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 Table of Contents
Vol. 5 No. 1             Nov 2003

Intercultural Musicology
An Internationally Reviewed Bulletin of the Centre for Intercultural Music Arts
London, U. K.
Published by MRI Press
P. O. Box 70362
Point Richmond, CA 94807-0362 USA

ISSN 1536-8039

Copyright MRI Press 2003

Teaching Gamelan in General Music Lessons in a Secondary School:  An Investigation

by Jackqueline Black


This article reports on a unit of work which was carried out at a large, mixed comprehensive school with no sixth form1. The school is situated in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and its pupils show a wide range of abilities. I taught the unit on Gamelan to four different Year 8 classes, each of which had thirty pupils. Although my aim is not necessarily to make comparisons between the four classes, I wish to establish the overall effectiveness of the unit, both through its musical outcomes and the way in which the pupils responded to it. In order to carry this out, I focus on pupils' individual and whole-class work, with comments on the assessments made2.

The Unit of Work

Initially, I designed a unit on Gamelan music of Indonesia to last for seven weeks3. It began with simple listening exercises during which pupils became familiar with the characteristics and sounds of Gamelan, answering specific questions on the music heard. 

Figure 1: Pre-prepared Gamelan Piece Notated Using Letters

Furthermore, during the first lesson, I devised a practical whole-class activity in which pupils were split into groups and asked to say the name of a specified Gamelan instrument on particular beats of the bar. This was designed to give pupils a clearer idea of the texture of Gamelan, the gongs only playing once a bar, and the higher, faster instruments, playing almost constantly. Subsequently, using keyboards and percussion instruments, the pupils rehearsed, performed and recorded a pre-prepared Gamelan piece (see Figure 1 above and Figure 2 below). 


Figure 2: Pre-prepared Gamelan Piece in Staff Notation

Pupils were placed into groups according to their ability. Those who found the task difficult were given the slowest part while the more advanced pupils were given a complicated, fast part. First, they were given the opportunity to practise within their groups, after which they gathered as a whole class in order to combine the various parts.

Figure 3: Gamelan 'Melody' Worksheet4 

During the following lesson, they heard their performance on tape and analysed the structure; this was intended to help them to write their own piece of Gamelan. Using the constraints of the pentatonic scale, pupils were asked to create a melody of sixteen notes, using a worksheet (see Figure 3 above). They were then able to begin creating their lower and upper parts, using the notes from their original melody. Once the compositions were completed, they were assessed, and one piece from each class was chosen and performed by the whole group. As with the pre-prepared Gamelan piece, the pupils were placed within differentiated groups and the performance was recorded onto tape. Finally, pupils completed appraisals of the work they had done, answering questions about what they found easy or difficult, how they thought they had improved and what they would change.


Alterations Made to the Unit 

It is worth mentioning that this particular scheme of work was already available for use within the music department of the school. However, both before the commencement of the unit and during its progression, I produced my own listening material and worksheets in order to enhance pupils' understanding of Gamelan (see Appendices 1-4 for some examples). One such worksheet was devised as 'cover work'5 and required pupils to match up Gamelan-related vocabulary with its correct meaning (see Figure 4 below). These words were then used to fill the gaps in a paragraph about Gamelan music. For those who found these activities difficult, I had included a word search using relevant vocabulary (see Figure 5 below). Not only were pupils consolidating their knowledge of Gamelan but they were also improving literacy skills by expanding their vocabulary. My most significant contribution to the unit was the introduction of an additional composition worksheet, which allowed pupils to write out all their parts either in staff notation or simply using the letter names of the notes. The previous worksheet for devising a sixteen-note melody provided insufficient space for writing out lower and upper parts; even though pupils were asked to decide on which notes they would place in the surrounding parts, there was no way of showing how they would all fit together. My revised worksheet allowed pupils to produce a piece of music that could be instantly performed, thus giving their compositions the appearance and status of a finished product.

Another addition made to the unit is that I decided to sequence the work of one pupil, using the music program Sibelius. I then saved it as a MIDI6 file onto a floppy disk and played it to the class through a keyboard. The different parts were written up on the whiteboard and the pupils were able to follow the music as they heard it. 

