Title: demo: Javanese kempul. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The kempul is a metal gong idiophone of the Javanese people of Java, Indonesia. It is a phrase-marking instrument that is part of a Javanese iron gamelan (the iron gamelan to which the instruments pictured on this page belongs has six kempul suspended from the center section of the rack in the photo). Although Javanese forged bronze gongs in general are remarkable products of highly skilled and admired craftsmen (see goöng), gongs made from iron are not accorded the same level of admiration. Nonetheless, it takes a team of specialized craftsmen to construct iron gongs such as the kempul pictured and described here, and when well constructed they can produce a musically satisfying alternative to their far more costly counterparts in bronze gamelans.


Constructed from three interlocking pieces of sheet iron, one circular and the other two elongated fan-shaped strips.  The strips are connected end-to-end with rivets to form the gong's truncated conical side/rim (bau), which in turn is attached to the edge of the circular face by folding (accomplished with much cold hammering) to create an integral vessel. With further hammering a central knob/boss (pencu) is articulated as well as two concentric surface areas: a flat one (rai) around the pencu, and a depressed one around the rai. Such contouring of the face is essential to achieving a gong with definite pitch. The pencu is reinforced with a brass cap that is riveted to the iron knob. The gong is hung vertically from a wooden rack with a sturdy rope the ends of which run through holes drilled in the bau. A heavily padded wooden stick beater (tabuh) is used to strike the boss of the gong.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A single player performs the instrument by striking its knob/boss with the tabuh; any competent gamelan musician can play the instrument. See Gamelan Besi (Iron) from Central Java for tuning and register information for the kempul in this gamelan. It is a punctuating instrument that contributes to the articulation of the underlying cyclical formal structure of a piece (gendhing) by being sounded at prescribed points of that structure. The density of kempul strokes in some gamelan pieces is quite high, requiring the performer to use two tabuh, one in each hand. The sound has a definite pitch with a soft attack and moderately long decay that sometimes requires dampening. It is played at a single dynamic level.


See the ‘gong ageng’ entry for commentary on the origins of the Javanese gong in general. The oldest extant archaic/ceremonial gamelans in Java do not include the kempul. According to inventories from the Sultan's palace in Yogyakarta, non-ceremonial gamelans in their holdings manufactured before the last quarter of the 19th century typically included one kempul. Such gamelans, if and when they were upgraded in the 20th century, typically had three or four kempul added to their instrumentation. Since most gamelans manufactured in Java from the late 19th century on do include several kempul (usually five or six), it would appear that having kempul with a wider selection of pitches was an innovation of that era.

Bibliographic Citations

Becker, Judith. 1988. "Earth, Fire, Sakti, and the Javanese Gamelan," Ethnomusicology 32/3: 385-391.

Kartomi, Margaret. 1984.  “Kempul,” NGDMI v.2: 373.

Kunst, Jaap. 1973. Music in Java. 3rd ed. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Pickvance, Richard. 2005. A Gamelan Manual. London: Jaman Mas Books.

Vetter, Roger. 2001. "More than Meets the Eye and Ear: Gamelans and Their Meaning in a Javanese Palace," Asian Music 32/2: 41-92.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: Southeast Asia

Nation: Indonesia

Formation: Javanese

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.241.21 idiophone--set of percussion vessel bossed, flat (with flange), and intermediate types of gongs

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: plate - contoured with folded-over rim

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - stick with padded ball end

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


18.5 in. diameter (smallest gong) 6 in. height (smallest gong) 20.5 in. diameter (largest gong) 6.8 in. height (largest gong)

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter