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The Many Sounds Of The Drum

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different kinds of drums existing in the world today. Rather like a Dr. Seuss book, there are tall ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, loud ones, soft ones, light ones, heavy name it, the world of drums has it. But perhaps you find certain kind of drum music more moving than others. Perhaps you prefer the crisp sound of the snare; or maybe the resounding boom of the odaiko speaks to you; or perhaps the upbeat resonance of the bongos suits your taste. If you find yourself drawn to drums that sound a certain way, then it can be useful to know what factors of drum construction affect the instruments' sound.

Several factors combine to determine a drum's sound: the shell's material and construction, the drumhead's (or drumheads') material and the tension of said drumheads. The first of these factors, the material and construction of the drumhead, actually has the least affect on the drum's sound. However, it should certainly not be discounted. Because the vibrations of the drumhead resonate within the shell of the drum, the shell can be used to increase the volume and manipulate the type of sound produced. The larger the diameter of the shell, the lower the pitch of the drum will be. Anyone who has ever played timpani or marching band bass drums will attest to this. The type of wood used can have a significant affect as well. Birch, for example, generates a bright, crisp and clean sound, whereas maple shells have a warm, wholesome sound. So be sure to take both the size and material of any drum into account.

The tension of the drumhead, or drumheads, is the second biggest factor affecting the sound produced by a drum. This tension is created along the drum hoop, which runs along the rim of the drum shell where it connects to the drumhead. The tension of the drumhead is controlled with bolts, which are adjustable. When these bolts are tightened, the tension of the drumhead is increased, which reduces the amplitude of the sound while increasing its frequency. This, in turn, makes the pitch higher and the volume lower. Although these bolts are, as mentioned, adjustable, this is only true within a certain range on any given drum.

Finally, the drumhead has the greatest effect on how a drum sounds. Each type of drumhead serves its own musical purpose and has its own unique sound. To give a few examples, thicker drumheads create lower sounds and can be very loud, while thinner ones are pitched higher and have less volume. Drumheads with a white plastic coating on them muffle the overtones of the drumhead slightly, producing a less diverse pitch. Drumheads made from animal skin have a more "traditional" sound, essential to some artists' purposes, while those made of plastic or Kevlar sound more "modern" (if it is possible for a drum to sound modern). And any combination of these characteristics will produce a different sound from any other combination. Needless to say, that makes for a lot of potential sounds.

Not surprisingly, different drum sounds have different uses in music. For example, a jazz drummer may want drums that sound crisp, clean and a little on the soft side, whereas a rock and roll drummer may prefer drums that sound loud and deep. Hence the jazz drummer may select drums with smaller maple shells and thin drumheads, while a rock drummer may go for those with larger birch shells and thick drumheads.