I see repeated reference to improvisation in Javanese and Balinese gamelan music but I don't see any reference to the actual rules of improvisation in that music.

What are the rules of improvisation in gamelan music?

  • I don't have enough knowledge to have a try at a proper answer, but this article may help cnx.org/contents/AaDWaahk@6/Listening-to-Balinese-Gamelan- It provides a summary introduction to the scales used, etc. There are other articles on the same site about the gamelan (e.g. cnx.org/contents/xTcXoUQW@8/Balinese-Gamelan) , just to a search by the word. Commented May 6, 2016 at 23:18
  • Improvisation is, to make up the rules "on the fly". If predefined rules is used, it's variations. Not true improvisation.
    – user30462
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 5:09
  • 1
    The book "In the Course of Performance: Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation" has a chapter entitled "Do Javanese Gamelan Musicians Really Improvise?" (books.google.com/…); summary: kind of. There is a lot of choice, but of material appropriate for the context, as opposed to made up on the spot. Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 2:53
  • 1
    @user30462 improvisation is making up music, usually according to predefined rules. That something is a variation doesn't prevent it from being an improvisation, and virtually every musical improvisation complies with some rule or another.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 7:37

1 Answer 1


According to Hardja Susilo, Improvisation in Gamelan is not the same as in the west:


Some remarks should be made regarding the term improvisation. In the West, the word improvisation is synonymous with ad lib, which implies a great deal more freedom than is allowed Javanese musicians. In jazz, the improvising musicians are sometimes known "to fake," a term that does not conjure up a particularly positive image. There are many Javanese terms that may be translated loosely as improvisation: kembangan (literally "flowering"), improvisation that adds beauty; isen–isen ("filling"), improvisation that pleasantly fills a vacuum; ngambang ("floating"), improvisation produced by musicians who do not have a clear knowledge of where the music is going; sambang–rapet ("making a tight connection"), covering up a fellow performer's mistake in order to save him or her from embarrassment; and finally, ngawur ("blunder"), an out–of–style or irrelevant improvisation. In the performance of Javanese music, improvisatory parts should be of the kembangan, isen–isen, or sambang–rape type. Occasional ngambang is tolerated, but not ngawur.

Kwabena Nketia, an African ethnomusicologist, once remarked that in traditional performing arts, the renewal of past artistic experience is expected. The role of an artist is to shed new light and to intensify the experiences that the audience wishes to renew. Insufficient innovation tends to bore the audience; too much innovation destroys the pleasant memory of the art work, possibly resulting in the audience's displeasure with the interpretation. A "good" performing artist, then is one who knows the borderline between "too much" and "not enough," a fine line that is often very personal indeed. Such is the case with Javanese music.

Hardja Susilo (Associate Professor in Ethnomusicology [ret.]), "Toward an Appreciation of Javanese Gamelan", University of Hawai'i at Manoa (September 2003). Originally at www.hawaii.edu/gamelan/UnderstandingGamelan.html.

  • Actually all those forms of improvisation are present in jazz.
    – empty
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 15:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.