The final significant change was the addition of an extra week. Monitoring the pupils during the composition task revealed that the majority required extra time in order to complete their compositions successfully. Although the unit consisted of only eight lessons per class, the time span between its start and finish was much longer, and varied considerably between the different form groups that I taught. This was due to various encumbrances, including bank holidays, school trips and inset7 days; events such as these must nevertheless be considered when determining the length of any unit of work.

Figure 4: Gamelan Worksheet8


Figure 5: Gamelan Word Search

Musical Outcomes 


I had decided before starting the unit that the best way of introducing an unfamiliar genre of music to pupils would be through a listening task. Priest also believes that pupils should listen to music before dealing with how it can be notated, stating that "[t]he intention is surely that sounds should be enjoyed, worked with, chosen and arranged independently of any signs, until the children feel the need to fix their musical ideas graphically" (Priest, 1996:210). Indeed, the pupils responded well to the questions on the music they were hearing and many gave thoughtful answers. As in the first lesson, I gave pupils a short listening activity in the second lesson, and it was evident that they remembered the various characteristics of Gamelan. Certain individuals found the listening tasks easier than others and I was careful not to extract answers only from those with their hands up. I also used techniques such as picking a name at random from the register or simply pinpointing those who had not contributed so far. 

Later in the unit, each class was given the opportunity to listen to their taped performance of the pre-prepared Gamelan piece. The pupils responded positively and enthusiastically to the experience, possibly because they were listening to music that they had created themselves, although one class was particularly reluctant to offer ideas on the piece's structure. During this particular lesson, I felt I had to lead the class discussion far more than previously. As with the listening sheets, I asked the class very specific questions regarding pitch and duration of the various parts in order to consolidate pupils' understanding of the music's texture. As mentioned earlier, pupils also listened to a MIDI file of a classmate's work in progress while following the music written up on the whiteboard. This proved particularly beneficial for all the classes completing their composition task as it acted both as a model for pupils' work and as a listening exercise. Unfortunately, it was quite difficult to pick out the melody part within the arrangement and I subsequently decided to play the melody on a different keyboard in order to highlight its presence. In hindsight, I feel that pupils of all abilities have benefited considerably from these listening activities, the more able pupils having successfully grasped the various elements of Gamelan and the less able at least having gained an awareness of the texture and structure of the music.



Performance was another invaluable component of this unit of work, allowing all pupils to bring the music to life. As an introduction to the performance element, the classes were informally split into five groups, each of which was given a colour picture of a Gamelan instrument. Each group was then asked to say the name of their particular instrument on certain beats of the bar. This whole-class activity was particularly well received by pupils who were all able to maintain their own parts, even while other instruments were being recited at the same time. It allowed pupils to understand and maintain the rhythm and texture of Gamelan, before having to concentrate on the notes they were required to play. 

For the pre-prepared Gamelan piece (in Figures 1 and 2), pupils were given a choice of either staff notation or a type of block notation using only letter names, which was useful, as it did not discriminate against those who were unable to read music. Each class was again split into five although the groups were now differentiated and corresponded to the part number they were playing, ensuring that every pupil was fully involved in the activity. It was of utmost importance to incorporate differentiation into this practical task, given that "teaching an activity to a whole class without building in different levels of demand is likely to generate some bored pupils at the margins" (Witchell, 2001:199). The first two groups, with the more complicated parts, were asked to practise xylophones and percussion instruments in a nearby practice room, while the last three groups rehearsed their parts on keyboards in the main classroom9. After a short period, all groups were reunited for a run-through, followed by a final performance which was recorded onto tape. 

Initially, the task that pupils in all classes found most difficult was keeping in time with each other when parts other than their own were entering. This was rectified in various ways, such as making use of a pupil who could play the drums or asking another pupil to play the bass line on an electric bass guitar. I had also decided that due to time constraints, all classes would only be required to play the first two bars of the piece which would then be repeated continuously. This meant that less time was allocated to the learning of notes, allowing more time for valuable whole class rehearsal time. I also realised that there were many ways in which the Gamelan piece could be performed, other than a simple build-up of parts from the slowest to the fastest. This arrangement meant that the bass player was used constantly and that the faster parts were redundant for long periods of the performance. 

