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What are Some Examples of Ancient Drums?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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A drum is one of the most simple instruments possible. Percussion instruments are without a doubt the most basic and fundamental instruments — with the possible exception of the human voice. A drum takes the concept of percussion, and moves it beyond the simple banging together of rocks or pieces of wood. It instead adds some sort of a membrane, which is stretched tight, and makes sound when struck. Because of the simplicity of the drum, there are countless examples of ancient drums spanning continents and millennia.

One group of ancient drums originated in West Africa, probably around the 9th century in the Mali Empire. This family of ancient drums is generally referred to as the dunun, and includes the doundounba, the sangban, and the kenkeni. The doundounba is the largest of the three, and as such plays deep, resounding notes, usually spaced widely apart when played in conjunction with other drums. The sangban is the middle drum, and usually takes on the rhythmic role in a dunun ensemble. The kenkeni is the smallest of these ancient drums, and is usually played rather quickly in a simple pattern. The dunun drums are played with a stick, usually with all three being played by one person, and often with a bell as part of the set.

The bodhran is another familiar drum, popular in Irish music. Although it is debatable whether bodhrans are in fact ancient drums, or more recent in origin, it is possible that they are at least a few centuries old. The name is thought to have originated sometime in the 17th century, and it is thought that the drum itself may have made its way to Ireland from Spain around that time or a bit earlier. The bodhran is a very simple drum, traditionally made of a basic hoop with a goatskin stretched across it. The bodhran is usually played by a seated musician, who holds the drum on its side. One hand is used to play the drum, striking it either with the hand or a small beater. The other hand sits on the inside of the drum head, and is used to apply pressure to the skin to change the timbre and pitch of the sound.

The daf is another of the ancient drums of the world, this time originating in Iran. The daf is thousands of years old, and is one of the drums which helped inspire similar European instruments as Islam made its way to Spain. The daf is a relatively large, circular-framed drum, not unlike the bodhran — which it ultimately may have inspired. Unlike the bodhran, the daf has a number of metal discs around the outside rim, which may be struck by the player to create a different sound. This may be compared to the tambourine, although the metal rings of the daf tend to be substantially larger.

There are many ancient drums found in Asia as well. Perhaps the most well known are the taiko drums of Japan. Taiko drums are relatively large compared to most other ancient drums, with diameters of the head ranging from one foot to three feet (30-100cm) or even larger. Taiko drums are played with drumsticks, with the size and weight varying depending on the music played. Unlike some other ancient drums, Taiko drums are stretched very tight, making for a fairly high pitch, given their large size.

Of course there are hundreds of other types of ancient drums which we did not touch on — to do so would easily be a book in itself — but these are some of the most recognizable types of ancient drums representing a survey from different parts of the world. Ancient drums can also be found in North and South America, other parts of Africa, India, Polynesia, and essentially anywhere else on Earth where humans have lived. The desire to create music seems to be a universal one, and the use of animal hides to make tools to carry or sort grain seems to be equally universal. It seems to be only a matter of time in a culture before the two are put together, and a new instrument is born.

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Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On May 27, 2013

@anon336313: If I had to guess, I'd say they started out when people knocked rocks or sticks together, and then started hitting rocks with sticks, and it just went from there. That's only a theory, but it makes as much sense as anything else.

By anon336313 — On May 27, 2013

I am doing a music project on drums. I want to know what drums started out as.

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