The Awesome Gamelan Music of Bali

Gamelan Orchestra

The making of the gamelan is typically a family affair, the skills having been handed down from generation to generation. The bronze castings are done only on auspicious days as determined by the temple priest, thus insuring the richest, purest tones. Wood craftsmen make the elaborately carved frames usually of jackfruit wood.The set of instruments are built and intended to stay together as an ensemble. Most communities in Bali have a gamelan which belongs to the community as a whole and is often housed and played in the balai banjar, a community meeting hall with open walls that allows the music to flow out into the community where everyone can enjoy it.

“The melody unrolled like some ancient chant, grave and metallic, while around it there wove an endless counterpoint of tones from the little gongs in front. From time to time, above the drums there floated the soft, reverberating tone of a great gong, deep, penetrating, seeming to fill the temple with faintly echoing sound.”

A House in Bali by Colin McPhee

The gamelan has become a fundamental part of the performing arts in Bali. Almost all religious rituals include gamelan performance and there are tens of thousands of religious ceremonies and festivals held at the hundreds of temples throughout the island. Certain compositions are believed to possess magic powers, and can be used to ward off evil spirits.

Dance is a very ancient tradition that is part of artistic and religious expression. The dancers  movements are closelyTraditional Balinese Dance associated with the rhythms produced by the gamelan. Many village temples feature a special performance of a dance-drama, a battle between the mythical characters Rangda, the witch representing evil, and Barong, the lion or dragon, representing good. The costumes are always elaborate and the movements in the face, eyes, hands, arms, hips, and feet are coordinated to reflect layers of gamelan’s percussive sounds.

The shadow puppets, or Wayang, of Bali, may be the most prominent Balinese theatrical expression. They communicate Bali’s history, religious and spiritual teachings, poetry, and philosophy. The puppets represent demigods, demons, magic men, and romantic lovers. Many different stories have been passed down through the generations by the puppet masters ranging from high drama, improvisation and slapstick comedy. The puppet theater performances are also accompanied by gamelan music, usually of the gender wayang style.


Balinese Shadow PuppetsThe jarring, jangly, pulsating music of the gamelan was one of the highlights of our recent Bali visit. Sitting on our veranda our first night in Ubud, hearing, the the music of a gamelan performance waifing across the rice paddies is one of my most vivid memories. I had to know more.The intertwining of Bali’s music traditions into their culture is fascinating.

”The Gamelan Music of Bali” is a photo gallery of gamelan performances at temple festivals, a dance performance and several images of gamelan being made.

For more Bali photo galleries: “Bali – Land of Spirits” and “Bali’s Rice Culture.”

Visit On the Go With Lynne for more on Bali and other great travel writing.

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Bali Gamelan Gong

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  1. lynne May 17, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Ron, I am so pleased with this blog. An educational and personal description of gamelon and its cultural and religious significance. I will never forget our sitting on the veranda together listening to this incredible music and pinching ourselves…that we were actually in Bali.

  2. Tricia July 29, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    Ron, what a wonderful posting about gamelan music! We enjoyed such performances when we were in Ubud and Jimbaran last year. As we stayed at a B&B not far from a performance theater, the tunes became our lovely evening soundtrack. We were also thrilled to have been invited to a family’s baptism celebration during which the boys of the family played traditional Balinese instruments. I miss those elaborate cultural practices so much now!

    • Ron August 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Thank you Tricia. Like you, our evening entertainment was sitting on our veranda listening to gamelan performances across Ubud, and then to see performances in conjunction with temple ceremonies. Such fond memories.