INTRODUCTION TO JAVANESE GAMELAN
Notes for Music 451
Preface ................................... 1
Background ............................. 2
Instrument .............................. 2
Notation ................................. 4
Tuning System ......................... 4
Melodic Organization ................
Musical Time……………………. 18
Social and Performance Context ..... 22
Bibliography ............................ 23
Discography ............................ 23
Glossary ............................... . 24
In my experience teaching gamelan at Wesleyan university, it is always difficult to find a
suitable reading for beginning gamelan student. Much of the literature on Javanese
gamelan is either too general or too specifically detailed in content. I hope this booklet will
serve its purpose.1
As a performance course, the emphasis of gamelan class is to provide the student with first
hand hands-on experience to play gamelan. Thus, this booklet emphasizes on the
performance practice of gamelan, albeit in a rudimentary level. Also included in the booklet
are a few sections on the performance context of gamelan in Java; they are meant to provide
background for further discussion.
Like any manual for learning gamelan, in this booklet notation is used as an aid for
learning. However, it should be noted that although notation has become a part of gamelan
tradition for about a century, basically gamelan is still the product of oral tradition.
Listening, imitating and observing are the thrust of traditional gamelan learning. In spite of
the use of notation, it is important that gamelan students have an opportunity to play
gamelan aurally. This is because full experience in gamelan is fulfilled when one is able to
feel the relationship between his or her part with the other.
I put together this booklet base on previous handout notes for my students. I would like to
thank my student-assistants who have helped me to put together such handout materials; in
particular Cindy Benton and Marc Perlman who were my assistants in writing a handout
notes entitled “Javanese Gamelan Instruments and Vocalists” (1977). Another handout
notes incorporated in this book is entitled “Gamelan Music of Java” . Thank also to
Topher Sebest, a devoted gamelan student, and Maria Medonça, a graduate student in
music, who are my technical assistance in producing this booklet.
Middletown, October, 1988. Revised for Wesleyan’s gamelan webpage, Fall 1999. Last revised, Fall 2002.
1 Two books of introduction to gamelan has appeared after the publication of this booklet:
Lindsay (1992) and Sorrell (1990). Students are assigned to read the selected chapters of
Tanah air, land and water, is an Indonesian expression equivalent to “fatherland”. This is
because the many thousand islands of Indonesia, locating in between the continents of Asia
and Australia and stretching from northern Sumatra to western New Guinea, spreads
across almost 3,400 miles of ocean (about the distance from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific
in the United States). This geoghraphical setting and their historical development, brought
about Indonesia's diversity of its people and cultures. Each of hundreds of ethnic groups
and subgroups has its own local characteristic, in language, customs, forms of
organization, ritual, dances, music and other cultural expressions.
Java is one of the Indonesian islands located in the south-western part of the archipelago,
between the islands of Sumatra and Bali (see map). It is the most populated island in
Indonesia. Almost one-half of one hundred seventy million Indonesian live in the island
about the size of New York state. Besides, Java has a long and rich history, spanning
from the era of the oldest human species, the “Java man”, to the period of Hinduization,
Islamization and Westernization of the island. Significantly, for many centuries Java has
been the principal locus both of power and international commerce and communication.
Java also has rich musical traditions, traditional as well as westernized genres. One of the
forms of well-known traditional music of Java and those of neighboring Bali is gamelan.
Gamelan, derives from the word “gamel”, to strike or to handle, is a generic term refering
to an ensemble which comprises predominantly of percussive instrument. However, vocal
music has important role in the development of gamelan. In the beginning of this century,
the term karawitan was introduced, embracing both vocal and instrumental elements in the
As a consequence both of ethnographical setting and historical development, diverse
gamelan styles exists. There are two principal styles: Balinese and Javanese gamelan. But
in Java, like in Bali, several regional styles can be identified. Two of the most noted styles
are Sundanese (or West Javanese) and Central Javanese gamelan. It is the latter, especially
the Solonese style, with which this booklet is concerned.2
Gamelan instruments are mostly metallophone and gong type instruments which produce
tones when struck with mallets (tabuh). Other types of percussion instruments included in
the gamelan ensemble are: a wooden xylophone (gambang), and a set of two headed drums
(kendhang) played with the palm and/or fingers. There are a few instruments in the
gamelan ensemble which are not percussion instruments: they are a two-stringed bowed
instrument (rebab), a plucked zither-type instrument (celempung or siter), and a bamboo
flute (suling). A female singer (pesindhèn), and a male chorus of two or three singers
(penggérong) also participate in the gamelan ensemble.
