We are born with a drum within our chests. Our hearts give us a sense of rhythm before we can even think about the concept. Our lungs inhale and exhale involuntarily, giving us yet another beat that is vital to our existence. Babies quickly learn to clap their hands and take joy in doing so. We are rhythmic. Our movements are percussion.
For those reasons, the drum is an invention that is immediately understood. At its most basic, it is one of the easiest ways for a person to express themselves musically. The basic drum design is so simple, with some kind of membrane being stretched across a cavity. Hitting the drum causes rapid reflections of air pressure, creating a percussive and resonant sound. The drum practically invents itself at the fingertips of any human, regardless of who they are or where they are.
Our musical DNA makes it hard to even place who invented the first drums, but it’s safe to say the origins of drumming go back tens of thousands of years with drums made with skin dating back as far as 5500 BC in Neolithic China.
As the drum can be an extension of our bodies, many have used it as an extension of the soul, incorporating it into religious practices around the world. Drums are not restricted to any one faith and are used across many religions. Some believe drums help them worship or communicate with god and spirits. The Japanese taiko drum was used to scare away demons and pests.
The volume of the drum is powerful and cannot be ignored. Drums have been used as a communication tool to send messages over long distances in relays. These “drum languages”, while not as versatile as our spoken languages, are capable of communicating important information and warnings. In times of war, drums have been used to not only strike fear into others but to communicate orders to troops through the din of battle as well.
Drums are both versatile and accessible, but in the realm of music, they still require great skill to play well. Drumming can require much more finesse than one might realize. Drums can actually be tuned, and their pitch can be adjusted while playing through methods such as the pedal on a timpani drum. Skill in drumming can be highly sought after by employers in the music field. New York Philharmonic timpani player, Markus Rhoten, receives a base salary of $147,000 USD, and that doesn’t even include his individual contract and teaching earnings.
Drums are about as old as music itself, but when we think of modern drumming, it almost certainly means rock and roll. Rock and roll brought greater popularity to not only drums but drummers themselves with John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Keith Moon of The Who, and Gene Krupa being among Rolling Stone’s top ten greatest drummers of all time.
Electronic drums first appeared in the 1970s and steadily grew in popularity. While they have their places, electronic and synthesized drums have not and cannot replace traditional drumming. Anyone who has attended a live performance with a real drummer can see, hear, and feel the difference. Many electronic artists still perform with real drummers for that reason.