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Roving Exhibition - Exploring Indonesian Javanese 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 Javanese gamelan through the illustrations and text below.


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Map of Indonesia



The Republic of Indonesia is a nation in Southeast Asia consisting of over 1,700 islands spread across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean between India, Australia and south of Singapore. As a former Dutch colony since 1800, Indonesia gained independence in 1945. Although Indonesia was well-known mostly for its spices (especially nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom), timber, copper, tin, coal and wildlife, other aspects of its culture were little known by the outside world. It was not until the end of the 19th century, during the Exposition Universelle of 1889 held in Paris, that Indonesian culture was presented to the world for the first time in a major way.


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The Exposition Universelle of 1889, Paris: a bird’s eye view


The Exposition Universelle of 1889
Among the many exhibits of artifacts showed at the Exposition Universelle, music and dance from Java were performed in a replicated village or “kampong”. Among the many curious viewers was the young French composer Claude Debussy, who was mesmerized by the ethereal and flashing timbres of gamelan while being enchanted by the lively and amazing dancers. Inspired by the sounds of gamelan, Debussy subsequently composed his famous piano composition Pagodes in 1903.


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The Exposition Universelle of 1889, Paris: entrance to Javanese village



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Javanese dancers performing with gamelan accompaniment at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, Paris


Goal of this Exhibition

One may wonder what Debussy actually heard during the Paris Exposition. What was so special about this music that captured his attention? What is gamelan music and how is it put together? This exhibition introduces viewers to the wonderful sound of Indonesian Javanese gamelan music. By introducing its music, instruments, structure and performance practice, our goal is to offer a way of approaching this music so that readers can appreciate its unique aesthetics principle and cultural significance.


[Video 1]

Pagodes (excerpt)

Pagodes is the first of the three pieces of the piano suite Estampes composed by French composer Debussy. It was inspired by the Javanese gamelan and pagoda, a traditional architecture commonly found throughout Asia. Pagodes deliberately imitates the style and sonic features of Asian music by the use of open-fifth, pentatonic scale and non-triadic harmony. The musical atmosphere is solemn and elegant, recalling the sound of bells, chimes and gongs heard in pagodas, temples and palaces.




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Map of Java


The Cradle of Metalsmiths

Java is an island that lies in the center of the Indonesia archipelago chain. There are three major cultural groups on the island:

1. Javanese (in Central Java);

2. Madurese (in East Java);

3. Sudanese (in West Java).


Javanese is the largest group and historically well-known for its metalwork artisans who are skilled in producing bronze wares. This explains why most of the Javanese musical instruments are made of bronze.


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A display of Javanese musical instruments at Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore


The Culture

Javanese culture flourished during the pre-colonial period because some kingdoms (Sultanates) became close allies of the Dutch colonial empire. Due to the historical connection with multiple cultures within the region, Javanese traditions are a mix of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islamic values preserved and passed down through the courts. Today, two former courts, Yogyakarta (Yogya) and Surakarta (Solo), are considered major centers of Javanese arts and culture. In particular, gamelan music and dance are considered elevated, refined art of the aristocrats as opposed to the rougher village performance style beyond the confines of the courts. The key concept alus - defined as subtle, refined, civilized - is often hailed as the aesthetic ideal of Javanese culture as opposed to the less refined character of village culture.




Gamelan is the native percussion ensemble music of Indonesia. A gamelan is a set of instruments with a distinct identity, appearance, color, timbre and tuning. Each set of gamelan consists mostly of bronze percussion instruments of various sizes and shapes built by one maker with the addition of a few wooden and string instruments. Because of the uniqueness of each set, no two gamelans are identical, and instruments in different gamelan sets are not interchangeable. Different regional gamelan styles vary in terms of sound quality, appearance, tuning and performance styles. In this exhibition, we will focus on Javanese gamelan, one of the most respected gamelans of Indonesia.