The gamelan musicians should sit crosslegged (silå) before their instruments. Because of
this silå position, it is most comfortable for the musicians to take off their shoes or sandals.
Commonly, the musicians hold the tabuh in their right hand, except if the instrument must
be played with two tabuh.
2 Solo or Surakarta and Yogya or Yogyakarta, although only 30 miles apart, inherited
subtle diference in gamelan styles. The division of the court of Mataram into these two
political and cultural center in 1755, as a consequence of a long conflict between the royal
families, was responsible for the cultivation and development of different styles in
performing arts in these two court traditions.
Often, the Javanese consider a gamelan set as pusåkå, an inherited object which is endowed
with supernatural power. An honorific title, Kyai or “The Venerable Sir”, and name is
assigned to the gamelan.3 Periodically, an offering is provided and incense is burned
before the gong. For this reason, the Javanese always maintain a show of respect for the
instruments. Hood and Susilo aptly state the most appropriate etiquette of the musicians
when they are present in the gamelan area:
There is an inviolable rule that no one ever steps over one of the musical
instruments, since to do so would be considered a breach of respect. If
there is not room to pass, the musician must move the instrument
temporarily to provide space, and when he passes by instruments and other
players, he does not stride along erect but bends low, holding one hand
before him and mumbling the appropriate Javanese word of permission and
apology (nuwun sewu) for crossing in front of someone.4
Besides spiritual beliefs, such careful treatment of the gamelan instruments also prevents
possible physical damage of the instruments.
Traditionally, one learns to play gamelan aurally. This is a learning process in which one
has to spend much time listening to and observing gamelan performance. Several musical
notations have been introduced and experimented with since the end of the nineteenth
century. In present-day Java, cipher notation is commonly used as a teaching device and
for analyses. Below are the traditional names of the pitches and their cipher equivalents.
Sléndro tuning system (see below), from low to high:
barang (1), gulu (2), dhådhå (3), limå (5), nem (6)
Pélog tuning system (see below), from low to high:
penunggul (1), gulu (2), dhådhå (3), pélog (4), limå (5), nem (6), barang (7)
Other symbols: A dot above a number indicates the upper octave; below a number, the
lower octave. A dot in the place of a number indicates a rest or sustained sound. A dash
above a number, or numbers, indicates a fractional duration of the notes.
Most gamelan instruments are tuned to definite pitches corresponding to two kinds of
tuning system (laras): five-tone sléndro and seven-tone pélog. Therefore, a complete
gamelan set of forty to sixty instruments is actually a double set, that is a sléndro gamelan
and a pélog gamelan, although they are never played simultaneously.
3 The name of the sléndro set of the Wesleyan gamelan is Kyai Mentul [The Venerable Sir
“Bouncing”], and the pélog set is Kyai Pradhah [The Venerable Sir “Generosity”].
4 Mantle Hood and Hardjo Susilo. Music of the Venerable Dark Cloud. Los Angeles:
Institute of Ethnomusicology, University of California, 1967. Booklet accompanying the
recording of the same title.
Figure 1 Notation of balungan ladrang Pakumpulan, sléndro sångå (excerpt)
1 t y 1 t y 1 n2
3 5 3 p2 1 y e nt
2 2 . p3 5 6 5 n3
2 3 2 p1 y t e gt
2 2 . j35 j6!j.6! n5
6 3 5 p2 2 3 6 n5
! 6 5 p6 5 3 2 n1
.yj.tj.ypj.t j.yj.ty g1
Each tuning system is characterized by its intervallic patterns. In sléndro, the five intervals
consist of short and medium steps. The difference between the two intervals in sléndro is
so small that they are often inaccurately described as equal or nearly equal intervals.
Figure 2 Sléndro pitches and approximate Western equivalents
! barang alit D-
6 nem B
5 limå A-
3 dhådhå F#+
2 gulu E
1 barang D -
Note: the missing pitch 4 does not represent a gap note. It is used for the sake of
uniformity with pélog (see below) in assigning numbers in one octave.
In pélog, although it has seven pitches per octave, sets of five pitch positions are used and
combined. Thus, the pélog intervals consist of small, medium and large steps. Laras
pélog is also pentatonic, but consists of not one but three basic five-pitch scales (see figure
3). A gendhing may use one or a combination of these scales. Unlike sléndro, narrow and
wide intervals in each of these scales are very apparent.
