SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Lessons for Schools: 3 Bali

Nick Gray


Bali, a small island in the Republic of Indonesia, is now famed as a tourist destination. Discerning travelers value it for its unique culture which blends elements of Hinduism with indigenous beliefs and which foregrounds the arts as an essential part of worship.

Bali was one of the parts of island South East Asia that came under extensive cultural influence from India in the early middle ages, bringing the two great religions of Hinduism and Buddhism to the region. By far the most important of these “Indianised states” was the Majapahit empire of Java, which strongly influenced Bali. When this empire fell at the end of the 15th century, and Java converted to Islam, elements of Majapahit’s courts are said to have fled to Bali, consolidating Hindu culture there.

Balinese gamelan music (although Balinese tend to use the word “gong” instead of gamelan, which is a Javanese word) has become famous in West. Twentieth century composers such as Benjamin Britten, and the minimalist composer Steve Reich have adopted Balinese musical techniques such as interlocking figuration in their music.

Suggested listening – Western composers influenced by Balinese gamelan: Benjamin Britten Prince of the Pagodas, Steve Reich Music for 18 musicians.

Music for ritual and dance

Balinese Hinduism stresses community worship in open-air temples, of which each village has at least three and often more. The frequent temple festivals feature gamelan music and singing as well as the elaborate offerings of incense, flowers and fruit. As well as slow gamelan music during the temple ceremonies themselves, there are usually dance and drama performances outside the temple during the afternoon or evening of the festivals. These might include shadow puppet shows (wayang kulit), dance-dramas. In some temples, trance dancing takes place, for instance where the temple owns a set of sacred masks of Rangda (queen of the witches) and her opponent the Barong (a creature similar to a Chinese lion who brings a positive balance to Rangda’s dangerous energy).

Gamelan gong kebyar

The term gamelan means an orchestra, usually of bronze instruments – gongs, gong chimes, and metallophones - together with drums and sometimes flutes. The most common gamelan heard today is the gamelan gong kebyar which developed in the early twentieth century based on earlier forms. “Kebyar” means “flare up” and this accurately describes this very dynamic style of music. It has a restless quality, with unison introductory passages giving way to ostinatos (melodies repeated again and again) and incredibly fast interlocking figuration. There are many other, older types of gamelan that are still played in Bali – for instance the quartet of metallophones gender wayang for shadow puppet plays.

For line drawings of the instruments and their names, see Gold 2005, page 38, or Tenzer 1998 pages 34–5. To see photos and video clips of the instruments, follow the web links at the end of this lesson.

Interlocking parts and basic melody

Gong kebyar ostinatos are based on a basic melody played in even note values by the large metallophones, called jublag. Players of smaller metallophones (gangsa) and a gong chime (reong), divide into pairs to play two interlocking parts that fit together to create a composite pattern or melody. Two drums, kendang, play interlocking rhythms to drive the ensemble, while large hanging gongs play at the end of each cycle of the basic melody, which may be 8, 16 or other multiple of 4 beats long.

The five note scale used in gong kebyar is called pelog and the intervals are different from Western ones – in fact, different ensembles may be tuned slightly differently from one another. An approximate scale might be: C# D E G# A. Note the large gap between the third and fourth notes and between the last note and the first one that would follow on in the next octave. This mixture of large and small intervals means that pelog is often termed a “gapped scale”.

Children rehearsing the gamelan in east Bali
Children rehearsing the gamelan in east Bali

Play the basic melody slowly on any medium-range instrument (eg keyboard, metallophone, xylophone), then add the faster interlocking parts. The basic melody is the bottom staff, while the two interlocking parts that would be played on the reong gong chime are shown in the upper staff. The part with note-stems pointing down is called polos (basic) and the one with stems pointing up is called sangsih (different). The X underneath the first note marks the point where the big gong plays each time to mark the end (and beginning) of the ostinato cycle.

Redong score



The kecak is a chorus of male singers who imitate the interlocking sounds of the gamelan using just their voices, repeating the sound cak! They also dance and gesture while a drama is enacted inside the circle they form telling the story of the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic involving the god-king Rama who manages to rescue his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by a ten-headed demon king, Ravana. Rama is helped by an army of monkeys, led by the monkey god Hanuman.


Divide into three groups to interlock with the sound “cak” (not on any note – just shouted rhythmically). One person holds the beat together by singing “pung” on a comfortable mid-range note (the bottom stave).

Cak score



If you visit Bali, you are very likely to hear traditional gamelan such as kebyar, as it is very popular even among young Balinese who also like pop music. This is perhaps because it is so adaptable and so dynamic (generally loud and fast) and because many people have the opportunity to play it – communally owned gamelan sets are often housed in the public building of each banjar (hamlet or village ward), where you can often see young children practicing spontaneously on the instruments as well as more formal group rehearsals and performances.

Some useful internet links:

For gamelan:

For numerous online video clips of Balinese gamelan, just go to or and search under “Bali gamelan” (also try searching for “kecak”).

For dance:

Some CDs of Balinese gamelan are available in large music shops, libraries and online.

Further reading

  • Dibia, I Wayan and Ballinger, Rucina (2004) Balinese dance, drama and music. Singapore: Periplus.
  • Gold, Lisa (2005) Music in Bali: experiencing music, expressing culture. Oxford U. Press. (with CD).
  • Tenzer, Michael (1998) Balinese music. Berkeley, CA: Periplus Editions.