Javanese Gamelan.

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Gamelan Cipher Notation

Gamelan musicians have always learned gamelan as an aural tradition. They learn and memorize a piece by hearing it played and by practicing it themselves. There is a written cipher notation for gamelan. Notation is not generally used by Javanese musicians but may be used by others, such as ethnomusicologists and foreign students learning gamelan.

Gamelan notation is written in numbers with special characters for accentuating instruments. Music is not notated in a score for all the instruments, so one generally sees the balungan, or melody. Other parts can be notated but this can be difficult to read--it is often easier to learn how to derive one's part and use one's own shorthand notation for reminders.

The notation for the buka and umpak of Lancaran Jaranan is shown in the image below (the lagu section of Jaranan is not notated).

Notation for Lancaran Jaranan.

The numbers are the pitches, dots are rests, and the overbars denote notes played twice as fast as usual (similar to the beams of eighth-notes ). To denote a pitch in a higher octave, a dot would be placed above a number. A pitch in a lower octave would have a dot below the pitch number.

Other symbols denote punctuating instruments. For example, the circle is for gong ageng and the sideways parentheses for gong suwuk. The plus-sign is for kethuk, the "smiley" for kempul, and the "frowny" for kenong. In the above notation, the kethuk, kenong, and kempul parts apply to each line. Note also that the notes come in groups called gatra, which can be thought of as "measures" in Western music.

There are other common notations for the punctuating instruments. In another familiar notation system, an N stands for kenong and a P for kempul. The first kenongan, or line, of the umpak in Lancaran Jaranan could also be notated thus:

Alternate gamelan notation.

Other instruments have their own notation using numbers, although these are often complex, especially if there are two notes being played at the same time, bowing markings, etc. The drums have their own special notation with different symbols.


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Author: Bern Jordan.
Created: 19 April 2002
Last updated: 12 July 2002
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