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Are Drums the Oldest Instrument?

Are Drums the Oldest Instrument?

The drums are one of the most iconic musical instruments, and for a good reason – their sound has captivated audiences for centuries. But did you know they may be the oldest instrument humanity ever created? 

Evidence from ancient cultures all over the world indicates that humans have been using percussion as a form of communication and entertainment since prehistory. 

In this blog post, we’ll dive into what we know about the history of drumming, exploring some fascinating evidence pointing to its potential status as the first instrument. 

While drums are certainly one of the oldest instruments, they are not necessarily the oldest.

So let’s get started!

Introduction to Drums 

The musical instrument known as the drum belongs to the percussion family of instruments. 

It produces sound when struck with a beater or stick. It consists of a hollow vessel, usually made of wood, metal, or plastic, and a membrane stretched across the opening. When struck with a stick or beater, the membrane vibrates, producing sound. 

Tilt Shift Photo of Acoustic Drum Set.
Photo by Josh Sorenson

Drums are used in various musical genres, such as pop, rock and roll, jazz, country, hip-hop, reggae, and classical music. They are also used in religious ceremonies, military parades, theatrical performances, and for recreational purposes. 

They come in various sizes, from the small snare drum held between the legs to the large bass drum that stands on the ground. Different materials and techniques are used to create unique sounds and rhythms. 

Some drummers combine several drums together in a drum set, while others use percussion instruments such as cymbals and cowbells to add even more variety. No matter what kind of drum or percussion instrument you use, the result is sure to be a powerful, captivating sound. (1)

Different Types of Drums 

Drums are one of the oldest and most popular musical instruments. They have been used in music around the world for centuries and come in wide varieties. Here is a look at some of the more common types of drums: 

  1. Acoustic Drum Sets: These are the classical bass drums that come first to most people’s minds when they think of a drum set. They use acoustic drums and cymbals, which create sound by vibrating their shells. Acoustic drums come in many sizes and shapes, from shallow tom-toms to deeper bass drums. 
  2. Electronic Drum Sets: Electronic drum sets use a combination of pads, triggers, and sound modules to create a wide range of sounds. Some models even allow you to sample and create your unique sounds. These are great for practicing or performing in smaller spaces due to their compact size.
  3. Hand Drums: Hand drums are any type of drum held and played with the hands. Some popular varieties include congas, bongos, djembes, and frame drums. These drums can be used for a wide variety of music styles, from folk to classical. 
  4. Marching Drums: Marching drums are designed specifically for marching bands and are usually played with sticks. They come in different sizes and shapes, such as snare drums, bass drums, tenor drums, and marching cymbals. 
  5. Other Drums: There are many other types of specialty drums that are used for specific genres or styles of music. These include tabla, cajon, surdo and bodhrán. Each of these drums has its unique sound and is used to create a specific type of music. (2)

Are They the Oldest Musical Instrument?

According to historians, the first drums were found in cave paintings dating back to 5000 BC. This means that they are one of the oldest instruments that humans have used. 

It is believed that early humans may have started using them to communicate with each other, to mark special events and occasions, and even just to have fun. 

Toubeleki (Pottery drum) Museum of Popular Instruments.
Toubeleki (Pottery drum) Museum of Popular Instruments
Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While drums are certainly one of the oldest instruments, they are not necessarily the oldest.

The flute, for example, is said to be one of the oldest musical instruments in existence. It was first used in China around 9,000 years ago. Other instruments that predate drums include the bullroarer and the harp.  

When Was This Instrument Invented?

Drums were invented around 5,000 BC. This coincides with the invention of other instruments such as the flute and harp. 

They were used by many civilizations throughout history, including the Egyptians and Greeks, and have remained popular over time due to their ability to create powerful rhythms and sounds. (3)

How Are They Played?

Drums are played using sticks, mallets, or even hands. Depending on the type of drum, different techniques may be used for maximum effect. For example, some drums may require a light touch to produce soft sounds while others need more force to create louder tones. 

