Benjamin Brinner

  • Professor, Music Scholarship

  • Office Location: 218 Morrison
  • email

How do musicians do what they do? This question has motivated much of my research, leading to the study of situated cognition as it plays out musically in varied environments. Fascinated by the dynamics of interaction among performers, I am also interested in matters of musical cognition such as the acquisition, differentiation, and distribution of musical competence, musicians’ conceptualizations of the pieces they know, and the workings of memory. I have pursued these interests primarily in Indonesia (Central Java and Bali) and in Israel.

My dissertation research, supported by a Fulbright DDRA fellowship (1982-83), concerned Javanese musicians’ interaction in the performance of a short, but ubiquitous type of piece known as pathetan. I explored the interplay of different levels of competence, mutual assessments, and social differences. These interests developed further to form the basis of the cross-culturally applicable analytical frameworks presented in Knowing Music, Making Music (University of Chicago Press, 1995; winner of ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Prize 1996).

Ten years later I returned to Indonesia, with the support of a Fulbright Faculty Research fellowship, for a comparative study of the workings of musical memory in Java and Bali. The focus was on the memorization and recall of long gamelan compositions, some of which are confusingly similar. I have continued to pursue this project, much of which will be published in a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Expert Memory for Music in an Ensemble Tradition: An Ecosystems Approach to Javanese Gamelan Transmission and Performance. Along the way I wrote a textbook on Central Javanese gamelan.

Before coming to UC Berkeley I taught in Israel for three years at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I also directed the Workshop for Non-Western Music at the Jerusalem Music Center where I taught Javanese gamelan, coordinated instruction in Arab, Jewish, and East African music and produced concert series dedicated to exposing the public to a broader range of musical practices than was then generally known in Israel. Returning to Israel on numerous occasions from 1991 to 2003 I conducted research on the emergent field of performance involving Palestinian musicians from the West Bank as well as Israeli Jews and Arabs. This resulted in the book Playing Across a Divide: Israeli-Palestinian Musical Encounters (Oxford University Press, 2009), which was accorded the Society for Ethnomusicology’s highest award, the Alan P. Merriam Prize for Outstanding Book in Ethnomusicology in 2010.

At Berkeley I have had the good fortune to co-direct Gamelan Sari Raras (UC Berkeley’s Javanese music concert ensemble) with Midiyanto, Santosa, and Heri Purwanto. The group gives four or five performances a year, often including shadow play or dance. Lisa Gold and I have also worked closely with community-based Gamelan Sekar Jaya to provide courses in Balinese gamelan in the Department of Music.



Expert Memory for Music in an Ensemble Tradition: An Ecosystems Approach to Javanese Gamelan Transmission and Performance. University of Chicago Press, in progress.

Playing Across a Divide: Israeli-Palestinian Musical Encounters. Oxford University Press, 2009.

The Music of Central Java: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Global music series. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Knowing Music, Making Music: Javanese Gamelan and the Theory of Musical Competence and Interaction. University of Chicago Series in Ethnomusicology. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

“Competence and Interaction in Central Javanese Pathetan Performance.” Ph. D. diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1995.


“The Ecology of Musical Transmission between Indonesia and the United States,” in Performing Indonesia, eds. Andrew McGraw and Sumarsam. 2016. Washington DC: Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution.

Review: Lontar Educational Project, a package of seven books and 33 hours of video recording of six Javanese shadow play performances. Asian Music 47/1 (2016): 146-151.

Review. Rachel Beckles Willson, Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West. Twentieth-Century Music 11 (2014): 301-307.

“Cognitive and Interpersonal Dimensions of Listening in Javanese Gamelan Performance,” The World of Music 52:1-3 (2012): 580-595. Updated revision of my 1999 World of Music article in the editor’s selection of the best articles from 45 past issues of the journal.

Program notes, Edinburgh Festival (2011)

Review. Listening to an Earlier Java by Sarah Weiss. Asian Music 42/2 (2011): 135-139.

“Beyond Ethnic Tinge or Ethnic Fringe: The Emergence of New Israeli/Palestinian Musical Competences & Connections.” Min-Ad: Israeli Studies in Musicology Online. 7:2 (2008-2009).

“Interaction in Gendhing Performance: The Panerusan.” In Gerd Grupe, ed. Virtual Gamelan Graz: Rules — Grammars — Modeling. Graz Studies in Ethnomusicology 22. Aachen: Shaker Verlag., 2008. Pp. 27-58.

“Beyond Israelis vs. Palestinians or Jews vs. Arabs: The Social Ramifications of Musical Interaction,” Music and Anthropology, 8 (2004).

Review. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 6: The Middle East, ed. Virgina Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds. Notes 59/3 (2003): 654-7.

“Indonesia III,1: Central Java,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie, 2001.Vol. 12: 311-29.

“Performing Practice II: Non-Western and traditional music,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie, 2001. Vol. 19: 384-88.

“Pesindhèn” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie, 2001. Vol. 19: 485-6.

Review: “Music of Indonesia vol. 10-12.” Ethnomusicology on Line 7 (2001).

“Cognitive and Interpersonal Dimensions of Listening in Javanese Gamelan Performance,” The World of Music 41/1 (1999): 19-35.

Review: Shadows of Empire: Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales. Laurie J. Sears. American Ethnologist26/3 (1999): 756-7.

Review: In the Course of Performance: Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation. Nettl, Bruno and Melinda Russell, eds. in Yearbook of Traditional Music 31(1999): 132-133.

“Cultural Matrices and Innovation in Central Javanese Performing Arts,” Ethnomusicology 39/3 (1995): 433-56.

“Ceremonial Court Music From Central Java: Program Notes,” in Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. Abrams, Laura and Hilary Ley, eds. Berkeley: University of California, 1994. Pp. 104-6.

“A Musical Time Capsule from Java,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 46/2 (1993): 221-260.

“Freedom and Formulaity in the Suling Playing of Bapak Tarnopangrawit,” Asian Music 24/2 (1993): 1-38.

“Cultural Matrices and Innovation in Central Javanese Performing Arts,” in Perlman, Marc, ed. Conference Summaries. New York: The Festival of Indonesia Foundation, 1992. Pp. 8-10.

“Performer Interaction in a New Form of Javanese Wayang,” in Foley, Kathy, ed. Essays on Southeast Asian Performing Arts: Local Manifestations and Cross-Cultural Implications. Berkeley: Centers for South and Southeast Asia Studies, U. C. Berkeley, 1992. Pp. 96-114.

Review Essay: “Karawitan: Source Readings in Javanese Gamelan and Vocal Music, ed. by Judith Becker and Alan Feinstein,” Ethnomusicology 34/1 (1990): 140-6.

“At the Border of Sound and Silence: The Use and Function of Pathetan in Javanese Gamelan,” Asian Music 21/1 (1989/90): 1-34.


Numerous concerts as co-director of Gamelan Sari Raras.


1985 Ph.D. in Music, University of California at Berkeley
1979 M.A. in Music, University of California at Berkeley
1977 B.A. in Musicology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel

Academic Positions

2015-present, Faculty Director of the Center for Jewish Studies
2017: Head Graduate Adviser, Dept. of Music
2009-2014: Chairman, Dept. of Music, U.C. Berkeley
2007- present: Professor, Dept. of Music, U.C. Berkeley
2003: Visiting Professor, Colorado College
1999-2001: Assistant Dean, College of Letters and Science, Undergraduate Advising
1995-2007: Associate Professor, ethnomusicology, Dept. of Music, U. C. Berkeley
1988-95: Assistant Professor, ethnomusicology, Dept. of Music, U. C. Berkeley
1985-88: Visiting Assistant Professor, Dept. of Music, Tel Aviv University, Israel Director, Workshop for Non-Western Music, Jerusalem Music Center, Israel Lecturer, Dept. of Music, Hebrew University

Professional Activities
Executive committee member, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, Center for Middle East Studies, Center for Jewish Studies, U.C.Berkeley
President, Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology (1994-96, 1998-2000)
Council Member, Society for Ethnomusicology (1996-99)
Program and prize committees for Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology

Conferences Convened
“Why Do We Improvise? Sound, Technology, Interaction” symposium, Dept. of Music, UC Berkeley (2013)
“Preparing the Unforeseen: Approaches to Musical Improvisation” UC Berkeley (2002)
“Indonesian Music: Twentieth Century Innovation and Tradition” (1991)

Alan P. Merriam Prize for Outstanding Book in Ethnomusicology, Society for Ethnomusicology
ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for book Knowing Music, Making Music
Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad fellowship
Fulbright Faculty Research Abroad fellowship
various UC Berkeley grants for research in Indonesia and Israel