Instruments | Gong & Tam Tam | Percussion

Gongs and tam tams are suspended bronze discs played with a beater. In the West, the two names are often confused as the instruments can look similar and both produce a deep, rich sound. However, the tam tam is untuned, and the gong is tuned.

Gongs have been used as melodic instruments throughout Southeast Asia, especially in China, Burma and Java, since 300 BC. They are different shapes. The tam tam is a large, flat, round metal disc (70–100 cm/28–40 in diameter) with a narrow turned-back rim, whereas the gong normally has a raised central boss or bell and a wider rim. Gongs also vary in more in size than tam tams. For example in China gongs range from the dachaoluo which is 120 cm (48 in) diameter to the goujiaoluo or dog-call gong, 8 cm (3 in) diameter.

Tam Tams

The tam tam appeared in the orchestra in the late-eighteenth century, and has often been used to create an atmosphere of terror and gloom – such as in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s (1791–1864) Robert le Diable (1831). The tam tam is struck midway between the centre and the edge. For a very loud single strike, the tam tam may be struck gently a few times in order to start the instrument vibrating, and then hit loudly. Striking the tam tam repeatedly with moderate force will make the higher overtones ring with increasing intensity, and create a menacing shrieking sound.


The timbre of a gong is dependent on the relative dimensions of the raised boss, the bow of the gong and the rim, and the angle at which the lip is turned back. Chinese gongs are hammered into a flat sieve shape and do not always have a raised central boss. The Chinese traditional orchestra includes a set of 10 to 20 yunlo (cloud gongs) and the quing (tuned bronze bowls).

Javanese and Burmese gongs have a raised boss and are shaped like a curly bracket in cross-section. They also have a wide rim. They are struck with a wooden beater covered in leather or bound with cloth on the central boss, which is the main antinodal point. There are several examples of Southeast Asian gongs that have a rising tone once struck. These include the Chinese jingluo, which is used in Chinese opera, and the Korean ching.

Temple Bells

In Japan and Tibet another form of gong is used in Buddhist ceremonies. These are called temple bells (dobachi), resting bells or singing bowls. These gongs are a basin of hammered bronze placed on a cushion or held in the hand with the opening upwards. They are struck at the rim, or, in the case of Tibetan singing bowls, played by rubbing the edge with the beater to create a sustained singing effect. These temple bowl gongs have a pure tone and are used as an aid
to meditation.

Introduction | Percussion Instruments
Instruments | Gamelan | Percussion

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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