Bringing gamelan to the west

Neil McLachlan

1 June 2023

Neil McLachlan – Balinese and Aluminium Metalophones

Neil McLachlan recounts the development of a new version of the gamelan instrument adapted to the mobile Western lifestyle while keeping true to the Indonesian musical scale.

Gamelan is a group of music traditions found in Indonesia that is played mostly on tuned percussion ensembles. Today these may consist of many large tuned gongs, sets of smaller tuned gongs covering 2 or 3 octaves, sets of tuned metallophones covering 3 or 4 octaves, and a variety of other percussion, wind and string instruments. Its size, sophistication and complexity make it one of the great orchestral traditions found in the world today, and it has inspired western composers from the French romantic Claude Debussy to the modernist Australian, Percy Grainger and the American minimalist Terry Riley. However, relatively few performances of gamelan music ever occur outside of Indonesia.

Gamelan music features repeating rhythmic cycles that are nested within each other over many hierarchical levels of temporal duration. Each ascending cycle within the temporal hierarchy is often marked by an instrument in a higher pitch register that denotes a pitch centre for further ornamentation by higher-pitched instruments. In this way, musical parts cue each other and support flexible performances and interconnections with other performance elements. Gamelan ensembles are often well-defined sets of large and expensive instruments. So most players don’t own their own instruments. Instead, they visit the temples or community spaces that house them.

I first encountered Gamelan music at the University of Melbourne where Pak Poediono taught Javanese instruments. I was immediately struck by the extraordinary variety and strangeness of the instrumental timbres to my western ears. However, after learning for a few weeks I started to be able to discern the pitch of the different instruments, and understand the web of interconnections in the musical forms. At this stage of my life, I had completed a PhD in the Physical Sciences, but was working as a sound artist with a post-modern movement theatre company and studying singing and Indian dance. My colleagues and I were interested in adapting non-western music and dance forms to post-modern theatre practice, and making our own gamelan-like instruments seemed like an exciting possibility. So in 1989, we formed the performance group, ‘GongHouse’.

GongHouse performing ‘KaspersWake’ in 1992

Harry Partch was an American composer who built ensembles of percussion and string instruments throughout the mid-twentieth century to explore musical tunings based on physical overtones that naturally occur in linear vibrators such as string and wind instruments, and especially in the human voice. These overtones occur at integer multiples of the lowest frequency (or fundamental) of the sound (i.e. at 2, 3, 4 … times the lowest frequency) and are known as harmonics. A tuning system called as “Just Tuning” has been theorized in the West for hundreds of years, and is believed to create optimally harmonious scales by aligning the harmonic frequencies of notes to each other. The simplest of these intervals with a frequency ratio of 3:2 became known as the ‘perfect 5th’, and is the basis of the Pythagorean ‘circle of fifths’ and western tuning systems more generally.  Just Tuned scales are not equally spaced like the western chromatic scale, but nevertheless contain many intervals that are familiar to western listeners. Just Tuning seemed like an ideal way to tune our homemade gamelan, since it contained some familiar intervals, but did not prompt the listener to expect progressions of musical chords and scales that feature in the functional harmony of western music. We felt that functional harmony would distract from the melodic and rhythmic interplay we wanted to create within the music and between the music and dance.

We quickly discovered that people were drawn to our percussion ensembles after we performed at local festivals. We found that we could immediately engage groups of people to participate in playing simple arrangements of gamelan forms, and we were soon being asked to run workshops and residences in schools, regional and remote communities, and in First Nations communities. During our longer residencies we engaged in creating new music theatre works based on the oral histories of our participants, and their own music and dance expressions of the social relationships they encountered in their communities, or imagined for their future. In contrast to the linear Western conception of time as having a beginning, middle and end, the cyclic conception of time that underpins gamelan music seemed to naturally imbue our work with ritual forms that express social relatedness rather than individualistic narratives.

Expressions of social histories and aspirations are inherently political. The work we generated with First Nations peoples inevitably involved expressions of relationship to land and stories of forced displacement and massacre. In the mid-1990s we worked with the B’laan people in collaboration with the Kaliwat Theatre Collective on the Philippine island of Mindanao. For the B’laan, traditional dance was evidence of their enduring relationship to the land, proof of Ancestral Domain, and music was integral to dance performance. However the generations immediately following first contact were often seduced by the culture of the invader, and the materials to make traditional instruments were only found in the forest before it was felled. We were supporting the elders to maintain and transmit their culture to the nest generations when a local war lord massacred 36 B’laan people to stop a government land grant covering their ‘Ancestral Domain’. After escaping back to the provincial capital, Davao, we created the dance theatre production, ‘Ground Up’ based on our experiences with the B’laan, and toured it across the country.

GongHouse and Kaliwat performing Ground Up. National Theatre of the Philippines, Manilla, 1994.

This intensity of work was not sustainable, and GongHouse wound up on return to Australia. However, I remained convinced of the power of gamelan music to promote cultural inclusion and social well-being, and sought ways to expand opportunities to make gamelan music in the western world. An obvious hurdle to overcome was the availability of instruments, but the design and mass production of instruments would require capital investment and evidence of a viable market. In turn, this necessitated the adoption of a tuning system that would be widely acceptable to western people. A glaring problem with Just Tuning was that our percussion instruments did not produce harmonic overtones. Like traditional gamelan instruments, they vibrated in three dimensions and created a wide variety of timbres.

