Since the earliest forms of music, notation has been a critical part of developing, learning, and preserving different music works and musical ideas. Music notation is any system that represents aurally perceived music in written form with the use of numbers, symbols, and pictures. The earliest form of musical notation dates back to Iran 2000BC which was found in a cuneiform tablet, however, musical notation has evolved and adapted in many ways since then. The most prominent style of musical notation in today’s musical landscape is the Western classical system, which is interpreted through staves, but it is of the utmost importance to look at diverse kinds of notation in order to continue developing better ways of communicating music. One style of notation that has remained somewhat unchanged throughout musical history can be found in central Java, Indonesia. This essay will explore the history of Javanese music, and highlight the underlying principles used to notate Javanese Gamelan.
A key function of gamelan in Indonesia is to demonstrate cultural diversity among its people. Indonesia contains thousands of inhabited islands with hundreds of different ethnic groups speaking a wide variety of Indonesian influenced languages. Gamelan is an indigenous music form has been closely ingrained in Indonesian culture since before the countries earliest records, predating the earliest records of Hindu-Buddhist culture. According to Javanese mythology, Sang Hyang Guru, the god who ruled over Java from a palace in Mendand Kamulan, created gamelan in the form of a gong in 230AD as a means of summoning the other gods to his palace. However, the earliest record of gamelan music ensemble can be found in the 8th century Borobudur temple, in Central Java. The term gamelan, unlike western labeling of musical genres, refers to the instruments used in the ensemble. Javanese Gamelan takes the role of an orchestra, largely involving megaphones in the form of gongs and slabs which are usually struck with a stick and control the melodic and harmonic nature of gamelan music, and double sided Indonesian drums which control the rhythm and tempo.
In Central Javanese Gamelan, an ensemble is divided into four main categories which depicts their role; drums which act as the conductor, balungan, which voice the main melody, accentuating instruments, and elaborating instruments which emphasize the harmonies in the melody and create polyrhythms. Although instruments are divided into different roles, some instruments can establish multiple roles in gamelan music. While different gamelan may vary in tuning, predominantly, all gamelan follow up to two different interval structures: the 7-tone pelog, and the 5-tone slendro, neither of which are compatible with Western music tuning systems.
The different roles instruments play in gamelan demand a varying set of notation in order to preserve different works. Javanese refer to the composition of a Gamlelan ensemble as gendhing, and the process of composing gamelan music with the word komposisi. The collections of different Gamelan compositions in notated form are coined gendhing. Gamelan music does not have a long history of being a notated music form, but rather an oral tradition. Indonesian music is closely associated with celebration, cultural festivities, and social events among Indonesian people and rather than following a strict notational repertoire, gamelan performance has commonly been categorized as a music form to be learned by ear and improvisation. The need for gamelan notation became apparent in the 19th century when performers realized the need to record their compositions as a means of preservation for future performers and composers. This notation, however, is not traditionally used as a means of learning gamelan instruments like the western classical system; rather, the music is passed on by mouth and ear and memorized prior to performance.