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A Brief History of Drums: On the Origin of Percussion

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 20, 2020 • 2 min read

Drums and percussion instruments play a rhythmic role in nearly every genre of music, spanning centuries and continents. From early drums made from gourds to the electronic drums of today, the history of drums involves a wide array of musical styles.



Sheila E. Teaches Drumming and Percussion Sheila E. Teaches Drumming and Percussion

Legendary drummer Sheila E. welcomes you to the world of percussion and teaches you how to express yourself through rhythm.

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When Were Drums Invented?

Artifacts from China suggest that percussionists played drums made from alligator skins as far back as 5500 B.C, and iconography from ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures show the use of drums in religious ceremonies and cultural gatherings. Evidence suggests that both hand drums and drums played with beaters evolved simultaneously.

Who Invented the Drum?

Music historians generally do not credit individuals with the invention of specific drums. Like most musical instruments, different drums slowly evolved over centuries of innovation. The same is true of drum beaters, such as drumsticks and felted mallets.

A Brief History of Drums Around the World

Examples of ancient drums trace back millennia throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Drums and cymbals—the basis of the modern drum set—are visible in bas-reliefs of ancient Greece and Syria, in relief sculpture from ancient Mesopotamian and Sumerian society, and in artifacts of neolithic China. All throughout the globe, humans found ways to fashion drum heads from animal skins.

  • Origins of percussion instruments: Among the earliest known examples of percussion instruments are idiophones made from mammoth bones found in present-day Belgium. These instruments are thought to date from 70,000 B.C. and are idiophones, which means they produce sound via the vibration of the entire instrument.
  • Origins of the frame drum: The kinds of drums used by today's drummers have precursors in the musical instruments of ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. These cultures used frame drums—drum heads stretched over a shallow wooden frame—that were the forebears of twentieth century snare drums and tom-toms. Once those drums were built, idiomatic drumming techniques and drum sounds emerged within each culture.
  • Origins of classical drums: The drum history of Europe traces its roots to early Middle Eastern traditions. The kettle drums (timpani) of European classical music likely came from Egyptian and Turkish cultures. The classical bass drum also has its roots in the Ottoman empire.
  • Origins of the drum kit: The five-piece drum kit that helped shape American jazz and rock music contains drums adapted from European classical instruments. The kick drums and double bass drums of today's popular music come from classical bass drums. The snare drums used by rock, pop, and jazz drummers alike come from the side drums of marching bands.
  • Origins of the modern five-piece drum kit: The modern drum kit as we know it likely traces to early twentieth century New Orleans, where jazz drummers like Warren "Baby" Dodds assembled a drum set using classical instruments. Some of these instruments had to be modified, such as the bass drum: In classical music the drummer plays it with handheld mallets, but in popular music the drum rests on the floor and the drummer plays it with a bass drum pedal. The foot pedal as we know it is credited to a single inventor—William F. Ludwig of the Ludwig Drums company.
Sheila E. Teaches Drumming and Percussion
Sheila E. Teaches Drumming and Percussion
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Want to Learn More about Shredding on the Drums?

Snag a MasterClass All-Access Pass, pick up your sticks, and find the beat with exclusive instructional videos from GRAMMY-nominated drummer Sheila E. (aka the Queen of Percussion). Once you master the timbales and congas, expand your musical horizons with lessons from other sonic legends like Timbaland, Herbie Hancock, Tom Morello, and others.