Knowing Music, Making Music:
Javanese Gamelan and the Theory of Musical Competence and Interaction

Benjamin Brinner

The University of Chicago Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Knowing Music, Making Music presents a theory of musical competence and interaction, based on ideas drawn from cognitive science and anthropology and developed with reference to Central Javanese gamelan. Part one deals with competence, part two with interaction.

Chapter one constructs a general model of musical competence. This involves different kinds of knowledge contrasted in several dimensions — active/passive, explicit/intuitive, conscious/automatic, and procedural/declarative — and applied to different domains — sound patterns, symbolic representations, performance contexts, repertoire, and many others — linked in an associative network. Chapter two applies this model to Javanese gamelan. (The first eight chapters are paired like this, with a chapter of general theory followed by one applying it to gamelan.)

Chapters three and four look at variations in competence, at degrees of specialisation and combinations of competences. They also touch briefly on issues of bi- and poly-musicality. With gamelan standards of competence vary both geographically — between regions of Java — and socially — between court, city and village. Other significant features are that possession of multiple competences is the norm, that the status of the different instrumental competences is often uncorrelated with their technical complexity, and that evaluation of competence is dependent on the composition of the ensemble and the performance context.

The acquisition of competence is the next topic. Age, education, and personal contact with other musicians are the major influences on musicians' experience. Important aspects of the learning process are the presence of standard progressions, the role of repetition and feedback, and the social context: in all of these Javanese gamelan presents a strong contrast to contemporary Western musical traditions, something highlighted by learning differences between Javanese and non-Javanese students of gamelan. And competence has changed with time, not least because of the influence of Western style schools and academies and modern technology on traditional methods of instruction.

Moving into part two, chapter seven presents a theory of interaction, or rather a set of four different (but linked) ways of viewing interaction: "network", or who is involved and in what roles; the "system" of cues, prompts, and markers which performers use to communicate; the abstract "sound" structures produced by the ensemble; and the social and aesthetic "motivation" for individual participation. Chapter eight applies this to detailed examples from different forms of gamelan performance — gendhing, palaran, and pathetan — and chapter nine looks briefly at wayang kulit (in a chapter titled, with mandatory use of the latest buzz-word, "Javanese Multimedia Productions").

Having largely ignored differences between individuals in this idealised model of interaction, in chapter ten Brinner explores the way in which variations in competence, regional styles, social status, and age influence gamelan interaction, particularly through their constitution of musical authority. This links part two to the analysis of competence in part one and returns to some of the ideas first raised by the ethnographic sketches in the prelude. Brinner concludes with a sketch of an integrated theory of competence and interaction and some suggestions for further application and development of his approach.

While some of the material in Knowing Music, Making Music may be slightly opaque to those without any knowledge of gamelan, there should be no major problem with it. The pathetan analyses in chapter eight are the most technical in the book, but they avoid introducing the full complexities of pathet (and I managed to follow them, though I can't play any of the instruments involved). To help those without prior knowledge of gamelan, Brinner briefly describes its instruments and structure at the front of the book and introduces some of the social complexities of gamelan performance in a short ethnographic prelude. There is also a glossary of Javanese terms at the back.

One negative feature of Knowing Music, Making Music is its academic style. This is not awful, but some sentences were so full of long, polysyllabic nominalizations that I had to stop and check I had read them correctly. (I read Joseph Williams' Style: Towards Clarity and Grace alongside Knowing Music, Making Music; this sharpened my sensitivity to such things.)

As an introduction to ethnomusicology, Knowing Music, Making Music could have been hand-tailored to my personal requirements: Brinner draws more on general anthropology and cognitive science (fields with which I have some familiarity) than on traditional musicology (about which I know very little), while Javanese gamelan is the only form of music I have any performance experience with. I feel it has given me both a solid starting point from which to approach other ethnomusical studies and a better grasp of what is actually happening (or is supposed to be happening) during a gamelan performance. But Brinner's book will have something to offer to a wide range of people, from students of Javanese culture and cognitive anthropology to gamelan performers and musicologists.

March 1996

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%T Knowing Music, Making Music
%S Javanese Gamelan and the Theory of Musical Competence and Interaction
%A Brinner, Benjamin
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1995
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0226075109
%P xxiv,363pp,8pp b&w halftones