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Music Exhibition - Balinese Gamelan

Text / Videos / Pictures: Professor Frederick Lau (Chair and Professor of the Department of Music, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

  You are cordially invited to explore more about Balinese gamelan through the illustrations and text below.



Bali, Java and Sunda (West Java) are the three major cultural pillars of Indonesia. The island of Bali is a volcanic island located off the eastern tip of Java. It is approximately 112 km in length and 153 km wide. A major part of Bali is mountainous with several peaks of more than 2,000 meters in elevation. Mount Agung (Bali Peak), about 3,142 meters above sea level, is the highest point on the island. Located to the south of the central mountains are the main lowlands of the island, where most of the rice cultivation is done. The northern part of the mountain slopes forms the island’s major agriculture and cattle ranging. Bali’s natural beauty, coral reef and pristine white sand beaches, found in the southern part of the island, have become a popular tourist destiny since the early 20th century. It is noteworthy that the emergence of tourism has a huge impact on the ecology and development of Balinese traditional music.


[Image 1]
Map of Bali and Java

[Image 2]
Map of Bali

Culture and Religion


Bali is a popular tourist destination not only for its natural beauty but also for its unique culture and history. Bali is also known as a paradise of the arts. Its reputation has attracted many western scholars, anthropologists, artists and musicians to live there in the early 20th century. As described by Canadian-born Indonesian composer and musicologist Colin McPhee (1900-1964), the sounds of Balinese gamelan can be easily heard in villages and temples anytime and anywhere on the island. With the influx of tourists and the help of global travel, Balinese gamelan, as well as other Indonesian traditional art forms, has been transformed into cultural entertainment.

The main religion in Bali is a syncretic form of Hinduism and indigenous beliefs. Hinduism in Bali is infused with the indigenous beliefs that everything has a deity and the souls of all things reside in nature. This makes it quite different from Indian Hindu practice and explains why Balinese are respectful of nature and have ritual, ceremony, offering, festival, pilgrimage, dances and even purification rites for the dead.

Balinese religious procession

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Balinese religious procession

  Balinese religious offering

[Image 4]
Balinese religious offering

Balinese religious ceremony

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Balinese religious ceremony

The Merging of Arts and Religion
Balinese believe that artistic expressions and pursuits exist to serve and to honor spirits and deities. Balinese music and dance traditions are closely intertwined with religion. The original inhabitants of Bali have a long tradition of honoring nature, spirit and ancestral worship before the arrival of Hindu-Javanese religion, Christianity and Islam. As a result, Balinese traditional arts including music are a form of spiritual expression centered around Hindu and animistic beliefs. Having a purpose to appease the spirits and entertain the deities, no ceremony or temple festival is complete without music and dance.

[Video 1]
Gamelan in Purification Ritual
Gamelan music accompanies stylized movements of the dancer who is also a priest performing a purification ritual in front of a temple.

[Video 2]
Gamelan in Offering Dance
As in all Balinese arts forms, dances are a part of the religious expression. Besides using the co-ordinated movements of the feet, subtle movements of different parts of the body such as the face, eyes, fingers, hands, arms, and hips are also in sync with the rhythm of the music.

The Diverse Balinese Gamelan


Javanese gamelan and Balinese gamelan are the two major gamelan traditions in Indonesia. There are many different types of gamelan, each defined by its instrumentation, repertory and performance practice. In Bali, there are already more than 40 styles of gamelan such as gamelan gong kebyar, gamelan gong gede, gamelan pelegongan, gamelan angklung and gamelan gender wayang. However, only a few are still popular and receive attention nowadays.

Gamelan Gong Kebyar
Gamelan gong kebyar is one of the most well-known styles or genres of Balinese gamelan music. The word kebyar, meaning “to flare up or burst open,” refers to the explosive changes in tempo and dynamics of the music.

Gong kebyar was derived from an old court gamelan called gong gede. As the Dutch colonial government gradually eclipsed the dominance of former courts, their music began to disseminate among commoners and into the villages. Gamelan gong kebyar was believed to have emerged as a result of a local adaption of the former stately and formal gamelan style. The first gamelan gong kebyar was documented to exist in North Bali in the early 1900s. The first public performance was in December 1915. Currently, gamelan gong kebyar has earned great popularity and is practised throughout the world including but not limited to many communities and universities in the US, UK and Europe.

Characteristics of Gamelan Gong Kebyar
  • Based on five notes (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes) of the 7-note pelog scale
  • Bright sound
  • Syncopations are frequently used
  • Sudden and gradual changes in tone colors
  • Dynamic
  • Drastic changes of tempo
  • Complex, complementary interlocking kotekan melodic and rhythmic patterns (see the section of “Kotekan” below)
Balinese religious procession

[Image 6]
A women’s gong kebyar ensemble

A display of different Balinese gamelan instruments

[Image 7]
A display of different Balinese gamelan instruments

A beautifully crafted Balinese gamelan instrument

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A beautifully crafted Balinese gamelan instrument

[Video 3]
Tabuh Manuk Anguci (A Singing Bird at Dawn)
Percussion instruments ceng-ceng and kendang are in the front row. Behind them are different sizes of gangsa. The ugal starts with a rhythmic melodic line, followed by the pemade and the elaborating parts played by the reyong and the suling.