[Video 2]

Javanese Gamelan Performance

This excerpt begins with a short introduction on bonang which is then joined in by metal slabbed instruments that play the skeleton melody. The melody is punctuated by deep sounding hanging gongs. The drum sets the tempo and the mood of music.


[Video 3]

Learning Gamelan Playing

Young people are learning to play the gamelan under the guidance of an old master.




  • Gamelan music is layered and played in calm and moderate tempo;
  • Music is mainly played by a combination of high and low pitch percussion instruments;
  • Cyclic repetition of phrases;
  • Compositions are based on fixed forms that are defined by the number of beats;
  • The skeleton melody is the core of every piece;
  • Elaborations of the melody are played simultaneously with the melody;
  • Melody is punctuated by the deep sound of gongs at certain intervals;
  • Male and female group singing interrupts the melody at various points;
  • Each composition starts with an introduction called buka.




The core of a Javanese gamelan set consists of three types of bronze instruments:


1. Hanging Knobbed Gongs


These gongs vary in size from about 19 centimeters (7 inches) to as large as 135 centimeters (53 inches) in diameter. Nowadays, the most common ones are about 80 centimeters (31 inches).


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2. Sitting Knobbed Gongs


Different from the hanging gongs, these smaller gongs are placed on their sides and sit on a wooden rack.


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3. Metal Slabbed Instruments


This type of instrument consists of bronze bars arranged in ascending pitches from left to right. The bronze bars sit on a beautifully crafted wooden frame or above a set of resonators.


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Gamelan music is built up in layers. Instruments can be divided into four groups according to their musical function:


1. "Balungan"


This group of instruments play the skeleton melody, the main melody of every piece. The balungan is played in steady rhythm and one note per beat. Instruments in this group include saron, demung, slenthem, peking etc.


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Peking (left), saron (middle), demung (right)


2. Elaborating Instruments


They elaborate on the skeleton melody and play fast-moving notes. Instruments in this group include bonang, gender, gambang (the only wooden instrument), celempung (a plucked string instrument), suling (the only wind instrument) and rebab (the only bowed fiddle).


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3. Punctuating Instruments


This group of instruments includes gong ageng, kempul, kenong, kempyang and kethuk. The gong ageng is a prestigious instrument. It is the soul and center of each gamelan ensemble, and the most spiritually important instrument of the ensemble. In performance, players usually do not start playing until they hear the gong stroke. The deep tone of the gong symbolizes power, authority and spirituality.


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Gong ageng


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4. "Kendang" (the drum)


It comes in various sizes and its function is to control the tempo, dynamic and overall mood during a performance. While there are multiple players in the previous three groups, there is only one kendang player who acts as the conductor for the gamelan.


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Gamelan pieces are set to preexisting forms. Each of them is defined by the number of beats and the structure of the punctuating subdivision. Listed below are frequently used musical forms:



16 beats per gongan (a gongan is the time span between the gong ageng strokes). Each gongan is divided into four 4-beat kenongan (a kenongan is the time span between the kenong strokes).



Also 16 beats per gongan, but divided into two 8-beat kenongan.



32 beats per gongan, divided into four 8-beat kenongan.


The music can be performed in different tempos or irama that results in changing the density relationship between the main melody and its elaborating part. These musical principles reflect the cultural ethos of hierarchy, balance, stability and structure that are found in Indonesian society, a point that the scholar Judith Becker has convincingly argued.


[Video 4]

Udan Mas

Udan Mas literally means “Golden Rain”. This is a famous gamelan piece, often played at the end of gamelan concerts when the audience is leaving. The music exemplifies the characteristics of Javanese gamelan music: it starts with a simple introduction buka, the skeleton melody begins and is repeated multiple times (as is shown in the notation in the video). The skeleton melody is elaborated by another group of instruments which constantly add melodic embellishments, texture and liveness to the music. The whole piece finally ends at a slower tempo before the final gong stroke.




