The tam-tam is a large gong of Asian origin. Generally constructed of bronze, it is the shape of a giant disc hung on a stand, and is played by striking the surface with a mallet. It doesn’t produce a specific pitch, but rather many undefined frequencies, which when heard together create an extremely special sound, much like a rumble or a roar. Using a variety of mallets and sticks, a percussionist can create a wide range of sounds. The larger the instrument, the harder the player must strike it in order for the instrument to resonate at full volume.
Did you know?
As is the case with many instruments in the percussion family, the part of the instrument which produces the best sound quality is just off-centre, and its exact location changes from one instrument to the next. The percussionist must therefore perform tests on the instrument to find the “sweet spot”, because if he or she is off by even a centimeter, it won’t necessarily produce the same tone.
Maurice Ravel took much of his inspiration from the music of Asia, as seen in this excerpt from the ballet Mother Goose, “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas”. Ravel uses the tam-tam to evoke an imagined scene from China. In the third excerpt, the three “fortissimo” or very loud hits of the tam-tam are left to resonate, concluding Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in a bombastic manner.
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ
Mother Goose: III. Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas
Symphonic Dances: III. Lento assai ― Allegro vivace