kempul (Sundanese)

Contextual Associations

The kempul is a metal gong idiophone of the Sundanese people of Java, Indonesia. It is the smallest vertically-hung gong in the Sundanese gamelan salendro (see Gamelan Prunggu (Bronze) from West Java for tuning and register information for the instruments in the Grinnell set). Sundanese gamelan instruments in general are remarkable products of highly skilled craftsmen. The transformation, with the aid of fire, of raw materials from the earth into physical objects of sound production is seen by many Sundanese to be fraught with supernatural dangers. In earlier times, gongsmiths were viewed as possessing priestly like powers and would take on the names of mythological characters as forms of protection in their craft.


This bronze gong was forged by a team of hammer-wielding smiths who gradually transformed a disc of bronze into the shape seen in the picture. This involved numerous cycles of heating the bronze until white-hot followed by a few minutes of hammering. The finished product is an integral vessel with a turned-in flange and a raised central boss/knob. The contouring of the face of the gong is essential to achieving a definite pitch. The kempul is hung vertically from a wooden rack with synthetic rope the ends of which run through holes punched out of the gong's flange. A heavily padded wooden stick beater 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 beater and, oftentimes, damping its sound between strokes with his other hand; any competent gamelan musician can play the instrument. It is a punctuating instrument that contributes to the articulation of the underlying cyclical formal structure of a piece. A sonorous sound with a soft attack and long decay (if not damped) is produced. The sound has a definite pitch. It is played at a single dynamic level.


It is very likely that tuned gongs and the technology to produce them were developed first outside of Indonesia. When and by whom they were introduced to Java is not known. Kunst gives the earliest mention of gong-type instruments in Indonesia to be the 9th century. Mostly small, and one medium-sized, gongs are seen in reliefs on the 14th century Javanese Panataran temple, constituting the earliest depiction in Java of this instrument type. Historical information on the kempul in Sundanese gamelans is scant, so it is difficult to place a date on the introduction of this instrument with confidence.

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.

Spiller, Henry. 2004. Gamelan: The Traditional Sounds of Indonesia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: Southeast Asia

Nation: Indonesia

Formation: Sundanese

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.241.11 idiophone--bossed percussion vessel gong, flat gong (with flange), and intermediate types

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: one

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


18.7 in. diameter 5.5 in. height

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter