The Bare Basics:
A gamelan is a very specific grouping of musical instruments used to play a style of traditional Indonesian music. The music can be extremely foreign-sounding to western ears, as it consists of entirely different musical scales and rhythms. The music is generally used in religious ceremonies and celebrations. There are several styles of gamelan, each from different Indonesian islands. The most popular styles are Javanese and Balinese gamelan.
A gamelan consists of specific numbers and sizes of instruments, all of which fall into the category of xylophone, gong, bell or drum. Generally, the instruments are all metallic (except the drum heads), but some lesser-known gamelan styles use wooden or bamboo instruments. Some forms of gamelan do incorporate choral sections or even string sections, but they are primarily percussion-only.
Gamelans are tuned to specific scales, and can be played only in that scale. The musicians each play a specific instrument, and they play in an almost cyclical rhythm, giving the gamelan an intense and highly active sound that can be difficult for a casual listener to parse.
One of the main purposes of Gamelan music is for meditation and religious ceremony. Many people believe that the cyclical rhythms of the Gamelan plays directly on specific brain waves and can lead the mind into a deep trance. The popularity of meditation in the West is one of the main reasons for the Gamelan gaining so much popularity. In any case, it is certainly true that listening to Gamelan music requires a great deal of focused attention.
Where to See Gamelan Performances:
Because of the sheer physical size of the Gamelan, orchestras seldom travel. However, many colleges and cultural centers in Europe and the United States own gamelans and offer performances. Find a gamelan orchestra near you!