An entirely different and more balanced arrangement, using only the three upper parts was a successful performance. However, it did not involve those who were playing the lower parts, partly due to bad behaviour during the rehearsal and a lack of respect for the silence which must begin and end a performance. This was a concept which I had stressed at the start of the lesson. Due to the lack of time, I decided to use pupils in the lower parts as an audience and asked those in the top three groups to provide an example of a good performance. This worked very well and when that same class later recorded their peer's Gamelan piece, all pupils were fully involved and gave a focussed and successful performance. 

Yet another class took their performance of another pupil's work very seriously. I have found that in general, when pupils were playing their classmates' compositions rather than the pre-prepared Gamelan piece, their behaviour, concentration and ability to keep time had improved considerably. This could have been because they felt obliged to do their classmate justice, or simply because they were becoming accustomed to a performance situation, having previously experienced a similar routine a few weeks earlier. 


From the very beginning of the composition task, I had decided to give pupils fairly strict guidelines for its completion. However, I needed to maintain a careful balance as "too much emphasis on the mastery of technique for its own sake stifles pupils' imagination. In contrast, freedom without control results in incoherent musical outcomes at best and musical anarchy at worst!" (Witchell, 2001:197). Bearing this in mind, pupils were only permitted to use the notes of a pentatonic scale (F, G, A, C, D), although these could be used at any register and in any order. In practice, this worked well and meant that those who were not familiar with the keyboards had less notes with which to contend, while the more able pupils could still be creative, with opportunities to think about harmony, musical coherence, counterpoint and dynamics. One particularly capable pupil stated that she found it difficult to "hear" all the parts simultaneously and so I allowed her to sequence her work using the Cubasis program. Interestingly, what she played did not fully correspond to what she had written on manuscript paper, which begs the question as to whether the writing out of compositions can be musically restricting for pupils. Reese suggests that, "[f]or young music students, MIDI technologies can reduce the need for advanced performance skills and higher-level use of staff notation" (Reese, 1996:199).

The school did not have sufficient resources for all pupils to play their compositions into a sequencer and, as a result, I felt that pupils should be able to write their ideas down on paper. However, I did not insist that pupils use staff notation, explaining that no marks would be lost if letter names were used instead. Many pupils used a combination of both notations (see Figures 7-10 below). This includes a way of showing rhythm while still using letter names as in the top line of the fastest part. This composition shows particular musical awareness as the pupil has found a different pentatonic scale by ear, using the notes C, D, E, G, A. 

At the other end of the spectrum, a small handful of pupils who found devising their melodies on the keyboard too difficult, had decided to compose their pieces more mathematically. Initially, I was not convinced that composing in a manner such as this was lucrative in increasing pupils' musical awareness, although I later realised that pupils were nevertheless proud of producing a piece of music that could potentially be performed. Furthermore, these pupils were also able to demonstrate an understanding of the rhythm and texture of Gamelan, even though their melodies may not have been particularly musical. 


For the benefit of pupils with behaviour and concentration difficulties, I specified everyone's target at the beginning of each composition lesson10. This strategy worked in the majority of cases and reduced the amount of off-task activity. By the time pupils handed in their compositions, many had attempted writing for five parts, most had completed at least three and only a small handful had not fully completed any of the parts. In retrospect, I believe that the individual composition task did indeed offer pupils of an opportunity to achieve their best musically, to improve composition skills and provided a deeper understanding of Gamelan. 

Pupils' Reactions and Attitudes to the Unit

Pupils' attitudes to various aspects of the unit varied considerably between classes. If individuals with strong characters were enthusiastic about a specific activity, this "infected" the rest of the class and created a positive group ethos. Likewise, in a different class, some pupils were deemed the unit "boring", thus setting a trend of apathy within the rest of the group. In this particular case, I had to work much harder in order to increase levels of enthusiasm. Generally, pupils were keener to partake in the performance and composition activities, rather than the listening tasks. This seemed to be partly because the listening examples were a means of introducing pupils to a type of music with which they had little or no connection (or experience). 

