No matter where in the world they originate, any musical instrument that gets beat is considered a percussion instrument, but not every percussion instrument is a drum.
To put that in perspective: the Latin word percussio means to beat or to strike – in a musical sense, not with an implication of violence.
That Latin word is the root of the term percussion and it covers anything that is struck to make a sound.
Some musical instruments, such as the piano and the dulcimer use hammers to beat the strings, which produce the sounds. Yet they are not considered percussion.
In fact, the piano defies standard classification: most accurately, it should be considered as a beaten-string instrument!
Other instruments in the percussion section of any orchestra or band, such as chimes and maracas, are agitated rather than struck by the player – although one can beat a single maraca into one’s palm.
Rain sticks do not get beat at all; the percussionist simply inverts the stick to generate its sound!
In compiling this list of drums, your Superprof considered the overwhelming variety of percussive instruments from around the world and puzzled at how to best present them to you.
- by their official Hornbostel-Sachs designation?
- those classifications include idiophones, membranophones, and electrophones
- by their basic classification: acoustic, electric, and world?
- by their region of origin: Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe among them?
- by their function: orchestra, band, marching, military...?
- by their configuration/size: standard, fusion, electronic, two-headed, single-headed?
- By their shape: cylindrical, goblet, hourglass, bowl, box?
- By how they’re played – by hand, with a mallet, with sticks, or by striking them against something?
And should we include cymbals in our assessment? They are, after all, essential to a drum kit and make a welcome addition to any orchestra.
Besides, they are some of the oldest musical instruments in the world!
One thing we can say for sure: you don’t need us to break down a common drum kit – the kick drum, the tom-toms, the snare drum...
Let’s go visit the four corners of the world to find all of the traditional, ceremonial and improvisational drums we can!
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In spite of this being a vast continent whose music is characterised by a strong rhythmic interest, many of the Sub-Saharan languages do not have a word for rhythm or even for music.
Nevertheless, musicologist Arthur Morris Jones, who had travelled extensively throughout Africa from his home base in Zambia, found music across the continent so similar he considered even regional music styles a part of a bigger system found throughout Africa.
The underpinning elements of African drumming consist of syncopation and cross-beats, or polyrhythms, played on such diverse instruments as:
- the udu – a ceremonial drum played by women in Nigeria
- the slit drum, also called log drum
- the djembe: goblet-shaped, it is the most well-known of African drums
The ngoma is generally referred to as a ceremonial drum in Uganda. Traditionally, they are played during rituals and as a symbol of authority. They are also used to communicate over distances.
The Bantu ethnic group, called Baganda, have a such a special connection to this drum that they refer to themselves affectionately as the children of the ngoma.
Beware that the term ‘ngoma’ can be misleading as it is the Swahili word for ‘drum’ in general.
Spoken in that sense, that word does not define a single drum, rather a set of up to seven drums, of different sizes and varieties, all linked and played together.
The most common drums that comprise a ngoma (set) include a bakisimba which, when beaten, makes a deep bass sound. One might compare it to a western drum set’s kick drum.
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The empuunya has a slightly higher pitch and is smaller than the bakisimba; nevertheless, its sound is also in the bass range.
The nankasa is played with sticks rather than beaten with hands like the other drums and it makes a high-pitched sound. You might think of this drum as the snare’s counterpart – minus the snares, of course.
The drum most resembling the traditional, ceremonial ngoma is called engalabi. It is taller and more narrow than the other drums in the set. Furthermore, as opposed to the other drums, it has only one head, made of lizard skin and fastened with wooden pegs.
All of the other drum heads are made of cowhide on top and bottom. These skins are laced together by means of an intricate weave.
The engalabi has the highest pitch of any drums the set may comprise of. As you might have figured, it is a special honour to play this drum!
Other African percussion instruments include the marimba and the mbira, both of which must be regularly tuned.
Needless to say, drumming is a vital part of Bantu culture. Drum music, often accompanied by ritual dances are used to reinforce social cohesion, aid in healing and help reduce stress and tension.
Have you ever heard of a drum circle? Have you ever participated in one?
African tribes are not the only proponents of drumming to manage stress and help healing.
According to the Resiliency Project, drumming has a therapeutic effect on our physical, mental, emotional and psychological well-being. It has been shown to help lower blood pressure as well as to boost immunity and in managing chronic pain.
They should know! This non-profit foundation was established by the Thunder God himself, Rick Allen.
If you are any kind of music aficionado, you surely know this drummer for Def Leppard lost his left arm in a car accident. Rather than terminate his tenure, his bandmates aided his recovery by allowing him time to adapt to using an intricate pedal system so that his left foot plays the drums and cymbals his missing left arm would normally strike.
Back to African drums, now...
Of particular note in the African drum lineup is the talking drum: a two-headed, hourglass-shaped instrument with strings joining the top and bottom heads.
