What Instruments Are Used in Gamelan Music?

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What Instruments Are Used in Gamelan Music?
The bonang barung is a percussive instrument and part of many gamelan ensembles. (gamelan image by Bruno Bernier from Fotolia.com)

Gamelan music is an ancient form of music native to the South Pacific islands of Java and Bali. It features a wide array of percussion, string and woodwind instruments that are somewhat unfamiliar outside the genre. There is no doctrine dictating the specific instruments that must be present within the ensemble; however, there are commonalities among different ensembles. It is better to think of the instruments in groupings of their function rather than as individual voices.

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Time Markers

These instruments in the gamelan are responsible for marking off the rhythms in the cycle. They can crudely be thought of as metronomes in the music. Examples of time markers are gonglike devices, such as the kenong, kethuk and kempyang. An instrumentalists strikes these instruments with a mallet systematically to produce a pitch.

Base Melody

The instruments in this section maintain a central melody in the piece. Rather than developing the music, they repeat a theme or motive throughout. They are also often percussive instruments like the saron demung and the slenthem. As they are percussive instruments that can produce a variety of pitches, these instruments are most similar to xylophones.

Melody Developers

These instruments take the basic themes and melodies established by the base instruments and extrapolate them. Because they are often dealing with more complex melodies, they are more versatile instruments and must be able to handle more notes. Instruments within this subsection can be stringed, like the rebab and the zither; percussive, like the gambang and the bonang barung; or woodwind, like the suling.

Non-Pitched Time Markers

These instruments, similar to the time marker, do not produce a pitch and are more simplistic in the rhythms they feature. They function similar to a conductor, who keeps the basic beat in a piece. Instruments in this subsection would be kendang, gending and ketipung. They are non-pitched drums struck using the hands rather than a mallet.

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