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Glistening Tones of the Gamelan

For anyone interested in music - from the casual listener to the professional. composer - Bali presents a musical landscape that stretches far beyond the island's diminutive physical dimensions. Few places in the world can boast such a rich and varied musical environment. And while the sheer number and variety of ensembles, performances and compositions is in itself quite extraordinary, it is the superb quality of the music that elevates this tradition into a class all its own.

Over the centuries, Balinese musicians have developed a musical language in which layers of melody and complex figurations are interwoven to produce a unique tapestry of sound. The music is rehearsed to perfect synchrony by musicians in village gamelan percussion orchestras. On almost any evening, one can hear the bell-like tones of the gamelan - from the high, shimmering melodies of the metallophones to the deep, resonant tones of the gongs and drums - drifting across the rice fields as villagers prepare for yet another temple ceremony.

Music in Balinese culture

In Bali there is a fundamental integration of the performing arts into daily social and religious activities. No celebration or gathering is complete without music and dance. In Balinese religious life, where an elaborate calendar requires an extensive range of ceremonies to be performed, there is a consensus that each event must be accompanied by' musical performances. Such performances serve to entertain the gods as well as the human participants, enabling both to return home after the ritual with a feeling of well being and contentment.

Because of the constant and widespread demand for musical performances, a very large number of music and dance troupes is active on the island (one recent estimate put the total at well over 1500). Music is practiced and developed incessantly by these groups in order to maintain a high standard of tech, unique and to develop an integration between musicians and dancers.

This astonishing degree of musical activity not only maintains the tradition, but also extends it. New works are constantly being created and premiered before village audiences eager for new combinations of sound, and movement. If these pieces are deemed worthy by the players and the audience, they are added to the existing repertoire and may even gain island-wide popularity. The Balinese view this as "a grafting of new flowers onto the old tree" rather than a break with tradition - an attitude that insures the vitality of the arts here.

These ideals find clear expression today in the Indonesian Academy of Music and Dance (STSI) in Denpasar, where many of the island's best performers, composers and choreographers work to develop and transmit their arts to a new generation. STSI also serves as the focal point for an international community of artists and scholars interested in the Balinese performing arts.

Musical organizations

The term gamelan refers not only to the instruments but also to the groups of musicians who play them. People participate in these groups from a very young age, and one is often surprised to hear intricate pieces being performed by children's groups in which the average age is only 12 years. In the villages, stitch groups may be formed for special festivals only to be disbanded as soon as the festival is over. Most groups play together for a long time, however - some for as long as 40 or 50 years with unchanged membership. Some groups even outlive their original membership and continue to exist as autonomous village institutions for hundreds of years.

Organizationally, music and dance troupes in Bali are deeply rooted in the banjar - the fundamental unit of community within the Balinese village or town. Its guiding principle and philosophy is that any group must strive to exist as a coherent unit rather than as a collection of individuals. In Balinese music, this attitude of cooperation is essential, and individual virtuosity is always far overshadowed by the ideal of unity and perfect synchronization of the various parts. Much more so than in Western music, a single part or Musician cannot stand alone, but is integral to the whole. For this reason, solo performance is nonexistent in Bali.

Anyone with sufficient interest may join a gamelan, and groups are composed of farmers, merchants, civil servants, etc. Although the academy in Denpasar is giving birth to a new generation of professionals, music remains by and large a non-professional, village endeavor.

While the immediate motivation to form a new group may vary - an upcoming celebration, a festival competition with another banjar, or a specially commissioned hotel performance, for example - in general the Balinese simply love to play, and a first rehearsal often finds more players ready to join in than there are positions in the orchestral typical cooperative banjar fashion, even the extras take part in the sekaha (club), however. They will become helpers (for moving or maintaining the instruments) or alternate players.

With the exception of large hotel or other tourist performances, little money is made from the performances. All proceeds are put into a common fund for tuning and maintenance or acquisition of new instrunents, as well as for dance costumes or an occasional dinner for the sekaha members. Excess funds are divided among the members just before Galungan.

Instruments and tuning

There is an amazing diversity of musical ensembles and genres found on Bali. Some 15 to 20 different forms have been documented, and the list grows longer as a younger generation of composers experiments with new combinations and types of instruments. The ensembles range in size from the small gender wayang, a quartet of musicians who play the demanding accompaniment to the wayang kulit shadow play, all the way up to the massive gamelan gong, whose 35 or 40 members perform the ancient and stately ceremonial pieces required for village rituals.

