In addition to the bass drum and timpani, the tam-tam adds an additional member to the orchestra bass percussion section. Even though it boasts similarities to the gong, one should not confuse both instruments since there is a range of important variations in their construction and sound. The tam-tam is a relatively flat disk and, unlike the gong, it has no center knob. It has no definite pitch, although the relative pitch of different sized tam-tams does vary.
The word “tam-tam” originated from the Malaysian term, “tammittam“, which is an onomatopoeic term for the drum. In the 7th century B.C., musical metal disks emerged in China. Since these ancient times, gamelan orchestras were established in which whole groups of these discs such as tam-tams and gongs played a crucial part.
The tam-tam is a circular disk with mild convexity. The narrow rim, convex as well, is turned upwards. The instrument is made of either hammered sheet bronze or cast bronze. The highest quality tam-tams come from the countries where they originated: China, Japan, Myanmar, Java, etc.
The tam-tam has two holes in the rim from which twine or wire crosses so that it can be suspended. They sit in areas where they won’t vibrate and must be drilled. The cast bronze tam-tam, which is often used for orchestral music, has a very high fundamental value in comparison to its mass. It must be a certain size to compensate for this, about 70 cm in diameter, and to produce the sound needed for the orchestra
One or more tam-tams can be suspended on metal or aluminum stands with wheels. Special mallets are used to strike them. They consist of a head and a wrap. The material used for the head is usually hard felt, wood or metal, while for the wrap the material of choice is usually heavy fabric. A superball type of mallet has a shaft made of wood or rattan. It’s the same length as a marimba or vibraphone mallet’s shaft. Its head is a rubber ball that comes in a variety of sizes. On occasion, the tam-tam can be rubbed with the following objects: a wine glass, cardboard tubes, an electric vibrator, or chains.
Execution of the Tam-tam
The instrument is not struck precisely in the middle, but around a hand’s width from the center, as it is here that the highest volume and the lowest notes are generated. Nevertheless, the ideal spot differs between instruments, and the percussionist must find it by trial and error. Even a few centimeters away from it will dramatically alter the relative pitch. The tam-tam vibrates the most towards the center and the least towards the edges, like the gong. It’s for this reason that the turned-up rim can suspend it.
The sound of this instrument comprises a significant amount of inharmonic partials. Notes take longer to develop fully on larger tam-tams and the overall pitch is lower. It’s also harder to damp a large tam-tam. In fact, very large instruments at high volume levels require two percussionists to damp them. At these levels, it’s not difficult for the tam-tam to rise above the sound of an entire orchestra.
This wide range of tonal possibilities means that the tam-tam is used in both loud and soft passages. It often serves to complement an existing orchestra sound, but can also create a particular mood, for example slow, soft strokes to represent the human heartbeat.