What do you think of when you think of drums? The big drums of classical orchestra, the timpani and field drums? The rock drum kit with its snare drum and tom-toms? The bongos of reggae? The tambourines of tango? The bodhran of traditional Irish music? Or maybe a ceramic pot or a hollow log?

The history of drums is an ancient one which gave rise to many different forms of percussion instruments. Let’s take a moment to find out how.

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Who Invented the Drums?

The very first percussion instruments were probably clappers of some sort - literally two sticks to tap against each other. Over time, the sticks were flattened and even bound together to make crotales and castanets. One of the earliest instruments discovered to date is a type of rasp or skiffle made of incised mammoth bone. The find from Belgium dates to about 70,000 BC.

Even though these were definitely idiophones - or percussion instruments - they weren’t drums yet.

What is a drum?

It is impossible to say who first realised that tapping a stick against something hollow made a louder sound than simply clapping two sticks together.

Drums have a resonance chamber that amplifies the sound - something hollow, whether it be a pot, a gourd, or a hollowed-out piece of wood. Many drums also have a vibrating membrane made of stretched skins or similar. They can be hit with a small mallet (like the bodhran), drumsticks or the hands.

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Drums of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia

Some of the first archaeologically documented drums come from the early civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Rectangular frame drums called timbrels - a type of hand drum - are attested since 2700 BC.

Sumerian reliefs from around 2000 BC show large drums about man-high; two priests are sounding them.

The earliest named drummer is a priestess named Maram-Sin from about 2280 BC. She served in the temple of the Moon in Ur.

All the Mesopotamian drums are played with the hands, as are the Egyptian drums. In the Nile valley, long drums slung around the shoulders sometimes appear in military parades; dancers and musicians play a frame drum about the size of a tambourine. An actual cylindrical double-headed drum was found in the tomb of Djehuti-Baqt from the Middle Kingdom, dating to around 2000 BC.

However, while these cultures probably had drums as early as the Neolithic Period, the earliest documented finds are from China, dating to 5500-2350 BC. They are stretched with crocodile skin.

Greek and Roman drums

Ancient Greece had frame drums (tympanum), that eventually morphed into the true tambourine in Rome of the 3rd century AD.

Oddly enough, the Romans never seem to have used any sort of kettle drum, only smaller hand drums. The only other percussion instrument they used was hand cymbals and their kin such as crotales.

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History of Drums Timeline: The Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe

Most of the major types of drums we play today originated in the Middle Ages or shortly thereafter. Many a new type of musical instrument came from the Middle East, brought back from the Crusades.

Kettle drums

The ancestors of the modern orchestral timpani came from the Middle East. Probably a development of pot drums - skins stretch over a ceramic pot - they came over Europe as drum pairs called nakers in the 13th century.

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One type of double kettle drum is played on horseback.

Kettle drums have been adapted for a variety of musical ensembles. Photo credit: Mikepaws on VisualHuntScrews for tensioning appear around the 16th century when kettle drums become a popular pairing for trumpets. In the 17th century, ever more elaborate pieces were written for them and they became a staple of orchestral music.

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Snare drums

Double-sided drums with rope or snare wires strung under the lower skin appear in the Middle Ages. One such is the tabor, a small drum that hung from shoulder and could be beaten with a single drumstick. It was played one-handed while the other hand played a pipe - a small three-holed flute.

Tabor drums were snare drums played with a flute.
Tabors are snare drums played one-handed while the musician plays a flute with the other hand. Photo credit: Kit Logan on Visualhunt.com

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The combination of flute and drums was particularly appreciated in the military, though they were played by two different musicians.

The first documented use of this combination of snare drum and fife was in Switzerland in 1386. Over the course of the next centuries, they became a staple of military units. The drums, now larger and played with two drumsticks, gave the proper rhythm for marching while the fife gave the soldiers courage.

The big drums, with snares made of gut, were also used for signalling.

Over the course of the 18th century, snare drums made their way into music halls and, slowly, orchestras.

