Javanese and Balinese Gamelan Music
All Music Guide - July 2002
(Used by permission - © 2002 All Music Guide)

by Bruno Deschênes

hen music lovers talk of Gamelan music, they generally refer to Balinese Gamelan music, some important types of which came from Java to Bali around 14th or 15th century after Islam had taken root in Java. In the Western world, Balinese Gamelan music is more popular and more known than Javanese Gamelan. Although Balinese music has obvious similarities with Javanese, it as well evolved quite differently from it. This article gives a brief description of both Javanese and Balinese musics, showing their similarities and their differences.

Javanese Gamelan Music
(Main sources: Brinner, 1995 & Susilo, 2001)

The word "gamelan" is a Javanese word meaning "orchestra," referring to the instruments that make up the ensemble. Although we find similar types of music and ensemble all around Southeast Asia, as in Thailand and Cambodia, for example, gamelan music as is known today is particular to four nearby islands: Java, Madura, Bali, and Lombok. There are a large number of different types of gamelan ensembles, as much in terms of instruments used as in sizes, as much in styles of music performed as for occasions when they are performed, as well for whom they perform. These ensembles can range from few portable instruments, played by three or four musicians, to a large ensemble with as many as twenty-five musicians and between ten to fifteen singers. Large gamelan are own by wealthy patrons, shadow play puppeteers or particular institution such as banks, schools or government offices. For their part, musicians own smaller and more portable ensembles. Javanese Gamelan music has been performed for and enjoyed by people of all walks of life, from beggars to kings, although the sizes and types of ensembles, as well as the styles of music differs depending from which social class the audience is and on the occasions.

Most of the times, Gamelan ensembles accompany dance and theater, and especially "wayang kulit", the well-known Javanese (and Balinese) shadow puppet theater. The "dhalang", or puppeteer, and the ensemble sits behind a white screen generally lit up by a coconut oil lamp. (The audience may see the show from both sides of the screen.) Another theater is the "wayang wong", in wich the actors sing, dance and act. As for dance accompaniment, Gamelan accompanies a wide range of types of dances, which vary with the social context (e.g., from court dance to performances linked to folk dance). Gamelan, without dance and theater, are heard during particular events such as weddings, circumcisions and birthdays, for example, as well as on radio.

In a typical Javanese Gamelan, the instruments can be divided as follow: time-marking instruments (gongs of different sizes), melodic instruments (the "suling", an end-blown flute; and the rebab, a bowed spike fiddle, which plays the balungan, or fixed melody), elaborating instruments (all other metallophone instruments, which create the sound so typical of Gamelan music; the rebab and suling are also part of these groups). Singers can join in, either to sing solo songs or simply to add to the musical texture, normally during the soft moment of the piece. But there is a lot of variations between different ensembles, depending on their uses and purposes (as well as the wealth of the owner). For example, court ensembles will greatly differ in instrumentation and repertoire from more general ensemble used in weddings, or other social events. Three types of metal are use to make these metallic instruments: bronze, brass and iron, bronze being the most preferred.

Javanese music uses two tuning systems (or "laras"): sléndro and pélog. Sléndro has five pitches to the octave, while pélog has 7 pitches. With sléndro, the octave is divided in more or less 5 equals intervals; while with pélog, the octave is divided in 7 unequal intervals. Although pélog has 7 notes, usually only five are used in a given composition. The tuning can vary from one ensemble to the other, and from one instrument to the other. For our Western ears, this music may sound out-of-tune. These two laras will not be heard together during a performance. Out of these tunings, modes (or "pathet") are used, in a quite complex interrelated system and theoretical system. The Javanese pathet are associated with times of day, moods or theatrical conventions.

One particularity of Javanese music, compare to Balinese, is that the musicians somewhat "improvise". It is not an improvisation in the Western sense of the terms, but more in the sense of being able to develop, embellish and "improve" a piece as it is being performed. Yet, musicians are not allowed to go beyond certain traditional rules, they "do not express personal feelings, but, rather, perform their personal interpretations of the tradition" (Susilo). They even have 5 different types of improvisations. In this sense, musicians do not learn a particular score, but a piece structure plus a traditional way to treat it. For this reason, musicians who never played together can often performed without much practice.

Balinese Gamelan Music
(Main sources: Tenzer, 1991, &

Balinese music evolved from a complex mixture of local and Javanese sources. Hindus fled Java after the 14th-century collapse of the Javanese Majapaht dynasty to establish in Bali, bringing along their music and musical instruments. One thing that has always seemed remarkable to ethnomusicologists and historians is that Bali was able to sustain its Hindu culture, despite its proximity to Java.

On the one hand, Balinese Gamelan music has still strong similarity with Javanese music. For example, some Balinese gamelans share important traits with older styles of Javanese Gamelan, which are no longer heard in Java. Yet, on the other, there are major differences. Balinese have exceptionally active composers, writing new pieces for their ensembles, but also, have created, especially in the 20th century, new styles of music as well as new ensembles, involving either typical Gamelan ensembles, the voices or other musical instruments.

