tsang 曾雯海

Music of the Islands: the beauty of Gamelan

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Indonesia, the most complicated and prominent island groups with high population density, especially in the Java primate cities, has over 300 races and 250 languages. People are in three ways of living: 1) Heterogeneous people living along the coastline- those in the 13th Century trade with Arabian and broke away from the ruling of Hindu-Javanese. 2) Homogeneous people living on the plain areas - they share the same cultural and social mode and believe in Buddhism and Hinduism. 3) Tribal people - those being segregated by natural barriers, e.g. mountains and tropical rain forests, they have less connect with the outside and develop different ways of living, but share the same religious basis of animism and ancestors worship. However, one thing that all these people share is they all regard religion as an essential part of life. For items attached to their beliefs, e.g. Gamelan, are significant in their society though there are variations of practice.

Image: Gamelan instruments (Internet)

‘Gamelan’ is a Javanese verb meaning knock, beat and scratch. The term used to describe the composition and playing of instruments is ‘Gambel’. As Gambel is played in the way of ‘Gamelan’, hence the verb replaced the noun. There is another term ‘Karawitan’ derived from ‘rawit’ to represent Gamelan music which means ‘complicated and splendid’. As the music in Indonesia is highly related to religions, they usually serve two functions: 1) accompany rituals and 2) entertain people and God. Gongs act as tools for spiritual communication as people believe that Gamelan music can go up to heaven and contain supernatural power.

There are several distinctive characteristics on Gamelan music, for example, 1) monophony principle, thematic phrases: variations and ornaments, 2) circulation principle and 3) polyphonic layering. These reflect some of the ideologies and world views of Indonesians in a cultural context.

Melody is the fundamental element for Gamelan music, which is something like Cantus firmus in Western music. It is composed of several notes as the motivation of music. For example, in Colenak, the piece of Gamelan is started by a clear and soft presentation on the thematic phrase of melody in monophony. Throughout the music, the melody expanded, contracted, reversed, combined, simplified and complicated for seeking variations. It reflected the characteristic of Asian music on the idea of an impromptu by using ornaments, variations and heterophony, especially towards the end of the music. It also reflected their lifestyle that there are kinds of freedom under the giant structure or pattern of nature.

Rhythm is the most complicated part of Gamelan music, other than musical text; it also related to the context of the music. Rhythm and the world view is correlated in Indonesian music. Traditional Gamelan is highly influenced and limited by Hinduism doctrines. Influenced and inspired by thousands of years of agricultural practices, the circulation of time is reflected by repeating the thematic phrase. For example, in Colenak, gongs and drums are used in order; the biggest gong marked the end of a complete cycle. The small gongs are drums, in the fourth and the eighth beat is played to mark and get notified of the time and rhythm. Using a Western term, the set of small gongs is like painting in the brushstroke of Seurat’s Pointivism, they combine and work as a phrase with the bass and the thematic melody. However, the real leader of the music is Kendangs as they give a sense of stability to the music and control the time of the whole piece. Gamelan captures the similar structure of the circulation in nature, i.e. as big as a year and as small as a month, a day or an hour, etc.

Polyphonic layering is the way that makes the music tonally vibrant, splendid and lively. In Colenak, many instruments are involved, and they are mainly in 3 types: phrase-making instruments, loud instruments and soft instruments. The higher pitches instruments are more involved than the low pitches instruments. In a fixed interval, different sizes of gongs constructed the bass of the music which formed the rhythmic structure. Drums and giant Gong players controlled the core of the music, its complicity and drama, with other instruments adding to the music layer by layer, weaving a luxurious and splendid tone. The amusing part of the music is when these layers all added one above another. There is only harmony without a sense of chaos. It probably because of the colotomic of the performance that it marks off the music into temporary units by adding ‘a specific instrument marks punctuations’, i.e. by beats on 2, 4, 8 and 16, and on every beat.

Image: People playing Gamelan (Internet)

Gamelan is a representative kind of music in South East Asia. It has gone through different stages of development since 2500B.C. In the 16th Century, European countries invaded South East Asia. Indonesia became a colony of the Dutch. During the period, there are new forms of music developed on the northern Bali, called Gamelan Gong Kebyar, and it is also the latest form of performance in our times. Music, intangible, is a form of culture. By the cultural interaction and the influence of colonialism, Gamelan is being reinterpreted from religious music to exotic musical performance.


SP Records, Indonesia. Traditional / folk style Gamelan music. Cited as "Original Sundanese Music (Sundanese Instrumentalia Degung Sabilulungan)" (1989) on CD versions. Performed by the Suara Parahiangan ‎Gamelan ensemble lead by Ujang Suryana.

Original Sundanese Music (West Java):

Original Sundanese Music (West Java) - Track 3: Colenak (6.21):

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