Metallic, shrill, lustrous, soughing, buzzing, brilliant, mighty, majestic, screeching, threatening, booming.
Because the tam-tam produces a large number of inharmonic partials the sound has noise-like character. It is for this reason that no definite pitch can be determined.
The tam-tam has no difficulty rising above the sound of an entire orchestra. The sound varies according to the type of mallet, the point at which the instrument is struck, the material and, of course, the size of the instrument.
A cast bronze tam-tam has a higher fundamental than a sheet bronze one. Because it is lighter, the latter instrument is much easier to damp. However, the stately timbre of its cast bronze counterpart is lacking at all dynamic levels.
Piano tones have a darker timbre.
The 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).
A comparison between the tam-tam and the gong
The biggest difference between the tam-tam and the gong is that the tam-tam possesses no audible definite pitch. Another important difference is the sound characteristics: whereas the tam-tam’s voice can range from majestic and mighty to threatening and booming, the gong sounds majestic, brilliant or exotic. In other words, the gong’s sound can only be described as “solemn” and “dignified”.
The decay of a gong note struck with the same force on an instrument of the same size is shorter than that of the tam-tam; a tam-tam note can resonate for several minutes.
The tam-tam and the gong do have things in common, however: on both the pitch is lower if the instrument is bigger. The weight also has an effect; the heavier the instrument, the lower the pitch.
The tam-tam has a far greater range of tonal possibilities, not only because of the many different mallets that can be used. On the other hand melodies can only be played on gongs.