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Everything You Need to Know About the History of Drumming

By Rachel, published on 04/09/2018 Blog > Music > Drums > The History of the Drums

“Music is the beat of a drum that keeps time with our emotions.”
― Shannon L. Alder

It’s official – music reduces stress!

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal found that music has the ability to release the feel-good hormone, dopamine. They found that dopamine levels were 9% higher when people were listening to music that they liked.

What does all this mean? It means music has been scientifically proven to help us relax!

And what would music be without the powerful undertones of percussion instruments; without the sound of cymbals, snare drums, bass drums and hi-hats?

Playing percussion instruments like the drums means leading the way for the electric guitar and the base guitar. It is the drummer who provides the tempo and rhythm that the other musicians must follow.

But where do acoustic drum kits originally come from? What is the history of this instrument?

History of the Drum Kit: Multicultural Roots

The very first instrument ever used in human history was, of course, the voice and the vocal chords, but we also know that percussion instruments found their way into existence not long after the initial creation of music. Here is a chronology of the history of the drum kit from prehistoric times right through to the 19th Century.

Don't stop remembering the true history of the drums. From the acoustic guitar, the flute, wind instruments, the double bass and the cello to the djembe – each instrument has its own fascinating story and history! (Source: Visual hunt)

The First Traces of Percussion and Drums

Percussion instruments that make up the drum kit have an ancient multicultural history. The first traces of cymbals and drums date back to the 7th century BC. Sculptures and paintings of cymbals and drums were found in ancient tombs created by both the Romans and the Egyptians.

The word, tambourine, comes from the French word for drum, tambour, which itself has multicultural origins.  The word is derived from the Persian word, tabῑr and the Arabic word, ṭubūl) whilst the same wood used for the snare drum is also found in Morrocan tambourines.

Drums can be found anywhere in the world and in very ancient cultures, which suggests these musical instruments have a very ancient history.

Cymbals were excavated from tombs of the ancient Greeks who believed they had the power to keep away evil spirits. What’s more, a number of paintings also depict cymbals being used as musical instruments during banquets, feasts and parties.

Use of Percussion Instruments for Military Purposes

Later, drums and cymbals, like horns, foghorns, trumpets and bagpipes, were used by the army for military training and performances and even war. The aim was to communicate with and send orders to soldiers right at the end of the battlefield or to scare the enemy.

It was the Ottoman military bands who most memorably introduced the use of cymbals in order to make the enemy’s’ troops feel daunted.

This method of using percussion instruments was first properly established during the Golden Age and Napoleonic times. However, military fanfare parades can still be found taking place today.

The Arrival of New Orleans Style

A long while later, at the beginning of the 19th century, it was black slaves sent to North America who were to begin using the instrument. The movement took place in Louisiane when French military troops returned to their boats and headed back to France, leaving any of their musical instruments that were too heavy to carry behind.

Little by little, the brass bands and the New Orleans style based largely on improvisation begun to gain popularity. It was this style which would later develop into the Jazz that we now know and love!

Double drumming appeared actually as means of saving money and energy. Cymbals were attached to the bass drum and therefore only one musician was needed to play both at the same time. The African influences of double drumming are undeniable although they are difficult to trace as so much of it was passed down orally. What’s more, American slaves were not permitted the right to play what they wanted whenever they wanted to.

History of Drumming: Invention of the Modern Drum in the 20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, not all drums were modern drums as we know them today.

You can learn so much about the history of drumming. Knowing how to handle drumsticks in the right way was once a military art. (Source: Visual Hunt)

The Invention of the Bass Drum Pedal

Music groups and bands were originally made up of several drummers – or what we also refer to as percussionists – one for the bass drum, one for the snare drum and another for the cymbals.

In 1909, William F. Ludwig invented the Bass Drum Pedal (aka the toe operated bass drum pedal), which greatly facilitated in playing percussion instruments with a reduced number of percussionists. It was an instant success that became more and more commercialised in the year to follow.

At that time, drum skins were still made from animal skins and there was only one tone. The music style was directly influenced by military parades and the aim of the drums was to provide support to the jazz orchestras.

Prohibition and the Development of Jazz

In the 1920s, prohibition led to rich gangsters (who were large of white European descent) becoming interested in big bands. Jazz clubs began to develop at the same time and were a place for consuming alcohol (a prohibited substance at the time) and dancing to the rhythm of pieces of improvised jazz music.

The drummer plays a very significant role as he must keep the tempo of the music. Drummers are rarely placed in the spotlight and recognised for their achievements like other instrumentalists, such as saxophonists, but usually, content themselves with keeping time by beating the bass drum.

The very first charleston pedal was invented, the first tunable drums begun to see the light of day, as did sound-proof walls for limiting noise in enclosed spaces and the rest, as they say, is history!

