Introduction to the Javanese Gamelan
Indonesia is an archipelago in Southeast Asia, comprising over 17,500 islands stretching across
almost 3,400 miles of ocean, situated across the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ – a densely volcanic region.
Approximately 300 of the islands are inhabited, accommodating a diverse range of hundreds of
ethnic groups and subgroups – each with their own local characteristics, languages, customs,
social structures, rituals, dances, music, theatre and other cultural expressions.
The Southbank Centre Gamelan – named ‘Kyai Lebdåjiwå (the Venerable Spirit of Perfection) was
donated to the People of Great Britain by the Government of the Republic of Indonesia in 1987. It
originates from the island of Java, located in the south-western part of the archipelago, between
the islands of Sumatra and Bali.
Java is the most densely populated island in Indonesia with over 124 million people. Its rich
history spans from the era of the oldest human species, the “Java man”, through periods of
Hinduisation, Islamisation and Westernisation. Java also has a rich musical heritage. Gamelan is
one form of well-known traditional music from Java, which is also prevalent in the neighbouring
island of Bali.
What is Gamelan?
The term gamelan - derived from the Javanese word “gamel” meaning to strike or to handle -
refers to the ensemble of predominantly percussion instruments on which the traditional gamelan
music of Java and Bali is played. Vocal music has also had a significant role in the development of
gamelan music, alongside the addition of the rebab – a stringed fiddle, the siter (a plucked zither)
and the bamboo flute called suling.
The Southbank Centre Gamelan is used predominantly for the practice of traditional music from
Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta (Yogya) – two principalities in Central Java with strong Court
traditions in music, dance and shadow-puppetry. New music for gamelan is also encouraged, as
are improvisation and composition. In Java, gamelan is also used to accompany ceremonies and
celebrations including weddings, birthdays and funerals, village cleansing rituals and social
(Illustrations from: http://sumarsam.web.wesleyan.edu/Intro.gamelan.pdf)
Gong and Kempul
How does it work?
The layout of the gamelan reflects the role of the different instruments in the music. In the middle
of the gamelan, the balungan (or ‘skeleton’ melody) is played on the bronze metallophones (saron
family and slenthem). The balungan is punctuated by the larger gongs (gong ageng and kempul)
and the horizontally-mounted gongs (kenong, kethuk and kempyang) at the back of the gamelan.
At the front of the gamelan a selection of more complex instruments embellish the melody – the
two bonangs (double rows of gong chimes mounted on a frame), gendèr (multi-octave
metallophone), rebab (fiddle), gambang (xylophone), siter (plucked zither) and suling (bamboo
flute). A complete ensemble also includes a gérong (male chorus) and pesindhèn (solo female
vocalist). The whole gamelan is co-ordinated by the drummer in the centre of the ensemble,
playing a selection of kendhang (double-headed drums).
A complete Javanese court-style gamelan comprises two sets of instruments, one for each tuning
system. The notes of each tuning are assigned ciphers or numbers:
(a five-tone pentatonic scale) 1 2 3 5 6
(a seven-tone scale)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Within each of these tunings are three pathet, a Javanese concept referring to both mode and
mood, however, no two gamelans are tuned exactly alike. The skeleton melody of a composition is
often notated using Kepatihan cipher notation with added symbols for the structural instruments
such as the gong, kempul and kenong.
Becker, Judith: Traditional Music in Modern Java. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1980.
Brinner, Benjamin: Knowing Music, Making Music: Javanese Gamelan and the Theory of
Musical Competence and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Lindsay, Jennifer: Javanese Gamelan. 2nd.ed. Kualalumpur: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Perlman, Marc: Unplayed Melodies: Javanese Gamelan and the Genesis of Music Theory.
University of California Press, 2004.
Pickvance, Richard: A Gamelan Manual: A Player's Guide to the Central Javanese Gamelan.
London, Jaman Mas Books, 2006.
Sorrell, Neil.: A Guide to the Gamelan. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990.
Sumarsam: Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java. Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 1995.
INTERNET: (General Introduction to the Gamelan and useful links)
UK Gamelan Network: http://www.gamelannetwork.co.uk/
Southbank Gamelan Players: http://www.sbgp.org.uk/
American Gamelan Institute: http://www.gamelan.org/
Wells Cathedral School Virtual Gamelan:
http://www.imusic.org.uk/modulegamelan.asp and http://tre.ngfl.gov.uk/pdf/13089.pdf
For information regarding Southbank Centre Gamelan Programme, please contact:
Sophie Clark, Gamelan Advisor, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
Tel: +44 (0)20 7921 0767, email: firstname.lastname@example.org