The name tam-tam is derived from the Malaysian word tammittam, an onomatopoeic term for “drum”. Musical metal discs (gongs) originated in China in the 7th century BC. From there they spread to eastern Asia. In the Far East, gamelan orchestras in which whole groups of musical metal discs (tam-tams, gongs etc) played a vital role have been formed from time immemorial. This explains the enormous significance of these instruments in the Far East.
The metal disc from East Asia was originally used in religious worship. Later on the term tam-tam was applied to the modern orchestra instrument which probably came to Europe in the wake of the Turkish wars in the 17th century and was introduced into the orchestra toward the end of the 18th century in François Joseph Gossec’s funeral march in Mirabeau (1791).
Until the end of the 19th century the tam-tam’s role was to provide effects for important and notable cues, often in funeral marches. Since the beginning of the 20th century the tam-tam has finally established itself as a “true” orchestra instrument whose task is to lend the sound of the orchestra a darker timbre, as in Richard Strauss for example. It is therefore a very important and versatile member of the percussion group in the orchestra.
From about 1960 the tam-tam has been struck, rubbed or played with a huge variety of objects. It was first used as a solo instrument by Karlheinz Stockhausen in his work Mikrophonie I (1964).