To address this issue I embarked on nearly a decade of research on the physics of percussion instruments that resulted in the design and production of the world’s first harmonic bells, gongs and metallophones. In 2001, my colleagues and I created 81, 2-octave chromatic sets of bronze harmonic handbells to commemorate the Federation of Australia. Over one million people have participated in community projects with these bells all over the world (see The Federation Handbells link below). A few years later I produced the world’s first harmonic gamelan of bells, gongs and metallophones in western tuning, and published research showing rapid skill acquisition and high motivation for learning gamelan-like music using this ensemble in a primary school environment. Music educators and academics showed little interest in the harmonic gamelan and I was unable to garner investment to mass produce the instruments and publish learning materials. In retrospect, gamelan musicians did not like western tuning and were not interested in western harmony, whereas western musicians could not imagine how to teach with a percussion ensemble.

While making the harmonic gamelan it became evident that there were major flaws in the western music theories that propose that the pitch of an instrument is the lowest frequency of harmonic overtones, harmony was the coincidence of harmonics in Just Tuned pitch intervals, and dissonance was the roughness created by the beating of mistuned harmonics. Gamelan instruments are precisely tuned to each other, and yet do not have harmonic overtones. Balinese gamelan features a form of polyphonic harmony, and yet is not Just Tuned. Furthermore, even western music employs tempered tuning where many intervals are not tuned to harmonics and so generate roughly beating timbres.

In light of these issues, I published a series of research papers that explode the myth that western music is based on the physics of sound and its mathematical relationships. Instead, I developed a new model of auditory processing that proposes that people can learn to automatically associate any sound that systematically changes over a range of frequencies with a physical instrument or scale. In other words, perceiving music involves the embodied cognition of cultured-defined stimuli. Consonance is perceived when musical stimuli are recognised and successfully processed according to the musical expectations of the listener, and dissonance occurs when the stimuli are not recognised or fail to meet their expectations.

This is consistent with the difficulty western people have in understanding gamelan music when they first encounter it, which is often experienced as dissonance. It is also consistent with the clear evidence that western people can learn to play gamelan and then enjoy listening to it. In turn, this suggests that introducing the benefits of gamelan to the western world could simply involve making instruments available in traditional Indonesian tunings, and reassuring people that after a short time of learning, they will come to love these sounds.

So I have now designed a set of aluminium metallophones that are closely modelled on the acoustics and physicality of traditional Balinese instruments. These instruments are designed to be mass-produced at a relatively low cost. The aluminium keys were designed by vibrational modelling to approximate the required tunings, given the addition of brass weights at each end to reduce the overall length of the key and improve their sound radiation properties. Since cold rolled aluminium plate varies slightly in thickness between batches, the weight at one end of the key can be moved to fine-tune keys after laser cutting. The wooden frames were cut from plywood by a computer-controlled router in small batches optimized to fit the plywood sheet size. This manufacturing approach will allow instruments to be made to order in small batches in any required tuning (since each Indonesian gamelan has a unique tuning), and posted to musicians anywhere in the world with minimal assembly labour.  I hope that they will be embraced by gamelan musicians across the western world, firstly as practice instruments that they can keep at home, but also to establish new ensembles that they can teach. Finally, these instruments do not look like traditional Indonesian instruments, resplendent with carved depictions of gods and characters from the Hindu religious sagas. I will be fascinated to observe whether naive listeners will be more open to listening to music played on instruments that don’t appear so exotic within a western cultural context.

Two Balinese ‘Gangsa’ and an aluminium metalophone that covers the same range of notes. The Balinese instruments were imported by Jeremy Dullard for Gamelan Dananda in Melbourne.

Jeremy Dullard and John Cheong from Gamelan Dananda playing an excerpt of ‘Rejang Renteng’ on the instruments pictured at the top of the article (Balinese followed by aluminium), followed by an excerpt of ‘Bapung Selisir’ on an aluminium metalophone in western tuning.

The myth that western music is based on physical principles of sound is still taught in elite institutions around the world, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This myth implies that people in the western ruling classes are inherently better at understanding musical complexity, and by extension are more intelligent than others, while ignoring the years of training in western art music they received. This idea has been explicitly used to justify western colonial, fascist and racist actions for over two centuries. Along with the intense commodification of music, the myth of inherited musical talent has also contributed to a large decline in music participation rates in the west over the last century. Over the same time period there have been substantial increases in the incidence of mental illnesses in the west. While many factors are likely contributing to this increase (such as better diagnosis), a strong correlation would normally attract many millions of dollars of research funding to uncover any causal bases for the relationship, especially given the strong neuropsychological evidence of the impacts of music on mental states. However, most of the western cultural elites who believe in the superiority of western music also control the flow of venture capital and research funding, and are already making huge profits from pharmaceuticals and music commodification. They are unlikely to support a different approach to music that could improve social and mental well-being in the west.

For these reasons bringing gamelan to the west has received little support from government programs, venture capital or academia. It is most likely to occur through the gradual expansion of the activities of musicians who have already become acculturated to the music through increased access to instrumental resources. This approach has a historical precedent in the birth of jazz in the USA when Black Americans picked up marching band instruments from the civil war and created a new music based on their own cultural traditions.

Further Reading

Harry Partch (1974). Genesis of a Music (2nd Ed.). New York: Da Capo.

Michael Tenzer (2011). Balinese Gamelan Music (3rd Ed.). Hong Kong: Tuttle Publishing.

Federation HandBells:

Gamelan Dananda:

M. McLachlan, D. J. T. Marco, and S. J. Wilson (2013). The musical environment and auditory plasticity: Hearing the pitch of percussion. Frontiers in Psychology.

M. McLachlan (2016). Timbre, Pitch and Music. Oxford Handbooks Online, New York: Oxford University Press.

M. McLachlan, and S. Wilson (2017). The role of the brain stem and cerebellar pathways in auditory recognition. Frontiers in Psychology.


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