Through Dixieland and, later, jazz, snare drums acquired their own drum stand and were incorporated into drum sets.

Snares of gut or rope were replaced by metal snares; the shell could be of wood, synthetic materials or metal.

Now there are several different types of snare - the piccolo snare, the marching snare drum (deeper and under more tension with the help of a drum key), the pipe band snare, drum kit snare (a third to half as deep as the marching band snare), caixa malacacheta (used in Brazilian Samba music, it has the wires at the top drum head)… They can be beaten with a drumstick or brushes for different qualities of sound.

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Bass drum

The bass drum or kick drum originated in Turkey. Its precursor is the davul, a cylindrical drum with two drum heads, each head hit with two different sticks - one stick with no padding and one rod held very flat. It gave a deeper sound than most traditional drums. It was hung vertically from the neck so both drum heads could be sounded at the same time.

Though the davul or tabl turki is known to have existed since at least the 14th century, the earliest painting of a davul dates from 1502. They were used in the military and in traditional Turkish music.

Bass drums came to Europe with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century and were enthusiastically integrated into military music. Composers started using it in their pieces, such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Serail.

It slowly became an orchestral staple once the hard sticks were replaced with a padded mallet. The orchestra version was generally larger than those for marching. The first drum roll appeared in Berlioz’s Symphonie Phantastique (1830), slowly becoming a common form in classical music. The bass drum was eventually placed on a drum stand where the angle of the head could be adjusted to suit the percussionist’s needs. The rope was replaced by screw tensioning.

For a time in the 19th century, a version called a gong drum, with only one head suspended vertically like gongs, was very popular.

Kick pedals

With the income of jazz, drum kits became popular and the bass drum became part of the drum set of the rhythm section. It was played with a drum pedal that allowed one drummer to play several different instruments at the same time. The foot pedal was invented by a number of creative jazz and even orchestra musicians who made them at home to suit their needs. But to keep up with the quick rhythms of ragtime, a more effective pedal was needed.

Double bass drums with kick pedals.
Pedals revolutionised percussion: pedals for a double bass drum setup. Photo credit: steviep187 on Visualhunt

In 1909 the Ludwig Drum Company patented an improved version of a bass drum pedal. Early versions even included a pedal for a cymbal striker for hoop-mounted cymbals.

History and Origin of drums in Africa

In our minds, African music is intrinsically linked to drums. While there are certainly other instruments in the music of the African continent, many ceremonies and celebrations are accompanied only by drumming.

African Djembe drums

Djembe drums are carved out of a single piece of hardwood and stretched with goatskin, though the rawhide from other animals can be used as well. In general, thicker skins such as cow give warmer overtones, thinner skins such as goat have a sharper tone with fewer overtones.

The Djembe comes from West Africa and is likely anywhere between 400 and 800 years old. Tradition has it that it was invented during the old Mali Empire by the blacksmith caste known as Numu.

Even now, in many places in West Africa drumming is a hereditary occupation.

Traditionally found only in the area of the old Mali Empire (Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal) the Djembe drum became more widely known in the 1960s when Les Ballets Africains used them on their European tours. A lot of emigrants brought it with them to the United States, and they have become very popular with modern artists.

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Talking drums

Another West African drum that has achieved international interest is the talking drum. It is traditional in Senegal, Nigeria, Benin and Ghana, northern Cameroon and western Chad.

An African talking drum.
West Africa talking drum. Not the curved mallet, which can be scraped across the skin or beaten. Photo credit: africanstlibrarybu on Visual hunt

It is an hourglass-shaped drum with one or two drumheads connected by leather tension cords that can be used to adjust the pitch of the drums. The drummer holds the drum under his arm and can press down on the tension cord to change the pitch within a drumbeat. It is played with a curved drumstick.

The name comes from the way the drum could imitate the timbre and tone of human speech, though it can’t, of course, differentiate between vowels and consonants.

Additionally, the drums had their own language, allowing villages to communicate with each other. Playing the drums meant learning the words and the associated phrases that gave them context. There was even a type of drum literature, with poems and stories in the drum language.

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