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Percussion Instruments

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History and classification of Percussion instruments


The term percussion instrument refers to the method of playing the instrument, viz: striking the instrument, either by fingers, hand or sticks. However other methods of playing like rubbing, shaking, plucking, and scraping too exist for playing some percussion instruments.

Percussion instruments are broadly classified into two groups, idiophones and membranophones. Idiophones are instruments whose substance vibrates to produce sound - for example:  bells, clappers and rattles etc. Membranophones produce sound by the vibration of a stretched membrane - For example:  various types of drums. 

Percussion instruments are used to delineate or emphasize rhythm. Percussion instruments form the third section of the modern Western orchestra, stringed and wind instruments making up the other two sections.



Drums were in use since long past, and over wide geographic areas. They were found in archaeological excavations from Neolithic times onward; one excavated  is dated at 6000 BC. Early drums consisted of a section of hollowed tree trunk covered at one end with reptile or fish skin and were struck with the hands. Later, the skin was taken from hunted game or cattle, and sticks were used. The double-headed drums came later, as did pottery drums in various shapes. The heads were fastened by several methods some some of which are still in practice. The skin may be secured to single-headed drums by pegs, nails, glue, buttoning (through holes in the membrane), or neck lacing (wrapping a cord around the membrane overlap). Double-headed drums were often directly cord-tensioned (i.e., through holes in the skin). Modern European orchestral drums often combine two hoops pressing against each head (one rolled in the skin, the other outside) with indirect lacing (i.e., to the hoops).

Drums have conspicuous extra musical functions too, like transmitting civil messages, particularly religious, and for military purposes to keep up the morale of the fighting soldiers. They are credited with magical powers and  they are  held sacred. In many societies they are  manufactured only after religious rituals. 

Giant frame drums were used in the temples of ancient Sumer, and Mesopotamian objects from about 3000 BC depict frame drums and small cylindrical drums played horizontally and vertically. Early Egyptian artifacts (c. 4000 BC) show a drum with skins stretched by a network of thongs. A waisted, or hourglass drum is seen on one of the Bharhut reliefs (early Indian sculpture of the mid-2nd century BC Sunga period   that decorated the great stupa, or relic mound, of Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh, now largely destroyed. Most of the existing remains are now in the  Museum, Calcutta.)

The modern Indian damaru is an hourglass-shaped Clapper drum when it is twisted its heads are struck by the ends of one or two cords attached to the shell. Barrel and shallow-nailed drums are particularly associated with India and East Asia; notable are the taiko drums of Japan, made in various sizes.

Frame drums were played in the ancient Middle East (chiefly by women), Greece, and Rome and reached medieval Europe through Islamic culture. Their shape varies (round, octagonal, square, etc.), they may have one or two heads, and they may have attached jingles or snares. Possibly of different origin are the frame drums used in the magico-religious ceremonies of shamans (a priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events) in Central Asia, the Arctic regions, and North America. Double-headed frame drums with enclosed pellets (found in India and Tibet) are known as rattle drums.

Shallow Kettledrums are first depicted about 600 AD in Persia. Larger kettledrums, mentioned with the smaller type in the 10th  century, are not pictured alone until the 12th century. Though originally of clay and cord braced, kettledrums were later made of metal (or sometimes wood). They spread with Islamic culture through Europe, Africa, and Asia.


Not much is known about medieval European drums and drumming, the only evidence being pictures and written references; no medieval drums survive. Written percussion parts (in instruction books only) date from the 16th century, as drummers were expected to extemporize their parts. By the 13th century, three types of drums appear to have been established: the nakers, small-paired kettledrums; the tab, a small cylindrical drum, often with snares; and the tambourine. They apparently served only as time beaters and, except for the tambourine, were beaten with sticks. Only from about the 14th century were drums built to produce loud, carrying sounds, a result of the introduction of mercenary infantry troops, in whose regiments fifes were soon paired with drums. Large kettledrums were associated with royalty and nobility. They entered the orchestra as a purely musical instrument in the mid 17th century, the bass drum (derived from the long drums of Turkish Janissary troops) during the 18th century, and the military-derived snare drum (side drum) during the 19th.

Drums figure prominently in the 20th century in orchestral, military, popular dance, jazz, and rock groups. The word drum is sometimes used for no membrane struck instruments, such as steel drums, bronze drums, and slit drums (made of hollowed wood).