Musical Layers


Balinese music, similar to other Indonesian traditional music, is based on the principle of layered or stratified polyphony. The idea of musical layering refers to adding multiple melodic and rhythmic parts that are related to the skeleton melody. Different musical layers have their respective functions. Depending on the style and genre, the number of layering may vary accordingly. Ombak (Indonesian for “wave”) is an important aesthetic element of Balinese musical layering. The most obvious expression of such wave-like shimmering sound is found in the microtonal differences in unisons of two same instruments.

The Four Musical Layers

Pokok (skeleton / main melody)
All parts are generally organized around the pokok, which constitutes the foundation of the layering. The pokok is usually played by a set of gender instruments of three different pitch levels.


Elaborating parts
There are also some simultaneous melodies based on or derived from the pokok. The elaborations could be either fixed or unfixed:

  i. Fixed elaborations:
  • adhere to stylistic conventions;
  • fully worked out in advance;
  • usually played by a variety of gangsa and gong chimes at a much faster tempo.
  ii. Unfixed elaborations:
  • played by individual instruments (usually suling and rebab) that are allowed for improvisation during performance;
  • abstract and tangential relationship with the pokok.

Punctuating parts
These parts are usually played by a variety of gongs (excluding gong chimes), marking the structural framework of the skeleton melody.


Kendang and rhythmic coordination
The player of kendang act as a conductor. The kendang coordinates with other cymbals and small gongs such as ceng-ceng, thus controlling the mood and tempo, and marking the beats of the melodies. The resulting sound produces an intrigued, dazzling and complicated polyphony that gives Balinese gamelan its unique sonic signature.

Musical Instruments

A Balinese gamelan orchestra consists of three categories of musical instruments:
(A) Genders (keyed metallophones): the keys are either hung over bamboo resonators or sit firmly on a frame.
(B) Gongs: they are either hung on a stand or sit on a wooden frame.
(C) Other Instruments

(A) Genders

Genders with Small Pitch Range
These genders have a range of approximately one octave only. There are three types of genders of different sizes and pitch registers:

  • Jegogan : the lowest in pitch and accents only a few notes of the pokok.
  • Calung / Jublag : plays the core melodic line in mid-range.
  • Panyacah : an octave higher in pitch than the calung.

Genders with Large Pitch Range
The gangsa, a two-octave gender, is also employed to play the melodic line, but more often the elaborating parts, in a Balinese gamelan orchestra. A gangsa usually has ten keys which are tuned to five notes of the 7-note pelog scale. The musician hits the keys with a wooden panggul (mallet) on one hand and stops the vibration with the fingers of the other hand. There are three types of gangsa of different sizes and pitch registers:

  • Ugal : the largest and lowest in pitch.
  • Pemade : mid-range.
  • Kantilan : the smallest and highest in pitch.

Musical Instruments

[Image 9]
Top: jegogan (left), calung / jublag (middle), panyacah (right)
Bottom: ugal (left), pemade (middle), kantilan (right)

(B) Gongs

Hanging Gongs
These gongs are hung on a stand and played by one person to give accents and punctuate certain fixed structural points in the melody. There is a variety of hanging gongs:

  • Gong wadon (female gong): the largest and deepest sounding gong.
  • Gong lanang (male gong): a large gong but higher in pitch than the gong wadon.
  • Kempur : a medium-sized gong, about a fifth higher than the gong wadon.
  • Klentong / Kemong : a small gong played with a hard mallet.
Gong wadon (left), kempur (middle back), klentong / kemong (middle front), gong lanang (right)

[Image 10]
Gong wadon (left), kempur (middle back), klentong / kemong (middle front), gong lanang (right)

Lying Gongs
These gongs sit on a wooden frame. The commonly used lying gongs include:

  • Kempli : a small gong that plays every beat to maintain a steady tempo of the music. A hard wooden mallet is used to provide a dry percussive sound
  • Reyong : a gong chime consisting of 10-12 horizontal gongs sitting in a row and is typically performed by four players, each using a pair of mallets.
  • Trompong : considered as a larger, lower pitched version of the reyong. It consists of 10-14 horizontal gongs sitting in a row and is usually performed by one player only.

[Image 11]

  Reyong (top), trompong (bottom)

[Image 12]
Reyong (top), trompong (bottom)

(C) Other Instruments
  • Made up of a pair of conical double-ended drums;

  • Kendang lanang (male drum) is higher pitched and smaller of the pair, played by the left hand;

  • Kendang wadon (female drum) is lower pitched and larger of the pair, usually played by a panggul (drumstick) on the right hand or by bare hand, depending on the type of music;

  • The player sits cross-legged on the ground with the instrument across the laps.

