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Java (Jawa) is an island of Indonesia and the site of its capital city, Jakarta. Once the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, Java now plays a dominant role in the economic and political life of Indonesia. Home to a population of 130 million in 2006, it is the most populous island in the world. Java is also one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.

Gamelan music
Shine of the moon and the flowing water

Java knows a stunning number of traditional forms of music. The most known of them is gamelan music. The gamelan (gamel means play) is an extended ensemble of percussion instruments with bronze keys, together with some drums, flutes and other instruments. The music which it produces is miraculous, 'Pure and mysterious like the shine of the moon and is variable as flowing water', like the musicologist prof. dr. J. Huizinga once said.

Around the old Javanese royal centers and main municipal places developed towards regional musical styles, which differentiate in expression and repertoire. Even the greater cities like Bandung , Sumedang and Cirebon in Western Java, which are reasonably close to each other, developed their own genre. Java knows three main musical styles: the one of Western Java, Central Java and Eastern Java. Unless a number of common elements they differ so strong, that outside their own area they don't have much appreciation.

The instruments

Some instruments are used on entire Java. The most famous are the big bronze gongs, which are a specialty from this island. Almost every orchestra has some in use. The big gong is used as an indicating instrument, which parts the melody in equal parts. Smaller gongs and bronze kettles are used to produce the kettle-gong-play, the bonang, which plays the melody. Again other instruments like the kenong and the ketuk, stress certain sounds.

Wooden sound boxes with bronze keys like saron, demung and peking play the real melody. They form the core of the gamelan. The leader of the orchestra plays drums with double skins (kendang). Other instruments are the banboo flute (suling), the violin (rebab) and the cither (celempung). No gamelan is the same and there is a big variation in the way they are collected, the sounds and the instruments that are used. The music that is played in the rural areas, angklung and the sarunai are played in the foreground.

In Central Java two scales are used, the scale with five tones, slendro and the scale with seven tones, pelog. Both are different from the Western scales. A standard scale is unknown. A consequence of this is that gamelans never sounds exactly the same. Besides this also the form of the sound boxes and the woodcarving of the instruments is never the same. That's why different gamelan groups cannot exchange their instruments.

Difficult musical pattern

Notation of music is rarely used and the gamelan doesn't know a conductor in Western way; the drum player is the leader of the orchestra. Musicians know the melodies ( gending ); dependable on the situation they can play in different ways.

Every group has it's own task in the total play of the sounds. The core instruments with bronze keys on wooden sound boxes are playing the main melody, while the hanging smaller and bigger gongs ( kempul ) play the bigger and smaller rhythms. The instruments around the main instruments vary on every tone of the main melody. The player of the drum keeps strict control of the other players. For example he starts and ends the melody.

Free musical improvisation in Western sense is unknown: performance of music has tight rules. Even improvisation on the surrounding instruments has scheduled patterns. More remarkable is the difficult pattern of sounds, which sounds like a musical unity, surprising and spontaneous.

Tradition and change

Music has an important role by ritual ceremonies. Ritual cleaning of the village (sedakah bumi in Western Java, resik desa in Eastern Java) and the marriage ritual is supported by music most of the time. Furthermore music on Java is strongly connected to other forms of art like dance, theater, shadow-, and puppet shows and even the martial arts. In fact the music on Java has an framing and guiding function; concert halls and other institutions for music are hard to find.
Professional theater communities which, guided by living music, perform in the bigger cities ( most famous are the East Javanese ludruk and the Central Javanese wayang wong and ketoprak ) have difficulties nowadays. Competition of cassettes and CD's with traditional music, from tourist dance-, and puppet plays and by, by the government supported, festival, dance and music festivals is very large. Most Javanese however have the opinion that traditional happenings only with live gamelan music, dance and theater.

Last revised on December 27, 2009
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