We have much evidence of mediaeval and renaissance percussion from paintings, but little evidence in writing of how it was actually played. Mediaeval musical notation can leave us making educated guesses about rhythm and pitch, but the written evidence is entirely silent on percussion.
The renaissance isn’t much better. German musician Sebastian Virdung, in his Musica Getutscht und Ausgezogen, published in 1511, gives his reason. When describing drums, he writes, “These are to the taste of such who cause unrest to pious old people of the earth, to the sick and weakly, the devout in the cloisters … And I verily believe that the Devil must have had the devising and making of them, for there is no pleasure or anything good about them.”
We know that the English Elizabethan broken consort, a mixture of plucked, bowed and wind instruments, did not include percussion. But that is not to say that all dance ensembles were without a rhythm section, or that everyone agreed with Virdung. Thoinot Arbeau wrote a manual of French social dance, Orchesography, published in 1589, and he was the first to describe percussion instruments for dancing and actually write out drum rhythms. Baroque German composer and music collector Michael Praetorius gives us descriptions and drawings of popular percussion in 1620 without being censorious, including bells, tabor, triangle, kettledrums, tambourine … and an anvil!
The basic categories of early (and modern) music percussion (unless you plug it in, use a drum kit, or include tuned percussion such as glockenspiels and keyboards, not much has changed) are:
- Stick drums
- – a cylinder of wood, clay or metal covered with an animal skin, in various sizes, beaten with a stick. The skin needs to be at the right temperature to play well, i.e. to be at the right tension. To help in this, rope-tensioned drums were introduced.
- Hand drums
- – a wooden frame, held with one hand, beaten with the other, with or without bells on, such as the tambourine. Hand drums are traditionally played by women, even to this day.
- – concave metal plates clashed together, large or small.
There is one other category: friction drums. You wouldn’t want to play one in polite company. A friction drum is a skin stretched over a sound box, which can be any open-ended hollow object, such as a pot or jug. A sound is produced by attaching a stick or cord to the centre of the skin, then producing friction by moving or rubbing it with a wet hand, sponge or cloth. One version of this is the Rommel pot (above), popular in Germany and the Netherlands, seen in this painting by Dutch baroque painter Frans Hals. What does it sound like? Do you remember, as a child, the joy you had from placing a hand under a squelchy armpit and pumping your arm up and down?
A far more edifying and melodic form of percussion is the pipe and tabor. If you haven’t read about it or heard it yet, click here or listen below.
Tambourine playing rhythm followed by pipe and tabor playing Sellenger’s Round, anon., England, late 16th century