Ancient History of Gongs

A gong collection in a gamelan ensemble of instruments – Indonesian Embassy Canberra

What is a gong?

A gong is an East and Southeast Asian musical impact instrument that takes the form of a flat, round metal disc that is hit with a mallet.

The gong’s origin is likely China’s Western Regions, sixth century; the term gong dawned in Java. Scientific and archaeological research has established that Burma, China, Java, and Annam were the four principal gong manufacturing centers of the ancient world. The gong found its way into the Western World in the 18th century when it was also used in the impact section of a Western-style symphony orchestra. A sort of bronze cauldron gong is known as a resting bell was widely used in ancient Greece and Rome, for example in the famous Oracle of Dodona, where disc gongs were also used

Gongs technically fall into one of three types: Suspended gongs are more or less flat, circular discs of metal swung vertically by means of a cord passed through holes near to the top rim. Bossed or nipple gongs have a raised center boss, or knob, and are often suspended and played horizontally. Bowl gongs are bowl-shaped and rest on pillows. The latter may be considered a member of the bell category. Gongs are made largely from bronze or brass but there are many other alloys in use.

Gongs produce two different types of sound. A gong with an essentially flat surface vibrates in multiple modes, giving a “crash” rather than a tuned note. This kind of gong is sometimes called a tam-tam to distinguish it from the bossed gongs that give a tuned note. In Indonesian gamelan groups, some bossed gongs are deliberately made to generate in addition a beat note in the range from about 1 to 5 Hz. The use of the term “gong” for both these kinds of instruments is common.

The History:

The gong is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world. Archaeologists have discovered gongs built almost four thousand years ago. No wonder when we hear a gong we feel like we are being touched in our soul.

The earliest written mention of the gong was in China in the 6th century. In these old documents the Chinese claim that another culture from Central Asia presented it to them. While we can’t be certain which culture created the gong, it’s safe to say the sound resonated with the Chinese and that they made the gong their own. The Chinese used gongs for many ceremonial functions. They were struck to announce when the Emperor or other significant political and religious figures arrived. Military leaders also used gongs to gather men together for battle.

The gong and its music then emigrated from China to Java — the term gong is really Javanese in origin — and became entrenched in Indonesia by the 9th century.

The Javanese made their gongs in a new way that was much altered from the large flat Chinese gongs; they used deep turned-down rims with a raised knob in the center. The Indonesians also produced a style of playing many of their gongs at once, in a percussion orchestra known as a gamelan. In gamelan, the gongs are usually different sizes, with each one tuned to a different specific pitch. Gongs migrated slowly from Asia to Africa — they didn’t have the Internet and airplanes to speed things along back then — and finally arrived in Europe in the eighteenth century.

The style of the gong that Europeans first saw and heard was the big Chinese gong of unlimited pitch that you have probably seen in the back of orchestras. Though now a regular part of the percussion section in Western orchestras, the first symphony to include one was Mirabeau, written by the French musician Francois Gossec, in 1791. Debussy became the first major musician to include the sounds into his symphonies.

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