Figure 3 Pélog three basic five-pitch scales and approximate Western equivalents
! (penunggul) D#
1 (penunggul) D#
1 (penunggul) D#
To accommodate the use of these three scales, most pélog instruments are built with seven
pitches. For example, a pélog saron has a sequence of slabs with the ordering tones of
The seven pitches in a pélog bonang are arranged as follow:
Usually, sléndro and pélog gamelan of the same set share a common pitch (tumbuk):
tumbuk 6 or tumbuk 5. In gamelan tumbuk 6, two other pitches are considered the same:
pitch 2 in both tunings and pitch 4 in pélog with pitch 5 in sléndro. In gamelan tumbuk 5,
there are also two other pitches to be considered the same: pitch 1 of both tunings and pitch
6 in sléndro with pitch 7 in pélog.
Within the parameters of sléndro and pélog, each gamelan is tuned in a particular pattern of
interval sizes. Thus, an instrument from one gamelan set cannot be played in another set.
In other words, there is no standard tuning. This practice in tuning the gamelan results the
creation of embat, nuance or temperament of gamelan tuning—each gamelan has its own
characteristics of overall sound.
Each composition is composed in one of the three pathet or modal categories. Pathet,
which literally means “to restrain”, is a system of categorizing the use of tones. This
includes the hierarchical use of tones, characteristics of instrumental or vocal idioms to be
used to approach these tones, and the range of tones used in a composition. In sléndro the
pathet are pathet nem, pathet sanga, and pathet manyura. In pélog, pathet lima, pathet nem,
and pathet barang.
The progression of mood, from calm, solemn, or majestic to more lively, is an important
concept of the gamelan performance. Therefore, the order of compositions (gendhing)
played in a gamelan performance follows this mood progression. Musicians will select
compositions whose mode and mood correspond to this mood progression. Besides
pathet, there are other factors which determine the mood of a composition: irama,
performance technique, and musical structure.
The gamelan ensemble can be characterized as music based on communal expression. The
melody of a single instrument cannot be conceived as separable from the whole sound of
the ensemble. In identifying what they find to be the main melody of a composition, many
theorists have been puzzled by the different limitations of the melodic ranges of the
instruments. Actually, the feeling of unity, communality, or totality is based on the
interactions or interrelationships among the instruments in the ensemble. This is the most
important concept of the gamelan ensemble. The interrelationships among the instruments
provide our understanding of how musicians intuitively conceive of the melody of
gendhing as the result of their own inner creativity at work. This melody as conceived by
the musicians is never explicitly stated on their instruments, yet this implicit melody is in
the minds of musicians. I call this melody the “inner melody” of gendhing. Each musician
has to coordinate his conception of the inner melody with the range of his or her instrument
and its performance technique when creating melodic patterns for a gendhing (Sumarsam
In spite of the complex process in which the musicians conceive and express their
melodies, gamelan instruments can generally be classified according to their functions, into
three major groupings (see figure on page 8).
I. The instruments and vocalist which carry melody in both elaborate and more simple
forms. This group can be divided into three groups:
a. The instruments and vocalists which represent elaborate melodies. Employing
wide melodic range, rebab, gendèr barung, gambang, sindhèn, and gérong
have the important function of determining the melodic essence of
b. The instruments which play a melodic abstraction of a gendhing (balungan)
within their one-octave range.
c. The instruments which melodically mediate between group a and b.
II. The instruments which regulate musical time: to set up the appropriate timing for a
composition, control trasition, and signal the end of the piece.
III. The instruments which underline musical structure.
The following descriptions of gamelan instruments are arranged according to the above
INSTRUMENTS OF THE GAMELAN: THEIR FUNCTION IN THE ENSEMBLE
Ia. Elaborate Melodies
Rebab, a two-stringed bowed lute. It has a heart-shaped body of
wood (or a round-shaped body of coconut shell) covered by a
membrane made of parchment from cow bladder. A long wooden
spike is pierced through the body, supporting the strings at the top,
and serving as a foot at the bottom. The brass strings a stretched up
across the membrane from a point on the leg just below the body to
the elongated pegs in the upper part of the spike. When the rebab is
bowed, a bridge (srenten) must be positioned between the strings
and the upper part of the membrane.
