by Cliff DeArment

Bali has a great diversity of Gamelan Instruments and Musical Styles. Ceremonial pieces are meditative and serene while dance and theater music percolates and flutters. Instrumentation takes many forms, from heavy bronze or playful bamboo, to iron slabs and tinkling cymbals. Melodic instruments include bar percussion, rows of small gongs, and flutes. Larger gongs and bar instruments outline the melodic structure.

Each Gamelan has a special Purpose. Processionals of gongs, drums, and cymbals create hypnotic patterns ushering idols to the sea. High pitched "sweet" bronze Gamelan enhance the king's slumber chamber as meter long bamboo flutes accompany a classic dance in the temple. The twang of palm bark might be used to court a young lady. Honking reeds create a whimsical atmosphere for the frog dance. Giant bamboos thrill equally large audiences, and a rhythmic chorus acts out stories from the Ramayana.

The most prominent musical characteristic in Bali is known as Kotek (Koh-Tek), the sharing of a musical line by trading pitches between players. A musical pattern may be divided into two or more parts which interlock. This allows for very fast performance tempos.

See and hear a simple kotekan.

Another typical gesture, the Angsel (Ahng-Sl) is a break or flourish in an otherwise continuous, and usually repeated, line. An Angsel is used to highlight a particular dance movement or musical gesture.

Indonesian music is stratified, with the form expressed in the lowest pitches, the melody in the middle of the range, and an embellishment or variation in the upper register.

Balinese Gamelan instruments are paired and de-tuned to create a shimmering or beating effect. One instrument of the pair is tuned to the true scale. The second is tuned slightly flat to produce a tremolo at a specified speed. The speed varies by region, taste, purpose, and ensemble type.



Modern Balinese Music

Balinese Gamelan can sound ancient when it's not. Many recordings and concerts in the US feature an ensemble known as Kebyar, a very modern form. There is also a great deal of creativity in Bali and new ideas emerge all the time. Even old ritual ensembles are played differently now than in the past. Does that mean that the old music is being lost? More often, it is augmented with new ideas. Fortunately, Gamelan is still growing.

Experimentalism is also alive and well in Bali. New works have included music for rocks and various sound effect explorations, as well as collaborations with electric guitars, synthesizers, and symphonic instruments.


Gong Kebyar - the new style

Kebyar (Keh-Byahr) is an orchestra of up to twenty five players. Instruments include bar metallophones, racks of gong chimes, drums, cymbals, and large and small gongs. The scale is one of two common five tone per octave sequences called Pelog (Peh-Log). It's intervals vary from tiny steps to large jumps, roughly half steps, whole steps, and major thirds. The repertoire is mostly for dance, but the style is distinguished musically by it's virtuosic outbursts.

Kebyar originated in North Bali shortly after a royal mass suicide, called Puputan, at the hands of Dutch colonialists. It's explosiveness is drawn largely from the militarism and chaos of that era. Kebyar is a definitive expression of trouble in paradise. Drums rumble, fierce melodies charge from nowhere, whirling ornaments twist and tangle as if caught by the wind. Kebyar also makes fresh use of techniques drawn from archaic styles, especially Gender Wayang (see below).

Led by two drummers, the focal point of the ensemble is a central bronze metallophone called Ugal (Oo-Gahl). This instrument is played one handed with a small hammer in a flashy, dance-like, style. Behind the Ugal is a group of eight to twelve metallophones played with small hammers called Gangsa (Gahng-Sah). These instruments are paired in interlocking parts to play many types of variation on the melody. Larger bronze bar instruments, one and two octaves below the Ugal, play the basic line and structural tones of the melody with soft mallets.

An instrument of particular interest in Kebyar is the Reong (Reh-Yong), a row of twelve small horizontal gongs played by three or four musicians. Although the basic instrument is one of the oldest in Indonesia, Kebyar style pushes Reong to new extremes. Each player, responsible for playing two or three gongs in the row, must interject his respective notes in the line to produce rapid ornamental gestures and flourishes with the sound of one or two super human players. The result is a bubbling, unbridled layer of variation.

Listen to Gong Kebyar

Gong Gede - the old style

Gong Gede (Gong-Geh-Day) means, literally, "Big Gong." Often, the word Gong is used as a collective term for the entire Gamelan. So a better translation would be "Big Gamelan." Gong Gede is most certainly big in size, but not in popularity. It is at times excruciatingly slow and laborious. But the name is befitting it's grandeur of position in the wider scope of Balinese music.

The only active Gong Gede is in the mountains at one of the most important temples. It accompanies dances centuries old for the purpose of blessing the entire island. The instrumentation is similar to other Pelog Gamelan in function, but not in style or construct. Gangsa Saron (Sah-Rohn) Jongkok predominate, with large rounded bronze bars mounted on cushioned pegs over a single trough resonator.

Gamelan Gong - Balinese temple gamelan

Instrumentally, Gamelan Gong is very comparable to Gong Kebyar and, in many ways, a direct ancestor. However, differences in musical style are great. Gamelan Gong is essentially temple music, poetic forms with an undeniable stateliness and patience. The scale is five tone Pelog.

Led by two drums, the focal instrument of the ensemble is the Trompong. Trompong is much like Reong in that it consists of a row of horizontally placed gongs. But the Trompong is one octave lower, has only ten gongs, and is played by one person. The Trompong plays the core melody of the composition, adorned with little flowers and turns of ornamentation. The movement of the two cord wrapped sticks used to play it is choreographed to produce a beautiful visual as well as aural expression of the music.

The Ugal of Kebyar grew out of the role of Trompong in Gamelan Gong. There is no Ugal in Gamelan Gong, but there are Gangsa, the lower register instruments, Calung (Chah-Loong) and Jegogan (Jeh-Go-Gahn), Gongs, and Ceng Ceng (Cheng Cheng) cymbals, much like Kebyar. The bamboo flute called Suling (Soo-Ling) also plays a more important role in Gamelan Gong, often working in conjunction with the Trompong.

Pelegongan - music for the Legong dance

Pelegongan (Peh-Leh-Gong-Ahn) is a Pelog gamelan very similar in instrumentation to both Kebyar and Gamelan Gong. In Pelegongan, the role of the Trompong is replaced by two fifteen bar bronze Pelog metallophones called Gender (Gehn-Dare).

Although any instrument with suspended bars is technically a Gender, that name is usually reserved for instruments played with two mallets instead of the usual one. Gender plays an adorned version of the melody in parallel octaves.

Pelegongan is a dance form. It is used to accompany the famous Legong dance, performed by adolescent girls. For pragmatic purposes, Pelegongan music is often played on other types of Gamelan not specifically designed for the Legong.

The actual sonic differences between Pelegongan and other Pelog Gamelan are nominal. Many Gamelan Gong include two Gender along with Trompong and there are also Gamelan Kebyar which have two Gender. Legong is an important dance, so much so that musicians compromise the purity of other styles to accommodate it.

Semar Pegulingan - chamber music

Semar Pegulingan (Seh-Mahr Peh-Goo-Ling-Ahn) is the cream of Pelog Gamelan. The name, although difficult to say, means something just as beautifully complex. Semar means love. Guling (Goo-Ling) means to lie down. Pe-guling-an changes the meaning to... lie down for the purpose of. Semar Pegulingan is a musical aphrodisiac, played for the king and queen as they would lie down for the purpose of love, in their private chambers of course.

Beyond the sweet intentions, Semar Pegulingan has many advanced characteristics. The scale is seven tone pelog. From the addition of two tones to the scale, many more different modes are possible. The mode of any given section of the music will only use five of the tones at a time, creating the illusion of "key change" when one of those tones is substituted for another. Semar Pegulingan was essentially lost to history until early this century when a visionary Balinese musician named Lotring recreated the repertoire based on accounts of older musicians and written records.

Beleganjur - processional music

Beleganjur (Bleh-Gahn-Joor) is the repetitive hypnotic Pelog music used to accompany processions from temple to temple or to the sea. All of the instruments, including the big gongs are carried while walking or traveling in an open truck. The closer the destination, the faster the tempo.

