Gamelan of the Islands: An Indonesian Identity

Due to Indonesia’s past under Dutch colonization, it has become a very diverse country of people, language, religion and music. Sutton points out that the gamelan is an unique aspect that identifies Indonesia. These percussion ensembles predominately exist in the neighboring islands of Java and Bali. A typical Javanese gamelan ensemble includes the categories of “gongs, metal instruments, at least one drum and may have other kinds of instruments: winds, strings, and wooden percussion instruments” (Sutton 302). In regards to gongs, there are hanging gongs and kettle gongs. Bronze is typically used to create the metal instruments due to “its durability and rich, sweet sound quality” (308).

Traditional Javanese Gamelan

Within Javanese gamelan there are two performance styles. The first is the loud style that is played in outdoor settings with only instruments. The other genre is a soft style performed indoors that can use voices. But since both styles are representative of the traditional theme, the music seems to be somber and harmonious. Javanese gamelan is also utilized in wayang kulit as well as bedhaya performances. In addition, Javanese gamelan is important to life events. This is played as background music during “birth, circumcision or wedding” (309). This shows that music is tied to the lives of Javanese people.

The aspect of community seems to be prevalent in Balinese society. The article mentions that in Bali, “every village and household compound possess three temples, and numerous other temples” (Davies 23). On a typical day following work, people will gather together and rehearse the gamelan ensemble. While Javanese gamelan can involve a soloist, pesindhen, Balinese gamelan is strongly a group effort. Even non-performing members will help out to contribute to the performance. Davies states “the arts are the lifeblood and pulse of the community existence” (28).

Balinese Gamelan stresses on the use of metallophones

Compared to the Javanese style, Balinese music has a distinct style which gives a fast, virtuosic, lively tone. This music also uses an interlocking technique. This is produced by utilizing “more metallophones than gongs” and also “cymbals to create fast rattling sounds” (SEAsite – SE Asian Languages and Cultures). This tone reflects the lifestyle of the villagers. The music is played in such a way to give references to a particular gong pattern and well as animals or nature. Due to ties with nature, Balinese are known for being superstitious and believing that everything happens for a reason. This is why gamelan instruments are made and decorated in accordance to rituals.

It is important to note that Javanese style is much stricter in regards retaining traditional values. Sutton notes that “it was forbidden to copy the tuning and design of palace gamelan instruments, as these were reserved for the ruler and were directly associate with his power” (Sutton 308). Court gamelan performances have been very essential in two particular cities, Yogyakarta and Surakarta. The fact that gamelan ensembles are still played in royal courts such as Mangkunegaran palace signify the Javanese adherence to cultural tradition. Javanese people tend to retain the old status quo and thus the music remains original. However the Balinese “gamelans are extremely competitive….and seek to improve their skills” (Davies 25).  Thus Balinese stress on greater variety and “are innovative in the readiness with which they adopt and adapt new media and technologies” (27).  They seem to be trying to improve what is already there by incorporating new forms of gamelan such as contemporary fusion gamelan. The Saratuspersen Bandung is one popular example that combines gamelan with Jazz and other Western musical influences. Despite these differences, the neighboring islands of Java and Bali have unique styles of gamelan which are essential toward promoting this musical identity to the rest of the world.


Davies, Stephen. “Balinese Aesthetics.”  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65, (2007): 21-29.

Han, Kou-Huang. “Balinese Gamelan.” SEAsite – SE Asian Languages and Cultures. Web. 14 Nov. 2011. <;.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Chapter 5: Asia/Music of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 299-311.




One thought on “Gamelan of the Islands: An Indonesian Identity

  1. I am really interested in the importance of gamelan music in the community described in this post. The author writes that members of the community will get together after work to practice gamelan, and the cited website reads “there is no room for a showoff.” This seems to be the exact opposite of our music culture in the United States. We have no immediate community with which we congregate after work or school to practice with. The only music communities that we really have are the “networks” that we discussed earlier in the semester. One American music-culture with similar community ties would be in Appalachia, where in the absence of music technology, communities have had to get together and create their own music. Yet, between American musics and Indonesian gamelan music, there remains the difference in the absence of a soloist. Every popular music group in the United States today seems to have a front man, if it is not just a one-man show (i.e. Justin Bieber, Rihanna, etc.). Interestingly enough, we have seen the prevalence of soloists in modernizing gamelan groups, such as the Saratuspersen Bandung group mentioned in this post. Music technology has also further individualized the role music plays in our culture. Would there be more community-based music if there were more widespread music education in elementary schools? Would it be different if faith played a larger role in the community, as is the case in Indonesia?

    – Dan N.

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