Tam Tam vs Gong

I can't tell you how many times this argument of "A tam tam is not a Gong" comes up. It came my way no less than 3 different times this week.

Actually, 'tam tam' (also tam-tam) was 1st used in symphonic music back in the 1800s to differentiate a flat faced Gong from a Gong with a raised center 'boss.' (There is no definitive answer as to where the term tam tam originated - some say it's Chinese, some say it's Hindi, still others say it's something else…) To add to the confusion, 'tam-tam' is a term often used for either an African djembe or talking drum.

When a score calls for a 'tam tam' (like Messiaen’s 'Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum' or various works of Richard Wagner), then a flat faced Gong, like a Chinese Chau, is used.

Flat Faced Chinese Chau Gong/Tam Tam

When a score calls for a 'Gong' (like Puccini’s 'Madame Butterfly', or 'Turandot'), then a bossed Gong, either tuned or untuned (as specified), is used.

Bossed Gamelan (L) & Thai (R) Gongs

Most Asian cultures use a name that sounds like the sound a Gong makes, thus Gong, Agung, Gandingan, Ageng, (see a pattern here?) etc. I don't play in the Symphony, so I don't ever use the term tam tam. To me, all Gongs are Gongs.

Repeat after me: All Gongs are Gongs…

~ MB  


  1. I love the sort of firestorm this topic seems to bring up in people. What can I say?

    Let me clear up one big misunderstanding: I am NOT saying that "Tam Tam" is an incorrect term. On the contrary, feel free to call your flat faced/Chau type Gong a "Tam Tam," especially if you play in the symphony orchestra. What I am saying is that all Gongs ("Tam Tams" included) are, and can be correctly called 'Gongs.' "Tam Tam" is merely an orchestral designation. Use it, don't abuse it…

    ~ MB

  2. It has always been my habit to designate "Tam-Tam" in a score, and often I will approximate the diameter needed throughout the work..... study scores and books have always led me to just write Tam-Tam as a matter of course without any explanation further. Whichever, I require all the shimmery effects and subtleness of a "Gong", if for instance the difference was to be be great, it would be a investigation as to the timbre. As to the flat face or the raised centre, I would love love to spend time comparing the distinctions of each.
    When I mark "Tam" in the score, I am using just a variation of term or a distinction of a separate instrument.

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  6. I see! Thank you for differentiating the two terms. So, "gong" is the broader term which encapsulates the more-niche descriptor of a "tam-tam".


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