Instrumentation consists of individual bronze Reong pots, Gongs, large Ceng Ceng cymbals, and large drums, properly called Kendang (Kehn-Dahng). The Reong used in Beleganjur is an earlier form than that of other ensembles. The gongs are not mounted on a rack. They are carried by hand, one per person, further dividing the interlock of the musical parts. The cymbals used in Beleganjur have a large bell which produces a resonant "thwack" when crashed together. Each of up to sixteen players uses a pair to interlock rhythmically with the others.

Gender Wayang - shadow play and ritual music

Gender Wayang (Ghen-Dare Why-Ahng), or more simply, Gender, consists of two or four bronze metallophones with ten bars each. They are struck with two disc headed wooden mallets, and muted with the heals of the hands. Other metal bar Gamelan instruments are usually played with a single mallet in one hand and muted by grasping the ringing bar with the other. Bamboo tubes beneath the bars serve to amplify, or resonate, the tones.

The word "Gender" means an instrument with suspended bars, differentiating it from the "Saron" which has bars resting on felt or rubber. The scale of Gender Wayang has five pitches per octave and is called Slendro. Slendro, although theoretically an equidistant scale, consists of roughly whole steps and minor thirds. The specific tuning is unique to each set of instruments but may be very loosely approximated by the "black keys" of the piano.

Gender Wayang accompanies rites of passage such as cremations, weddings, and adolescent tooth filings, in addition to the famous shadow play, or Wayang Kulit, from which the other half of the instrument's name is derived. Gender is of interest not only for it's efficient size and style, but also because many of the various musical parts present in larger Gamelan can be found in Gender music. The left hand plays a combination of structural tones and melody, while the right plays many types of embellishing patterns. It is among the most concise of Indonesian Gamelan.

Listen to Gender Wayang

Angklung - cremation music

Angklung (Ahng-Kloong), although more widely known as a bamboo instrument, is also a bronze Slendro Gamelan used to accompany various rites of cremation.

The instrumentation consists of several small paired four bar Gangsa played with gender mallets, Reong, and very small Kendang drums. Calung play the basic melody which usually uses only four tones of the Slendro scale. There are reportedly Angklung with up to nine slendro tones but they more typically have only up to six. Four tones is the standard.

The reong used in angklung again vary slightly. Two gongs are mounted at the ends of a horizontal stick perpendicular to it. Four of these make a complete Reong section but it is possible to have only two as the interlocking parts, like most other instances, are doubled at the octave.

Bamboo Angklung is, for all intents and purposes, currently extinct in Bali. It is still common in Java but only for recreational diatonic dominant harmony folk music. Bamboo Angklung is a rack of bamboo tubes which are shaken to produce their respective pitches.

Tiklik, Jegog, and Gandrung - bamboo music

The bamboo xylophone known as Tiklik (Tih-Click) has become an instrument of choice in Balinese resort hotels. The scale is five tone Slendro, tuned a little sweeter than Angklung or Gender Wayang. Tiklik can be played in one or two pairs with flute or in larger groups accompanied by drums and gongs. Most typically associated with the Joged Bumbung dance, a social dance from North Bali, Tiklik is also popular among village musicians for it's playful character.

A cousin of the Tiklik is the West Balinese Jegog (Jeh-Gohg). Similar in design, to the tiklik, each bamboo tube is cylindrical until about half way up the tube where it is carved out underneath to form a tongue. This allows each tube to function as both a bar and a resonator combined. The length of the tubular section determines the pitch which is resonated and the proper thickness of the tongue brings the whole thing in tune with itself to produce and resonate the desired pitch when struck.

Jegog xylophones range from Tiklik size, having bamboos from one to two feet long, to huge bamboos of up to three and meters. The Jegog scale is four tones, most commonly thought of as a form of Pelog.

Listen to Jegog

Gambuh and Gong Suling - flute ensembles

On appearances, Balinese music uses two scales, Pelog and Slendro. But within those basic structures are many sub-scales and modes. Much of the variation in Balinese scales from one Gamelan to another is derived from these nuances of mode. Most Gamelan are best suited to only a few of many possible modes. Balinese flutes, or Suling (Soo-Ling), on the other hand, can play all of the modes well. Hence, the Suling becomes a focal point in any discussion of Balinese scales.