  • A bamboo flute sometimes included in a Balinese gamelan orchestra;

  • Used either as a single instrument or in groups;

  • Elaborates on the pokok in a rather freely manner and bears little resemblance to the pokok’s rhythm;

  • Requires circular breathing to produce a continuous and strong sound with wide vibrato.

  • A two-string bowed instrument occasionally included in a Balinese gamelan orchestra;

  • Only played in the old style of Balinese gamelan, indicating its connection to more stately Javanese music.

  • A set of small cymbals mounted inverted on a wooden frame, which are struck by another two cymbals held in hands;

  • Its crashing sound and fast rhythmic pattern add a layer of sonic shimmer and excitement to the music.
Kendang (top), suling (middle left), rebab (middle right), ceng-ceng (bottom)

[Image 13]
Kendang (top), suling (middle left), rebab (middle right), ceng-ceng (bottom)

[Video 4]
Tabuh Kutus Ler Bukit (Traditional percussion music from the hill, Ler Bukit)
The performance begins with the bright and energetic sounds played by a number of ugal and pemade. The choreography of players swirling the drum stick in the air is a characteristic of Balinese gamelan performance. The trompong and the suling play the highly decorated melody, while the kempli provides a constant beat in the background for the ensemble.



Kotekan is one of the most unique features of Balinese gamelan. It is a style of playing fast interlocking parts in which the two parts cooperated to play the complete melody. This style is found in many varieties of Balinese Gamelan music.

In kotekan, there are two independent parts called polos (meaning basic) and sangsih (meaning different or other) respectively. Each part fills in the gaps of another to form a complete melodic and rhythmic phrase. In gamelan gong kebyar, kotekan is usually played on the higher-pitched gangsa and reyong as embellishments to the pokok which is played on pemade, calung and ugal.

As described by ethnomusicologist Michael Tenzer (b.1957-), kotekan sounds as one melody, but is actually composed of two interdependent musical lines that are incomplete when played alone and dependent exclusively on each other for obtaining the desired result. The tight interaction of the two parts produces a supple texture that is pointillistic in detail and fluid as a whole. Much of the excitement of Balinese music arises from these irresistible rhythms.

The following score example demonstrates how the two parts of kotekan fit together to form a complete phrase and its relationship to the skeleton melody pokok. Details of the score are as follows:

  • 1st line: the sangsih part played by a high-pitched gangsa;
  • 2nd line: the polos part played by another high-pitched gangsa;
  • 3rd line: the composite phrase formed by the 1st and 2nd lines;
  • 4th line: the pokok played by the ugal.

[Video 5]
Kotekan: Demo
This video is a close-up of how kotekan is performed between two gangsa. The performer at the top starts with a melody, and the instrument at the bottom comes in slightly afterwards playing the other half of the melody, thus creating a hocketing effect.

Comparison between Javanese and Balinese Gamelan


The difference between the music of Java and Bali is striking in terms of sonority, dynamic, tempo and performance practice. The most obvious distinction between the two is that Javanese gamelan is considered soft, smooth, refined and calm as opposed to Balinese gamelan’s vigorous rhythm, explosive dynamics, drastic tempo change and boisterous sonority. That is why some prefer Javanese gamelan because of its soothing and contemplative quality while others are attracted by the excitement and edginess of Balinese gamelan. The following summarizes the common elements and differences between the two.

  • Core melody with elaborations
  • Music based on skeleton melody
  • Punctuating instruments are used
  • The largest gong is the most important and spiritual instrument
  • Kendang controls the dynamics and tempo


Javanese Gamelan

Balinese Gamelan
Tempo Slow or moderate Fast
Skeleton melody Called balungan Called pokok
Interlocking playing Not applicable Applicable
Gongs Many pitched large gongs 2 to 3 hanging gongs
Change of tempo Gradual tempo change by way of changing the density of notes of the elaborating instruments Abrupt change in tempo without any preparation
Music atmosphere Refined, controlled, contemplative Excitement, explosive, dynamic as expressed in the acoustic effect of ombak

Balinese Music in Western Music


Balinese gamelan’s unique sonic signature has established its reputation not only locally but also abroad. The bright and festive tone color, rhythmic vibrancy and interlocking were attractive to western musicians and composers of the early 20th century who were seeking to break through the limits of European music.

The most significant systematic study of Balinese music and performing arts is the book Music in Bali by Colin McPhee. McPhee devoted himself to the study of Balinese music and his music was also inspired by Balinese music. McPhee and Lou Harrison (1917-2003) were the most well-known composers born in the 20th century who incorporated Balinese music in their compositions. The future of Balinese music has already been reaffirmed by its popularity within Bali and throughout the world in the past few decades even in the 21st century.

Cover of Music in Bali

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Cover of Music in Bali

[Video 6]
Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra: III. First Gamelan – Allegro
The style of this movement mimics the percussive sonority of gamelan. The mode suggests the sound of the pelog scale. The melody is repetitive with the ostinato figure underlying the piece.
Composer: Lou Harrison

Supplementary information on images and videos