The gong is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world. Archaeologists have unearthed 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 ancient documents the Chinese claim that another culture from Central Asia introduced 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 important political and religious figures arrived. Military leaders also used gongs to gather men together for battle.
The gong and its music then migrated from China to Java — the term gong is actually Javanese in origin — and became established in Indonesia by the 9th century.
The Javanese made their gongs in a new way that was much different from the large flat Chinese gongs; they used deep turned-down rims with a raised knob in the center. The Indonesians also developed 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 gong that Europeans first saw and heard was the big Chinese gong of indefinite 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 composer Francois Gossec, in 1791. Debussy became the first major composer to incorporate the sounds into his symphonies.