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An introduction to the musical ensembles of Bali.


The term gamelan refers in general to a variety of musical ensembles from southeast Asia. By far the most world-renowned gamelan are the musical ensembles of Bali and Java, two of the many islands of Indonesia. This is a short, non-technical introduction to the gamelan of Bali, including Historical and Cultural Considerations , Instruments , Ensembles , and Rehearsal and Performance Practices . For a more technical introduction to the music played by these ensembles, including information on scales, tuning, form, and texture, please see Listening to Balinese Gamelan: A Beginners' Guide . For more in-depth information, please see the Suggested Reading list. For classroom activities that allow students to explore important aspects of gamelan music, please see Form in Gamelan Music , Gamelan-Style Melodic Elaboration , Coordinating Music and Dance , and Kotekan .

The word gamelan is often translated as "orchestra", and both words do refer to a group of instruments that play together, but there are important differences of meaning, too. One is that the term orchestra usually refers to a specific kind of large ensemble, in which strings are the featured group, with winds and percussion playing supporting roles. The term gamelan is more general. It can refer to a wide variety of ensembles, most of which feature percussion.

Another important difference is that the instruments of a gamelan have been carefully built and tuned to be played together, and their tuning may differ from that of other gamelan by quite a bit. In general, they should not be separated or played along with instruments from a different ensemble. (See Gamelan Tuning for more on this.) Thus a particular gamelan is more the group of instruments than it is the players of those instruments. As an example of how different this is from Western practice, imagine for a moment that two rock bands, Alpha and Omega, traded instruments. Alpha fans would still consider the Alpha players to be "their" band, in spite of the fact that they were playing on Omega's instruments. In fact, the change of instruments might not even be noticeable; the band will still clearly sound like Alpha (unless they're actually trying to imitate the other group). Now imagine that the players from two gamelan , Satu and Dua, switched instruments. People who often listened to these groups would consider the Satu players playing the Dua instruments to be the Dua gamelan . In fact, because the two groups of instruments would probably have noticeably different tunings, the Satu players would now sound distinctly like the Dua gamelan .

There are dozens of different kinds of ensembles that may be called a gamelan . In fact, it might be more accurate to translate the word as "band". The term band can apply equally well to a wide variety of ensembles: for example, a large number of wind and percussion players marching on a field, or a small number of string players providing the music for a country dance, or a group playing amplified instruments at a rock concert. The specific "sound" of a marching band or a rock band or a country fiddle band is instantly recognizable to most Westerners as belonging to a specific place and context, and in fact may conjure up strong associations with football games, mosh pits, or barns. In a very similar way, the term gamelan can apply equally to a wide variety of groups, large and small, and the particular sound of one type of gamelan or another will be recognizable to most Balinese as being appropriate for one venue or another; just hearing that sound may produce strong associations with particular kinds of dancing, theater, or religious ceremonies.

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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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