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Gamelan: Definition, Instruments & Music

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  • 0:33 What Is Gamelan?
  • 1:08 Tuning Systems
  • 1:49 Two Traditions
  • 2:26 The Balinese Orchestra
  • 3:51 The Javanese Orchestra
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will introduce you to gamelan, the Indonesian mallet orchestras of Bali and Java. You'll learn about the different gamelan traditions, the instruments of gamelan, and the basics of its structure and music.

A Long History

When classical composer Claude Debussy first heard a gamelan orchestra in 1889, he wrote, 'Their conservatory is the rhythm of the sea, the wind among the leaves and the thousand sounds of nature...'. For hundreds of years Indonesians have redefined and perfected their gamelan orchestras, making sounds that are otherworldly, surreal, and wonderfully human all at once. These sounds have captured Western ears since Debussy, and the art form has spread to cities all over the globe.

What Is Gamelan?

Gamelan refers to the Indonesian mallet orchestras of Bali and Java. Though originating from the islands of Indonesia, ensembles exist all over the world today. Gamelan orchestras are comprised of several types of mallet instruments, or keyboard-style instruments struck with mallets or hammers, as well as different drums, flutes, and occasionally stringed instruments or vocalists. The word 'gamelan' is derived from the Indonesian word meaning 'hammer.' Most gamelan musicians learn and teach the music orally, as the music is traditionally not notated.

Tuning Systems

The first time you hear a gamelan, you might find the sound a little unfamiliar and even jarring. That's because gamelan orchestras are built on different tuning systems than Western instruments; that is, the frequency relationships between notes is different from those used in Western music. There are two main tuning systems that gamelan orchestras use, one which has five notes, and one which has seven notes. Instruments of the same kind usually come in pairs, with each one being tuned slightly differently than the other. When the two play a note in unison, the different frequencies beat rapidly against each other, producing a sound quality musicians call ombak, or 'shimmering sound.'

Two Traditions

There are thousands of gamelan orchestras all across Indonesia, and many regions have forged their own tradition and identity, so it could be said there are as many types of gamelan as there are orchestras. The vast majority of ensembles, though, can be grouped into two different traditions: the Javanese tradition, from the island of Java, and the Balinese tradition, from the island of Bali. While these two traditions share some of the same instruments and principles, their musical structure and sound are unique. Within each tradition there are several sub-genres, each of which is performed for a different occasion or situation.

The Balinese Orchestra

The Balinese gamelan most often plays a style known as gamelan gong kebyar, or kebyar for short. Most instruments in the kebyar orchestra belong to the gangsa family and consist of single metal keyboards that are played with a wooden hammer in one hand, while the other hand dampens the keys to stop the sound of a note. The Balinese gangsa section usually includes higher instruments with the most complicated parts, middle-ranged instruments, and one or two pairs of the lowest instruments.

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