Overview of Balinese Music



In the fourteenth century, people from the middle east introduced the religion of Islam and the fall of the Majapahit empire began. Those who wished to remain Hindu were exiled to Bali, where they remained relatively isolated for hundreds of years.

The gamelan we hear in Bali today is a direct, almost pure, descendant of the music of the Majapahit period. Many instruments in Bali are exactly the same as those recorded by stone carvers in east Java over six centuries ago. But, while the tools of the trade have remained similar, the music has changed and developed. Every generation of musicians in Bali puts their personal stamp on the music. An added variation here, a new section there, or another composition for a particular ritual, add up considerably over six hundred years. Changes in popular taste also had an effect.

In Indonesian traditional thinking, the gamelan is sacred and is believed to have supernatural power. Both musician and non-musicians are humble and respectful to the gamelan. Incense and flowers are often offered to the gamelan. It is believed that each instrument in the gamelan is guided by spirits. Thus, the musician have to take off their shoes when they play the gamelan. It is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit by doing so. Some gamelan are believed to have so much powers that playing them may exert power over nature. Others may be touched only by persons who are ritually qualified. In Javanese gamelan, the most important instrument is the Gong Ageng ( In Bali: Gong Gede or Gong Agung ). The musicians believe that Gong Ageng is the main spirit of the entire gamelan.

Music in Bali is integrated into lifestyle both socially and spiritually, it seems that every ceremony or gathering for any purpose is incomplete without music. Since the Hindu religion has so many ceremonies (regional, village and family-based ), there is always music heard as you travel about the island. Experiencing one of these ceremonies with the music and colour leaves you with a pleasant feeling of a hypnotic/spiritual nature.
The Balinese gamelan is a group of instruments played together rather than singularly, the music is a combination of melodies and Kotekan(embellishment), played by a number of metallophones( bronze keys in carved wooden frames or suspended over bamboo resonators), gongs,cymbals,drums, flutes and occasionally a stringed Rebab to provide a soundscape for the spirits and humans alike.
Some ensembles are made up of bamboo tubes eg. Joged bumbung,Rindiks and the famous Jegog . Others are made bamboo bars (similar to marimbas)eg. Tinglik and Gambang. As you look deeper about the island, you find all sorts of different ensembles, some made of bamboo (Gengong, which is played like a Jaws harp), some just percussive and flutes (Tektekan), some vocal. The unique sound of singers ,singing Kakawin,Pupuh, Gugaritan or some other Hindu ceremonial singing is a memorable experience. All instruments are regarded as sacred with their own spirit and should be respected as such, not stepping over them and providing the proper ritual.

Functions of Gamelan

Gamelan is a way of linking individuals in social groups. Gamelan music is performed as a group effort, and so there is no place for an individual showoff. Traditionally, gamelan is only played at certain occasions such as ritual ceremonies, special community celebrations, shadow puppet shows, and for the royal family. Gamelan is also used to accompany dances in court, temple, and village rituals. Besides providing music for social functional ceremonies, gamelan also provides a livelihood for many professional musicians, and for specialized craftsmen who manufacture gamelan.

Today, although gamelan music is still used for ritual ceremonies and the royal family, it is also performed as concert music at social and cultural gatherings to welcome guests and audiences. Gamelan is also used to accompany many kinds of both traditional and modern dances, drama, theatrical and puppetry. In modern days, gamelan can be kept in places such as courts, temples, museums, schools, or even private homes.


Teaching a child the Curing in Angklung

Different Modal Systems

Balinese music and Western music have different modal systems. The Wesern modal system has 12 notes to an octave, 1200 cents, therefore a semitone is 100 cents, for example, between G and G sharp(a semitone). The Balinese modal system has two main tunings; the Slendro and the Pelog.
However, the mode depends largely on the path these notes take, ending at a particular note with the gong.

The SLENDRO is a 5 tone scale, having a very wide and out of tune fourths, (between 515 and 535 cents). Similar to a pentatonic scale. There is an obvious link to China in the structure of the slendro scale.
The PELOG is a seven note scale, Similar to the Western minor scale. Balinese pelog is theoretically seven notes, but most instruments only have five pitches available
These Balinese scales cannot be notated in the Western system (12 note system). This creates exciting and challenging work for both Balinese and Western musicians.
String, vocal, and wind instruments are not limited by fixed pitch , therefore they can explore other interpretations of the scale.


Balinese music has another twist, the tuning of the gamelans themselves, particularly the internal tunings of each pair of instruments. Being a musician from the west studying violin for many years Richard at first found himself wanting to tune the instruments until he realised the pulsating sounds of the gamelans are produced by these tunings within the gamelan."The difference in pitch between two similar instruments,(the male and female) in the gamelan is very precise and the effect is dependant on this precision. It seems the inharmonic overtones cause the pulsating, the closer the pitch of the two instruments the faster the pulsating, if the instruments are tuned together perfectly the pulsating disappears as does the excitement of the music itself."--Richard
Each gamelan is painstakingly tuned by gong smiths, filed and hammered, to a four, five or seven note scale. Without a reference to go by, the gamelans of Bali are not necessarily tuned to the same pitch. Therefore each gamelan is unique with its own spirit.


A female Gamelan Gong playing at Pura Besakih


As there are many different gamelan ensembles in Bali, so too are there many different types of singing.
The most common heard in Bali is the Pupuh singing, also Kakawin and Gaguritan. They are heard at many ceremonies in Bali and the sound can be quite enchanting.
The songs and melodies are very complex and a good singer seems to possess amazing vocal qualities.


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