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Kulintang 08.jpg
Other names Kolintang, Kulintangan, Totobuang
Playing range
Pelog and Slendro scales
Related instruments
bonang,[1] kenong, canang, keromong,[2] kromong, kethuk,[3] trompong/terompong, rejong, talempong,[4] chalempung, caklempong/caklempung,[2] khong wong yai/khong wong lek, khong toch/ khong thom, khong vong, krewaing/krewong[5]
More articles
gamelan and piphat
Kulintang ensemble
Stylistic origins Music of Southeast Asia
Typical instruments KulintangAgungGandinganBabendilDabakan
Mainstream popularity Mainstream in parts of Southeast Asia, limited success elsewhere.

Kulintang is a modern term for an ancient instrumental form of music composed on a row of small, horizontally-laid gongs that function melodically, accompanied by larger, suspended gongs and drums. As part of the larger gong-chime culture of Southeast Asia, kulintang music ensembles have been playing for many centuries in regions of the Eastern Malay Archipelago — the Southern Philippines, Eastern Indonesia, Eastern Malaysia, Brunei and Timor, although this article has a focus on the Philippine Kulintang traditions of the Maranao and Maguindanao peoples in particular. Kulintang evolved from a simple native signaling tradition, and developed into its present form with the incorporation of knobbed gongs from Sunda. Its importance stems from its association with the indigenous cultures that inhabited these islands prior to the influences of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity or the West, making Kulintang the most developed tradition of Southeast Asian archaic gong-chime ensembles.

Technically, kulintang is the Maguindanao, Ternate and Timor term for the idiophone of metal gong kettles which are laid horizontally upon a rack to create an entire kulintang set. It is played by striking the bosses of the gongs with two wooden beaters. Due to its use across a wide variety groups and languages, the kulintang is also called kolintang by the Maranao and those in Sulawesi, kulintangan, gulintangan by those in Sabah and the Sulu Archipelago and totobuang by those in central Maluku.

By the twentieth century, the term kulintang had also come to denote an entire Maguindanao ensemble of five to six instruments. Traditionally the Maguindanao term for the entire ensemble is basalen or palabunibunyan, the latter term meaning “an ensemble of loud instruments” or “music-making” or in this case “music-making using a kulintang.”

Geographic extent

Map of kulintang music in Southeast Asia.

Kulintang belongs to the larger unit/stratum of “knobbed gong-chime culture” prevalent in Southeast Asia. It is considered one of the region’s three major gong ensembles, alongside the gamelan of western Indonesia and piphat of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, which use gongs and not wind or string instruments to carry the melodic part of the ensemble. Like the other two, kulintang music is primarily orchestral with several rhythmic parts orderly stacked one upon another. It is also based upon the pentatonic scale. However, kulintang music differs in many aspects from gamelan music, primarily in the way the latter constructs melodies within a framework of skeletal tones and prescribed time interval of entry for each instruments. The framework of kulintang music is more flexible and time intervals are nonexistent, allowing for such things as improvisations to be more prevalent.

Because kulintang-like ensembles extended over various groups with various languages, the term used for the horizontal set of gongs varied widely. Along with it begin called kulintang, it is also called kolintang, kolintan, kulintangan, kwintangan, k’lintang, gong sembilan, gong duablas, momo, totobuang, nekara, engkromong, kromong/enkromong and recently kakula/kakula nuada. Kulintang-like instruments are played by the Maguindanao, Maranao, Iranun, Kalagan, Kalibugan and more recently the Tboli, Blaan and Subanao of Mindanao, the Tausug, Samal, Sama/Badjao, Yakan and the Sangir/Sangil of the Sulu, the Ambon, Banda, Seram, Ternate, Tidore, and Kei of Maluku, the Bajau, Suluk, Murut,[13] Kadazan-Dusan, Kadayah and Paitanic Peoples of Sabah, the Malays of Brunei, the Bidayuh and Iban/Sea Dayak of Sarawak, the Bolaang Mongondow and Kailinese/Toli-Toli of Sulawesi and other groups in Banjarmasin and Tanjung[14] in Kalimantan and Timor.




The instrument called the “kulintang” (or its other derivative terms) consist of a row/set of 5 to 9 graduated pot gongs, horizontally laid upon a frame arranged in order of pitch with the lowest gong found on the players’ left. The gongs are laid in the instrument face side up atop two cords/strings running parallel to the entire length of the frame, with bamboo/wooden sticks/bars resting perpendicular across the frame creating an entire kulintang set called a pasangan.

The different sized brass kulintang gongs.
The light beaters used to strike the gong bosses.

