Javanese
Gamelan

by Cliff DeArment


Gamelan in Java thrives around the central palaces of Jogjakarta and Surakarta. Court style orchestras include many different kinds of Instruments.

Bronze bar metallophones are complimented by racks of horizontal gongs, suspended gongs, wooden xylophones, drums, flutes, zithers, bowed strings, and vocalists.

Two kinds of metallophones, the Saron (sah-rohn) and Gender (gehn-dare), are used for melodic components. The Saron, an instrument with bars resting over a trough, is played with one large mallet. It's part is a basic structural melody. The Gender, suspended bars over tube resonators, is played with two hands to create florid patterns.

Large suspended gongs outline the structure of the music and drums of several sizes indicate the meter. Horizontal double rows of smaller gongs known as Bonang (boh-nahng) are played with two sticks and elaborate on the structure of the composition. The song is performed by male and female vocalists known as Gerong (geh-wrong) and Pesinden (pesihn-dehn). They are accompanied by a bowed string instrument, originally from the middle east, called Rebab (Reh-Bahb), and a flute known as Suling (soo-lihng).

Two zithers, the Ziter (see-tehr) and the much larger Celempung (chell-ehm-poong) are plucked by the player's thumb nails and damped with the fingers beneath the strings. A xylophone called Gambang (gahm-bahng) completes the group of elaborating instruments.

Listen to Javanese Gamelan

Often, a Javanese Gamelan is actually two complete sets of instruments, one for each scale, Slendro and Pelog. Each scale has three basic modes. The modes in Slendro are called Nem (Nm), Sanga (Sahng-Oh), and Manyuro (Mahn-Yoo-Roh). Each uses all five pitches of the scale. The difference between them lies in the paths of motion which create a desired feeling.

The modes of the seven tone Pelog scale are Nem, Lima (Lee-Mah), and Barang (Bah-Rahng). In simplest terms, Nem uses scale pitches 12356, Lima is 12456, and Barang is 23567.

Five different meters, called Irama (Ee-Rah-Mah), may be used to express a composition. Moving from fast to slow, they are often referred to as Fast Irama One, Irama One, Irama Two, Irama Three, and Irama Rangkep. As the tempo slows dramatically with each change, the note density of elaborating instruments doubles to fill the space.

Listen to an Irama change