SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Lessons for Schools: 4 Java

Sarah Bilby

By focusing on the cyclic structures of gamelan music, this section outlines a method for students to understand and vocally perform the structure, rhythm and melody that shape a piece of gamelan music.

Background - Gamelan Music in Java

Java is the most densely inhabited of the Indonesian archipelago’s 17,508 islands, which stretch between mainland South-east Asia and Australia. Similar in size to England, Java has a population of over 130 million people.

The contemporary music scene is a mix of home-grown and imported styles. Indigenous gamelan music competes for airtime on radio and television against Indonesian-language Pop, Rock and Jazz and the latest English language hits from the USA, UK and Europe.

Discussion points: How are indigenous music traditions affected by the increase in popularity of Western pop and rock music played worldwide via channels like MTV? How can traditional musical styles keep their popularity?

Gamelan is the term used to describe a Javanese tuned percussion ensemble, most usually comprising gongs, metallophones, drums, bamboo flute, spike-fiddle, vocal chorus and female solo singers, pesindhen. There are many regional variations throughout Java, and also Indonesia, although the gamelan tradition of Central Java is the dominant form.

For more information see these websites:

Gamelan music is played alone for many different social and sacred occasions, such as thanksgiving celebrations, weddings and entertainment purposes, but even here it has to compete with indigenous pop forms such as campur sari.

For a classic example of campur sari, the song “Yen ing tawang ono lintang” (“If in the sky there is a star”) by Manthous

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Yen Ing Tawang Ono Lintang - Manthous

Gamelan is an integral part of theatre and dance performance, both inside the royal courts and outside in secular settings. It is possible on any given day in Java to find a broadcast of gamelan music of some kind – and at night in Central Java it is most likely to be that accompanying the shadow play performances, Wayang Kulit.

Structure of a gamelan piece

The repertoire of Central Javanese gamelan is enormous, with each piece titled with a specific name that includes form, tuning and mode. In the following exemplar piece Lancaran Renå-Renå laras slendro pathet nem, only Renå-Renå is the individual name of the piece. The form is lancaran (pronounced “lan-char-an”).

The forms are cyclic structural patterns played by the instruments gong, kempul (“kem-pull”), kenong (“ke-nong”), kethuk (“ke-took”) and kempyang (“kem-piang”). In Java these cyclic structures are learned aurally and played from memory. Each of the structural instruments is named onomatopoeically: the kenong pattern uses the sound ‘nong’ to denote when it is played; the kempul uses the sound ‘pul’; kethuk is ‘tuk’; the kempyang is not used in the lancaran form.

Hear the sound of these structural instruments at:

Classroom Activity: Lancaran form

You can perform gamelan pieces vocally as a classroom activity, with groups of students learning each structural part - and learning all the parts, as is the norm in Java - using the onomatopoeic sound of each instrument.

This activity can be delivered to a whole group or as an activity for small groups of 4 to 6 students.

It is of note that gamelan music has the musical stress on the 4th beat of the gatra (group of four notes) with stress also on beat 2. This is the reverse of Western classical music, where the stress is primarily on the 1st and then 3rd beats.

Gamelan music has a feeling of leading towards the final gong, at which point the piece repeats or, if signalled by the drummer in advance, makes a transition into a different but linked piece, or, finally ends. With this in mind it is easy to understand why the gong player has to know all the other parts of the structure, in order to keep from missing his one, but vital, stroke of the gong.

 Table 1
1   tukdhung 
2    dhungro
3   tukdhung 
4  nong dhunglu
5   tukdhung 
6 pul  dhungro
7   tukdhung 
8  nong dhungji
9   tukdhung 
10 pul  dhungnem
11   tukdhung 
12  nong dhungmo
13   tukdhung 
14 pul  dhunglu
15   tukdhung 
16gong nong dhungro

Table 1 shows the structure of Lancaran with a balungan nibani, a “core melody” that has a rest between each note, so here there are 8 melodic notes in the 16 beat gongan (gong cycle).

The table shows how the different instrumental parts are realised in performance. To read the table, follow the columns from top to bottom, counting from 1 to 16, then return to beat 1 and loop the pattern.

You can hear the complete piece in its gamelan version.

Suggested delivery style
  • teach the music entirely without notation (at least for the students) so that they are able to concentrate and internalise the patterns and relationships between the parts.
  • Start simply and build up the layers, one part at a time.
  • teach the gong part first, starting the cycle from the gong, immediately returning to silently count from beat 1. Continue to cycle through this enough times to enable the students to understand the frequency of the gong
  • once the group have mastered the gong part subdivide them and keep one group on gong while adding in the kenong and then the kempul parts
  • you should hear the pattern:
    Gong (rest) nong pul nong pul nong pul Gong (and nong)
  • next, add in the ketuk, which has the feel of being on the ‘off-beat’
Pronunciation of vocal sounds:

Pul - u sounds as in ‘pull’
Tuk - u sounds as in ‘put’ or short sound ‘took’ and with a glottal stop replacing the k

Extension Activities:

Add the drum (kendhang) pattern. This adds in a stronger sense of the 16 beat pattern; note that the dhah stroke corresponds to the kempul stroke.

The Kendhang sounds:

Dhung - u sounds as in ‘put’
Dhah - a sounds as in ‘car’

Add the balungan (core melody). This adds in the concept of tuning (which is not traditionally diatonic) as well as counting using the Javanese number system.

For audio files of authentic gamelan tunings, try the web link below:

Alternatively, try using the diatonic notes:

Diatonic pitchGACDFG'
Javanese pitchjirolumonemji'
Javanese notation123561'

Further extension activities

 Table 2
Kenong/ kempul   5 6 5 6 2 6 (2)
Balungan lu ro lu mo nem mo lu ro
Kenong/ kempul   5 6 5 6 6 6 (6)
Balungan lu Ro lu mo ro lu mo nem
Kenong/ kempul   2 6 2 6 6 1 (6)
Balungan ji nem lu ro lu ro ji nem
Kenong/ kempul   2 6 2 6 6 1 (6)
Balungan ji nem lu ro lu ro ji nem
Kenong/ kempul   1 1 1 6 2 6 (2)
Balungan ro lu ro ji nem mo lu ro
  • Add the complete 5 line balungan melody (see Table 2)
  • Give pitches to the kenong and kempul parts (see italic/bold numbers in Table 2, these relate to the pitches in the Javanese notation system, as shown above)