Percussion instruments - Membranophones


[Fr. tambour; Ger. Trommel; It. tamburo; Sp. tambor].
Any of the instruments known as membranophones, with skin (or plastic) stretched over a frame or vessel of, usually, wood or metal; a few instruments also termed drums are idiophones. While most drums are struck with the hand(s) or a beater, in some cultures they are also shaken, rubbed, or plucked (drums with a tensioned string attached). These instruments are found in a large variety of sizes and shapes ranging from bowls, cylinders, and barrels to cones, hourglasses, and simple frames. They have one or two heads that are either laced, nailed, or glued to the body, or in their modem form, held in place by a counterhoop and bolts.

Drums are found throughout the world, from the most primitive African or South American tribal cultures to sophisticated cultures of China, India, and Muslim lands. In most musical cultures, drums are of indefinite pitch, though in Africa, the Near East, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, the contrast of two or more higher and lower indefinite pitches on one, two, or more drums is a central feature of drumming. European timpani, however, must be tuned to definite pitches, as must drums used in the art music of South Asia, such as the tabla and mrdahgam. Drums play an important role in communication and ceremony as well as in high art. As ritual instruments, they have often been imbued with magical powers. For the use of drums in jazz and popular music


Early history and distribution.

The popularity of drums in ancient civilizations is confirmed by their widespread appearance in art. A man-sized bass drum is depicted on a Sumerian vase (ca. 3000 b.c.e.), and at least four types of drums in different sizes were used in Mesopotamia. Actual instruments from ancient Egypt (ca. 1800 b.c.e.) have been preserved. Drums are mentioned in one of the earliest Chinese poems (1135 b.c.e.), and a bass drum was supposedly installed in the Imperial Palace in Peking around the same time. In India, especially, (humming was raised to a highly sophisticated art with a variety of instruments played with different techniques. Hand drums, used chiefly by women, accompanied songs and dances in Arabia and Persia. The Greeks seem not to have employed drums to any great extent; only the tambourine is depicted regularly in their artifacts.


The most common form of drum during the European Middle Ages was the cylindrical tabor, a rope-tensioned, double-headed instrument of varying size with a snare on the struck (or batter) head. It was introduced to Europe during the Crusading era, and the earliest known pictorial evidence is a 12th-century English manuscript illumination showing a juggler disguised as a bear striking a small barrel drum suspended from his neck. The tabor was played with a single stick, and very often the performer blew a small pipe at the same time. This combination proved ideal for accompanying dance and is portrayed over and over again in artifacts of the period. The tabor reappears from time to time in the modem orchestra as the tambour or tambourin provengal. Bizet employed it in L 'Arlesienne Suite no. 2 (1872), Copland in El Salon Mexico (1933-36), Milhaud in his Suite frangaise (1944), and Sessions in his Symphony no. 3 (1957).

More significant was the introduction of the Arabian naker (naqqarah), a small kettledrum used in pairs and ordinarily carried around the waist. Nakers were at first military instmments but soon joined the ensembles of so-called loud instruments found at all important feudal events.

Drums of indefinite pitch in Western art music

Snare drum

[Fr. caisse claire, tambour militaire; Ger. kleine Trommel; It. tamburo militare; Sp. tambor, caja militar]. A cylindrical shell made of wood or metal with two heads, the lower being furnished with snares—gut strings or wires running parallel to one another across the center of the head. When the upper or batter head is struck, the snares, if appropriately adjusted, vibrate against the lower or snare head. The two heads were tensioned in earlier times by ropes laced between them around the shell.

Today threaded rods are employed, sometimes permitting separate adjustment of the tension on each head. Most modem instruments also have a lever for the quick release of the snares. The instrument used in the modem orchestra and in the drum set of jazz and popular music is about 35 cm (14 in.) in diameter and about 13 cm (5 in.) deep. It is mounted on a stand horizontally or at a slight angle. The instrument used in marching is at least 30 cm (12 in.) in diameter and at least 38 cm (15 in.) deep. It is suspended at an angle at the player’s left side (whence the term side drum) from a strap worn over the right shoulder. The snare dram is played with wooden sticks that taper to a slightly elongated knob at the tip. In jazz and popular music, the snare drum may also be played with wire brashes.