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When played correctly, the percussionist would seat the drum under his arm and squeeze the strings while beating the head, causing the tone and pitch to change, mimicking human speech.
This drum type was generally used for communication more so than for making music, at least as we understand music making.
Naturally, each region, language, country and tribe identifies their drums by names unique to their language, and one might find similar drums on one side of the continent as the other. The aforementioned djembe is a prime example of such.
Furthermore, considering that Africa is the cradle of humankind, it is both reasonable and logical to postulate that, as humans migrated throughout the world, they took their drums with them.
That is why we see similar drums in Asia, South America and even in the Caribbean!
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Drums in Asia
Now we go from individual tribes in Africa to civilization in China, where drums came into their own.
Did you know that the art of playing the drums is more than 7 thousand years old?
During the latter part of the Stone Age, people living in China were looking for new ways to use alligator skins.
They stretched such a membrane over a hollow, cylindrical device and, presto! The Chinese drum was born.
From China, those instruments travelled all over Asia: to Japan, the Philippines, India and the Middle East.
They also made their way into Australia and southern Europe; that will be our next stop!
Although gongs and cymbals are far more prominent in Asian percussion, there is nevertheless a fine selection of drums found in China: from the small bangu used in Beijing opera to the dagu – a large, wooden drum played with sticks.
The Chinese even have their own hourglass-shaped drum, called the jiegu!
Drums in India
The Indian culture, also very prolific in their drumming – both for religious and secular reasons, boasts a long list of membranophones too.
The tumbaknaer is a goblet-shaped drum played while reciting devotionals, while the tabla consists of a pair of barrel-shaped, single-headed drums, with one a bit bigger than the other. They are played not with drumsticks but with fingers and the palms of the hands.
In fact, the tabla is a fascinating pair of drums; let's talk more about them!
The mridangam, the oldest of all percussion instruments, is a double-headed drum made from a single piece of wood. Generally barrel-shaped, it does bulge on one side. Played horizontally, its right ‘face’ is smaller than its left face – what we would call the drum head. The two faces are secured to the drum by an intricate system of braids and leather straps.
Prior to playing, the artist will sometimes apply a mixture of flour and water to the left face to achieve a lower tone. This coating is wiped off after the session, naturally!
The Pakhawaj is the Northern Indian counterpart to the mrindangam. It too is barrel-shaped and has two heads but there is one critical difference between the two: this drum has tuning blocks between the straps and the shell. The drummer would slide these blocks up or down in order to tune the drum.
This type of drum was mainly used to accompany dhammar and druphad singers but it is now rarely used.
The tabla, India’s most widely-played drum, is said to have originated from the mridangam and the pakhawaj. Tablas are actually a pair of drums.
Rather interesting that this drum has a male and female side. The drum designated male is on the left side and renders bass tones. The female drum yields a treble tone.
The Dayan, as the female drum is called, consists of a slim, wooden shell. The male drum shell is rounded and made of metal. Both drums have heads made of skin that are fastened to leather hoops which, in turn, are secured to the drum body with leather straps.
Addtionally, the female drum has blocks of wood trapped between the leather braces and the drum body. One tunes the drum by adjusting the positions of these wooden blocks... just as with the pakhawaj!
One more unique feature of the tabla drums: they usually rest on a small pad, one for each drum. These round cushions have the dual effect of insulating the instruments so that their vibrations don't transmit to the ground and it keeps them in place.
The Nepalese Madal is a hand drum that resembles the small, cylindrical drum that women play while dancing, in China!
The madal is the national instrument of Nepal and the backbone of that country’s folk music repertoire. It too is barrel-shaped with one end wider than the other and with the narrower end designated female.
The heads are made of a double layer of goatskin. The centre of each head is then coated with a mixture of flour, iron filings and egg which is seared on, giving the drum a distinctly... metallic tone; almost like a bell.
Note: a similar coating features on the head of the Indian female Dayan drum; it is made of flour, water and iron filings – no eggs involved.
The Madal drum is played sitting down; an extra leather strap is incorporated into its design to secure the instrument to the player’s knees.
Many cultures and societies use goblet drums in their rituals; this is a prime indicator that drums migrated out of Africa when humankind did!
The darbuka is a prime example of such. This goblet-shaped drum found in the Middle East as well as Northern Africa and in eastern Europe. It is known by other names in different regions: dumbeg, tarabaki, toumperliki among them.
And, of course, the most famous goblet drum of all, the djembe!
The musical heritage and culture of Asia is so rich and varied, we hope you'll chance to play at least some of these few shining examples of drums from that region before moving on to discover your own drumming style!
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The Drums of Oceana
From Australia to the disparate islands of Kiribati; throughout the Pacific, drumming takes pride of place as a cultural more. Drums are an integral part of religious rites as well as popular entertainment.
