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Title: demo: tam-tam; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The tam-tam is a metal gong idiophone of Chinese origin. It was introduced to the Western orchestra centuries ago and today is found distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. The tam-tam is a standard instrument today in the battery of western percussion instruments and is called for in many orchestral and concert band works from the 19th century to the present and also in many percussion ensemble works. It is one of several instruments on which band and orchestral percussionists, be they are professionals or amateurs, are expected to be proficient.


The orchestral tam-tam is a boss-less ‘flat’ gong with a slightly convex profile made of forged bronze in a variety of sizes (the two examples pictured here are approximately 2- and 3-feet in diameter). It has a sharply turned back, but shallow, rim/flange (1.5 inches for the larger gong). The surface area of the gong has two sections: a narrow, circular, upward-slopping band just inside the rim; and a large, round plateau at its center that is a little over an inch higher than the rim fold. Tam-tams are hung vertically with rope from some sort of metal frame and are typically struck with a hefty stick beater with a rubber head wrapped in lamb's wool (though other types of beaters can be used to achieve specific effects).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player stands to the side of the tam-tam frame usually with a single beater in one hand. It can be struck, usually slightly off center, with a range of intensities to produce anywhere from a soft to a very loud sound that is always of indefinite pitch, though a large tam-tam will produce a relatively lower sound than one with a smaller diameter. The tam-tam is often used at full volume for climactic moments in a work to add a dramatic wash of sound. To achieve this effect, the player will precede the final forceful stroke with a few gentler strokes to get the gong vibrating. The decay of a strong stoke is relatively long and at times the player needs to dampen it before it dies out naturally. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on percussion [skip to 7:19 in the video for the segment pertaining specifically to the tam-tam].


Imported tam-tams from China have been used in orchestras since the late-18th century. Many tam-tams are still imported from China, but a few European manufacturers now produce quality instruments.

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Gong.” NGDMI v.2: 60-63.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 1991. Contemporary Percussion. London: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: China

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.241.11 idiophone--bossed percussion vessel gong, flat gong (with flange), and intermediate types

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: plate - contoured with folded-over rim

Sound objects per instrument: one

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - stick with padded ball end

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: indefinite pitch

Sound modification: none


35 in. and 23.7 in. diameters

Primary Materials




Entry Author

Roger Vetter