The snare dram developed from the big tabor and appeared toward the end of the Middle Ages as an important military instrument popularized by Swiss mercenary regiments. However, it was also found along with fifes, cometts, trumpets, and kettledrums in ensembles for court and civic music-making, particularly out of doors. Its use in the orchestra was at first generally limited to works with a martial flavor, such as Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), Haydn’s Military Symphony, no. 100 (1793— 94), and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory or “Battle Symphony” (1813). Rossini gave the snare drum an important solo in the overture to his opera La gazza ladra (1817). Encouraged by Berlioz’s pioneering use of percussion, the 19th-century orchestra made increasing use of this instrument. It is featured prominently in the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Elgar, for example. In Nielsen’s Symphony no. 5 (1921-22), the drummer is called upon to improvise in counterpoint to the orchestra, and in Ravel’s Bolero (1928) the first snare drum provides a constant rhythmic underpinning. Both Stravinsky and Bartok carried on this tradition, the latter specifying contrasting tones by the hitting of the drum at different spots. Contemporary composers regularly call for instruments of various sizes, with and without snares. Rim shots are employed by Milhaud in his La creation du monde (1923), Copland in his Symphony no. 3 (1944-46), and Carter in his Variations for Orchestra (1954-55).

Ravel - Bolero

Tenor drum

[Fr. caisse roulante; Ger. Ruhrtrommel, Wirbeltrommel; It. cassa rullante; Sp. redo-blante], A cylindrical drum, similar in diameter to the side drum, but rather deeper (25 to 30 cm or more). Its construction is like that of the snare drum except that it has no snares. It is played either with felt-headed or snare-drum sticks.

Although the tenor drum has always been primarily a military or marching instrument, it was used in the orchestra by Berlioz in his Requiem (1837), Wagner in several of his operas, Strauss in Ein Heldenleben (1897-98), as well as by Elgar, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Britten.

Scottish Tenor Drum Solo

Bass drum

[Fr. grosse caisse; Ger. grosse Trommel; It. gran cassa; Sp. bombo], A large instrument, approximately 90 cm (almost 36 in.) in diameter and 40 cm (16 in.) deep, consisting of a cylindrical wooden shell with two heads tensioned as are those of the side drum. In the symphony orchestra, it is suspended from a swivel frame or placed on a stand and hit with a large, felt-headed stick. A roll can be performed with timpani sticks or a double-headed beater.

The bass drum was rare in Europe until the vogue for Turkish Janissary music in the 18th century, reflected in works such as Gluck’s opera Le cadi dupe (1761), Mozart’s Die Entjuhrung aus dem Serail (1782), and Haydn’s Symphony no. 100 (Military, 1793-94). Beethoven used the instrument effectively in his Ninth Symphony (1822-24), as did Berlioz in his Symphonie fantastique (1830) and Damnation of Faust (1845-46). Romantic composers often called for bass drum and cymbals simultaneously, the syncopated beats in Tchaikovsky’s music being a typical example. Verdi asked for hard, loud blows in the Dies Irae section of his Requiem (1874) and provided a dramatic solo in the final scene of Otello (1887). Britten called for strokes with a snare-drum stick in Peter Grimes (1944-45).

Verdi - dramatic solo in the final scene of Otello

Tom-tom drum 

(1) A cylindrical drum without snares, usually double headed, used in drum sets, often in more than one size. Typical examples are 20 to 50 cm high, 15 to 25 cm in diameter, and are played with sticks, mallets, and brushes.

(2) In colloquial usage, any African or American Indian drum, or the steady beating of such a drum.

Tom-toms mounted on a bass drum

Tom Tom Solo

Drum set

A collection of percussion instruments played by a single player; characteristic of jazz, rock, and other forms of American popular music. It typically includes the following drums: a pedal-operated bass drum, a snare drum, and two or more tom-toms. The normal complement of cymbals includes a hi-hat: a pair of cymbals mounted horizontally on a stand and clashed together by a pedal mechanism.

1 Bass drum - 2 Floor tom - 3 Snare drum
4 Hanging toms - 5 Hi-hat - 6 Crash cymbal
7 Ride cymbal - 8 Splash cymbal - 9 China cymbal

In the most characteristic use of the hi-hat, the pedal is sharply depressed, producing a choked clash, on beats two and four in a measure of 4/4. This may be combined with the accompanying rhythm played with a snare-drum stick on the upper of the two cymbals, often with the pedal released on beats one and three to allow the cymbals to ring.The drum set also usually includes one or more single cymbals, each mounted at an angle on a stand. These may include a ride cymbal (used to play the rhythm shown in the accompanying example, often for prolonged periods), a crash cymbal, and a sizzle cymbal (a large cymbal with loose rivets inserted in a ring of holes near the edge).

Drum Solo


[Eng. sing, and pi.; It., sing, timpano; Fr. timbale; Ger. Pauke; Sp. timbal, atabal.]. Kettledrum; t. coperti, t. sordi, muted or muffled timpani. The most important orchestral percussion instrument, and the only member of the drum family of Western art music capable of producing notes of definite pitch. It consists of a large hemispherical shell of metal or fiberglass across which is stretched a head, ordinarily of calfskin or plastic, mounted (lapped) on a hoop that is held in place by a metal ring (counterhoop) through which pass threaded screws or rods that allow the skin’s tension to be varied.

Timpani come in standard sizes, from 50 to 82 cm (20 to 32 in.) in diameter, with a range from high bb to low D. Typical sets of four drums will include drums that are 58, 64, 71, and 76 cm (23, 25, 28, and 30 in.) or now often 58, 66, 74, and 81 cm (23, 26, 29, and 32 in.) in diameter, each with a range of approximately a perfect fifth, upward from d, Bb, F, and D or Eb, respectively. If only two drums are used, they are usually the middle two. They are played with two wooden sticks with heads of felt or other material, varying in shape, size, weight, and texture.

Timpani arrived in western Europe during the 15th century as a cavalry instrument played on horseback by the Muslims, Ottoman Turks, and Mongols [see Naqqarah\. Following eastern custom, they were paired with the trumpet and were soon appropriated as exclusive insignia of rank. For several centuries, construction remained constant, and tuning was by means of threaded bolts around the rim, tightened or loosened by a key. Around 1790, the screw with a T handle was introduced for faster changes of pitch. During the 19th century, numerous inventors developed devices for rapid tuning. The most successful of these so-called machine drums were tuned either by turning a single master screw or lever (Gerhard Cramer, 1812; Johann Einbigler, 1836), rotating the bowl itself (Johann Stumpff, 1821), or manipulating a foot pedal (Carl Pittrich, 1881). Other approaches included cable tuning with a tumbuckle (Cornelius Ward, 1837), concentric rings pressing up against the skin (Darche, ca. 1849), and gears rotated by the foot (August Knocke, ca. 1841).

By the 16th century, timpani were found in military regiments as well as at court. The music was at first improvised, but later both outdoor carrousel music and indoor polychoral liturgical music were written for one or two pairs of instruments; for example, Schmelzer’s music for a Pferdeballet (1667) and the Salzburger Festmesse by Biber or Hofer (1682). Stage directions to early English masques, such as Jonson’s The Golden Age Restored (1615), included references to timpani. Their introduction into the orchestra took place around 1670: by Lully in Thesee (1675) and by Purcell in his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (“Hail, bright Cecilia,” 1692) and The Fairy Queen (1692). The timpani solo in Bach’s Cantata no. 214, Tonet, ihr Pauken (1733) was used again in his Christmas Oratorio. Occasional pieces for four to as many as eight timpani were written by Graupner (1749), Molter (ca. 1750), and J. C. C. Fischer (ca. 1780s). Haydn, a drummer himself, wrote significant parts for the instrument, particularly in his Drum-Roll Symphony no. 103 (1795)  and Missa in tempore belli or Paukenmesse (1796). Beethoven liberated the timpani from merely rhythmic functions wedded to the trumpets and from the usual tonic and dominant tunings.

Vogler, in his opera Samori (1803), and his student Weber, in the revised overture to Peter Schmoll (1807), were the first symphonic composers to call for three drums. Four were required in Reicha’s Die Harmonie der Spharen (before 1826) and Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831), where they were given a melodic solo. Berlioz asked for ten players on sixteen drums in his Requiem (1837). Wagner used two players, each with a pair of instruments, throughout the Ring. Russian composers made particularly full use of timpani, often writing very high pitches. Mahler’s symphonies often require two players with four to six drums covering all possible pitches. Verdi’s Otello (1887), Strauss’s tone poems, and D’lndy’s Symphony no. 2 (1903) require the use of machine drums in order to effect instantaneous pitch changes. Bartok wrote sequences of glissandos for timpani in his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste (1936) and Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937), and Britten wrote ascending and descending passages in his Nocturne (1958). Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra (1969), among many other pieces (some for solo timpani), makes the ultimate demands on the performer.

O Fortuna - Carmina Burana Rehearsal - Timpani



[Fr. tambour de basque; Ger. Schellen-trommel, Tamburin; It. tamburello, tamburino; Sp. pandereta].
A shallow, single-headed frame drum with a wooden frame in which metal disks or jingles are set; also sometimes timbrel.

It is most often held in one hand and struck with the other; sometimes the head is rubbed along the perimeter with the thumb, producing a continuous sound from both head and jingles; it may also be simply shaken or played upon with sticks. It is of Middle Eastern origin and in the West is particularly associated with Spain. 

Tambourines originated in Egypt, where they were known as the kof to the Hebrews, in which the instrument was mainly used in religious contexts. The word tambourine finds its origins in French tambourin, which referred to a long narrow drum used in Provence, the word being a diminutive of tambour "drum," altered by influence of Arabic tunbur "drum". from the Middle Persian word tambūr "lute, drum".

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was among the earliest western composers to include the tambourine in his compositions. Since the late eighteenth century it has become a more permanent element of the western orchestral percussion section, as exemplified in some of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's dance pieces from The Nutcracker Suite. Gustav Holst's seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets also features the tambourine in several places throughout the suite, especially in the "Jupiter" movement.



Elizabeth Butler. "Steady the Drums and Fifes". 1897

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