Gamelan Music Influence on Western Music

The word gamelan represents a unique form of music that exists in Indonesian culture, and has had an interesting influence on Western music. The term Gamelan can represent several different types of ensembles in Indonesian culture which vary depending on the purpose of the set. The western world has recently become increasingly interested in “unique” and “exotic” forms of music, a category in which gamelan would easily fall under. Some artists in the west have adopted a few traits from gamelan and incorporated them into their own western music. For instance John Cage and his work with the prepared piano, Claude Debussy, and even newly developed electronic music have elements of gamelan integrated into their music.

Gamelan has an ancient history which supposedly predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture and according to Javanese mythology was created by Sang Hyang Guru a god who ruled Java. Gamelan differs from western music in many ways, which is why it is so interesting when the two forms fuse together. Gamelan music has no standard pitch which to the ears of a western music listener may often sound out of tune and even annoying, however there are two good reasons for this inconsistency in pitch. The first being that historically and even up to recent times, it is considered an insult to copy the exact tuning of an old or sacred gamelan set. The second reason why Javanese scales have not been standardized is because: “The Javanese understand and appreciate the great advantages of subtle differences of tuning (Lindsay 26). The deviations in tuning create a wider range of variation in the music and allow for more music to be created.

Another significant difference between Gamelan and western music is the purpose of playing music. “It is difficult for a Javanese to understand or appreciate the idea of individual artistic expression which is the basis of Western music” (Lindsay 40). In western music culture, music is performed for the enjoyment of the audience and the performers; however gamelan music is usually performed solely for the pleasure of the musicians. In Javanese society you do not find concert-hall performances of gamelan and if there is an audience it is usually a small group of invited guests and the music is simply used as a background. (Lindsay 40). In the same way that gamelan music sounds exotic to us, western music is very hard for the Javanese to appreciate. Gamelan music layers its pieces with many interlocking melodies, in comparison to western music which puts a greater emphasis on layers of harmonic lines that intertwine. In gamelan music, there is no such thing as “one person trying to be the virtuoso of the performance” all of the players fit their contribution into a balanced performance.  (Lindsay 32). Below is a musical example of a traditional Javanese Gamelan performance, where you can hear the layering of melodies and how they all are woven together during the performance.

As stated previously, there are some characteristics of gamelan that have been assimilated into western music culture. Claude Debussy a western composer found the beauty in gamelan music. Debussy commented on the forms of traditional western music versus gamelan music. In Debussy’s words traditional forms are “goal-oriented” where musical forms develop ideas and reach climaxes. In contrast to this, gamelan music form is more cyclic, where music forms do not represent time-progress but rather the oriental view of endless cycles. (Hugh). “Perhaps the most important inspiration Debussy found in Javanese music was not any particular musical technique or sound, but rather the general notion that there could be a well-developed, powerful, and beautiful music that had developed totally outside and often in contradiction to, the established rules and conventions of western European music” (Hugh). This quote sums up the philosophy of Claude Debussy, he was not afraid of stepping beyond the boundaries of western music and by doing so, he widened the perspectives of many western composers.                                      Here is a piece of music written by Claude Debussy which was inspired by Javanese Gamelan. This piece is performed by Percy Grainger and begins at 2:33.

John Cage is a man who came much later that Claude Debussy but also found wonder in the gamelan style of music. John Cage is one artist who took western music and turned it upside down. The music in which he wanted to create was based largely on melodies rather than harmonies, thus his relationship to gamelan music. Cage once stated: “I have no feeling for harmony” upon saying this, he was immediately showered with doubt from his peers who said that he would have nowhere to go if he only focused on melody (Pritchett). Cage began creating music similar to gamelan, when he started the idea of prepared piano. He would place items such as screws, wood pieces, or any other everyday items which would give some of the notes on the piano a percussive sound. Cage once described the sound of prepared piano as “a melody which employs sounds having widely different timbres.” (Pritchett). Prepared piano is amazing because it gives one solitary instrument a huge range of timbres which no other instrument can compare to. John Cage and his work with melodies completely changed the mindset of western listeners about what music can be. Here is an example of one of Cage’s works for prepared piano:


In a recently developed genre of music, traces of gamelan characteristics can be found spilling into the ears of western listeners. Electronic music is a still developing art which encompasses many of the tell-tale traits of gamelan music. In many electronic songs, there are no vocals and no single line of melody. Electronic music also employs the same cyclic pattern in its songs as seen in the example below:!

