The History of Drums

A drum is a musical instrument made of at least one membrane (drum head) stretched over a hollow body (drum shell). The drum produces a sound when the drum head is hit by generating a vibration on the surface that resonates through the drum shell.

Drums are a part of the percussion category of instruments. The word percussion comes from the Latin word percussio or percutere, meaning “to beat,” which, of course, is how sound is created with drums.

A Brief History of Drums

The history of drums goes back thousands of years. In fact, many scholars believe that drums are the oldest musical instruments used by mankind. Our prehistoric ancestors used simple objects that they hit with their hands or sticks as a primitive form of drumming.

More advanced types of percussive instruments have been discovered in neolithic China dating back as early as 5500BC.

The ancient Chinese used alligator skins as the membrane stretched over hollow shells. These ancient drums were used in ritual ceremonies and the drum sounds could be heard over long distances.

The history of cymbals can also be traced to Asia around 1100BC.

Cymbals are also a percussion instrument and are an important part of modern drum kits. Historically, cymbals were made of various metals and were used in pairs.

Clashing cymbals together created a unique sound that is still cherished by modern drummers. Cymbals were almost always associated with religious ceremonies and rituals.

Drums were routinely used in war to invoke fear in the enemy and to synchronize the marching of soldiers. This type of use dates as far back as 684BC in China during the battle between two rival states, Qi and Lu.

As sound technology advanced among the ancient cultures, drum makers realized that a circular opening where the drum head rests provided a better sound. That knowledge has remained in use to this day.

Historians have discovered that drums were often used to send messages as far back as 500BC. For example, Sri Lankan history records that drums were used as a form of communication to send messages between tribes. Different drum beats were used to send different messages.

Around 1200AD, the djembe was created in West Africa. Many historians credit this drum to the Mandinka tribes spread across parts of Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau.

The djembe is a rope-tuned, skin-covered hand drum shaped like a goblet and is played with the bare hands. The name, djembe, is believed to come from an African saying that means, ” everyone together in peace.” This saying symbolizes the tribal purpose of the djembe.

The goblet shape of the djembe is very unique and causes the drum to have a very versatile and distinct sound. The entire shell of the djembe comes from the Lenge tree and is traditionally carved and hollowed from a single piece of a tree trunk.

The drum head of the djembe was traditionally made of goatskin and was chosen because its texture is thinner than antelope or calfskin, resulting in a better resonance of sound.

The first drum related to a modern-day snare drum can be traced back to Europe around 1300AD. This drum was called the tabor. This two-headed drum consisted of one snare strand that spanned across the bottom head of the instrument.

Similarly, the modern snare drum has two drum heads made of plastic and many snares across the bottom head made with metal wires.

The first drum related to the modern-day bass drum was called the tavul, also known as the Turkish drum. The tavul originated in the 1300s in the Mediterranean regions. It is still used throughout the region today and is a large two-sided drum played with mallets.

During the 1400s, the timpani, which is a group of drums each having a different pitch, came to Europe and were used by many military organizations there.

The shell of the timpani was traditionally made of copper and the drum dead was made of calfskin.

The modern-day timpani is typically constructed out of fiberglass and the drum’s head is made of plastic.

The Modern Drum Set

By the late 1800s, percussionists began piecing different drums together in a “drum set” configuration that allowed them to play multiple drums at the same time. Early drum sets consisted of a bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals.

In the early 1900s, the first drum sets began selling commercially. In 1909, William F. Ludwig, Sr., and his brother, Theobald Ludwig founded the Ludwig & Ludwig Co., which received the first patent for the bass drum pedal. By 1912, wire brushes were introduced and became popular as an alternative to drumsticks.

Typical drum kits include the following:

Snare Drum

The snare drum is the center of the drum kit and many people refer to it as the heart of the entire drum kit. It provides the backbeat, which is a steady rhythm stressing the second and fourth beats of a four-beat measure.

The snare drum has a distinct sound that comes from the snare wires that are located on the underside of the drum against the lower drum head. This creates a sharp staccato sound when the drummer hits the top drum head with a drumstick.

Bass Drum

The bass drum is usually the largest drum in the drum kit. It is also known as the kick drum because it is played with a foot pedal. The bass drum has a low pitch and typically provides the basic beat, which provides the first and third beats of a four-beat measure.

Some bass drums have a hole in the front drum head. This is done to enhance the tone of the bass drum by creating a vent for sound waves to escape the hollow drum shell. Some bass drums have the front drum head completely removed for the same reason.

Tom Toms

The tom-tom drum is simply a cylindrical drum with no snares. They come in various sizes that provide variation in tone. A typical drum kit includes at least one mounted tom-tom and one floor tom that is bigger than the mounted one.

Hi-Hat Cymbals

The hi-hat cymbals are a matched pair of cymbals pressed together on a stand. They open and close against each other, controlled by an attached pedal on the hi-hat stand. Stomping on the hi-hat pedal provides the classic “chick” sound when the cymbals collide, which is a different sound than it produces when hit with a drumstick. In a classic drum kit arrangement, the hi-hat cymbals are positioned over the snare drum.

Ride Cymbal

The ride cymbal is typically the largest cymbal in a drum kit, providing an alternative sound palette to the hi-hat cymbals. Because of its size and weight, it is played lightly with the tip of the drumstick.

Crash Cymbal

The crash cymbal is also a standard cymbal in a drum kit. It is typically smaller and lighter than the ride cymbal, resulting in a louder “crash” sound. Unlike the ride cymbal, which is hit lightly, the crash cymbal is designed to be hit hard creating a bright sound used for musical accents.


The drums are the heartbeat and lifeblood of music in a way that has developed over many centuries of discovery and utility. From tribal communication to military symbolism, drums have cemented their place in culture far beyond musical chops.

Knowing the true history of the instrument should provide perspective for those moments when we decide to let loose and express ourselves in a song or in a shed.

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