Styles & Forms | Southeast Asia | World of Music | Classical

The vast Southeast Asian region includes the island republics of Indonesia and the Philippines, and the mainland states of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

The mainland countries, particularly Vietnam, have been greatly influenced by Chinese culture and Buddhism. Indonesia has been influenced by Hinduism and Islam, and the Philippines by Islam and Christianity.

Each nation comprises many minority peoples and local languages. The geography of Southeast Asia, a region disturbed by earthquakes and volcanoes, has influenced its musical development. Minorities, with their diverse indigenous folk-music styles, tend to live in upland areas, whereas the dominant ethnic populations live in the lowlands. Within Southeast Asia’s diversity of musical culture, two phenomena stand out: gong-chime and gamelan orchestras.

The Gong-Chime Cultures

Southeast Asian countries are classified musically as gong-chime cultures. The region’s huge variety of gong-chime ensembles play combinations of gongs, drums, flutes, string instruments, xylophones and metallophones. The composition and size of the ensembles vary from country to country, with Javanese gamelan having up to 75 instruments. Gong-chime ensembles reflect the stratified societies that foster them. The large gong is the most venerated and is thought to be the spiritual centre of the ensemble. It is blessed with ritual offerings. Smaller instruments and gong chimes are lower in status and are played for ornamentation and improvisation. Music is played in time cycles (Javanese, gongan), marked by the large gong. Repetitions of the cycle include minute variations and carefully controlled improvisations. A single cycle may last for a few seconds or several minutes. The accompanying instrumental parts weave together in an interlocking style. A solo melody played on lute, flute or oboe, or sung, may overarch several rhythmic cycles.


Southeast Asian gongs are made of bronze, brass or iron, and hang in frames or are placed on racks or cases. Many ornately carved and painted instruments are prized for their beauty and have magical powers attributed to them. The forging of gongs is treated as a sacred activity and ritual protections are provided for the gong-maker, particular during the tempering or tuning of the instruments. Gongs often have a central knob called a ‘boss’, and are tuned to a pitch in the local scale (many with equidistantly spaced intervals) – usually pentatonic (five-note) or heptatonic (seven-note). These rare equidistant scales are also found in East Africa, suggesting that sea traders may have introduced such tunings to Madagascar and the coastal region of modern Mozambique. The names of many instruments are onomatopoeic, mimicking their sounds – for example, large and small hanging bronze gongs (gong ageng, kempul), bronze kettle gongs (kenong, ketuk), gong-chimes (bonang), metallophones (saron, gender), xylophones (gambang). Together they may accompany one or more vocalists, flute (suling) or a bowed spike-fiddle (rebab) of Middle Eastern origin.

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