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Gamelan | © Christopher Woodrich/Flickr
Gamelan | © Christopher Woodrich/Flickr

The Ancient Secrets of Indonesia's Gamelan Music

Picture of Edira Putri
Updated: 11 January 2018

More than just ambiance for tourism, spa treatments or performances, the traditional gamelan music of Indonesia is a representation of the nation’s diverse and dynamic identity. From legends to musical attributes and close religious connections, discover the ancient secrets of Indonesia’s gamelan music.

Defining gamelan

Gamelan originally refers to a set of musical instruments rather than a genre. Many members of a gamelan family are percussive – different kinds of metallophones, drums, chimes, xylophones, and melodic instruments like flutes, strings, and sometimes even a vocalist. Just like many other cultural elements in Indonesia, there are different variations and takes on this traditional art throughout the diverse culture of the archipelago, but perhaps the Javanese and Balinese gamelan are the best preserved and most popular.

The origin of gamelan

In Javanese culture, the origin of gamelan was mentioned in the mythology of a hermit called Sang Hyang Guru who first created a type of gong to call on the gods. More percussive items were added to send out different messages to the gods, resulting in a full set of instruments.

The earliest known records of gamelan were found in the reliefs of Borobudur Temple, dating back as far back as the 8th-century.

But as with many other historical objects, it’s difficult to pinpoint a sole or exact origin, whether of time or place, from which gamelan came to be and develop. Scholars argue that a combination of Hindu and Buddhism influences, Java’s own local customs, and the bronze culture in Southeast Asia all contributed to this mystical orchestra. Later, Middle Eastern influences added bowed instruments and European military style added variety to the rhythms. In short, the wide array of instruments, styles, and even tunings are drawn from the archipelago’s own long history and diversity.

Gamelan’s musical attributes

Without getting into great technical details about this traditional orchestra, it is worth noting that there are different tunings for in different gamelan sets. Tuning is a very complex process and consideration when putting together a set of gamelan. There are at least four different scales used in different gamelan, including the diatonic scale.

The composition of gamelan music also pays attention to the combination of tempo and density called irama. Generally, Balinese gamelan sounds more dramatic and loud compared to the Javanese. The style of music falls into even more variation in the northern and southern part of the island, the northern Bali music is often said to be more aggressive.

The functions of gamelan

Nowadays, the enticing sounds of gamelan can be found in many settings from ceremonies and traditional dance or theater performances to the background music during spa treatments. But originally, Balinese gamelan was developed as solemn religious purposes, like warding off evil spirits or preparing worshippers to enter a state of trance. In fact, the beats in Balinese gamelan can be used as cues to inhalation and exhalation to induce a meditative state.

Javanese gamelan does have its religious purposes as well, as an accompaniment during religious ceremonies. It has also been used as a form of entertainment performed for the amusement of the royal family, as well as accompanying the wayang puppet shows.

Nowadays gamelan is often loosely used as a means to induce an atmosphere of calm and tranquility. The ancient musical principles and customs are still used to compose and improvise new pieces that continue the mystical and spiritual traditions. The huge gong is still used to mark the officiation of formal events, such as an opening of a festival, inauguration of establishments, or similar.