Different drum sounds, rhythms, and patterns can also be created depending on the skill level of the drummer. Generally, the drummer will use their dominant hand to strike the drum while the other hand provides support and balance

In some instances, electronic drums may be used instead of acoustic drums. This type of instrument uses sensors to detect vibrations from the sticks or mallets and activate sound samples stored in a computer. 

These instruments provide a wide range of sounds and tones, making them popular for recording music in the studio. (4)

What Is a Drum Set?

Man Playing the drums.
Photo by ricardo rojas

A drum set is an arrangement of drums and percussion instruments played together as part of a band or ensemble. The most common drums used in a drum set are the bass drum, snare drum, toms, and cymbals. 

A snare drum is a cylindrical instrument with metal strings across the bottom, giving it its distinct sound. Electronic drums use sensors to detect vibrations from sticks or mallets, which activate stored samples from within a computer. (5)

Which Instruments Predate Drums? 

Other instruments that predate drums include the flute, bullroarer, and harp. 

Why Are They So Popular? 

Drums are popular because they provide powerful rhythms and captivating sounds that can be used to enhance any genre of music. Modern drum sets offer a variety of tones and textures and can be played with sticks, mallets, or even hands. 

Electronic drums have become increasingly popular due to their wide range of sound samples, making them ideal for recording music in the studio. No matter what type of drummer you are, drums offer a timeless way to create powerful and captivating music. (6)

Development of Drums Through History

Development of the Drums timeline. Infographic.

Several pieces of evidence show that both hand drums and drums with beaters developed over time. 

5500 BCAlligator skins were first used to make drums during this time. It was first made in Neolithic cultures in China, but over the next few thousand years, the knowledge spread to the rest of Asia. 
3000 BCDong Son drums were made in the northern part of Vietnam. 
Between 1000 and 500 BCTako Drums went from Japan to China. 
Between 200 and 150 BCAfrican drums became very popular in Greece and Rome. 
1200 ADThe Crusades opened up trade routes in the Mediterranean, which made Venice and Genoa very rich. It also made it possible for influences from the Middle East, India, Africa, and Asia to spread to Europe. 
1450There were many other percussion instruments than there were before. Soon, these medieval models became the basis for modern percussion instruments. 
1500African drums were brought to the Americas through the slave trade. 
1600The most popular percussion instruments of the Renaissance, such as tabors, timbrels, snare, long drums, monk bells, and jingle bells, came into use. The European military also used drums to make it easier for the troops and the commanders to talk to each other. 
1650The first snare drum was made.
1800Bongos became more widely used in Cuban folkloric music. 
1820The snare, kettle drum, gong, whip, vibraphone, triangle, marimba, and tambourine were the most popular percussion instruments of the Classical period came into use. The drums were used in orchestras with professional musicians and composers who played difficult pieces of music. 
1890This was the first year drums came with a drum set and foot pedals. 
1920sHi-hat stands began to be used regularly in drum kits. 
1930sThe four-piece kit became very popular.
1940Louie Bellson’s double bass drum set got a lot of attention. 
From the 1960s to the 1980sDrum sets got fancier and bigger. 
1973Karl Bartos’s simple electric drum set comes out for the first time. 
1982The Swedish band Asocial was the first to use the last beat drumming technique. Then, the metal bands Napalm Death and Sepultura made the term “Blast Beat” more well-known.
In the late 1900s and early 2000sDrums quickly became an important part of musical bands, and more and more electronic bands used computer-generated drum sets to make music.



Drums are one of the oldest instruments in history and have been used by many civilizations since their invention around 5,000 BC. 

Electronic drums have become popular in recent years due to their wide range of tones and sound samples, but there is still something special about playing an acoustic drum. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced drummer, the possibilities are endless when it comes to creating captivating rhythms with this timeless instrument. 

The human desire to make music is an ancient one, and drums play an important role in many cultures worldwide. 

Thanks for reading; we hope you enjoyed learning about the history of this fascinating instrument.