If you ever get the chance, or the next time you go to a Beijing opera, look for the pair of round brass instruments that the players hit with a felt mallet, the larger with a descending tone and the smaller with a rising tone. These two are gongs, or what the Chinese call “luo.” Read on to find out more about these ancient instruments, including what they are, where and when they came from, their types, uses, and symbolism.
The Chinese luo is a widely known percussion instrument made of “resonant bronze” (xiangtong), a copper-tin alloy that is roughly 77 percent copper and 23 percent tin. The rim is turned back and hammered into a basin- or dish-shaped structure. The daluo (literally, “large gong”) is commonly used in the Beijing opera to create a regal and imposing atmosphere. The xiaoluo (small gong) is available in various sizes and can be played alone or in groups. Small luo of varying sizes (and thus pitches) can be hung together or held by hand and performed melodically.
Where did gongs originate
Although gongs are thought to have originated in what is now Tibet, the word “gong” is Indonesian, and they are commonly used in gamelan combinations on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. Traditional Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Thai music ensembles all use the instrument.
By the eighteenth century, gong use had piqued European classical composers’ interest. One of their earliest uses was the incorporation of the tam-tam gongs into their compositions, which aided in introducing the instrument to symphony orchestras. The tam-tam is commonly found in the percussion sections of Western orchestras.
When did gongs originate
The earliest identified gong dates to the early 3rd century BCE Han dynasty. Records confirm that musical instruments such as cymbals and gongs were introduced into China along with the importation of Buddhism from India and Central Asian influences by way of the Silk Road. Archeologists have discovered ancient gongs in modern Burma, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
What are the types of gongs?
There are three types of gongs, each with its construction.
Suspended gongs: These are flat and circular discs with holes at the top of their outer rim. A string runs through these holes, connecting the gong to the frame from which it hangs. The percussionist uses a mallet to strike the gong, producing an indefinite pitch. Tam-tam, Chinese opera gongs, Sheng Kwong gongs, Pasi gongs, wind gongs, and tiger gongs are all examples of suspended gongs. Suspended gongs are the most common type of gong used in orchestras.
Nipple gongs: These gongs, also called bossed gongs, have a raised knob in the center of the disc. Nipple gongs are common in traditional Filipino music. They can also be common in Buddhisttemples worldwide, as gong-making is still considered sacred in some Buddhist cultures.
Bowl gongs: As the name implies, these gongs are fashioned like small, rounded bowls. These gongs sit on padded cushions and can be rubbed or struck. Bowl gongs don’t produce the typical unpitched gong sound related to suspended and nipple gongs but make a bell-like sound.
What is a Chinese gong used for
Gongs have a myriad of uses. For instance, Opera gongs, commonly found at Chinese festivals, are made of larger and smaller gongs. The larger has a descending tone, while the smaller has a rising tone. They are used to announce various players’ arrival and identify comical moments.
Since it was incorporated as an orchestral instrument in 1790, the Tam-tam gong has remained an integral part of Western orchestras’ rhythm sections. Nipple gongs are found in Chinese and South-eastern Asian Buddhist temples for use during worship. In contrast, Doras, another type of gong, are commonly used in Buddhist commemorations and as ship departure signals.
Wind gongs are traditionally played with a big, soft mallet, producing a roaring crash that matches their name. Wind gongs are now commonly used by rock drummers.
Conventionally, Chau gongs were also deployed to clear the path for prominent figures and processions, similar to how a police siren is used today.
Sculptural gongs, on the other hand, serve as both a work of visual art and as musical instruments.
How to use a gong
The player’s striking force, sequence, and rhythm, together with the resulting oscillating wave motion of the gong, influence the quality of the sound produced.
To start with, note that the gong’s circular disk can be divided into three playing zones: The central hub, which contains the foundational notes and the deepest tones. The outer annulus is further out, towards the gong’s rim, where overtones transform and higher pitches register. Then there’s the rim, which is the structurally stiffest part of the gong’s construction and thus has the highest resonance frequency.
To begin using it, you need to set the gong. This is critical if you intend to use it for a special effect, such as a healing sound. Avoid reflective surfaces and consider acoustic screens, such as curtains and carpets that absorb high frequencies, or cavity walls and panels that absorb low frequencies.
The gong is then primed by gently tapping inside the outer annulus with a soft-headed mallet or fingers, allowing the sounds to emerge and blossom quietly and gradually.
Then there’s the volume control. In a typical gong session, the audio is introduced quietly, gradually increasing in volume to a crescendo and then letting that intensity fade, even into silence, before rehashing this sequence for a few minutes.
The amount of force used to strike the gong determines the volume of sound produced. Tapping the gong at a right angle to the disk produces a single resultant force in the same direction. A glancing blow, on the other hand, generates two smaller forces, reducing the sound’s volume. The intensity of sound can thus be controlled by altering the glancing angle of the strike.
The number of strikes or the speed of repeated strikes can be increased to raise the amplitude of the sound.
What does a gong symbolize?
The gong, with its majestic, loud, ringing sound, has a 5,500-year history and is thought to bring good luck, health, and happiness.
Gongs, like cymbals, drums, and clappers, are some of the ancient instruments that continue to be appreciated in the modern world. Although gongs were known for their very intense spiritual meaning in tribal meetings and Buddhist rituals in the past, just like the other percussion instruments, they seem to have found their way into popular folk music and appear to be here to stay. This is likely because many appreciate their pivotal role in keeping the music on time.
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