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New Worlds: Beat the Drums

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We’ll never actually know if I’m right about the voice being the oldest musical instrument . . . but if it isn’t, then that title goes to drums.

Or rather percussion, since drums are only a subset of the whole. All you really need to start with is a hand. Two hands if you want to clap (Zen koan notwithstanding), but one hand + any solid material object = a percussion instrument. We probably invented body percussion first, stomping our feet, snapping our fingers, or slapping and flicking various other bits of ourselves. Later on, someone whacked a hollowed-out log and got a pleasing sound, and we were on our way toward more complex options.

Since percussion instruments are a huge group, and there are several different ways to organize them, I’ll just call out a few relevant characteristics here. Everything in this category is played by being struck or scraped, but not all things that are played via striking or scraping is necessarily grouped into this category: once strings get involved (e.g. a piano or a violin), we tends to separate them out.

The striking or scraping can be done with the hand, with some kind of beater, or with another instrument of the same type, as seen with cymbals, castanets, and kashakas. Membranophones have a “membrane” or “skin” that is struck to produce a sound; these are drums in the proper sense, and they are found worldwide and thousands of years back in history. They are usually unpitched, meaning the sounds they produce are not tuned to any particular note, but pitched membranophones exist (e.g. timpani), along with other types like xylophones, bells, and tubular chimes. And we can make percussion instruments out of damn near anything: wood, gourds and seeds, animal skins, metal, stone, glass, plastic, and so forth.

But why make so many kinds of percussion? What purpose do they serve in our societies?

This essay is positioned in the context of music as art, but where drums and their relatives are concerned, artistic purposes are only part of the story. (That’s true to one degree or another for many musical instruments, but I think it’s particularly true here.) Like the voice, a drum is primal — but in a different way.

Drums remind us of our own heartbeats. While pitched percussion can play melodies, unpitched percussion is a raw pulse, striking deep into our instincts. Play a steady beat, and it starts to demand attention. Accelerate or stretch out that beat, and it sounds like our own hearts speeding up or slowing down. Drums invite dancing (an art we’ll talk about in a future month), and it’s no accident that they play a large role in religious ceremonies intended to induce a trance: the beat and the movement help to induce an altered state of consciousness. Other instruments may participate in that as well, but percussion, when present, tends to be the backbone of the ensemble.

The ambivalence toward music that I mentioned last week is very much in play here, too. Drums have a “primitive” reputation — not unfairly, since they are one of the simplest types of crafted instrument to make, but it means that “civilized” societies start to look at them askance. (The sarcasm implied by those quotation marks is absolutely intended.) In the U.S., the extent to which drums were associated with both Native American and African musical traditions doubled down on that prejudice, stretching onward into the backlash against the derived genres of jazz, rock and roll, and heavy metal. Anything that stirred the blood of young people and encouraged them to dance in improper ways was deeply suspect.

But sometimes stirring the blood is exactly what we want! Drums also have a long and storied history for encouraging physical activity. It’s that heartbeat thing again: provide people with a steady beat, and it’s easier to coordinate their movements and keep them going through strenuous toil. Even non-percussive music like work songs helps with that, but a drum has advantages: the workers don’t need to spare the breath for singing, and its sound carries.

Because of this, drums often show up in the context of war. Need your soldiers to march in step or your rowers to row in time? Give them a drum to synchronize their rhythm. Even a single drummer can suffice for quite a large group of people. The signaling capacity of this method is sometimes overestimated — you’re unlikely to be able to convey complex orders, or anything at all once the noise of battle begins — but some basic things are possible; speeding up the beat or starting a continuous roll can signal ramming speed or a headlong charge.

Percussion can be used for other kinds of signaling, too. It’s very common for sending warning signals; remember, bells are a percussion instrument, too! The recent Star Wars TV show Andor showed other kinds of percussion being used the same way, spreading an alert of trouble throughout town faster than any crier could run. On European ships, “beat to quarters” was the order for a drum roll that sent sailors scrambling to their battle posts. In other contexts, such as execution or a dramatic unveiling, it’s the cessation of the drum roll’s cessation that cues an abrupt shift in the state of the world.

It’s even possible to use percussion for long-distance communication. Specifically, some West African societies have a style of instrument referred to under the blanket term of “talking drum,” whose hourglass shape and adjustable tension cords allow a skilled player to regulate the pitch of the beat. It can’t “talk” to the extent of producing actual phonemes, but through the use of a drum language that encodes meaning in the pitch, volume, and rhythm of the sounds produced, it’s possible to convey complex messages. The content itself might take longer to communicate than in normal speech, but it’s audible over a range of several miles, meaning it can easily outpace a traveling messenger. And if the drum language is a secret kept by the performers — which is not only possible but probable and historically attested — then it’s even reasonably secure.

Taken on their own, especially with pitched instruments in the mix, and drums can be the whole of the tale. More often, though, they’re just one part of a larger song. For the rest, tune in next week!

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