In New Guinea as well as surrounding islands, also throughout eastern Micronesia, drums tend to be hand-held instruments. They could be shaped like an hourglass – like the Chinese jiegu, or tubular.
A unique feature of drums in some parts of New Guinea is their handle. Intricately carved to resemble mythical figures or animals, they are an integral part of the drum’s appearance and function but do not contribute to its sound.
These drums are not played with both hands. Instead, the drummer holds his instrument by this carved handle with one hand while striking it with the other.
In this region and in almost every society, drumming is the purview of males.
In those that don't emphasise drumming as a masculine pursuit, women are trained to be competent (and competitive!) drummers. In bygone eras, there is evidence that drumming was exclusively a feminine activity.
In eastern Polynesia, a region that includes our Pitcairn Islands, drums are not hand-held but quite tall, upright instruments. They are placed on the ground rather than on any kind of stand and, depending on the height of the drum, the drummer may sit or stand in order to play it.
Unlike in other societies, drums in this area were mainly used for religious purposes and, unlike the handled drums of New Guinea – which belong to individuals and are passed down through families, these drums belong to the tribe.
One more interesting characteristic of drums throughout most of Oceana: that they are seldom beat with anything but the players’ hands; any type of implements such as sticks or mallets almost never feature.
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Drums of the Maori and Aborigine
You might think that, because drums are an integral part of so many cultures in Oceana, the Maori of New Zealand and the indigenous people of Australia would also make drums a vital part of their culture and communications systems.
On the contrary, the Maori did not adopt drumming as it is commonly known (or the use of stringed instruments) until the arrival of European explorers, when they gave up their instruments wholesale in favour of the imports.
However, they did have instruments that are struck, primarily gongs, used to signal war or other official decrees. One such instrument, the tumutumu, is made of stone, bone or wood, is tapped with some type of striker.
Likewise in Australia, where the three main musical instruments are the didjeridu (or didgeridoo), the bullroarer and the gumleaf, all of which are wind instruments.
Not a percussion implement in sight... or, shall we say: in audible range?
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Now we start finding drum names that we are familiar with!
In the 14th century, the snare drum was created. We find concrete evidence of drum sticks – as they are shaped today, around that same time. The timpani, a type of kettle drum, came along shortly after the snare but did not gain popularity until about 200 years later.
The bass drum might have overshadowed the timpani because it was created around the same time.
Perhaps because it was more portable and less likely than the tom tom to drop tune, the bass drum was preferred for use in military bands.
About 400 years after the establishment of the bass drum, the bongos made their appearance onto the European music stage.
By the 1800s, more explorers were venturing out – to Cuba, to Africa, and imported those drums into Europe’s music scene.
A few decades after that, in the early 1900s, drummers could purchase entire drum kits: kick drum and snare, along with their toms and, of course, the cymbals.
In 1976, German Karl Bartos, drummer for the band Kraftwerk, pioneered the electric drums.
The timeline of drumming in Europe leads us to where drumming and drum sets are today!
We may add that Ringo Starr is responsible for the essential drum kit we’re so familiar with these days: a kick drum, one hanging tom, one-floor tom and a snare drum; complemented by hi-hats, a crash cymbal and a ride cymbal!
And how could we end this section on European drumming without mentioning the bodhran, an open-ended frame drum from Ireland?
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Latin Percussion and the Caribbean Drums
No drum review would be complete without the exotic sounds from Latin America!
The Conga is a single-headed drum native to Cuba but found wherever Latin rhythms are played.
It is usually paired with a smaller drum tuned to a different pitch. Beaten by hand, it has a surprisingly wide range of sounds, depending on where and how it is struck.
The timbale is similar to the conga, played on raised stands. Both of these drums are tunable.
The box drum, or cajon, originated in Peru, the creation of west African slaves held there more than 300 years ago.
They could not find any satisfactory materials to make their drums, so they fashioned them out of the materials they had at hand.
This drum is remarkable in that... it is a box. There are no drum heads; one simply beats the front face or sides – generally made of plywood, to obtain different tones.
You may find cajon players in a jazz ensemble or tapping out a hot rumba beat!
The cajon is unique in that it serves as its own throne: the player sits atop the box, leans backwards at a slight angle and strikes the box’s face.
Traditionally, the cajon player would use his hands; these days, a broader range of sound is achieved by beating it with sticks or mallets, or combed with brushes – as you would a jazz snare.
Another interesting fact of this hand percussion marvel is its association with Ireland’s bodhran: in a folk music pinch, this box drum fits the bill nicely!
Thus we’ve come full circle: from the djembe drum through the standard drum set that you might already own, with a nod to talking drums and paying respects to cymbals.
These drums' history could be no more diverse, fascinating and colourful, could it?
Neither could drumming lessons be! Instead of searching online for drum lessons near me, let Superprof take you further into your drum education.
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