Electronic Music Theory: Gamelan Music Techniques for Modern Music Composition

Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau investigates Indonesia’s gamelan music and explores how this form of music can inspire our own music productions.

In this article, I will take an approach similar to the one I used in Electronic Music Theory: Learning From Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5., in which I compared Beethoven’s 5th symphony to NiT GRiT’s track “12 Gauge.” However, instead of analyzing two pieces of music, I will analyze compositional techniques used in gamelan music, and show how you might incorporate them into your own music.

WHAT IS GAMELAN MUSIC?

A gamelan is an Indonesian traditional musical ensemble. The term “gamelan” actually refers to a group of instruments, much in the way “orchestra” is used in the West to signify a combination of strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. In Indonesia, gamelan means a combination of metallophones, drums, gongs, zithers, and flutes. One major difference from western ensembles, however, is that each set of gamelan instruments is a unique entity, built and tuned to work together.  The instruments usually can’t be switched between different ensembles.

There are two main styles of gamelan music: Javanese  and Balinese. Javanese (and its offshoot, Sudanese) tends to be calm and meditative, while Balinese is more aggressive.

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Although the above example may seem to be far removed from the music we make and listen to, much of the underlying structure is quite similar, while other aspects are conceptually foreign.

The functions of the instruments of the gamelan can be broken into three categories: Melody, Time, and Structure.

MELODY

Whether you’re listening to the Sex Pistols, Chinese Opera, or some obscure jungle track, melody is the part you sing along to.  It can be a hook, a bass line, or even a distinct drum pattern. In gamelan music, the melody is often shared between different instruments. Usually, it is introduced by the flute (rebab) and then passed to the xylophones (gambang), zither (celempung), and sometimes voice.  Sharing a melody between different instruments is common in many musical styles, but the reason for this in gamelan music is noteworthy. Most of the instruments have very limited ranges (usually a little over 1 octave), while the melodies often span 2-3 octaves.  This forces the melody to move from instrument to instrument, continuously changing color and texture. Some of the instruments also have limited note choices.  For example, an instrument called the pélog barang gender (a xylophone with metal bars) is missing one of the notes of its scale, so each time that note comes up in the melody, a different instrument must jump in to play that note.

In your productions, try assigning limited ranges to various instruments, or even challenging yourself with the “missing note” concept. Once you’ve identified the melody you want to work with, select several different instruments and split the melody between them. Define one octave (or less) per instrument, and as the melody rises and falls, the instrument will change. Or, assign individual notes to different instruments. For example, have the note “C” played by a monosynth,  “D” by a horn stab, “E” a sound with a delay effect, and so on. These techniques can be implemented by programming your tracks according to the rules you create, or by using tools that allow you to automatically assign notes. For example, in Ableton Live’s, the Instrument Rack has a Zone editor which allows you to assign note ranges to different instruments.

OLD SCHOOL

TIME

The pulse of gamelan is provided by the interaction of the drums and the metal xylophones. The drums (kendand) are two-headed, with a low and a high pitch. This allows them to function similarly to a drum set (low pitch = bass drum, high pitch = snare). The drums are typically locked into a groove with the metal xylophones, which create fluid motion. Together, they provide the backbone you might create with a drum machine and an arpeggiated or step sequenced synth line.

Something unique about gamelan’s approach to time is how the groove, tempo, or instrumentation can change at the drop of a hat.  Some thread of the previous section may remain, while everything else changes around it. For example, the melody may continue, but the pulse underneath it changes. The technique of dramatically changing tempo while retaining the other elements of a piece is very underutilized in western music. DJs often change groove when mixing from track to track, but generally the pulse stays the same.

Try this tempo change experiment on a track of your own. Somewhere in the middle of the piece, add an extra 16 empty measures for a “breakdown” section. Change the tempo in your sequencer to a value that is not a multiple of the original tempo. (For example, if the original tempo is 150 BPM, don’t choose 75 BPM.)  Carry over a previously used melody into this section, and reprogram it at the new tempo. Change the groove, add new samples or sounds; make it a new unique section. By creating a breakdown with a tempo change, you’ll get vibe that is very different from most electronic music. It may sound cool and innovative, or it could sound completely insane! You may not get results you love the first time you try this, but that’s not the point. Changing your approach to making music will open your mind to new possibilities, and help to make you a better composer.

Now that’s my kind of gig!

STRUCTURE

The gong defines the structure of gamelan music. Pieces start and finish with the gong. It’s also used to signify repetitions in the melody, and introduce new sections. It’s the crash cymbal of gamelan!

When composing, try creating a special sound to introduce different parts of the track. Make it something unique and use it only for this purpose. The sound can morph over time, as long as its function and sonic fingerprint stays the same; it could almost be its own hook.

Let’s analyze this piece from a Javanese Orchestra.

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0:00 – Intro melody is stated on flute.

0:25 –  Melody is repeated twice on metal xylophone (at first it may be hard to recognize the xylophone and flute melody to be the same, but they are).

1:18 – A new tempo is introduced.

1:26 – Two xylophones patterns interplay. The right side is brighter and more active, but occasionally it drops notes which are filled in by the mellower xylophone in the left ear. In electronic music, this sort of effect is sometimes achieved by applying random panning effects to a sequenced pattern.

2:43 – The pulse is removed and the melody is repeated on flute.  This creates contrast and tension before the drums come back with a heavier groove at 3:15, much like the breakdown in a dance track.

This final example is a Balinese gamelan ensemble. Stylistically it is more intense: there are repeated radical changes to the tempo and sonic colors. It’s as if there is a battle going on between the different instruments, in contrast to the more relaxed Javanese example above.

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Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.

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