Electronic music is also mainly produced by machines with percussive sounds that strikingly reflect the ambient gamelan music.

To a western listener’s ear, gamelan music may sound exotic and even strange, but gamelan has influenced western music more than one may think. Gamelan music and other unusual styles of music are becoming more interesting to the western world as we expand our interests outside of our own realm. It is interesting to see how these two very different styles of music can come together in beautiful ways. In the future I see Gamelan music continuing to have an increasing influence on western music and expanding the vast possibilities that music has to offer.

Below is an interesting modern twist to the ancient art of gamelan:


“About the Composer.” American Masters. 1 August, 2001. Web. 2 December 2012.

Durkan, Patrick. “The Influence of Gamelan on Western Modern Music.” 18 August, 2011. Web. 2 December 2012.

Hugh, Brent. “Claude Debassy and the Javanese Gamelan.” 1998. Web. 2 December, 2012.

Lindsay, Jennifer. Javanese Gamelan. New York. Oxford University Press. 1979. Print.

Pritchett, James. “John Cage and the Prepared Piano: A Twelve Year History in Six Parts.” 2007. Web. 2 December 2012.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

What is Reggaeton?

Since the recent rise in popularity of Reggaeton I have been eager to learn more about the history and culture of this unique style of music. Reggaeton is a form of urban Latin music which became popular in Latin America in the 1990s and spread to North America, Europe, and Asia over the next decade. The music fuses the styles of several different styles of music including: reggae, hip-hop, and Latin music. The rhythm that is found in Reggaeton music is referred to as Dem Bow and if you have listened to any type of Reggaeton music you are probably familiar with the “boom-ch-book-chick” rhythm. Other characteristics of the music include drum machines, “rapping in Spanglish” and fast-paced dance beats. The song below displays the early style of Reggaeton music and you can clearly hear the Dem Bow rhythm.

While widely popular there are several areas of controversy that surround the music’s origin and the dance moves that are associated with the music. Reggaeton music was first recorded in Panama in the mid-1970’s when vast numbers of Jamaican immigrants were brought over to construct the Panama Canal. These immigrants brought with them Reggae music which was introduced to the Panamanian population thus created the beginnings of Reggaeton music. The controversy arises when you consider the amount of Puerto Rican artists that are widely popular today and the impact that they have had on the music. Reggaeton originated in Jamaica however a common misconception is that the music’s point of origin lies in Puerto Rico. Many of the Reggaeton artists that hail from Puerto Rico have changed many aspects of the music therefore it is easy to see the confusion that may cloud the true origins of the music. Several popular artists that brought Reggaeton to the top of the charts include: Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen, and Tito El Bambino. The other area of controversy is the dance moves that are associated with Reggaeton music and the negative connotation that goes along with it. The dance is called Perreo and is the center of controversy because of sexually explicit dance moves that it contains. Reggaeton music is projected to appeal to the younger generations and therefore causes a problem when it promotes vulgar actions in young people. Unfortunately this type of dancing is becoming part of the new culture in several modern countries around the world. The song below displays a more modern style of Reggaeton.

Reggaeton is a very interesting and rather new genre of music with roots in Reggae music that was formed in Panama and adopted by several Latin American cultures that made it into what it is today. Puerto Rico has produced the most the most Reggaeton artists and is often confused as the country of origin for the music. Reggaeton is a unique blend of urban hip-hop and rap fused with Latin influences. These characteristics are not seen in any other type of music and this in turn makes Reggaeton music all the more interesting to listen to.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What is music?

Music is a means of expressing oneself without the use of words. Sure many songs have lyrics, but music seems all the more beautiful when it can move someone purely by the combination of rhythm and melody. The whole purpose of music is to evoke a specific emotion it may be joy, sadness, happiness, anger or even hope, no matter what it is music can be a powerful tool. Many times when the right words  are hard to find music can be those words and portray an emotion. The reason why people can become so absorbed in a piece of music is because it can reach them on a deeper level when words are involved.  Trumpets can be the words of encouragement and achievement, tubas those of terrifying and threatening words, and soothing flute melodies can be reassuring. Along with the different timbres of insturments music comes in many different genres and each of those genres may target a specific emotion. Each genre brings it’s own perception of music to the table and many times a specific genre can easily be identified, it needs no explantation through the use of words it is simply recongized by its style and feel. Music can transmit a universal message even with the absence of words, and that is what makes it so beautiful.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment