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- This article is about the musical instrument. See also slit gong, and for other uses of the word, see gong (disambiguation).
A gong is any one of a wide variety of metal percussion instruments. The term is Malay-Javanese in origin but widespread throughout Asia. The instrument itself appears to have origins in the bronze drums of China, cymbals of central Asia, and perhaps even in European bell-casting techniques.
Gongs are broadly of three types. Suspended gongs are more or less flat, circular disks of metal suspended vertically by means of a cord passed through holes near to the top rim. Bossed gongs have a raised center boss and are often suspended and played horizontally. Bowl gongs are bowl-shaped, and rest on cushions. Gongs are made mainly from bronze or brass but there are many other alloys in use.
Types of gong
Suspended gongs are played with beaters and are of two main types: flat faced discs either with or without a turned edge, and gongs with a raised center boss. In general, the larger the gong, the larger and softer the beater. In Western symphonic music the flat faced gongs are generally referred to as tam-tams to distinguish them from their bossed counterparts, although the term "gong" is correct to use for either type.
Large flat gongs may be 'primed' by lightly hitting them before the main stroke, greatly enhancing the sound and causing the instrument "speak" sooner, with a shorter delay for the sound to "bloom". Keeping this priming stroke inaudible calls for a great deal of skill. The smallest suspended gongs are played with bamboo sticks, or even western-style drumsticks. Contemporary & avant-garde music, where different sounds are sought, will often use friction mallets (producing squeals & harmonics), bass bows (producing long tones and high overtones), and various striking implements (wood/plastic/metal) to produce the desired tones.
Western bossed gongs are available in tuned chromatic sets ranging from one, to four and a half octaves. These are used by various percussion ensembles, orchestras, and solo percussionists (Pierre Favre from Switzerland, Andrea Centazzo from Italy).
Pot gongs are small (6"-13") heavy gongs with a raised center boss (also known as a cup, knob, or nipple) that are suspended on cords within a wooden stand or framework. There can be from 8-10 gongs in either one or two rows. They are commonly played with padded mallets (although wooden sticks may be used) on the boss, producing a fundamental pitch with little overtones. Bossed gong sets are tuned to various scales (pentatonic, 7 note, etc.) and are used as the melodic element in Gamelan music (Indonesia/Java), Kulintang (Philippines), or Piphat (Thailand).
Bowl gongs (also called cup gongs) are similar to Tibetan singing bowls and may be played in many different ways, not all of them strictly percussion. The rim may be rubbed with the finger, for example, or the gong may be struck with a beater. Bowl gongs are used in temple worship, especially in Vajrayana Buddhism.
Traditional suspended gongs
A 10" Chau Gong
By far the most familiar to most Westerners is the chau gong or bullseye gong. Large chau gongs, called tam-tams (not to be confused with tom-tom drums), have become part of the symphony orchestra. Sometimes a chau gong is referred to as a Chinese gong, but in fact it is only one of many types of suspended gongs that are associated with China.
The chau gong is made of copper-based alloy, bronze or brass. It is almost flat except for the rim, which is turned up to make a shallow cylinder. On a 10" gong, for example, the rim extends about a half an inch perpendicular to the gong surface. The main surface is slightly concave when viewed from the direction to which the rim is turned. The centre spot and the rim of a chau gong are left coated on both sides with the black copper oxide that forms during the manufacture of the gong, the rest of the gong is polished to remove this coating. Chau gongs range in size from 7" to 80" in diameter.
The earliest Chau gong is from a tomb discovered at the Guixian site in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China. It dates from the early Western Han Dynasty.
Traditionally, chau gongs were used to clear the way for important officials and processions, much like a police siren today. Sometimes the number of strokes on the gong was used to indicate the seniority of the official. In this way, two officials meeting unexpectedly on the road would know before the meeting which of them should bow down before the other.
Uses of gongs in the symphony orchestra
Gustav Mahler was one of the first composers to use the tam-tam in his symphonic works. Within a few decades the tam-tam became an important member of the percussion section of a modern symphony orchestra. Fine examples of its use are demonstrated in the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich and, to a lesser extent, Sergei Rachmaninov. Karlheinz Stockhausen used a 60" Paiste tam-tam in his Momente.
Nipple gongs have a raised boss or nipple in the centre, often made of a different metal to the rest of the gong. They have a clear resonant tone with less shimmer than other gongs, and two distinct sounds depending on whether they are struck on the boss or next to it.
Nipple gongs range in size from 6" to 14" or larger. Sets of smaller, tuned nipple gongs can be used to play a tune.
A Bau gong is a type of nipple gong used in Chinese temples for worship.
An essential part of the orchestra for Chinese opera is a pair of gongs, the larger with a descending tone, the smaller with a rising tone. The larger gong is used to announce the entrance of major players, of men, and to identify points of drama and consequence. The smaller gong is used to announce the entry of lesser players, of women, and to identify points of humour.
Opera gongs range in size from 7" to 12", with the larger of a pair one or two inches larger than the smaller.
A Pasi gong is a medium-size gong 12" to 15" in size, with a crashing sound. It is used traditionally to announce the start of a performance, play or magic. Construction varies, some having nipples and some not, so this type is more named for its function than for its structure or even its sound.
Pasi gongs without nipples have found favour with adventurous middle-of-the-road kit drummers.
A tiger gong is a slightly descending or less commonly ascending gong, larger than an opera gong and with a less pronounced pitch shift. Most commonly 15" but available down to 8".
A Sheng Kwong gong is a medium to large gong with a sharp staccato sound.
Wind gongs (also known as Feng or Lion Gongs) are flat bronze discs, with little fundamental pitch, heavy tuned overtones, and long sustain. They are most commonly made of B20 bronze, but can also be made of M63 brass or NS12 nickel-silver. Traditionally, a wind gong is played with a large soft mallet, which gives them a roaring crash to match their namesake. They are lathed on both sides and are medium to large in size, typically 15" to 22" but sizes from 7" to 40" are available. The 22" size is most popular due to its portability and large sound. They are commonly used by drum kit drummers in rock music.
Played with a nylon tip drumstick they sound a bit like the coil chimes in a mantle clock. Some have holes in the centre, but they are mounted like all suspended gongs by other holes near the rim. The smaller sizes (7"-12") have a more bell-like tone due to their thickness and small diameter.
Modern orchestral gongs
As well as the tam-tam, there are a number of new gong types that were created during the 20th century specifically for orchestral use.
A series of 14 tuned gongs by Paiste, ranging in size from 24" to 38". They are tuned to the vibrational frequencies of the planets, sun, and moon, as determined by Swiss mathematician, Hans Cousto. Planet Gongs are used extensively in therapy, as the different notes/frequencies affect different areas of the body/mind (example: the 38" Earth Gong vibrates at a frequency of 136.10 Hz/C# and affects the Heart Chakra.)
Sound Creation gongs
A series of 10 theme gongs by Paiste, ranging in size from 11" to 60". These Gongs are designed to evoke various sounds/feelings/moods. Some are designed to be polar opposites, representing balance (Sun/Moon, Fire/Water, Peace/Fight), while 3 correspond to Chakras (head/chest/abdomen), and the Earth Gong (available in 4 sizes: 26/32/38/60") grounds the whole set.
In older Javanese usage and in modern Balinese usage, gong is used to identify an ensemble of instruments. In contemporary central Javanese usage, the term gamelan is preferred and the term gong is reserved for the gong ageng, the largest instrument of the type, or for surrogate instruments such as the gong komodong or gong bumbu (blown gong) which fill the same musical function in ensembles lacking the large gong. In Balinese usage, gong refers to Gamelan Gong Kebyar.
Some primitive drums are known as Tam Tams, "slit gongs" or slit drums. The people of Vanuatu in particular, cut a large log with 'totem' type carvings on the outer surface and hollow out the centre leaving only a slit down the front. This hollowed out log gives the deep resonance of drums when hit on the outside with sticks.
Gongs - general
A gong (鑼 pinyin luo2; Malay language or Javanese language: gong-gong or tam-tam) is a percussion sonorous or musical instrument of Chinese origin and manufacture, made in the form of a broad thin disk with a deep rim, that has spread to Southeast Asia - a type of flat bell.