A variety of materials are used in the production of instruments. Most gamelan consist of bronze keys in carved wooden frames suspended over bamboo resonators, together

with a number of bronze gongs, drums, cymbals, flutes and an assortment of smaller percussion instruments. But there are bamboo gamelan ensembles as well - entire orchestras composed of bamboo marimbas or flutes.

Perhaps the most impressive of these is the gamelan jegog, found exclusively in the western district of Jembrana. In a jegog ensemble, the largest bass instruments are made from bamboo tubes measuring up to 12 inches in diameter and 10 feet in length. When struck with a large, padded mallet, they produce low tones of incredible purity and depth that can often be heard for miles around.

The gamelan selunding is a rare and sacred ensemble, with keys made of iron and simple trough resonators. Special ceremonies and offerings surround its use, as the keys are thought to possess spiritual powers. Some selunding melodies are considered extremely sacred, and may not be played or even hummed except on certain ritual occasions.

In fact, however, all gamelan instruments, no matter how or where they are played, are believed to contain a spiritual power which must be respected with proper offerings and rituals, depending on the occasion and the date within the Balinese calendar. No Balinese would ever think of stepping over an instrument, for example, for fear that the spirit that inhabits it might be insulted.

By far the most common type of gamelan is the gong kebyar - a bronze orchestra consisting of a number of metallophones, tuned gongs, cymbals, flutes and drums. As in a Western orchestra, these instrument families are further subdivided depending on the range, musical function and playing technique of the instruments.

For example, the highest-pitched metallophones (gangsa) are used to play rapid interlocking figurations and melodies. The mi range metallophones (calung or jublag) play the pokok or core melody, while the bass instruments (jegogan) reinforce the stressed pokok tones and mark the longer phrases.

A row of tuned gongs played by four musicians called the reong executes another for of figuration and rhythmic accentuation. The kempli, a small gong, keeps the beat - a difficult task in this syncopated and rhythmically complex music. The larger gong an the medium-sized kempur and kemong pr vide punctuation of the phrases at importance junctures. Leading them all is a pair of drummers (accompanied by the cymbal or ceng-ceng player), who direct the entire group with changes in tempo, accents and dynamics.

Bronze gamelan instruments are all hand forged in Bali by highly respected gong smiths using age-old techniques. Each orchestra is laboriously tuned by filing an hammering the keys and gongs to match pentatonic or 5-tone scale (and more rarely septatonic or 7-tone scale) that is unique that particular set of instruments. While ensembles of a similar type will be tune approximately the same scale, there is no uniform standard of reference. This is a clear, expression of the Balinese belief in each gamelan's individual spirit. Every ensemble in other words, has a unique character which must be allowed to emerge from the metal.

Each tone in this Balinese tuning system, which may follow either the so-called pelog or selendro scales found also in Java, has a corresponding tone tuned slightly higher or lower, so that when struck together the two notes produce a pulsating, tremolo effect. this "paired tuning" is responsible for the shimmering quality so characteristic of the Balinese gamelan.

Musical structure

Balinese gamelan music is an intricate blend of sonorities, created in a densely patterned, contrapuntal web of sound. Enhanced by the tremolo effect of the paired tuning system, the music shifts and vibrates rapidly - some have compared it to the nightly choruses of crickets and frogs in the Balinese rice fields.

Working in an oral tradition (no notation is used), musicians have evolved a complex language based on the concept of kotekan or interlocking parts. In this system, the intricate melodic figuration of the music is never played by a single musician, but is divided instead into two complementary parts (called sangsih and polos). When played together the two dovetails to form the composite figuration.

Aside from the sheer sonic complexity that kotekan patterning gives the music, it also allows the orchestra to play at dazzling tempos - enough to defy even the most nimble-fingered classical pianist. Adding to the contrapuntal richness of the music is the fact that several kinds of interlocking parts may be played simultaneously in the various families of the orchestra. All of these parts relate directly to a central or core melody (pokok) around which they are woven.

In Balinese dance performances, the drums or kendang form a critical link between dancers and musicians. Through an intimate knowledge of both dance and music (drummers often perform and teach dance as well as music), the lead drummer is able to provide signals to the other musicians that translate the detailed cues of the dancer's movements into musical gestures.

To achieve the requisite degree of synchronization, both within the music and in its relationship to the dance, requires long hours of rehearsal. As mentioned above, the language of Balinese music has evolved almost entirely without a notational system. Instead, the various parts of each gamelan composition are learned by imitation.

In rehearsals the teacher repeats each musical fragment until, through repetition by the student, it is mastered. The parts are then combined and unified to form a synchronous whole, and the interlocking figurations become a single composite pattern. Practice and years of experience give the piece subtle shadings of dynamics and tempo, and match its movement with every gesture and accent in the dance.

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