Performances are divided into three “acts” called, in order, pathet nem, pathet sångå, and pathet manyurå. These terms also refer to the melodic modes that are used in the sléndro tuning (one of two tunings used in traditional Javanese music, in which the octave is divided into roughly five equal parts—as opposed to the Western tempered system, where the octave is divided into twelve equal parts to form half steps). Pathet nem is typically the longest and has the most dialogue, the most description, and the most elaborate music. In it the problem at hand is revealed, usually in a royal audience scene. Sometimes there is a scene in the women’s quarters of the palace, during which there is a clown scene performed by a mother-and-daughter team. Pathet nem ends, typically, with an inconclusive battle. In pathet sångå the hero of the story usually goes into meditation in the forest, after visiting a hermitage. Meanwhile (or before this), his servants, the Punåkawan, carry on with each other, and finally pull him out of his meditation. The hero’s meditation sends out vibrations that cause cosmic heat and discomfort for the creatures of the forest. They attempt to remove the source of the problem by goading the hero into battle. They are always defeated, and this battle is sometimes said to symbolize the hero’s overcoming his (or, rarely, her) own inner demons. The clown scene in pathet sångå, which can go on for a very long time in an all-night performance, contains much lighter music, usually including some with a more popular feel to it. Pathet manyurå is usually the shortest, but features the greatest amount of action, with many battle scenes accompanied by relatively simple, repetitive music with short gong cycles that serves to heighten the dramatic tension.
Before the first act, dhalangs nowadays often begin with a flashback or a flash forward that serves to grab the audience’s attention, in contrast to the slow start of pathet nem in more traditional performances. And before any of the drama begins, an overture of sorts, called the talu, is played by the musicians alone, without any intervention by the dhalang. This introductory music is in the manyurå mode, giving the entire performance a cyclical character, ending up where it started.