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For the Westerner with some knowledge of Western music theory, but none of Balinese gamelan, an introduction to the basic elements of the music, with some suggestions for informed listening.


The musical traditions of Indonesia have developed over hundreds of years, in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Aesthetic preferences and performance practices are quite different, not only from Western music , but also from the other major music traditions of Asia (such as Chinese and Indian). A basic understanding of some of these musical preferences - which include major differences in tuning , scales , form , texture , and ensemble techniques - allows Westerners to better appreciate the gamelan music of Bali. The gamelan of Java are a distinct but closely related tradition (it is likely that the tradition originally spread to Bali from Java), so some but not all of the following will also be true of the Javanese tradition.

The following discussion assumes a basic knowledge of Western music theory. An introduction for a more general audience, including information on instruments, ensembles, and historical and cultural influences, can be found at Balinese Gamelan . Related classroom activities can be found at Form in Gamelan Music , Gamelan-Style Melodic Elaboration , Coordinating Music and Dance , and Kotekan .

Basic elements


There are two different scale systems used in Balinese gamelan : slendro and pelog . It is important to note that these are not scales with specific pitches, or even categories of scales (such as major or minor ) that have specific interval relationships. There is no specific norm for either type of scale; instead, each is a system of guidelines for intervals within an octave ; instrument-makers are free to interpret the guidelines as they wish, as long as the scale is consistent within a gamelan .

The slendro system uses five notes within each octave that are of roughly equal distance from each other. A very rough approximation of a slendro scale might be the Western notes A C D E and G (a pentatonic scale fairly familiar to Westerners), with the C, D and G tuned noticeably lower than equal temperament , so that the major second intervals and minor third intervals are more (but probably not exactly) equal.

The pelog system uses seven notes within an octave, with unequal intervals between them. The tuning tends to be close to that of the Western phrygian mode (E to E on the white keys of a piano). Some types of gamelan have all seven pelog notes available, but these usually do not use all seven pitches in one composition. Most commonly, groups of pitches are used as modes (for example, only pitches 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, or only 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 of that approximate-phrygian scale). Some gamelan only have one pelog mode available.

For rehearsal purposes, the notes of a scale may simply be numbered 1-5 or 1-7. When discussing theory, the five notes of a slendro or pelog mode are more likely to be named as dong , deng , dung , dang , and ding .


The tuning tradition in Indonesia is so different from that of Western tuning, that a gamelan may sound at first to a Westerner as if it is "out of tune", or as if the tuning is very sloppy, but neither is true.

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Source:  OpenStax, Musical travels for children. OpenStax CNX. Jan 06, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10221/1.11
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