The gongs could weigh roughly from two pounds to three and 1/8 pounds and have dimensions from 6–10 inches for their diameters and 3–5 inches for their height. Traditionally they are made from bronze but due to the shortage of bronze after World War II, and the subsequent use of scrap metal, brass gongs with shorter decaying tones have become commonplace.

The kulintang frame known as an antangan by the Maguindanao (means to “arrange”) and langkonga by the Maranao could have designs that could be particularly crude made from only bamboo/wooden poles or highly decorated, rich with artistic designs like the traditional okil/okir motifs or arabesque designs. It is considered taboo to step or cross over the antangan while the kulintang gongs are placed on it.

Individual names for each kulintang gong
Those in the Sulu Archipelago play the kulintang on the floor.


The kulintang is played by striking the bosses of the gongs with two wooden beaters. When playing the kulintang, the Maguindanao and Maranao would always sit on chairs while for the Tausug/Suluk and other groups that who play the kulintangan, they would commonly sit on the floor.Modern techniques include twirling the beaters, juggling them in midair, changing the arrangement of the gongs either before or while playing, crossings hands during play or adding very rapid fire strokes all in an effort to show off a player’s grace and virtuosity.


Kulintang gongs are made using the cire perdue method, a lost-wax process used for casting the individual gongs. The first phase is the creation of wax molds of the gongs. In the past, before the availability of standardized wax sheets made specifically for foundry use, the molds were made out of either beeswax (talo) or candle wax (kandila). The wax mold is covered with a special mixture of finely-powdered coal/mud, which is applied on the wax surface using a brush. The layers are then left to dry under the sun, after which the entire mold is heated in a furnace to melt away the wax and hardening the coal/mud mixture, leaving behind a hollowed shell. With this hardened mold, molten bronze is poured down the mold’s mouth cavity, cooled to a certain degree, then the coal/mud is broken apart, revealing a new gong. The gong is then refined, cleaned, and properly identified by the panday (gong-maker). Finally, the finished product is refined using the tongkol process, tuning the gongs either by hammering the boss from the inside to slightly raise its pitch, or by hammering the boss from the outside to lower the pitch. The correct tuning is found by ear, with players striking a sequence of gongs, looking for a melodic contour they are familiar with.


Unlike westernized instrumentation, there is no set tuning for kulintang sets throughout the Philippines.[22] Great variation exist between each set due to differences in make, size and shape, alloy used giving each kulintang set a unique pitch level, intervals and timbre.[23] Though the tuning varies greatly, there does exist some uniformity to contour when same melody heard on different kulintang sets.[20] This common counter results in similar interval relationships of more or less equidistant steps between each of the gongs.[24] This tuning system, not based upon equal temperament or upon a system of standard pitches but on a similar/certain pattern of large and small intervals, could also be found among the gamelan orchestras of western Indonesia.[21] In fact, though the Maguindanao, Maranao and Tausug artists technically have no concept of scale (because emphasis placed on the concept of “rhythmic modes”), the Pelog and Slendro scales of Java were found to be most satisfactory to their own varying pentatonic/heptatonic scales.

Example of kulintang cipher notation.

Notation system

Because this music was catered for by acephalous societies, kulintang repertory was unfettered by an indigenous notation system. Compositions were passed down orally from generation to generation negating the need for notation for the pieces. Recent attempts have been made to transcribe the music using cipher notation, with gongs indicated by a numbering system for example, starting from 1 to 8 with the lowest gong starting at number 1 for an eight gong kulintang set.

Feminine instrument

The kulintang is traditionally considered a women’s instrument by many groups: the Maguindanao, Maranao, Tausug/ Sukul, Samal, Badjao/Sama, Illanum, Kadazan, Murut, Bidayuh and Iban. Traditionally, the playing of the kulintang was associated with graceful, slow, frail and relaxed movements that showed elegance and decorum common among females. Nowadays, with both women and men playing all five instruments, the kulintang seen strictly as a woman’s instrument has waned, and in fact today, the most well known players of the kulintang happen to be men.

A kulintang ensemble performance in Daly City, California.


The main purpose for kulintang music in the community is to function as social entertainment at a nonprofessional, folk level. This music is unique in that it is considered a public music in the sense everyone is allowed to participate. Not only do the players play, but audience members are also expected to participate.These performances are important in that they bring people in the community and adjacent regions together, helping unify communities that otherwise may not have interacted with one another. Traditionally, when performers play kulintang music, their participation is voluntary. Musicians see performances as an opportunity to receive recognition, prestige and respect from the community and nothing more.

