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Contextual Associations

The rebab is a Javanese bowed spike-lute chordophone used in the gamelan orchestra of the Javanese people of Java, Indonesia. Although in the past most gamelan music was performed by males (except for the female vocal parts), the rebab was one of only a few instruments deemed acceptable for females to perform. Kunst (pp. 220-221) reports that the strings are sometimes individually called male and female, and collectively as the new bridal couple. Rebab belonging to some very fine old gamelans were constructed in part from ivory, a costly material that would reflect the wealth and status of the individual owning the set.


The rebab is comprised of several joined wooden pieces. The triangular-shaped resonator (menthak) is carved from wood and its open face is covered with a parchment (babat) made from the intestines of a buffalo; the shoulders and back of the resonator are dressed with a decorative cloth (dodot). Inside the resonator is concealed a vertical metal post (the ‘spike’) that extends through holes in the top and bottom of the menthak and that is held firmly in place by sturdy mounts (popor) made of turned wood immediately above and below the resonator proper. Below the lower popor is a short wooden foot, and above the upper popor is a long and smoothly surfaced neck (watangan). Fitted atop the watangan is the hollow and ornately turned pegbox (irah-irahan) into which the instrument's two long tuning pegs (mangol) are inserted. The pegbox is topped off with one final wooden ornamental piece. A single length of copper wire is mounted in such a way as to result in two playing strings (kawat). One end of the wire is wound around one of the tuning pegs inside the pegbox. It emerges through a hole (bremara) at the top of the neck and runs nearly the length of the instrument to a stub (senthing or cakilan) protruding from the popor below the resonator. It is tightly wound around this stub a few times before running back up the length of the instrument where it is inserted through another bremara and eventually wound around the end of the other tuning peg. A high wooden bridge (srenten) is inserted between the resonator's soundboard and the strings. The vibrating length of the strings (distance between the bridge and where the strings contact the neck) is 16.2 inches. A wooden bow (kosok) with horsehair is used to sound the strings.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The rebab is held vertically in front of the player (strings facing away), who sits cross-legged on the floor and holds the bow in his/her right hand. Other than for the pitches to which the two open strings are tuned, the rebab is not a fix-pitched instrument. Most of the playing takes place on the higher-pitched string. With the four fingertips of the left hand the player applies light pressure to the strings without pressing them all the way down against the neck. In any one position the player can produce five pitches by free-stopping the string, and up to five different positions are used that result in a range of about 2.5 octaves (see Gamelan Besi (Iron) from Central Java for tuning and register information). It functions as a melodic lead instrument in the Javanese gamelan. The sound quality of this instrument comes the closest of any instrument to matching the quality and the ornamental possibilities of the Javanese singing voice. It is a very difficult instrument to play well, and in addition a performer must possess a deep knowledge of hundreds of pieces (gendhing) in the gamelan repertoire. Playing the rebab is therefore a specialization and its performer carries high musical status within gamelan groups.


The rebab is not an indigenous Javanese instrument. It most likely is of Persian or Arabic origins, music cultures that have long histories of bowed chordophones with skin sound tables and names such as rabab. Some version of the instrument was likely introduced to Java after the Hindu-Javanese period (post 15th century) when Islamic influences were increasingly impacting Javanese culture.

Bibliographic Citations

Kartomi, Margaret. 1984. “Rabab 2(ii).” NGDMI v.3: 178-179.

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

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