Debussy may have first heard the instruments of the gamelan as early as 1887, when the Dutch government gave a gamelan to the Paris Conservatoire. But he first heard the complete gamelan orchestra, played by skilled native musicians, in 1889 at the Paris


Claude Debussy

and the

Javanese Gamelan





Brent Hugh
brent [at]

This is the script for a lecture recital given in 1998 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The script indicates instructions for playing a CD or performing on the piano at certain points. No audio excerpts are available in this online version. Some of the graphic files have become corrupted.

A more complete version (with stage directions!) is available in PDF format.


Debussy's Exposure to the Gamelan

The 1889 Paris Universal Exposition was an eye-opening experience for Claude Debussy, a young composer just beginning to make himself known and get his first compositions published. At the 1889 Exposition, groups from around the world displayed the best of their countries' art, music, culture, and way of life. (The recently completed Eiffel Tower was the centerpiece of the Exposition.)

Particularly interesting to the musicians who visited the Exposition was the exhibit from Java, an island in the Malay Archipelago. The Java exhibit was a model Kampong, or village, which demonstrated all aspects of communal village life from agricultural practices to religion and entertainment.

The gamelan formed an important part of the religious and social life of the village. The gamelan is a collection of musical instruments, mostly metallic and with gong- or bell-like sounds. The gamelan plays the traditional music of Java, a music that has been passed down by oral tradition for well over a thousand years.

Javanese gamelan music created a sensation among European musicians. Here was a well-developed, powerful, and beautiful music that was completely outside the western idea of what music could and should be. European musicians spent hours listening to the gamelan, transcribing melodies, and examining the instruments and their tunings.

Debussy was quite taken with gamelan music as well. His friend, Robert Godet, reports that

Many fruitful hours for Debussy were spent in the Javanese kampong . . . listening to the percussive rhythmic complexities of the gamelan with its inexhaustible combinations of ethereal, flashing timbres.

What exactly is gamelan music like? And why was it so interesting to Debussy and the other European musicians? What facets of gamelan music did Debussy appropriate and make a part of his own style?

The rest of this presentation will focus on answering these questions.

Gamelan Music

The Instruments

Concerning Gamelan music, Debussy wrote:

There used to be-indeed, despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still are-some wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe. . . .

Here Debussy hit upon one of the most important points about gamelan music: traditionally it is learned quite naturally and as a part of everyday life, in much the same way villagers learn to sow and harvest crops, prepare a meal, or build a traditional dwelling. Starting from the youngest age villagers begin to absorb the conventions and style of gamelan music, gradually and by osmosis as much as formal teaching, learning to play the various instruments. A village gamelan is not played by professional musicians but by villagers who take their part in playing the gamelan as they would in planting the fields or harvesting the crops.

The gamelan and its music are an integral part of the ritual life of the village and indeed the entire gamelan and particularly the large gongs are considered sacred. The instruments of the gamelan are typically housed in its own open-walled building.

The gamelan has an array of metallic instruments, ranging in pitch from low to high, a stringed instrument, a flute, drums, zithers, and various singing voices. The instruments of the gamelan are generally arranged with the largest, lowest instruments in back and the higher instruments towards the front.

The largest and lowest instrument is the gong ageng-it is from this instrument that we get our English word "gong." The gong ageng has been described as having "the most beautiful sound in the world." In addition to the large gong ageng, various smaller hanging gongs are used in the gamelan.

The kenong is a smaller pot gong. This medium sized instrument will play a melody that moves at medium speed.

The bonang is a series of medium sized bronze kettle gongs. A high and a low bonang are typically used in a gamelan. The two bonang often play complicated interlocking patterns.

The saron is a metallophone. Its heavy bronze bars are played with wooden hammers. The saron's range is an octave, and it comes in low, medium, and high versions, each an octave apart. The saron, as one of the higher instruments, plays a faster moving melody.

The gender covers a range of over two octaves. As with most gamelan instruments, the gender player must dampen each note as soon as the following note is played. The coordination required to simultaneously play two notes with the hammers and dampen the two preceding notes with the hands makes the gender one of the most difficult instruments to play.

The gambang is a wooden xylophone.

The suling is a bamboo flute. It is played with a circular breathing technique which makes it possible to play continuously without ever pausing for a breath.

The rebab is a bowed string instrument. The rebab is the melodic leader of the group and plays one of the most elaborate melodies.

The celempung is a zither.

The kendang are drums. The kendang are particularly important in giving signals to the rest of the group.

The solo female singer in a gamelan is known as the pesinden. This slide shows a dancer as well as three pesinden dressed in black. In western music, the solo female singer would typically be the most prominent and important part, and all other instruments would accompany her. However, in Javanese gamelan music, no part, even the singer, is considered more important than the others. All instruments and singers weave their parts together to form a complicated counterpoint in which no one instrument or singer is featured above the rest.

The gamelan is divided into punctuating instruments, balungan instruments, and elaborating instruments. The large instruments in back are punctuating instruments. They play periodically to divide and subdivide the large phrases. The middle-sized instruments play the balungan at a medium speed. The balungan is the melodic nucleus from which all melodies in a particular section of a gamelan piece grow. The small instruments, including the singer, the flute, and the bowed rebab, elaborate on the balungan at a faster speed. This texture, with low instruments moving slowly and higher instruments moving at progressively faster speeds, is an important characteristic of gamelan music.

The island of Java is located in the Malay Archipelago. Part of present-day Indonesia, Java is located on the border of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and between Asia to the northwest and Australia to the southeast. In this location, Java is subject to influence from a variety of cultures. Most scholars believe gamelan music originated as a combination of Buddhist musical instruments and styles from the Orient and the music and dance of the South Pacific islands. The music of India and the Hindu philosophy exercised an influence as well, particularly on music theory and terminology. Later, most residents of Java converted to the Moslem religion, so Moslem philosophy and musical ideas overlaid the others.

"[Javanese] traditions are preserved only in ancient songs, sometimes involving dance, to which each individual adds his own contribution century by century," wrote Debussy. Javanese music does often accompany dance or the shadow puppet plays known as Wayang kulit.

The Music

What does gamelan music sound like?

The most striking element of gamelan music is the cycle. Cycles are known as "gongan" because they are punctuated by strikes of the gong. A cycle may be repeated any number of times, and so is best visualized as a circle.

As an example, let us consider a cycle with eight beats. In this example, we will build a cycle starting with the lowest instruments and gradually adding the others in turn. For purposes of illustration, a tone will mark each beat.

    • The large gong plays every eight beats, marking the beginning of the cycle.
  • A smaller gong divides the cycle in half, playing every four beats.
  • Yet smaller gongs divide the cycle into fourths.
  • An even higher gong will divide the cycle into eighths.
  • What we hear now are the punctuating instruments.
  • After a cycle is repeated several times, the drummer gives a signal, and at the large gong beat a new cycle begins.

What we heard there were the punctuating instruments, which mark the cycles and important subdivisions of the cycles. In a real gamelan, the balungan would be added above this, playing about every beat, and above the balungan the elaborating instruments would play at even faster speeds.

In simplified form, that is how cycles work. In practice, many variations are possible. For instance, cycles may be 4, 8, 16, 32, or 64 beats long. (Notice how each of these numbers allows the cycle to be repeatedly divided in two-an important characteristic of gamelan cycles.)

In a moment we will listen to an extended section from a gamelan piece. Here is an example of an actual cycle from that piece. This is an eight beat cycle.

Listen to CD

We will now listen to a gamelan piece entitled Topeng Cirebon. As we listen, please follow along in your handout, which outlines the form of the piece and mentions several important events to listen for.

This piece begins with an introductory section in which the main melody, mode, and general tempo are presented. At a signal from the drummer the Cycle A begins. After Cycle A is presented once, Cycle B begins. Cycle B repeats several times. This is a fairly typical structure for a gamelan piece.

    • Cycles: Large, medium, small gongs
  • 8 beat cycle we previously heard
  • Gradual tempo changes, rit ends with gong
  • Interlocking rhythms on bonang
  • Repetitive melody
  • "Motoric" rhythmic patterns

Topeng Cirebon is a traditional gamelan piece and would be very similar to the gamelan music Debussy actually heard at the 1889 exposition.

Aspects of Gamelan Music that Influenced Debussy

Now we will examine some of the particular aspects of gamelan music that Debussy admired, and see how he appropriated them and adapted them to his own purposes.


In the year 1910, over twenty years after he first heard the gamelan at the Paris Exposition, Debussy wrote of "Javanese rhapsodies, which instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques."

Western tonal music-the "traditional forms" Debussy refers to-is goal oriented; musical forms are carefully designed to "develop" ideas and to move towards carefully designed climaxes. Certain chords and scale degrees are described as leading to others. Although these leading tendencies may be frustrated, their very existence-whether frustrated or fulfilled-is integral to the style of western music. Javanese music, by contrast, is concerned not with movement in time-with development or leading towards something-but with timelessness. The cycles in gamelan music represent not movement forward in time-progress-but rather the oriental view of endless cycles of history, of death and rebirth, of the rise and fall of empires, cycles that have continued since eternity and will continue into eternity. The gamelan cycle, which may be repeated any number of times and does not develop at all in the Western sense of the word, is a perfect analogue of this static view of history.

This static element appealed to Debussy and his continual use of static figurations and harmonies is one of his most striking departures from his European models.

Two devices that Debussy commonly uses to give this static quality to his music are ostinato and pedal point. Both are closely allied to the idea of the gamelan cycle. The use of these static devices strongly affects the small-scale form of Debussy's music-the form on the level of, say, one to four phrases-distancing it from the European model of phrase development.


An ostinato is a figure which is usually rather short and repeats many times. Because it repeats and typically does not change or develop much over time, an ostinato often imparts a static quality to the music. An example of Debussy's use of ostinato is from "Pagodas." The ostinato is the fast-moving notes in the highest part:

Figure: Ostinato from "Pagodes"

The idea of an ostinato is very close to that of a gamelan cycle. The ostinato we just heard was apparently designed to reproduce a particular typical gamelan sound. It may have been inspired by something like this:

Balinese gamelan excerpt

Pedal Point

A pedal point is a bass note that is sustained as the harmony changes above it. The use of pedal points is common in all Western Music, but Debussy tends to use them more often than did earlier composers, and his pedal points tend to be longer. The frequent use of long pedal points contributes to a static effect in the music because the bass note is the strongest determinant of the harmony, so a long unchanging pedal point gives the impression of a long unchanging harmony.

One of Debussy's most striking uses of pedal point is in the "Prélude" from Pour le piano:

Figure: Prelude

[Image unavailable]

The pedal point A in this example stretches over a remarkable 30 measures.

The pedal point, especially when it is long and unyielding like this one, is reminiscent of the periodic gong stroke of the gamelan cycle. The gong note, like the pedal point, is the lowest note, is unchanging in pitch, and is the most important structural point of the music.

Large Scale Form

Ostinato, repetition, and pedal point affect the small-scale form of Debussy's music, but the exposure to gamelan music altered Debussy's idea of large scale musical form as well. Up to about 1890, most of Debussy's piano music fits quite neatly into the traditional European forms. ABA form is especially common. After 1890-a date which corresponds closely with his first exposure to gamelan music-Debussy's use of musical form changes. ABA form appears much less frequently, and when it does appear it is often used in a fundamentally different and new way.

The form of "Prélude" from Pour le piano is a good example of this. Overall it is an ABA form: the A section presents the two themes, the B section is developmental, and the final A section is followed by a coda. This much is traditional. The piece seems to be based on a very traditional key relationship as well. The two main key areas are a minor and its relative C major. But in this case, the key areas have an unusual twist. The a minor section is in fact modal (a aeolian) and the C major section has a strong tendency towards the C whole-tone scale.

The a aeolian theme (marked with a small a in the diagram) is the one with the extended pedal point:

Figure: "Prelude" a aeolian theme

The C whole-tone theme has many augmented chords:

Figure: "Prelude" C whole-tone theme

This C whole-tone theme never resolves to a minor, as would be expected in tonal music. It appears briefly in the a aeolian immediately previous to the coda, but in an inconclusive way that could scarcely be considered as a traditional resolution to the tonic.

Figure: "Prelude" Ab trill

Apparently this Ab substitutes for the traditional dominant.

The coda features alternating modal and whole tone scales:

Figure: "Prelude" Coda

This alternation between modal and whole tone scales seems to confirm that this modal-whole-tone dichotomy, and not the traditional tonic-dominant relationship, is in fact the central conflict of this piece.


Referring to the complicated layered texture of Javanese gamelan music, Debussy wrote, "Thus Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint which make Palestrina seem like child's play."

Debussy's counterpoint has been described as having three characteristics that differentiate it from the traditional European style of counterpoint: it is layered, fragmentary, and ornamental.

Figure: "Pagodes"

    • The gong
  • Middle instruments moving at a moderate speed
  • Fast-moving upper instruments
  • After two repetitions, a middle voice is added which moves at the same speed as a balungan would in gamelan music.