Gongs vary in diameter from about 20 to 40 in., and they are made of bronze containing a maximum of 22 parts of tin to 78 of copper; but in many cases the proportion of tin is considerably less. Such an alloy, when cast and allowed to cool slowly, is excessively brittle, but it can be tempered and annealed in a peculiar manner. If suddenly cooled from a cherry-red heat, the alloy becomes so soft that it can be hammered and worked on the lathe, and afterwards it may be hardened by re-heating and cooling it slowly. In these properties it will be observed, the alloy behaves in a manner exactly opposite to steel, and the Chinese avail themselves of the known peculiarities for preparing the thin sheets of which gongs are made. They cool their castings of bronze in water, and after hammering out the alloy in the soft state, harden the finished gongs by heating them to a cherry-red and allowing them to cool slowly. These properties of the alloy long remained a secret, said to have been first discovered in Europe by Jean Pierre Joseph d'Arcet at the beginning of the 19th century. Riche and Champion are said to have succeeded in producing tam-tams having all the qualities and timbre of the Chinese instruments. The composition of the alloy of bronze used for making gongs is stated to be as follows: Copper, 76.52; Tin, 22.43; Lead, 0.26; Zinc, 0.23; Iron, 0.81. The gong is beaten with a round, hard, leather-covered pad, fitted on a short stick or handle. It emits a peculiarly sonorous sound, its complex vibrations bursting into a wave-like succession of tones, sometimes shrill, sometimes deep. In China and Japan it is used in religious ceremonies, state processions, marriages and other festivals; and it is said that the Chinese can modify its tone variously by particular ways of striking the disk. Gongs may have been used on towers in place of place.
The gong has been effectively used in the orchestra to intensify the impression of fear and horror in melodramatic scenes. The tam-tam was first introduced into a western orchestra by François Joseph Gossec in the funeral march composed at the death of Mirabeau in 1791. Gaspare Spontini used it in La Vestale (1807), in the finale of Act II, an impressive scene in which the high pontiff pronounces the anathema on the faithless vestal. It was also used in the funeral music played when the remains of Napoleon were brought back to France in 1840. Meyerbeer made use of the instrument in the scene of the resurrection of the three nuns in Robert le diable. Four tam-tams are now used at Bayreuth in Parsifal to reinforce the bell instruments, although there is no indication given in the score. The tam-tam has been treated from its ethnographical side by Franz Heger. In more modern music, the tam-tam has been used by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen in Mikrophonie I and by George Crumb. Crumb expanded the timbral range of the tam-tam by giving performance directions (in Makrokosmos III: Music For A Summer Evening) such as using a "well-rosined contrabass bow" to bow the tam-tam, producing an eerie harmonic sound, while Stockhausen exploited amplification (via hand-held microphones) of a wide range of scraping, tapping, rubbing, and beating techniques using unconventional implements (plastic dishes, egg timer, cardbord tubes, etc.).
The signal bell mounted on a tram, trolley, streetcar, cable car or light rail train is known as a gong. It is a bowl-shaped bell typically mounted on the front of the leading car. It is sounded to act as a warning in areas where whistles and horns are prohibited. The "Clang" of the trolley refers to the sound made by the warning gong. In the Tram controls, the gong is operated by a foot lever. A smaller gong with a bell pull is mounted by the rear door of these railcars. It operated by the conductor to notify the motorman that it is safe to proceed.
A railroad crossing with a flashing traffic signal or wigwag will also typically have a warning bell, also known as a gong. The gong is struck by an electric-powered hammer to give motorists and pedestrians an audible warning of an oncoming train. Many railroad crossing gongs are now being replaced by electronic sounding devices that have no moving parts to fail.
A bowl-shaped center mounted gong is standard equipment in a boxing ring and is known as a boxing ring gong. It is struck with a hammer to signal the start and end of each round. An example is made by the Everlast boxing equipment company.  The expression "saved by the bell" refers to the gong sounding the end of a boxing round.
Gongs in popular culture
Gongs have been used in upper class households as waking devices, or to summon domestic help.
A man hitting a gong twice starts all Rank films. This iconic figure is known as the gongman.
Queen's classic song Bohemian Rhapsody ends with the sound of a massive tam-tam. Roger Taylor is known for having one of the biggest tam-tams in rock.
A gong is played in the song "What Is and What Should Never Be" by Led Zeppellin.
In The Addams Family television show, the sound of the gong (activated by a bell pull) would summon Lurch the family butler. Upon appearing, Lurch would utter his basso profundo catchphrase, "You Rang?"
Gongs were used on the The Gong Show, a television variety show/game show spoof that was broadcast in the United States from 1976 until 1980.
List of Gongs
- Gong ageng
- Kempyang and ketuk
- Khong mon
- chau gong
- nipple gong (boa gong)
- feng gong
- tam tam
- paiste symphonic
- flat gong
- Luobowan Han Dynasty Tombs in Guixian County (Guangxi Zuang A. R.), by the Museum of the Guangxi Zhuang Nationality (1988, Beijing)
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Traditional Music of the Southern Philippines - An online textbook about Southern Pilipino Kulintang Music with a extensive section devoted to the Philippine gongs: the kulintang, gandingan, agung and the babendil.