As in Java, music in Bali is used to accompany ritual activities, as well as other non religious occasions. Religious events are surely the most prominent. Balinese being highly religious, they have set all around the island thousands of temples. When there is music there is also dance. For Balinese, both music and dance go hand in hand. As in Java, Balinese Gamelan music does not seem to be as influenced by the music of the Western world than in some other countries.

The instruments used, such as gongs, all kinds of metallophones, drums, the suling and the rebab, are closely related to those found in Java; and as well as the tuning system and modes, though with some slight differences.

Contrary to Java where Gamelan are commonly own by musicians, patrons, the court or institutions, in Bali each village are divided by wards, and most wards own at least one Gamelan. It is the responsibility of the people to take care of the instruments. There may thus be several orchestras in each village and town. And the style of music may as well vary from one village, town or region from the other. As Michael Tenzer indicates, “Music is ubiquitous in Bali; its abundance is far out of proportion to the dimension of the island” (Tenzer, 1991).

The major difference between Balinese Gamelan music in regards to Javanese music is that Balinese music is strictly composed. There is very little space for improvisation, although there is some at times. Each piece is written and practiced as such to attain a “unified musical expression” (Tenzer, 1991). This possibly gave the opportunity to composers to broaden the orchestral complexity of their Gamelan music. Balinese musicians “rehearse to perfect their music more than any other large ensembles in the world” (Tenzer, 1991). While Javanese gamelan does not possess these features, its great complexity comes from the many strands of performers’ improvisations.

Balinese music went through major changes and developments in the 20th century. When the Dutch seized power in 1908, the Balinese court lost much of its power. By 1930, the court was becoming some kind of remnant and the court gamelan were in storage. Unable to maintain its role as patrons of the arts, court Gamelan were sold or given to village musicians. This had a major impact. The arts, their fostering, creation and development, could now be taken of by the people. Many of the court orchestras were melted down and recast as into new and more versatile instruments better suited to the tastes of the villagers. By leaving the court, Balinese music became louder, faster, more dramatic and flamboyant, with sudden changes in tempo and dynamics. While in the south the music is often said to be more refined, in the north it is sometimes more aggressive.

New styles of and types of ensembles developed, in particular the Gong Kebyar, which merged different older styles. We have also seen the emergence of a large number of composers, with their own individual style of music. Yet, although Balinese musicians have had many interactions and collaborations with Western musicians, their music remains distinctively their own.

This flamboyance and matchless creativity have surely been two of Bali’s trademarks for the attraction and interest Westerners have shown about their music. Javanese music is subtler, less obviously showy, and often remains more mysterious to those encountering it for the first time.


I want to sincerely thank Mr. Michael Tenzer and Prof. Pak Susilo for kindly accepting to review this paper and correcting my many mistakes. If some remains, they are my own.

Suggested CDs of Javanese and Balinese Music


  • Java, Javanese court gamelan, Elektra Nonesuch, 1971, 9 72044-2 Indonesia, The Angklung Group, Arion, 1991, ARN 64183
  • Java: Historic Gamelans, Philips, 6586 004
  • Java: Music of Mystical Enchantment, Lyrichord, 1993, 7301
  • Java: Palais Royal de Yogyakarta, Vol. 3: Spiritual and Sacred Music, Ocora, 2000, C 560069
  • Java: Music of the Theater, Auvidis/Unesco, 1999, D 8078
  • Java, Vocal Art, Auvidis/Unesco, 1989, D 8014
  • Ida Widawati, Java – Tembang Sunda, Sundanese Sung Poetry, INÉDIT, 1994, W 260056
  • Musiques d’Asie, Inde, Japon, Chine & Indonésie, Auvidis Naïve, 2001, Y 226129


  • Bali, Gamelan & Kecak, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1989, 9 79204-2
  • Gamelan Semar Pegulingan of Binoh Village, King Record, 1992, KICC 5155
  • Geguntangan Arja “Arja Bon Bali”, King Records, 1994, KICC 5183
  • Anthology of the Music of Bali, Volume 3: Music for rituals, BUDA Records, 1997, 92602-2
  • Gamelan Semar Pegulingan of Binoh Village, King Record, 1992, KICC 5155
  • Magic Bali, le Ramayana, Playasound, PS 65003
  • Geguntungan Arja « Arja Bon Bali », King Record, 1994, KICC 5183
  • The Earth Greets the Sun, Gamelan Music from Bali, Deutsche Grammophon, 1972, 447 499-2
  • Bali, Musique du nord-ouest, Auvidis Ethnic, 1991, B 6769



  • Benjamin Brinner. Knowing Music, Making Music. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • T.M. McComb. Central Javanese Gamelan., 1999.
  • Hardja Susilo, University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Toward an appreciation of Javanese Gamelan. 2001.
  • Javanese Music.,


  • Catherine Basset. Anthologie des musiques de Bali. BUDA Records, 1997, 92602-2.
  • Ingrid Klune. Balinese Music as an Aspect of Art in Southeast Asia. Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University.
  • Michael Tenzer. Balinese Music. Periplus/University of Washington Press, 1991. Excerpts found at www.gsj.ord/library/bm_index.cfm.
  • Gamelan, Balinese Music.,01.shtml.
  • Balinese Music.,



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