Gamelan Angklung

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The gamelan angklung is one of the most popular types of  orchestra in Bali, requiring about twenty musicians. Tuned to a four-tone scale in slendro tuning, the gamelan angklung presents a cheerful, open, and rhythmically intricate musical landscape, expressed in the fluid grace of its traditional repertoire. 


Although gamelan angklung is often heard in the Balinese temple, where it can supply musical accompaniment to a normal odalan (temple anniversary), its most characteristic and identifying context is in rituals related to death, and therefore to the invisible spiritual world of transitions from life to death and beyond. It is played as one's mortal remains are brought from home to a temporary burial, awaiting cremation; in that case the group might sit at the side of the road, or the instruments modified to be carried and played in procession. It is heard at the cremation itself. And, of the triumvirate of primary temples (khayangan tiga) found in most villages, it is most at home in the Pura Dalem, associated with death and the chthonic forces. Through these associations, angklung music has strong emotional associations for many Balinese listeners, evoking that particular combination of sweetness and sadness that accompanies a soul’s release.

Traditional angklung pieces are gems of melodic construction and classical balance, defying the limitations of its narrow four-tone scale. There are many thousands of angklung compositions, owing to the sheer number of orchestras on the island, and the fact that each group evolves its own variants of regional works, or unique compositions. However the instrumentation is fairly uniform, comprising twelve 4-keyed metallophones, a reong of eight gong-chimes, kendang (drums), ceng-ceng (cymbals), kempur (suspended gong), various small hand-held bronze pots, and suling (bamboo flutes).

In recent decades, gamelan angklung is sometimes used to play popular tari lepas, the free-standing (that is, unallied to dramatic performance) dance compositions normally played on a gamelan gong kebyar. This transferal is accomplished by rearranging the kebyar melodies to fit within the restricted four-note ambitus of angklung, and making a few minor adjustments in instrumentation. Additional gongs, both larger and smaller, are added, as well as heavier drums. Modern composers sometimes create new and experimental instrumental pieces for angklung as well.

Originally, the word “angklung” referred to a set of hand-held bamboo rattles, which were played with the bronze ensemble. Each rattle is played by a one musician, producing a single scale-tone or pitch class (e.g. a tone with it’s octave) in a sustained tremolo. By hocketing and alternating their parts, a complete melody can be created. These type of angklung are now rare in Bali. Also uncommon are angklung orchestras that use a scale of five, rather than four, tones—the full slendro scale. There are several five-tone angklung in North Bali. But the fifth tone has a potential presence even in four-tone angklung group: the flute player(s) will occasionally touch upon it.

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