Because the rebab has an elaborate melody and a difficult playing
technique (i.e. the production of a clear sound, accurate intonation,
bowing technique, and the position of fingers), the rebab player
must be a musician with years of training. As one of the leading instruments, rebab is
considered the melodic leader of the ensemble, especially in the soft style of playing
gendhing. In most pieces, the rebab plays the introduction to the gendhing. This
introduction determines the gendhing, laras, and pathet which will be played by the
ensemble. The melodic range of the rebab constitutes the melodic range of any
composition. Therefore, the flowing melody of the rebab gives a clear direction to the flow
of the melody of a gendhing. The sléndro gendhing move within the range of two octaves
and two notes:
w e t y 1 2 3 5 6 ! @ # %
The pélog gendhing move within the range of two octaves and four notes:
q w e r t y u 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ! @ # $ %
In some gendhing the rebab gives musical cues to move from one section to another.
The strings of the rebab are tuned to an interval which is approximately equal to a fifth
(kempyung): nem (6) and gulu (2) in sléndro and pélog gendhing, or limå (5) and
penunggul (1) in pélog gendhing, depending on the pathet of the gendhing.
Gendèr, a metallophone with bronze keys
suspended by cords in a wooden frame, over
tube resonators. It is played with two tabuh
of the disc type (i.e. padded disc which is
attached to the end of a stick). There are two
kind of gendèr: gendèr barung and gendèr
panerus. The gendèr barung can have as
few as twelve or as many as fourteen keys,
encompassing more than two octaves. A
sléndro gamelan has one gendèr. The
Note: some gamelan have gendèr without the lowest pitch 6.
A pélog gamelan has two gendèr: the bem gendèr and the barang gendèr. The pitches of a
pélog bem gendèr are:
The pitches of a pélog barang gendèr are:
The gendèr panerus is tuned one octave higher than the gendèr barung, thus its lowest
section overlaps with the gendèr barung's highest section.
The melodic range of the gendèr is narrower than the full melodic range of a composition.
Therefore, the gendèr melody sometimes moves in the opposite direction to the melody of a
The gendèr playing technique (e.g. the technique of damping the keys), and its elaborate
melody require highly skilled musicianship. The gendèr barung is accepted as a
particularly important instrument in the ensemble, especially in the soft playing style of
gendhing. Its presence creates the fullness or sonority of the ensemble and reinforces
modal character (pathet) of gendhing. Some gendhing have a buka (introduction) which is
played by the gendèr barung. In the shadow puppet (wayang) performance, the gendèr
player has a demanding task to fulfill. He or she has to play in gendhing, in sulukan (a
kind of chant sung by the dhalang, puppetter), and in grimingan (gendèr parts to fit the
mood of the scene while the dhalang narrates or gives dialogue).
Pesindhèn or Sindhèn, a female “soloist” singer. The melody of pesindhèn is without
strictly fixed tempi. The pesindhèn sings her melodic patterns intermittently, especially
towards the end of melodic phrases. This is called sindhènan baku or “main sindhèn line”.
A pesindhèn might also sing near the beginning of melodic phrases. This is called
sindhènan isèn-isèn or "optional sindhèn line".
Example Sindhènan ladrang Wilujeng, Sléndro manyurå (excerpt, balungan and sindhèn
part). The first half of the phrase is sindhènan isèn-isèn, the second half, sindhènan baku)
2 1 2 3 2 1 2 ny
2 2 3 3 2 3
yå ra- ma-né Sendhang ar- gå
3 3 . p. 6 5 3 n2
3 6 ! ^
@ 6 3
go-nès Argå a- lit Kartå- su- rå
5 6 5 p3 2 1 2 ny
3 2 3
yå mas yå- mas Tan pra- yo- ga
2 1 2 p3 2 1 2 gy
3 3 2 5 3 1
Ngongasken mring wijil- i- rå
For sindhènan baku, pesindhèn sings a poetic riddle, called wangsalan. Each stanza
consists of four lines, alternating between four-and eight-syllable lines.
1. Sendhang argå
Pool in the mountain (lake, in Javanese, tlågå)
2. Argå alit Kartåsurå
The small mountain in Kartåsurå (the name of this
mountain is wijil)
3. Tan prayogå
It is not proper
4. Ngongasken mring wijilirå To proudly announce your background
As you can see in the example, the first and second lines (usually describing people,
animals, or things) point to other meanings. The words implied by the first two lines will
appear completely or incompletely in the third and fourth lines, but in different contexts.
These lines usually contain moral ideas, the expression of the emotion of love, reverence to
the nobility, satire, or other subjects. For sindhènan isèn-isèn, pesindhèn sings a word or
words such as råmå-råmå (oh father), yåmas (yes brother), radèn (address to nobility),
kenès-nènès (refering to a talkative girl), etc. If penggérong (see below) sings, pesindhèn
will use the text which is sung by penggérong.