So you have seen a gamelan performance, or read about it. Now you might want to know a little bit more about all of the mysterious gamelan instruments.
This is a bit more of an in-depth look at some of the instruments in a a classic Javanese gamelan collective. There is some fancy terminology, but don’t be put off, it is quite easy to understand and essential in understanding the different kind of gamelan instruments.
The instruments in a Gamelan ensemble can be classified into the four following groups: Idiophones, Membranophones, Chordophones and Aerophones.
Idiophones: Gongs, gongs and more gongs.
Idiophones produce sound by the whole instrument vibrating. Examples include cymbals, triangles and gongs. They are the most common instruments in Gamelan. They are again divided into further categories.
Time keeping instruments
- Gong ageng – The largest gong and the most important instrument in the ensemble. It marks the end of each cycle and the end of the piece. It has a very deep resonant sound. Usually the diameter is 60-70cm and can weigh up to 31kg.
- Gong suwukan – A smaller, higher pitched gong that is used in place of gong ageng in smaller phrases. A gamelan orchestra may have two or more gong suwukan, one for each scale
- Kempul – Smaller and higher again, the kempul is tuned about an octave above gong suwukan The role of the kempul is to divide the colotomic structure.
- Kenong – Like a gong, but it is higher in pitch and in shape. It divides the structure into phrases with its higher pitched clear sound. Unlike the other gongs which are hanging from wooden racks, the kenong sits on crossed ropes inside a wooden box with no bottom.
- Kethuk – Similar to the kenong, but higher in pitch and lower in shape. It is flatter and lower. The kenong divides the structure into smaller divisions.
These gamelan instruments play the main melody or balungan.
- Saron – An instrument similar to a xylophone. It is made from tuned bronze, or iron bars arranged in 1 octave on a wooden frame.
- Saron demung – The lower version of the saron. It is tuned one octave lower than the Bothe the saron, and saron demung are hit with wooden mallets.
- Saron peking – The higher version of the saron. It is tuned one octave higher than the It is often played with a mallet made from buffalo horn.
- Slenthem – It has thin metallic keys that are suspended by rope above resonating tubes, usually made from bamboo or thin metal. It is hit with a soft mallet and produces a quieter subtle sound.
Also known as panerusan, these instruments play variations on the main melody. These are the gamelan instruments that give the essential Javanese flavour to the music
- Bonang barung – A range of kettle gongs arranged in two octaves.
- Bonang penerus – The higher version of the bonang barung. Both types of bonang play in collaboration. (There is also bonang panembung , which is one octave lower than bonang barung. It is not common, and usually on in Yogyakarta).
- Gambang – Unlike all the other idiophones, the gambang is made from wooden keys. The gambang is played with two hands. It plays fast variations n the key theme.
- Gender – An instrument very similar to slenthem in build, but with more keys. It is played with two hands and elaborates the main theme and around the harmony.
Although most of the instruments in a gamelan ensemble are made from cast bronze, there are a few very important exceptions.
Membranophone: The sound of the drum
A membranophone is an instrument that makes sound hitting on a tight skin or membrane. Think of any drum. In gamelan the drum is called a kendang. They are double-headed drums that are played with both hands. Like western music, the drum holds a very important function in gamelan music. The drum is responsible for how fast or slow a song is. The drummer also cues important changes in the structure and in the tempo. In Javanese gamelan there are 3 different sizes of Drum.
- Kendang ageng – The largest drum.
- Kendang ketipun – the smallest drum. Kendang ketipun is played together with kendang ageng for fast moving sections.
- Kendang ciblon – The medium sized drum. The kendang ciblon is used for the most complex and lively rhythms.
Chordophones: stringed instruments
Chordophones are stringed instruments, such as guitars and violins. There are two stringed instruments in Gamelan, the rebab and the siter/celumpang. The rebab is a two stringed lute that is bowed with a horsehair bow while the player sits cross-legged. It has a strikingly different sound to the rest of the orchestra. It is used for softer sections, where it embellishes the melody.
The siter and the celumpang are plucked string instruments. They have between 11 and 13 pairs of strings strung on either side of a wooden box. This is so that each side can have a different tuning. Of the two, the siter is smaller and sits on a wooden box to be played. The celumpang is an octave lower and has its own legs to stand on. They are both plucked with thumbnails. They also play in the elaborating category, and are usually played very fast.
Aerophones: Bamboo sounds
Aerophones are instruments that produce sound by blowing air. Examples include flutes, trumpets and pipes. In gamelan, there are bamboo flutes known as sulings.
While the suling is not as integral to Javanese gamelan compared to Sundanese gamelan, it is still common to have suling in gamelan performance. Usually there will be one suling for each of the two scales, pelog and slendro.
With the above descriptions and photos about gamelan instruments, it should give you an idea of the complexities and size of a Javanese gamelan ensemble.