Drums – How the Driving Force of Modern Music Evolved

Consider the following statement: Although drummers seldom reach the level of fame which vocalists and guitar players do, without drums or drummers, there would be no modern music as we know it.

Quite a sweeping statement yes, but an entirely valid one. Drums have been the driving force of music for thousands of years. Modern music could not have evolved without drums, without that driving beat, carrying the music on.

The drum is the oldest instrument which mankind has ever played, from the very first cave man using a bone to bang on a rock, to the modern synthetic drum kits favored by some musicians in the present day. Primitive societies used drums as part of their religious ceremonies, as an accompaniment to war, and to celebrate through dance. However, although we could fill this page with a long history of the drum and its uses dating back to the Neanderthal times, we will be concentrating on what has come to be recognized as a drum kit, the kind used in every modern band.


Originally, drums were made by stretching animal hide over a resonating body, such as a log which had been hollowed out. Depending upon where these drums were made, they would have different qualities. For example, in the Middle East, drums were much smaller, and often had metal strips or disks attached around the edge, very much like a tambourine. In Africa, drums were much larger, floor standing items, producing a much deeper sound. In Europe, drums were somewhere in-between in size, and these were the forerunners of the modern day snare drum. In fact, a quick look at pictures of traditional drums from around the world reveals a quite fascinating fact, each of them, in its modern form, has its place in the modern drum kit. And this is the early history of the drum kit, a bringing together of different types of drums, with different sounds, from all around the world, to produce a single, dynamic instrument. This happened early in the 19th century, when new styles of music required a driving percussion section, which could fit into small music venues.

As with many modern musical instruments, the drum kit was first put together in a recognizable form in America. Until the early 1900s, the separate drums would be played by separate musicians. Think of the large brass bands of the late 1800s, which performed either in the open air, or in large music venues. Take a look at a picture of any brass band from this era and you will see multiple drums, being played by multiple people. However, as the demand for the new types of modern, dance orientated music grew, smaller local bands began to appear, and these played in smaller local venues. This meant that one drummer would need to play more than one drum, as there simply was not space for more musicians in these smaller venues. The trend towards a single drummer had begun. However, the ultimate fruition of this trend did not happen until very late in the 1800s, when the drum pedal was invented.

With the advent of the drum pedal, a single musician was able to play every drum required, and indeed, was also free to use additional percussive instruments such as cymbals. The modern drummer was born, using one or even both feet to powerfully strike the bass drum, and a pair of drum sticks for the smaller drums and cymbals.

In the early 1900s, Jazz became the predominant form of popular music, and this new style of drummer was an important part of the lineup of every jazz band. This is where modern music’s dependency upon drums really begins, as this is the era which shaped music into what it is today, takings its roots from the Jazz and Blues bands of the time. Indeed, the modern drum kit has changed very little since this time, aside from manufacturing techniques and materials used in construction.

A modern drum kit in its most basic configuration will include a single bass drum, usually two toms-toms, although as many as four may be used in some kits, and a snare drum. In addition to these drums, a drum kit will usually have three types of cymbals, a hi-hat cymbal, a ride cymbal and at least two crash cymbals. These standard pieces of the drum kit are also laid out in a standard pattern. This basic drum kit configuration has been used for decades, and can be seen as being entirely standardized. However, many drummers will choose to add to this basic drum kit, by including extra items such as a second bass drum, or maybe some synth drums, and possibly bongos or some other exotic drum.

The modern drum kit is the backbone of all forms of modern music, and for good reason. Whilst other parts of the music can substitute a digital or synthetic source instead of a live person, it takes a human being to adjust to the subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics required to provide audiences with the most enjoyable experience at live performances.

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil discovered his passion for music in his early teens when he began learning to play the guitar. He attended the VCC School of Music where he studied jazz and contemporary guitar performance. Phil joined Resound as a guitar teacher in 2013 and has been the school’s Director since 2014.

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