Figure: "Cloches"

    • The top layer consists of thirds
  • The main melody is a descending second, which is repeated
  • A bell-like motive in staccato seconds replies to the descending second
  • A motoric figuration in fast-moving 16ths completes the texture
  • Ornamental Debussy's melodies often have various kinds of ornaments and embellishments. This is similar to the way gamelan music creates a melody by interlocking rhythms with two or more instruments and the way a nuclear melody is progressively embellished by the higher instruments. This melody from "The Moon Descends Over the Ruins of the Temple" has ornamentation in octaves suggestive of the way gamelan instruments an octave apart will work together to play or embellish a melody.
  • Figure:"Lune"

      • The melody begins with a gong stroke.
    • Octave ornamentation
  • Sound
  • Debussy said about gamelan music, "If one listens to it without being prejudiced by one's European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus." Debussy was fascinated with the sound of bells and gongs, so it is no surprise that the sound of the gamelan attracted him.

    The bell-like sounds of the gamelan can be imitated most readily on the piano of any European instrument. For instance, if notes are played soft and staccato but held in the pedal, the ringing sound is reminiscent to the gamelan.

    Figure: "Cloches"

    Bell-like sounds can also be produced by chords making prominent use of the interval of a 2nd. Debussy uses this device often, as well:

    Figure: "Lune"

    [rising 3rd+2nd]

    Figure: "Cloches"

      • This figure with its grace note duplicates the delayed attack characteristic of gongs and bells

  • Tonalities
  • In 1895 Debussy wrote, "But my poor friend! Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades . . . which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts, for use by naughty little children?"

    The traditional European tonal system of music is based on the major and minor scales and characterized by a focus on tonic-dominant relationships, as Debussy suggests. In contrast to this, Javanese gamelan music is based on two scales, the five-note slendro scale and the seven-note pelog. Neither scale conforms precisely to any group of notes in the European tuning system, because some gamelan notes fall in between the 12 chromatic notes in the western scale.

      • Slendro is approximated by the pentatonic scale formed by the five black keys on the piano.
    • Here is what slendro sounds like on a real gamelan (tunings vary)
    • Pelog is close to the scale formed by the white notes stretching from E to E on the piano.

    These different, very resonant tunings used by the gamelan open up a universe of expressive possibilities lying completely outside the range of those found in tonal music. Debussy was quick to imitate these possibilities in his music.

    "Pagodas" is, of all Debussy's music, the piece most clearly imitative of gamelan music. So it is no surprise that it makes the most thoroughgoing use of pentatonic materials of any of Debussy's piano music. In "Pagodas," several different versions of the pentatonic scale appear.

    Figure: "Pagodes"

      • The first theme of "Pagodas" uses the black-key pentatonic scale.
    • [Play black-key pentatonic scale.]

    Figure: "Pagodes"

      • This theme uses a different pentatonic scale.
    • [Play G#-B-C#-D#-F]

    In all, Debussy uses five or six different versions of the pentatonic scale in "Pagodas." The use of several different types of pentatonic scales, as well the addition of one or two non-pentatonic notes within passages that are otherwise completely pentatonic, may be part of Debussy's evocation of the slendro tuning. Slendro is close to, but subtly different from, the pentatonic scale.

    Some authors have suggested that Debussy uses the whole-tone scale as an analogue of the 7 note pelog tuning. "Bells Through the Leaves," another very clear example of Debussy's use of gamelan techniques, is also one of his most thoroughgoing uses of the whole tone scale.

    Figure: "Cloches"


    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. Debussy writings make it clear that he was especially interested in this aspect of Gamelan music. He remarked that the school of the Javanese musician "consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care, without ever having consulted any of those dubious treatises."

    Debussy may or may not have been aware that Javanese music was ruled by tradition, convention, and musical rules which, although very different from the conventions of European music, are just as well-developed and strict. But this is beside the point. Debussy found in Javanese music an aesthetic and a sound which lay completely outside the tradition of European music and which corresponded in many points with his own inclinations. In mentioning Javanese music's relation to the "sea," the "wind," and the "leaves," Debussy is in fact invoking natural sounds which were the inspiration for several of his own pieces: La Mer (or "The Ocean"), "What the West Wind Saw," "The Wind on the Plains," and "Bells Through the Leaves." By the time Debussy made these comments about Javanese music in 1913, all these pieces had been written and their titles were well known. The mention of these particular items as the inspiration for the Javanese musician can scarcely be coincidental. Debussy makes a strong connection between the inspiration for Javanese music and the inspiration for his own.

