A Brief History of Drums – Where It All Began & Who Invented It

By James  •  Updated August 9, 2020

A Brief History of DrumLearning the history of your instrument is a part of learning how to play it. Knowing about its past will not just spark your inspiration but also leads to appreciating the things about the instrument you play today. 

In this article, we will go back in time to learn where it all began and how drums developed throughout the years. We will find out its different uses and its significance in our extensive history. 

Let us get started!

The Origin of Drums

Before we go through the timeline of how drums were used in history up to the present, let us go back to the very beginning.

When Were Drums Invented

The truth is that nobody knows when exactly drums were first created. The idea of drumming which is to create a rhythm by hitting an object is ancient. Even animal communities have this idea ingrained in their system so much that they use it as a form of communication.

Macaque monkeys have been observed to hit objects in a certain rhythm to assert dominance within their troop. Apes are known to do the same by hitting their chests. Even small kangaroo rats are known to communicate by rhythmically tapping their paws against the ground.

The earliest records of man-made drums were from Neolithic China. The carbon dates of these drums go as old as 5500 to 2350 BC. These ancient drums were made of alligator hides and wood or clay and are used for rituals and shamanic purposes.

man-made drumsWhere Did Drums Originate

Historians and archeologists are not sure where exactly drums have originated. However, the oldest drums have been found in Neolithic dig sites from the east in Shandong to the west in Qinghai.

Who Invented Drums and Drumming

With China being one of the oldest civilizations in the world, it is no wonder that some of the earliest instruments can be found in their dig sites. 

Archeologists confirm that the oldest drums–the alligator drums–are found in dig sites where the Dawenkou civilization (1) were known to inhabit. Other ancient civilizations like the Longshan (2) and the Taosi (3) were also known to have used these drums for rituals and ceremonies. 

The History of Drums: A Timeline

Now that we know how and where drums began, it is now time to travel through the timeline and see how the drums affected our history. We will also be looking at the changes the drums went through in order to become the instrument it is today.

Medieval and Renaissance

Ancient drums have always had a more practical use than the drums of today. In the medieval and renaissance period, drums were used for wars and battles. From making sure that the march of the battalion remains in time to sending coded messages throughout the battlefield, drums have played a significant role in these eras.

Medieval and RenaissanceThe 1800s

During the 1800s, drums were still being used by the military to send messages and signals during wartime. In the Civil War, drummer boys learned dozens of different drum calls so they can send messages to the troops on the battlefield. The image of the drummer boy has stuck to us and is still celebrated to this day. 

If you would like to hear some of the drum calls used in this civil war, this video provides sheet music and plays them for you:  

The 1800sThe 1900s

In the 1900s, drums were being used for leisure and indulging in music. However, the budget for orchestras back then was very low. They could not afford to recruit more than a certain number of people. So, they would ask their percussionists to play as many percussion instruments as they can. 

During these times, William F. Ludwig first manufactured the drum pedal. Immediately, this item became a hit. It allowed the percussionist’s use of both hands, allowing them to play more instruments in a set that would soon be recognized to be the first drum set. 

The Introduction of Hi-HatsThe Introduction of Hi-Hats

With their hands now free, percussionists decided that they wanted to add more to their current set. This led to a lot of experimenting, adding different objects and instruments that could fit perfectly with the set. 

While most of these “noisemakers” stayed in the past, the hi-hat cymbals were left to become a staple. Even at present, we still use this cymbal in a standard set. 

However, the old hi-hats looked quite different from the way it does today. The first hi-hat cymbals were only a foot off the ground! 

The Beginning of The ModernThe Beginning of The Modern Drumset

During the rise of the jazz era, several drum setups began popping out. However, most notable of them all was Gene Krupa’s set up.

Gene Krupa compiled a set that allowed fast polyrhythmic sequences. His set is composed of a bass drum, a snare, two toms, a hi-hat, and three cymbals.

To this day, this setup is still the standard for drums.

The Rock and RollThe Rock and Roll Era

Rock and roll made a significant contribution in popularizing drums and drumming. However, this was not the only contribution this era gave the modern drum set. 

The rock and roll era inspired many teenagers and young adults to pick up this instrument. For this reason, the drums became more accessible and are more widespread throughout different musical genres. 

Another significant contribution that the rock era gave the modern drum set is its loudness. During live concerts, rock bands would need to project their sounds over stadiums filled with tens of thousands of people. Drums that are louder rose to popularity.

In concerts, microphones were placed next to drum sets in order to project the sound even better.

Present-Day DrumsPresent-Day Drums

All of the things that had occurred in the past contributed to the creation of the modern drum set–the set we know and love today. As the demand for louder sets rose, drum sets with electrical components attached to them became the norm.

Nowadays, instead of placing microphones around the set, all we need to do is hook them up with an amplifier and we can easily increase the volume output of our playing. Drum setups have not changed much, however, as they still look similar to Gene Krupa’s set up in the 1920s.

Electric drums became popular as well. However, most musicians still prefer the sound and rebound of acoustic kits.

Today, the latest versions of the drums are called hybrid drums. This version combines the good parts of an acoustic drum set and the good parts of an electric drum set.

The journey of drums and drum sets does not end here. Every day, more and more musicians find out ways to improve their sets. They would add a little bit more to incorporate unique sounds to play on the drums. I am sure that it will not take long for us to create an even better version of the present-day drums.

history of drumsThat is the end of our article! I hope you learned something from this article about the history of drums. Show your kit a little bit more appreciation! It has come a long way.

If you are excited to read more interesting facts about drums, Sound Fro also has an article listing some drum trivia that you might enjoy!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dawenkou
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longshan_culture
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taosi