The Period of Swing

Jazz clubs began to multiply in the 1930’s. The demand for jazz outlets began to increase, allowing black Americans and notably drummers, to find their place on the music scene at that time.

This was the beginning of swing and would culminate in the swinging sixties that we know so well of today. A note of silence added to the music that would give ternary rhythm to the popular contemporary music of the time.

Tunable drums began to take prevalence and bass drums placed on the ground begun to be part of American music more and more.  With the arrival of splash cymbals, the modern drum kit began to rise considerably in popularity.

White Americans started to imitate black Americans and also turned their hands to jazz and swing music, playing in prestigious concert halls across the US.

At the same time in Paris, what is known as gypsy jazz also started to develop.

History of Drumming: The Evolution of Drum Music Since 1940

An important change occurred in the 1940’s- music was being produced with the intention of being listened to in its own right and not just as a backdrop for dancing.

The history of drumming has helped the music industry enormously. Taking percussion / drumming lessons at a music school with the likes of Ringo Star? That is something budding drummers could only dream of! (Source: Visual Hunt)

The Drummer, a Real Soloist with the Arrival of Be-bop

The drummer began to gain more and more solo roles more or less entirely thanks to the arrival of be-bop.

Be-bop is characterised by its very fast tempos and complex harmonies. Kenny Clarke is considered to be one of the first pioneers of this style of music. The role of the drummer took more and more prominence in this style of music as it allowed for rhythmic commentaries in certain phrases.

The accent becomes gradually lighter and the drum beats gradually smaller. The drummer is really able to express his own creativity.

At this time, manufacturers of musical instruments began making complete drum sets that looked very much like the modern drum kits that we know today.

Development of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Synthetic Drum Skins

In the 1950’s, synthetic drum skins began to replace animal skins, which helped with tuning the drums to the needs of the drummer. Before 1957, all drums that were used in standard drum kits were originally made from deerskin.

The problem with these drums were that they often ended up needing to be tuned (which was not possible) and became easily damaged by environmental factors, such as the weather. If it was hot and humid, the tones of the drums came out as much lower, but if it was cold and dry, the drummers needed to moisten their drum skins in order to achieve the correct sound.

Yet despite their disadvantages, drum skins made from deer skin provided a very unique sound and tended to last a lot longer than plastic drum skins.

The 1950’s and 60’s also marked the beginning of rock’n’roll, which also made percussion instruments and in particular, the drums very popular among younger generations who would listen to bands such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Who.

Drumming and the skills of rock drummers became more and more powerful, inciting manufacturers to produce instruments that were increasingly reliable and solid. Cymbals became thicker and heavier in line with the needs of drummers.

Even though some drumming techniques did overlap (for example, jazz drumming techniques can also be identified in Elvis’ rock ‘n’ roll), little by little, each music style began to pave the way for different unique drumming techniques and styles.

The Arrival of the Double Pedal in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Music

Slowly but surely, hard rock music also gained popularity, with bands such as AC/DC, Deep Purple or even Guns’n’Roses bring this kind of music to the forefront of the popular music scene. This music fad, in turn, evolved into other music styles, from punk (Sex Pistols, the Clash…) to progressive rock (David Bowie, Genesis…) and heavy metal and death metal music.

The double pedal appeared in the 1980’s and is now almost always used by metal and death metal bands.

Nowadays, almost any new drum kit can be completely customised to the needs of the drummer and the style of music they intend to play. One could settle for a simple hi-hat, bass drum and snare drum or alternatively, it is also possible to exchange one’s hi-hats for another type of cymbal, to add or remove drums or cymbals or to change the physical placement of the instruments (for example, if one is left-handed or if one wants to play with one’s arms crossed over)

Electronic drumkits have naturally replaced certain other drums and drum kits – a process of natural musical selection you could call it! If you are trying to teach yourself the drums yourself in your own apartment then it would probably be better to use musical equipment such as a Roland. Trust me, the neighbours will thank you for it!

Have you already seen any drumming films?

The history of the drum kit has led us from handmade drums to electric drums. Purchasing an electronic drum kit means having the ability to connect one’s drum kit to an amplifier or speakers to get the best possible sound system. (Source: Visual Hunt)

Definitions – History of the Drum Kit

When learning to play the drums, what is almost as important as learning to use rhythm and rhythmical techniques is to become familiar with a whole new set of vocabulary ( a specific musical vocabulary for percussionists).

What is a Splash Cymbal?

Splash cymbals are both accent cymbals and effect cymbals, they range in size from large to small, however, most are approximately between 6 and 12 inches. Splash cymbals are mainly used for small accents, usually after a break in a phrase. The sound they make is quite intense but does not last long.

What are Hi-Hats on a Drum Kit?

Known as Charleston in French, hi-hats are a crucial element of modern day drum kits. Hi-hats are made of two cymbals placed on top of each other and played by touching one’s foot on the pedal.

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