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Drum (musical instrument), musical instrument consisting of one or two stretched membranes, called heads (or skins), held taut across a bowl-shaped or tubular frame, called a shell, and sounded by being struck with the hands or with sticks. The drum shell holds the head or heads taut and also acts as a resonator. Drum shells that are basically tubular vary in their actual shape, from cylindrical, as in a bass drum; to barrel-shaped, as in some drums of China and India; and from goblet-shaped, as in the single-headed Middle Eastern darabuka; to hourglass-shaped, as in the double-headed Japanese tsuzumi. If the drum shell is so shallow that it cannot act as a resonator, as on a tambourine, the drum is called a frame drum. Single-headed drums with bowl-shaped shells are called kettledrums. Usually tuneable and played in pairs, they include the European orchestral kettledrums, or timpani; the naqqara of Islamic countries and their medieval European relative, the nakers; and the baya, one of a pair of kettledrums known as tabla, played in classical Indian music.

Drum shells are commonly made of wood, metal, or pottery. The heads, made of animal skin or plastic, are fastened to the shell by nails, glue, buttons, pegs, laces, or a cord wrapped round the border of skin that overlaps the shell. Double-headed Western orchestral and band drums, such as the snare drum, tenor drum, and bass drum, usually have two hoops for each head, one around which the excess head is lapped, another pushing against the first hoop and holding the head taut. Lacing may be done in a W or Y pattern, adding more tension to the heads. In modern drums the lacing may be replaced by tension screws attached to the top hoop.

Cultural and Musical Uses

Drums are found throughout the world, in practically every culture, and are known to have existed since at least 6000 BC. Almost everywhere they have strong ceremonial, sacred, or symbolic associations. In parts of Africa certain drums symbolize the power of tribal royalty and are often housed in sacred dwellings. Throughout Central Asia and Siberia and among some Native American tribes of North America, shallow frame drums with one or two heads serve as ritual instruments for shamans (medicine men). The tambourine, a single-headed frame drum with or without jingling metal discs set in its frame, is traditionally a woman's instrument in Islamic countries, as it was in ancient and prehistoric times and in medieval Europe.

In addition, drums are frequently used for signalling. The talking drums of Africa imitate the pitch patterns of speech and transmit messages over many miles. The snare drum, or side drum, used in European infantry regiments, conveyed instructions to soldiers and accompanied their marching.

The musical use of drums varies from simple timekeeping to the carrying of complex rhythms and counter-rhythms. In Islamic music and Indian classical music, drums provide intricate rhythms to accompany a melody. In Africa, ensembles of drummers play elaborate rhythmic patterns superimposed on one another, all of different lengths and timing, held together by the playing of the master drummer.

Common Drums

On the snare drum, eight to ten wire-bound gut strings, or snares, are stretched across the lower of the two heads; they vibrate against it as the upper head is struck. The snare drum is related to the tabor, a double-headed drum, often with a simple gut snare, which is played in combination with a three-hole pipe in modern European folk music, as it was in the Middle Ages (from about the 5th century to the 15th century AD). The bass drum of Turkish military music was introduced into European music in the 18th century. The bucket-shaped, paired bongos and the cylindrical or barrel-shaped conga are single-headed drums of Afro-Cuban origin. The tom-tom is a shallow double-headed drum associated with Native American tribes of North America. A vast range of drums is found among the percussion instruments of the Western orchestra.


Drums are formally classified as membranophones; that is, their sound is produced by a vibrating membrane. The friction drum is a non percussive form of membranophone. It consists of a head tied over the top of a drum shell and pierced by a stick; when the stick is rubbed up and down, the membrane vibrates. Some instruments called drums, such as the steel drums of the Caribbean (usually played in ensemble in steel bands), are unrelated to the membranophones; these instruments are made entirely of resonant solid material and are thus classified as idiophones. The slit-drum found in many tribal cultures is also an idiophone; it is made of a tree trunk hollowed out through a narrow slit.

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