In the second lesson, one girl of African-Caribbean origin asked, "Why can't we learn about cultural music like African music?" I explained to her and the rest of the class that it is important to learn about all cultures, and not only those that we encounter on a daily basis. The pupils understood this and their feelings about Indonesian music became more positive as the unit progressed, their understanding of Gamelan having deepened. Swanwick believes that, "[e]ducationally, this potential impediment is fairly easily overcome by repeated immersion until some of the novelty and strangeness wears off without conscious effort" (Swanwick, 1988:98-99).

Another possible reason for the obvious preference for practical activities over listening tasks could be the pupils' dislike of writing. If one were to assume that pupils are required to write considerable amounts during lessons such as English, History and Geography, it appears that pupils see subjects such as Music or Drama as an opportunity for practical activity. It is evident from the appraisal sheets handed out at the end of the unit that the majority of pupils enjoyed both composing their own pieces and playing music as a whole class (see Appendices 5-9). Very few had chosen listening as their favourite activity although one pupil had suggested that more listening examples should be included, in order "to help more when we are writing our own piece of music". Also evident from the appraisals, many pupils specified that they would like to have used a wider range of instruments, as opposed to the keyboards, and even more stated that they would have preferred more group work. When asked which skills they thought they had improved most, the majority highlighted their ability to compose their own music, as well as understanding the notes of the keyboard. Surprisingly, pupils' favourite elements of the unit (i.e. performing and composing) were also those that they found most difficult. This is encouraging, as it appears that pupils were determined to overcome difficulties, and actually enjoyed doing so; when the pupils' abilities were stretched, they rose to the challenge and became more focussed on their task. 


Much formative assessment and general informal monitoring took place throughout the unit. I questioned individuals during listening tasks and at the beginning of lessons, in order to consolidate previous learning, as well as checking on progress during the composition activity. The whole-class performance activities were far more difficult to assess, largely because it is very difficult to monitor every child individually while running a rehearsal with a class of thirty. This is why it is of utmost importance to record work, wherever possible, so that pupils may listen back to their performance and appraise it accordingly. I found that recording the achievements of different classes was particularly useful, and although I did not allocate specific grades, I was able to make informed judgements about each class's level of ability. 

The composition task was formally assessed and each pupil required to hand in a written-out Gamelan piece. In order to assess pupil achievement in this manner, Swanwick highlights that, "[t]here must be declared criteria which, though they may evolve over time and constantly undergo revision, should be steady enough to limit arbitrary judgements" (Swanwick, 1988:150). The composition assessment criteria were shared with pupils from the commencement of the composition task (see Figure 6 below). 

Each grade is linked with its corresponding National Curriculum level and specifies what pupils has to do in order to achieve that grade. The grades are, however, merely guidelines and each composition was regarded on its own merit. For example, if a pupil has only written four parts but has demonstrated a particularly advanced level of musicality, there is no reason why a B+, A- or even an A should not be awarded. Likewise, simply because a pupil has completed all five parts does not necessarily imply that he/she will automatically receive an A, especially if the composition does not show a high level of musical thinking. I also clarified to pupils that a composition does not have to be perfect in order to receive an A and that feedback will be given on how to improve their work further. 

Pieces 1 (Figure 7), 2 (Figure 8) and 4 (Figure 10) are all examples of compositions that I felt deserved As, even though there were certain improvements that could be made11. Piece 3 (Figure 9) was only allocated a D grade as the final two bars of the piece were left blank, despite the fact that an attempt at three parts had been made. The difficulty here is to establish whether the pupil genuinely found the task difficult or was simply not focussed enough during the lesson. 


Figure 6: Assessment Criteria for Gamelan Compositions12

There is also the problem of whether a pupil wrote their composition "musically" or "mathematically"; both are feasible with or without a keyboard. However, in marking pupils' work, I took each composition on face value, given that it is not always possible to identify the manner in which each piece was composed. 

