There are many forms of music, instruments and ensembles in Indonesia. Perhaps the most famous are the bronze gong and xylophone ensembles known as Gamelan on the islands of Java and Bali. While there are instrumental ensembles made of wood, bamboo and iron, bronze represents the highest development and are highly prized as material as well as spiritual objects in the classical palace traditions.

Indonesia today is predominantly Muslim but the Panchasila philosophy of the Republic of Indonesia allows for a diversity, which also includes Hindu, Christian, Catholic, and Buddhist religions. Historically, Buddhism and then Hinduism came to Java, the principal island beginning before the 1st century AD. Later, when Islam came, the Hindu kingdoms of Java fled to the nearby island of Bali. To this day, Bali follows the Hindu-Bali religion and visitors from India would find many similarities to their own religion there.

Even though Java is now predominantly Muslim, there are still many vestiges of Hindu culture, not the least of which are the Hindu temples at Prambanan, near the Central Javanese palace city of Jogjakarta. (Some locals believe that the name Jogjakarta, also known as Ngayogyakarta, is a reference to Ayodhya, the abode of Rama.) There are many examples of Sanskrit words such as names of places (Jakarta from Jaya Karta), names of people (Surya-diningrat, Kusuma-ningrat, Chakra-ningrat), and names of classical poetry (Manggala Geeta, Pushpa Lalita, Sudira Wicitra). Even the names of classical gamelan music compositions abound with Sanskrit (Chandra Nata, Mega Mendung, Kembang Gayam). Finally, the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana form the foundation of much of the theater, dance and drama traditions. 

For this introduction to Indonesian music, the focus will be on the classical palace or court traditions of Central Java. It is here that development flourished in the beginning of the 20th century. There are two court cities, Surakarta (also known as Solo) and Jogjakarta, each with two palaces, a higher and a lower one. In these four palaces, one finds the best gamelan sets, the best players, dancers and collections of sacred artifacts. Even though Indonesia has been a republic since 1945 and the palaces have no real political power, they still exist and continue to be spiritual power centers for the people. 

The instruments of the Javanese gamelan can be categorized as follows: (1) vertical hanging gongs of various sizes, (2) horizontally suspended gongs (resembling upside-down kettles), (3) keyed instruments played with one or with two mallets, (4) drums, (5) a two-stringed fiddle, (6) a bamboo flute, (7) a stringed zither. In addition, there are female solo vocalists and a male chorus.

Each gamelan actually comprises two complete sets of instruments, one in each of the two tunings of Slendro and Pelog. Slendro resembles roughly the raga Mohanam (or Hindustani Bhoopali) and Pelog resembles Gambheeranata. Each player sits between two instruments and switches positions depending on the composition being played.

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Typical Javanese Gong


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Kettle-Gongs - Bonang

Gamelan music allows for improvisation by some of the instruments (bronze xylophone gender played with two mallets, the rebab fiddle, the suling flute, the wooden xylophone, gambang), the female vocalist (pesindhen) and the two-headed kendhang (resembling somewhat the mridangam or more likely, the pakhwaj). The improvisations are based on a basic melody called the balungan (literally, bones) played usually on every beat by the keyed instruments using one mallet (slenthem, demung, saron, saron panerus). This balungan is also embellished by the double-rowed horizontally suspended kettle-gongs called bonang and the one-octave higher bonang panerus

The result is multiple layers of sounds interacting with each other - one leading, sometimes following and everyone coming to agreement on the final gong note of the balungan.


The balungan is structured over a regular series of beats (multiples of 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, and even 256) in a cycle. The end of the cycle is marked by the biggest hanging gong. The gong cycle is subdivided either by two or four, marked by the big horizontally suspended kettle-gongs called kenong. The medium-sized hanging gongs called kempul mark the middle of those subdivisions, depending on the particular form. In between the kempuls and kenongs, there is a possible further subdivision marked by the small horizontally suspended kethuk. This whole time-structure is called the colotomic structure and is the basis of all gamelan music. The oldest and most revered classical pieces usually have the longest gong cycles (128 or 256 beats).

A typical colotomic structure of the most popular light classical form known as gendhing kethuk 2 kerep is as follows:

…T …. …T …K
…T …. …T …K
…T …. …T …K
…T …. …T …G

where T is the ketuk, K is the kenong, and G is the gong (kempul is not used in this form).

Colotomic structures are played in various tempos. Like Carnatic music, there are different speeds. First speed is called irama lancar, the second speed, irama tanggung, the third, irama dadi, and the fourth, irama ciblon. There is a fifth speed called irama rangkep. The higher the speed, the more stretched out is the balungan and therefore the more room for improvisations by the improvising instruments. Unlike Carnatic music, the subdivision of the beat is always by four. There are no timings  in five, six, or seven beats and so forth. Also, unlike Carnatic music, the changes in speed are gradual. At certain points prescribed by the music form, the whole group slows down little by little until there is enough space for the improvising instruments to double up. At that point, everyone glides effortlessly into the next speed. In order to end the piece, the tempo will speed up until the improvising instruments can no longer play comfortably and are forced to drop down in speed. At the very end, when everyone is approaching the final gong, there is a slowing down. When the last gong is played, everyone waits a split second until the gong sounds and then they play their note. Again, this is unlike Carnatic music where most likely a korvai or ending formula is smartly played with everyone ending exactly together.

While there are similarities between Javanese and Carnatic music, there are several principles which differ greatly. In gamelan, there is no soloist (even though the female singer often gets a lot of attention) while in Carnatic music, the soloist is the main reason for the concert. Gamelan is orchestral while Carnatic is a small ensemble. The sense of timing in gamelan is very fluid and even at certain points, everyone deliberately plays late - slightly after the beat - while timing in Carnatic music is so precise that someone is usually keeping the tala.

In future, we will cover these and other interesting points in more detail.

Alex Dea

Note: The author is an ethnomusicologist with a fine understanding of different music systems across the world.
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