Ben Borgers

Gamelan Music

February 17, 2022

My dad’s always described the experience of listening to the music of Arnold Schoenberg, a Austrian-American 20th century composer who composed famously dissonant sounding “twelve-tone” music, like this:

At first, it just sounds like a bunch of noise. But then you listen to it and play it a dozen times, and then it starts to make sense. If you listen to it and play it a dozen more times, it begins to sound like music.

I never understood this, likely because I was missing the “listen to it a dozen times” step. I didn’t, and still don’t, care for listening to Schoenberg.

But I had a similar experience today.

I’m taking Intro to World Music, a course that I enrolled in because I heard it was an easy way to satisfy two requirements but turns out is neither particularly easy nor interesting.

But today was an exception! We went down to the World Music Room in the basement of the music building at Tufts and played a piece of Javanese Gamelan music, which is the classic music of Indonesia (specifically, the islands of Java).

When I listened to a recording of the piece we’d be playing beforehand (I’m such a good student), it just sounded like noise to me. There was really nothing to it. I even played it on loop in the background while doing my assigned reading on Javanese Gamelan (again, you can see how good of a student I am), but still, I couldn’t hear the music in it.

But then today, when I was assigned to hit a large gong every 0nce in a while and surrounded by other people as we slowly learned to play the piece, eventually it somehow clicked for me. What was previously a disjoint array of tones became something far more music-like inside my brain.

This blog post comes with additional engaging material! Here’s what we sounded like:

I have a theory that our brains prefer having an idea of what comes next in a piece of music. With the Western music that I’ve grown up with, it’s not too hard to usually guess what’s coming next — there’s this sense of familiarity, even when there are surprises every once in a while. My brain knows the general patterns.

But with music such as Gamelan, my brain has no idea what’s coming next. So it sounds like it clashes. But after some repetition and being surrounded by the same few measures over and over again, my brain learns to hear the music within.