Instruments | Gamelan | Percussion

The gamelan is a percussion ensemble played throughout Indonesia, especially in Bali and Java. A gamelan comprises mainly metallophones, xylophones and gongs.

It may also include vocals, the rebab (a two-stringed spike fiddle), the keprak (a slit drum), and the kendhang (a set of three or four double headed, barrel-shaped drums). The kendhang sets the tempo and gives starting and stopping signals during the music.

Components of the Gamelan

In gamelan music the parts played by all the instruments contribute to the balungan, or central melodic thread of the music. The metallophones and xylophones play the main melodic content of the music, and the gongs mark out the structure. In descending order of pitch, the barred instruments span five octaves and include three different sizes of saron. Each of these has a single octave of notes, made of thick metal bars mounted over a single trough resonator, played with a wooden or horn mallet. The saron family plays the simplest version of the balungan. The gender and slenthem are larger metallophones with thinner, ribbed metal bars held on cords over individual tube resonators. The gambang is a xylophone. The gender and gambang play an elaborated version of the balungan in parallel octaves or complex interlocking patterns.

Gong Types

The gongs include the larger hanging gongs, in which the raised boss points to the side, and the smaller cradled gongs or gong chimes, which rest on rope supports in a wooden frame, with the raised boss pointing upwards. The hanging gongs are shaped like a curly bracket in cross-section with a large lip bent back at about 130 degrees from the face of the gong. They are played with a padded beater or the fleshy part of a clenched fist. Cradled gongs are played in sets of 10 to 12, and each gong is tuned to a different note of the scale. They have a wider lip and more sloping shoulders than the hanging gongs. They are shaped like a lidded saucepan in cross-section and are sometimes called ‘pot gongs’ in the West. The cradled gongs are played with a wooden beater overwound with string.

Role of the Gong

The gongs punctuate the cyclical structure of the music, providing aural cues to the other musicians. In ascending order of pitch, starting with the lowest, the hanging gongs include the gong ageng (85 cm/34 in diameter), gong suwukan (63 cm/25 in), and a set of three to five kempul (45 cm/18 in). These gongs mark out keynotes in the balungan. The cradled gongs include the kethuk and kempyang (25 cm/10 in), a set of 10 kenong (36 cm/14 in) and two sets of 12 bonangs (18 cm/7 in). Between them, the cradled gongs play an elaboration of the hanging-gong pattern, which interweaves with the patterns played by the gender and gambang.

Introduction | Percussion Instruments
Instruments | Drum Kit | Percussion

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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