Generally, performances can be classified as either formal ones or informal. During formal performances adherents follow a traditional set of rules that would govern playing and it usually involved people from outside the home. Informal performances are quite the opposite. The strict rules that normally govern play are often ignored and the performers are usually between people well acquainted with one another, usually close family members. These performances usually were times when amateurs practiced on the instruments, young boys and girls gathered the instruments, substituting the kulintang with the saronay and inubab. Ensembles didn’t necessary have to have five instruments like formal performances: they could be composed of only four instruments (three gandingan gongs, a kulintang, an agung, and a dabakan), three instruments (a kulintang, a dabakan, and either an agung or three gandingan gongs) or simply just one instrument (kulintang solo).

Social functions

Kulintang music generally could be found as the social entertainment at a host of different occasions. It is used during large feasts, festive/harvest gatherings, for entertainment of visiting friends and relatives, and at parades. Kulintang music also accompanies ceremonies marking significant life events, such as weddings and returnees from the Hajj. Kulintang music also plays a significant role during state functions, used during official celebrations, entertaining of foreign dignitaries and important visitors of distant lands, court ceremonies of either the sultanate or village chieftains,enthroning/coronations of a new leader and the transferral of a sultanate from one family to another.

A kulintang ensemble accompanying a healing ritual dance.

Kulintang music is prohibited from being played inside mosques and during Islamic rites/observances/holidays, such as the fasting month (Ramadhan), where playing is only allowed at night during the time when people are allowed to eat. It is also prohibited during the mourning period of the death of important person, during funerals, and during the peak times of the planting and harvest season.

The gandingan is normally chosen for playing apad renditions

Other uses

Kulintang instrument has uses other than public performances. It also is used to accompany healing ceremonies/rituals (pagipat)/animistic religious ceremonies. Though this practice has died out among the Maranao due to its non-Islamic nature, some areas in Mindanao, Sabah and Maluku still practice this ancient tradition.

Kulintang music can be used for communicating long distance messages from one village or longhouse to another. Called apad, these renditions mimic the normal speaking tones of the Maguindanao language, creating a specific message or, through the use of double entendre, a social commentary understood by nearly any adult native Maguindanao speaker. However, apad is falling into disuse because times have changed, and the necessity of its use for long-distance communication purposes has faded away. Anun as a music without a message, is used instead to express sentiments and feelings, and has come more and more into use due to its compatibility with the musical elaborations and idiosyncratic styles of the times.

An agung contestant performing on the agung using two balus.

Kulintang music was also crucial in relation to courtships due to the very nature of Islamic custom, which did not allow for unmarried men and women to intermingle. Traditionally, unmarried daughters were kept in a special chamber in the attic called a lamin, off-limit to visitors and suitors. It was only when she was allowed to play during kulintang performances that suitors were allowed to view her. Because of this, kulintang music was rare socially approved vehicles for interaction among the sexes.

Musical contest, particularly among the Maguindanao, have become a unique feature of these kulintang performances. They occur at almost all the formal occasions mentioned above, particularly weddings. What has made the Maguindanao stand out from the other groups is that they practice solo gong contest – with individual players showcasing their skill on the various ensemble instruments – the agung, gandingan and the kulintang – as opposed to only group contest, where performers from one town and another town are pitted against each other.


Rhythmic modes

Kulintang music has no set compositions due to its concept of rhythmic modes. A rhythmic mode (or designation or genre or pattern) is defined as a musical unit that binds together the entire five instrument ensemble. By adding together the various rhythms of each instrument, one could create music and by changing one of the rhythms, one could create different music. This is the basis of the rhythmic mode.


The kulintang player’s ability to improvise within the parameters of a rhythmic mode is a must. As with gamelan orchestras, each kulintang mode has a kind of theme the kulintang player “dresses up” by variations of ornamentation, manipulating segments by inserting repetitions, extensions, insertions, suspensions, variations and transpositions. This occurs at the discretion of the kulintang player. Therefore, the kulintang player functions not only as the one carrying the melody, but also as the conductor of the entire ensemble. She determines the length of each rendition and could change the rhythm at anytime, speeding up or slowing down, accord to her personal taste and the composition she plays.

This emphasis on improvisation was essential due traditional role of the music as entertainment for the entire community. Listeners in the audience expected players to surprise and astound them by playing in their own unique style, and by incorporating improvisation to make newer versions of the piece. If a player simply imitated a preceding player, playing patterns without any improvisation, the audience members would believe she/he to be repetitious and mundane. This also explains why set performance pieces for musical productions are different in some respect — young men/women would be practicing before an event, therefore rarely relying on improvisations.

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