Gong Suling is a combination of three or four different sizes of flutes from large to small. Also included are two small drums, ceng ceng, and various types of gongs. All Suling are played with circular breathing, producing a seamless continuance of tone. The flutes are paired like other gamelan instruments to produce a resultant tremolo.

The Gambuh (Gahm-Boo) is a flute nearing a meter in length. It is so long, that while sitting on the ground a player must crane his head back to reach the mouthpiece. Gambuh is most often used as an accompaniment to a very archaic dance theater form of the same name, rarely seen anymore. It can also be used to accompany some types of shadow play.

Listen to Gambuh

Salunding, Gambang, Gong Saron - the classics

The "classic" ensembles, Salunding (Sah-Loon-Ding), Gambang (Gahm-Bahng), and Gong Saron, also called Gong Luang (Loo-Ahng), are based on a poetic meter different than that of other Balinese musics. Most of the styles discussed thus far are based on the meter of a set of religious songs called Kekawin (Keh-Kah-Win).

Kekawin is the music of the Majapahit empire, which annexed Bali and was then exiled to it in the 15th century. Kekawin has it's own scales and modes. The pre-Majapahit style is called Kidung (Kee-Doong) and is often associated with the indigenous Balinese people called Bali Aga. The Kidung songs are not as exclusive as Bali Aga culture. Kidung, and some of the music that goes with it, was peripherally absorbed into the whole of Balinese culture.

Kidung also has it's own set of scales and modes. Although they are sometimes sonically similar to those of Kekawin, the scales are derived from a unique seven tone system. The intervals of this seven tone scale differ somewhat from the seven tone scale of Semar Pegulingan and that of Java.

The most visible of the Kidung Gamelan is the bamboo xylophone ensemble known as Gambang. Gambang is an archaic type of cremation music still in regular use. There are not many ensembles remaining, but the good ones seem to survive due to the religious need for them. The Gambang instruments have bamboo slats for bars and are played with two mallets which are forked like a "Y". Each mallet has two heads, set at a fixed interval.

The bars are placed in a visually perplexing arrangement having large bars interspersed with smaller ones, a scale seemingly out of order. But the spacing of the forked mallets correspond to the placement of the bars to produce parallel intervals, essentially fourths and fifths. Four Gambang are complemented by two large Saron. The Sarons outline the meter and song, while the Gambang run in musical circles around it.

Gong Saron, also known as Gong Luang bears similarity to Javanese gamelan in it's heterogeny of instrumentation and elongated pace. There are bronze Bonang (Boh-Nahng) gong chimes, bamboo Saron, a very large drum, bamboo Gongs called Gentang (Gehn-Tahng), and a double-bar iron Gong called Gong Puluh (Poo-Loo). The scale is seven tones. Gong Saron is extremely rare. There are probably only two semi-active groups still going. The music is very slow and stately.

Listen to Gong Saron/Luang

Salunding music is almost exclusively Bali Aga and has been immersed in myth and mystery until very recently. The instruments use a seven tone scale and consist of homogenous iron slabs placed over box trough resonators.

The bars are played with large hammers, except for the bass instruments which are struck with sticks resembling, not coincidentally, human thigh bones. The ensemble also includes a small ceng ceng for color. The boxes which the bars are mounted on are set up in such a way as to be combinable with other boxes to produce full instruments. In this way, the ensemble can change form just by sliding a few things around. Generally, seven players use the instruments in various combinations.

Listen to Salunding


Kecak - rhythmic chant

Possibly the most well known of all Balinese musics, the Kecak (Keh-Chahck) consists of up to one hundred vocalists singing and interlocking rhythmic syllables. Sometimes referred to as monkey chant, the monkey section is actually a very small part. The story told through the chant is the Ramayana. At one point the group becomes an animal army, led by the monkey Hanuman, hence, monkey chant.

The original purpose of the chant was to ward off pestilence, famine, and other insurmountable problems. The chorus would help to put young girls in trance who would then dance atop the shoulders of men. This was part of a cleansing and request for advice from the ancestors on how to cope with the problems. It would go on non-stop for three days. As people would tire, others would take over in rotation.