Classification - Introduction

Related links

- Classifcation

- Musical instrument classification

- List of musical instruments by Hornbostel-Sachs number

- Membranophone

- Hornbostel-Sachs

- Musical Instruments Abbreviation List

- The American Musical Instrument Society





From " Sybil Marcuse, A Survey of Musical lnstruments New York: Harper & Row, 1975 " 


- Predrum memberanophones

- Tubular drums ( Cylindrical - Conical - Barrel - Hourglass - Goblet)

- Frame drums

- Kettledrums

- Rattle drums    

- Drum sets & Drum chimes       

- Talking drums  

- Water drums   

- Friction drums & Mirlitons


Any instrument sounded by means of a taut membrane is classified as a membranophone, and this very large group is divided into four categories:

  1. Tubular drums which have either one or two membranes (heads) and assume many forms, chief among which are those of a cylinder, cone, barrel, hourglass, goblet, or frame. Numerous intermediary forms are also eccountered. Shallow drums and rattle drums are included in this category.
  2. Drums with basin- or bowl-shaped shells (bodies), called kettle-drums.
  3. Friction drums, sounded by friction rather than by percussion.
  4. Mirlitons.

 Furthermore, there exist primitive "predrum" membranophones known as ground drums and pot drums.

This classification is unsatisfactory insofar as it does not take variant forms into account, particularly with regard to the first group, but it is useful as an overall framework.

Membranes of instruments comprising the first three groups are either glued, nailed, lapped, or laced to the body. If they are glued or nailed the pitch can be somewhat modified by exposure to heat, whereas lapped or laced heads are readily tunable by tightening the cords or screws; sometimes wooden wedges are inserted between shell and lacings to further increase tension, and the application of tuning paste to a portion of the head will also influence pitch (but the origins of tuning paste were probably ritual rather than musical). Membranes are commonly set in vibration by percussion, but friction is another mode of tone production, and the membrane of a mirliton is caused to vibrate by the action of sound waves.

By far the largest category of membranaphones is that of tubular drums, and, of these, those with single heads are earlier than the double-headed varieties. In one form or another drums are played the world over, with the exception of a few archaic peoples (Australians have no membrane drums). Their age is unknown, and we can follow them back no further than about 3000 B.C. Both in ancient and in modern times they have been ritual and even sacred objects; some were believed to be endowed with magical powers, others were status symbols or emblems of royalty. Their functions have always been manifold, divided between musical and nonmusical activities.

Acoustically, all membranophones are conditioned primarily by the membrane; the shell merely acts as a resonator, and is of secondary importance to tone production. According to the laws governing membranes, the greater the diameter the deeper the sound, while the greater the tension the higher the pitch well be. The only drums tuned to a definite pitch in Western musical culture are kettledrums, but this does not hold true in other areas.

All drums sound loudest and clearest when raised off the ground; hence, the lower ends of many tubular drums are prolonged to form "feet," such drums then being known as footed drums. Some may terminate in a series of tooth- or sawlike projections, others are given an openwork base, and in certain areas of Asia and Africa the "foot" takes the form of pair of human legs. Great cylinder drums that may be up to 3 meters (10 feet) high, reminiscent of their ancestral tree trunk, can only be played by slanting them to an angle sufficient to bring the head within the performer's reach; such drums are usually cleared from the ground by a foot (drums of unusual height are played in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific). An ancient playing stance still encountered in East, West, and South Africa, along the Amazon River, and formerly also in Mexico, has the drum slanted to an obtuse angle and held between the standing player's legs like a hobbyhorse. Contemporary North American Indians have many short drums that are cleared from the ground by being suspended by handles from upright forked sticks.


Long before the drum became a musical instrument its noisemaking qualities endowed it with the power of making thunder and of chasing evil spirits, and were also exploited to frighten the enemy. In the ancient Near East the hide of a sacred animal- the bull- was used as drumhead, thereby transferring sanctity to the finished instrument (see goblet drum, page 147). Not only was the bull sacred throughout the ancient East, from Sumer to Egypt and over to Minoan Crete, but in pre-Aryan India the Bos primigenius figured on seals is sometimes seen standing in front of an altar, whereas the indigenous Bos indicus is never so depicted.

As creators of thunder, drums were connected with the Near Eastern cult of Kybele (who is identical with Rhea and Kotys), which passed to mainland Greece, an area where thunder had already been summoned by beating on shields made of tightly stretched oxhide, objects hardly to be differentiated from large frame drums. In Bacchae Euripiders refers to skin stretched orbs (and in our times South African Zulu warriors drum on their hide shields). However it is in China and Japan that thunder drums achieved their highest development. The Chinese Duke of Thunder, Lei Kung, has been worshiped since the beginning of our era; he is traditionally surrounded by numerous drums, which he beats in order to obtain the noise of thunder, and it is the sound of his drums- not the lightning- that is said to cause death. Half bird, half man, the thunder god Zin Shin is surrounded by a revolving wheel to which a number of alternating barrel drums and kettledrums are affixed; the god holds a knobbed drumstick in one hand, a thunderbolt in the other. The revolving wheel may be genetically related to the Buddhist prayer wheel, a connection in greater evidence in Japan, where drums make thunder mechanically and in the absence of any god, simply by being attached to the outer circumference of a wheel that, when revolved, causes them to rattle. Clearly such drums must have been partly filled with pebbles or similar materials that struck against the membrane when the drum was rotated (cf. rattle drums, page 151). Sets of thunder drums also appear in East Turkestan from the ninth century on, as attributes of the thunder god and of demons. It may be assumed that thunder drums were always untuned, yet the fact that they are present in sets suggests the possibility of a relationship to the Southeast Asian drum chimes.

A major role of the drum in many parts of the world was, and still is, as cult instrument. Such usage was known in the Orphic rites of Greece, and in Asia, Africa, and America cult drums have been associated with sacrifices, including those of human beings. Among the sacrifices prescribed by the Atharva Veda of India is the application of blood, or a red imitation thereof, to the head of a drum, and this is said to account for the practice of applying tuning paste to the heads of certain drums on the subcontinent (tuning paste is also employed in Africa). Bon priests of Tibet play hourglass-shaped drums made from two human skullcaps fastened together, probably leftovers from the ritual cannibalism that lasted there up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Along the same lines, the Chinese Tso Chuan mentions for the years 627,588, and 537 B.C. the consecration of drums by smearing them with the blood of sacrificed person, usually a war captive. Inca priests were found by mid-sixteenth-century missionaries to be beating drums covered with blood; they had developed a gruesome habit of flaying dead enemies and stuffing their skins to make drums, using the dead person's arm as a drumstick. Among the Ashanti of Ghana the sacrificial drum is covered with a membrane of human skin and ornamented with human skulls. Afro-American cults, both in South America and in the Caribbean, center around blood-smeared drums to which sacrifices are offered (see drum sets, page 154). Drumming is the prerogative of men in all Afro-American communities and is taboo to women; in the hinterland of Guiana women dare not even simulate drum rhythms for fear that their breasts may lengthen until they reach the fround.