The final mode of assessment employed was pupil self-assessment, in the form of an appraisal. These appraisal sheets were particularly useful, as they required pupils to look back over all they had learned during the unit and to record their own musical achievements. Adams states that, "[i]t is this aspect of self-appraisal that develops the critical awareness required for improving and developing individual musicianship" (Adams, 2001:174). 

Figure 7: Pupil Piece 1


Figure 8: Pupil Piece 2

Figure 9: Pupil Piece 3


Figure 10: Pupil Piece 4

Conclusions, Improvements and Implications for Future Practice 

Although the majority of pupils produced good work and bettered their listening, performance and composition skills throughout the unit, there remain certain features that could be improved. In retrospect, I feel that a greater number of listening examples would have been beneficial, preferably spread over the eight weeks rather than exclusively in the first two lessons. The use of authentic Gamelan extracts could have helped with pupils' focus at the beginning of each lesson, and would have given them a clearer idea of the sound and texture to aim for in their compositions. Furthermore, even though I had attempted to include all pupils in discussions regarding the listening extracts, I wonder whether I could have catered better for the widest range of abilities by devising differentiated questions in the worksheets. This is certainly an aspect of planning which I will endeavour to improve in my future practice and which Witchell suggests can be carried out with the use of "open and closed questions ... so that all pupils can respond without losing confidence" (Witchell, 2001:200). 

With reference to performance, I could have invited the opportunity for more pupils to use a wider range of percussion instruments, as opposed to keyboards, although I accept that this would be entirely dependent on the availability of resources. In future, if resources are limited, I might attempt to share instruments out between the pupils so that all are given a chance to play tuned and untuned percussion, as well as keyboards. I would also have liked to include more performance work in small groups. I had originally conceived this before the unit started and had hoped that, following the composition task, groups of pupils would have been able to play each others' Gamelan pieces13. Overall, I believe that there was not enough group work within my Gamelan unit and would like to include more performance activity in future versions of the unit. 


The composition task was well received and the majority of pupils were very clear on what they were required to do. Nevertheless, the use of ICT14 would have benefited pupils in "hearing" all the parts of their composition, especially if it were not possible to perform their work. The girl who sequenced her composition found the experience particularly useful and modified her work as a result of listening carefully to how the parts fitted together. It would have been impossible to allow thirty children to share one computer! In future, I would hope to make the best use of the facilities available to pupils, whether they be in the form of computer equipment or musical instruments. 

If I were to repeat the unit, I would also like to include a short test prior to completing the appraisals, thus consolidating pupils' learning. In addition, I would organise a school outing to a Gamelan workshop15 before the composition task, in order to bring pupils into contact with authentic Gamelan instruments. Not only would this enthuse and inspire pupils, but it would further their knowledge and understanding of Indonesian music, allowing them to appraise, compose and perform Gamelan to the best of their ability. 



Adams, P. 
2001 'Assessment in the Music Classroom'. In Philpott, C. (Ed.) Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. London: Routledge/Falmer, pages 163-176.

Priest, P. 
1996 'Putting Listening First'. In Spruce, G. (Ed.) Teaching Music. London & New York: Routledge, pages 206-215,

Reese, S.
1996 'MIDI-assisted Composing in your Classroom'. In Spruce, G. (Ed.) Teaching Music London & New York: Routledge/Falmer, pages 199-205.

Swanwick, K.
1988 Music, Mind, and Education. London & New York: Routledge.

Witchell, J. 
2001 'Music Education and Individual Needs'. In Philpott, C. & Plummeridge, C, (eds.) Issues in Music Teaching. London: Routledge/Falmer, pages 194-205.


Appendix 1: Gamelan Listening Worksheet Number 1

Appendix 2: Gamelan Listening Worksheet Number 2

Appendix 3: Gamelan Facts Information Sheet

Appendix 4: 'My Gamelan Piece' Worksheet

Appendix 5: Pupil Appraisal Sheet 1

Appendix 6: Pupil Appraisal Sheet 2

Appendix 7: Pupil Appraisal Sheet 3

Appendix 8: Pupil Appraisal Sheet 4

Appendix 9: Pupil Appraisal Sheet 5



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