Unplayed Melodies: Javanese Gamelan and the Genesis of Music Theory

Unplayed Melodies: Javanese Gamelan and the Genesis of Music Theory

Unplayed Melodies: Javanese Gamelan and the Genesis of Music Theory

Unplayed Melodies: Javanese Gamelan and the Genesis of Music Theory


The gamelan music of Central Java is one of the world's great orchestral traditions. Its rich sonic texture is not based on Western-style harmony or counterpoint, but revolves around a single melody. The nature of that melody, however, is puzzling. In this book, Marc Perlman uses this puzzle as a key to both the art of the gamelan and the nature of musical knowledge in general.

Some Javanese musicians have suggested that the gamelan's central melody is inaudible, an implicit or "inner" melody. Yet even musicians who agree on its existence may disagree about its shape. Drawing on the insights of Java's most respected musicians, Perlman shows how irregularities in the relationships between the melodic parts have suggested the existence of "unplayed melodies." To clarify the differences between these implicit-melody concepts, Unplayed Melodies tells the stories behind their formulation, identifying each as the creative contribution of an individual musician in a postcolonial context (sometimes in response to Western ethnomusicological theories). But these stories also contain evidence of the general cognitive processes through which musicians find new ways to conceptualize their music. Perlman's inquiry into these processes illuminates not only the gamelan's polyphonic art, but also the very sources of creative thinking about music.


Karawitan, the music of the Central Javanese gamelan ensemble, is a highly sophisticated tradition of multipart music. As many as eleven distinct melodic lines create a rich orchestral texture, one that owes nothing to Western principles of harmony or counterpoint. Ethnomusicologists call this texture “heterophonic,” meaning that it presents different versions of a single melody simultaneously. This is a very imprecise term, but it does capture an important truth: Javanese musicians usually consider the many melodic lines of a gamelan composition to revolve around one central melody. Paradoxically, however, it is not obvious what that melody is. Javanese musicians themselves disagree over it; some have suggested that there is no audible melodic basis but only an implicit one, a central melody neither played nor heard. in this book I show how they arrived at this conclusion and argue that these notions of an unplayed, “inner” or “essential” melody can teach us much, not only about Javanese gamelan, but about musical thinking in general.

For decades Javanese pedagogical and notational practice seemed to assume that the center of gravity of a gamelan composition, and the improviser’s guideline, is a melody known as the “skeleton” or “framework” (balungan), played in a slow, even rhythm on a set of seven-keyed instruments called saron. This assumption became received wisdom within ethnomusicology as well. But in the 1970s a number of Javanese musicians called this premise into question. Some declared that the “framework” was not the melody played on the saron. Indeed, some musicians went further, arguing that the actual melodic basis was not the “framework” at all, but an unplayed, inaudible, or “inner” melody.

This idea deserves our attention, for two reasons. First, it is quite unusual when viewed in a global perspective. True, we do have some reports of un-

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