    Different Uses Debussy Made of Gamelan Materials

    The pieces in this lecture-recital were selected to show the range of approaches Debussy took to gamelan-inspired material. They range from "Pagodas," which directly represents a gamelan performance all the way to "Goldfish," which makes use of very few gamelan techniques.

    "Prélude" from Pour le piano is an early response to the gamelan techniques. Its extended pedal points, extended measured trills, and unusual tonal relationships have already been mentioned. The prevailing texture, with slow moving bass, moderately moving tenor, and fast moving treble, is often suggestive of the gamelan sound.

    Figure: "Prelude"

    "Pagodas", from Estampes, is a direct representation of a gamelan performance. Gong and bell sounds, cycles, pentatonic melodies reminiscent of slendro tunings, and layered counterpoint with the lower voices moving at progressively slower speeds are all found in abundance. Debussy gives indications to gradually accelerate and then ritard the tempo over a period of time. Just as in gamelan music, the ritard ends with a final gong stroke.

    Figure: "Pagodes"

      • The end of a ritard, ending with a gong
    • Pentatonic scales
    • Slow, medium, and fast texture

    "Bells Through the Leaves" uses many gamelan techniques. Bell-like sounds, sustained in the pedal and a thoroughgoing use of the whole-tone scale put this piece clearly in the gamelan's universe of sound. Its use of a balungan-type melody within a four-voice texture is one of the clearest uses of gamelan techniques in any of Debussy's music:

    Figure: "Cloches"

      • A balungan is a melodic nucleus that moves at a moderate speed. In gamelan music all other melodies are either a simplified or an elaborated version of the balungan.
    • The balungan here is a descending scale figure [play tenor]
    • The alto has a faster version of the balungan
    • The bass has a slower version of the balungan
    • The soprano has an inverted version of the balungan
    • [play all together]

    "And the Moon Descends Over the Ruins of the Temple" shares much of the oriental feeling found in gamelan music, without specifically using many of the techniques. A reference to gamelan music may be in a recurring ornamented pentatonic melody. A spacious and timeless quality is found in abundance, for instance in this passage which features a pentatonic melodic above two alternating chords.

    Figure: "Lune"

      • The alternating chords contribute to a feeling of timelessness

    "Goldfish," although it may have been inspired by a Japanese (not Javanese!) print owned by Debussy, owes very little to specific gamelan techniques. The glistening and flashing movements of goldfish may be suggested in the first theme:

    Figure: "Poissons d'or"

    Only in the final measures is there a hint of the typical gamelan texture.

    Figure: "Poissons d'or"

      • Gamelan texture: slow gongs, moderate speed middle melody, fast upper melody

    "Goldfish" is representative of the majority of Debussy's works in this regard. Gamelan-inspired ideas of tonality, texture, counterpoint, and form work at a very deep level in most of Debussy's music. Gamelan techniques and sounds combine with many other musical and non-musical influences from many different sources, both exotic and mundane. Only on rare occasions is one influence or another obvious enough that it can be clearly identified.

    Debussy purposefully wrote little about specific influences or inspirations for his music. He believed about his music what the symbolist poet Mallarmé believed about his poetry, that "to name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the pleasure of the [art]." Debussy deliberately left us to guess at how strong the influence of gamelan was his in music, and exactly where and when it was applied. The fact that Debussy was writing enthusiastically and in detail about gamelan music, 23 years after hearing it, suggests a lot. And the many specific uses of gamelan sounds and techniques in Debussy's music suggests something as well. And, as Mallarmé continued, " . . . to suggest, herein lies the dream."



    Bauer, Amy. Intercultural Influences on Twentieth Century Music, class notes in my possession.

    Harpole, Patricia W. "Debussy and the Javanese Gamelan." American Music Teacher, 35, no. 3 (Jan 1986), 8-9, 41.

    Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind. Vol I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

    Park, Raymond Roy. The Later Style of Claude Debussy. Ph.D. diss. The University of Michigan (1967). University Microfilms reprint.

    Roberts, Paul. Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1996.

    Tamagawa, Kiyoshi. Echoes From the East: The Javanese Gamelan and its Influence on the Music of Claude Debussy. D.M.A. document. The University of Texas at Austin (1988).

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