Since most instruments are bronze, there is no tuning on the instruments. Instruments of gamelan come in pairs with each instrument tuned to one of the two tuning systems:

  • Pelog: a 7-tone scale made up of smaller and larger intervals;
  • Slendro: a 5-tone scale that is made up of pitches whose intervals are equidistant.


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Pelog (rear left) and slendro (middle) instruments are placed in L shape at different sides of the performer


There are two styles of playing the gamelan:
  • Loud style: Played only with the bronze instruments;
  • Soft style: Besides the bronze instruments, the music is performed with voice, strings and wooden bars.


[Video 5]

Tuning of Pelog and Slendro

Pelog and slendro are the two major tuning systems in Javanese gamelan music. In this video, you may listen to the notes of the pelog tuning system, followed by the notes of the slendro tuning system. The Indonesian name of the notes are also given. Intervals between notes in these two systems are different from those found in the 12-equal tempered scale of Western music.




Gamelan is also performed with other traditional art forms including the shadow puppetry and dance.


"Wayang Kulit" (flat leather shadow puppet)


The Wayang Puppet Theater, with wayang kulit as a principal type of handcrafted puppets, is one of the most popular entertainment forms even today. During a wayang kulit show, the puppeteer, known as the dhalang, operates the puppets in addition to singing, chanting, speaking, playing percussion instrument with his foot, and controlling the entrance of gamelan and singers. The dhalang will sit on one side of a white screen where a light shines on flat leather puppets which cast larger shadows on the screen. A group of gamelan musicians sits behind the dhalang providing musical accompaniment and setting the atmosphere for the story throughout the show.


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Wayang kulit puppet


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Wayang kulit performance with gamelan accompaniment


The dhalang gives signals and controls the gamelan. Since the stories are derived from the Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the dhalang must know the stories as well as archaic languages and various contemporary social dialects for his delivery. The plot is usually about spiritual and cultural values, and struggles with good and evil with reference to contemporary social and political issues. Today, wayang kulit continues to be performed during ceremonies and as a part of social rituals.

In 2003, the Wayang Puppet Theater was proclaimed by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (i.e. the present Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity).


[Video 6]

Gamelan with Wayang Kulit

This video shows a puppeteer (dhalang) sitting behind a white screen on which shadows of the puppets are projected. The audience sit on the other side of the screen and see only the shadow of the puppets but not the puppeteer. Behind the puppeteer is a full gamelan accompanying the action of puppets and the singing of puppeteer.




Apart from gamelan music, dance is also an indispensable performing art form in Javanese culture. The refined Javanese court dances involving slow movements and graceful poses are often accompanied by gamelan music. Bedhaya is one of the important Javanese court dances usually performed by female dancers. Different formations taken up by the dancers carry different symbolic meanings. For example, the opening formation performed by nine dancers in Yogyakarta often represents nine different human body parts.


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A Javanese dancer greeting visitors at the Yogyakarta International Airport



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A Javanese court dance performance at “da:ns festival 2018”


[Video 7]

Gamelan with Bedhaya

The Javanese dance bedhaya is a traditional court dance characterized by stylized movements. Danced by women, it is accompanied by gamelan music and occasionally singing. This elegant dance symbolizes the power of royalty and palace.




Gamelan was inscribed onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity announced by UNESCO in 2021. Javanese gamelan is one of the most important Indonesian musical genres because of its cultural significance and historical continuity. After introducing its music, instruments, structure and performance practice in this exhibition, we hope to invite you to further explore the wonderful world of gamelan music and the fascinating Indonesian culture, and yield insights into the importance of preserving cultural traditions in the modern age of rapid socio-economic change.


[Video 8]


This modern piece combines elements of Javanese gamelan music and electronic dance music. Relying on techniques from animation and puppets from wayang kulit, the video recounts legends of two Javanese kingdoms. To give Javanese traditional arts a new look and a modern feel by highlighting the role of traditional arts in modern production, the producer hopes that everyone would treasure traditional art forms and culture.


Supplementary information on images and videos