The emergence of the gamelan gong kebyar the genre in the 20th century serves as a reminder that other music cultures are not static and unchanging in time.  Gamelan gong kebyar is 20th century music!



Bali is often studied by anthropologists as an example of a culture with a remarkable amount of integration of the arts, social & economic organization, and religion.


Great website for a SF Bay Area group:  Follow their “Library” link ( ) for a great on-line text about Balinese gamelan.


Components of a Sound-Culture:  Balinese Gamelan Gong Kebyar

I. Musical Specifics

A.      A.      Pitch –

1.       scales:  the seven note pelog scale and the five-note slendro scale are tuned uniquely in each gamelan.  How can you tell them apart?  The various modes based on the pelog scale often use some intervals that are close to a half step; the slendro scale is a more even division of the octave into five parts, so often has a more "floating" quality.

2.        melodic tendencies:  instrumental structuring melodies are based on repeated cells; the ambitus of gamelan melodies tends to be narrow. 

B.  Rhythm -- tempo tends to be fast; sudden changes are frequent; meter is duple, as is the subdivision, usually.  Sometimes triple subdivisions can be heard in the highest elaborating layers.  Much more common is a sense of duple subdivisions being grouped across the beat in groups of three.  This is known as “cross rhythm.”  Rhythmic coordination is a quite precise.

C.  Form -- how is the music organized?  CYCLIC on several layers, but often there is abrupt jumping from cycle to cycle.

D.  Texture – layered, with some sense of clear distinctions among all the layers

E.  Timbre --

1.     instrumental preferences: tuned metallophones with a shimmering quality over a clear pitch.  Many notes are dampened or cut-short to create a clear texture.

2.     vocal preferences, techniques:  a nasal quality to the singing.

F.  Sound intensity -- "loud" is preferred, but many exciting fast changes in dynamic are featured in the style.

II.  Social Organization of Music

A.  Who can participate (play, listen, make instruments) in this music?  Who is excluded?  All musical roles are traditionally open to men, with women limited to singing, but this has changed to some extent, as some women are instrumentalists now.

B.  How many musicians are appropriate for an ensemble?  Gamelans can range in size from a few players to many tens of players; 20-25 would be normal.  In the 19th century, some Balinese gamelans at court had as many as 60 musicians. 

C.  Transmission -- Music conservatories, formal institutions of learning, now play a vital role in the support and continuation of this music.  Radio, modern recording techniques and television also play a part in sustaining this music.

D.  Social status of musicians -- as most Balinese participate in some artistic/spiritual cultural activity, status as a musician is generally favorable.

III.  Ideas about Music

A.  Music and the belief system – Precision is a strong aesthetic preference in Balinese gamelan.  Gamelan performance can be for aesthetic enjoyment and social entertainment, but its roots are in temple ceremonies marking religious cycles that connect the everyday rhythms of life to deeper cosmic time cycles.

B.  Contexts for use of music -- see above.

C.  History of music -- the Dutch invasion in 1906 disrupted the Balinese royal courts and shifted the center of musical activity to villages and their many temples.  Around 1915, 2 prominent musicians, I Wayan Lotring & Gede Manik, led the development of this new style, which was further developed and intensified by the emergence of musical competitions between rival villages and their gamelans.

D. Composition -- composers of specific pieces can be identified, but aren't usually associated as part of the identity of individual compositions.  Gamelans take pride in taking ownership of individual compositions and making them their own, with their own particular style and flair.

E.    What is the contribution or role of improvisation?  Generally there is not much improvisation in this music.  Some dance pieces use the improvisatory interaction and communication between the dancer and the lead drummer to signal and coordinate changes in the musical accompaniment. 

F.    Genres –  the genre of gamelan gong kebyar is maintained by competition standards.  Additionally, official government support and the existence of formal conservatories will tend to maintain genre borders and distinctions.

G.   Theory –  Balinese theory, which has names for notes and instruments, was stimulated by North American visitors such as Colin McPhee.  Cipher notation is in use today, but pieces are still most frequently learned and remembered by rote memorization.  There is greater and greater interest in writing about gamelan music within Balinese music conservatories, but in general, theorizing has not played a significant role in Balinese musicking.

IV.  Allied Arts

A.  Texts – largely not a vocal music.

B.   Movement – dance – the film shown in class was a Baris dancer.  Dance motions are refined to the very specific vocabulary of set choreographic positions and moves.  Dance is important for temple ceremonies.

C.  Theater – wayang kulit.  Genre of shadow puppet theater. 

V.  Listening & Personal Response

A.    A.    1st hearing reaction

B.    B.    After repeated hearings and discussion?

C.   C.   What would the “ideal” trained & sympathetic listener-participant find in this music?