World Music Spotlight: Membranophones

by Abby @ Quaver on May 31, 2012

in In the Quaver Classroom!,

For our final World Music Spotlight we welcome back Principal Percussionist of the Nashville Symphony, Mr. Sam Bacco!

Tell us more about Membranophones, Sam!

Skin-covered Instruments are called Membranophones, and they have been a part of just about every culture since before man started to record history.

You might think that a drum is a drum, but you would be wrong!

There are so many types and styles of drums in the World, that it’s pretty much impossible to remember all of them! Even if you could remember the names of all the drums, you would still have to remember how they are played and what their musical job is.

  • Some of the drums are leaders.
  • Some drums play a bass ostinato (repeating pattern).
  • Other drums just fill in the spaces.

It took many years for each drum to find it’s perfect place in their respective families.

There are drums that are played with the hands only!

A lot of these kinds of drums use only a single head on top of a drum shell. The shape of the shell (body) can help to focus or project the sound of the single-headed drum. A common shape for this style of drum is a barrel. You’ll find many African drums in this shape. Another pretty common body shape for hand drums, would be a cone shape (like the bongo drums).

Probably one of the more complicated sets of hand drums come from India. This set of two drums (played by one person) is called the Tabla.

One Membranophone Made of Two Drums - The Tabla

The higher and smaller drum of this two drum set has a reversed cone shaped shell (the head is mounted on the small side of the cone). The shell is carved from a single piece of hardwood and the head has multiple layers of skin around the edges and a large black circle of a special paste applied to the center.

These drums actually have their own language. The language uses single syllables like Na, Ti and Tun. Every student learns to speak and recite the drum language before he gets to play it on the drum!

It’s hard to imagine all of the Membranophone possibilities.

  • The diameters of a drum head can be tiny or huge.
  • A drum head can be as thin as a sheet of tissue paper or as thick as a blanket.
  • The drum body can be shaped like a straight cylinder, an hour-glass, a goblet, a bowl, a barrel, pretty much any shape that you can think of!

Many drums even have two heads.

Sometimes, a two-headed drum will use a thick skin on one side and a thin skin on the other. In some instances (like the Davul) the player can combine the low sound of a the thicker skin with a heavy mallet (hammer-like stick) and the higher sound of the thin skin with a switch (a thin whippy stick) and make you think that you’re hearing two people playing.

A Membranophone with Two Heads - the Davul


Explore Quaver’s World Music Area on Membranophones and ask your class a few questions:

  • How many types of Membranophones can they list?

  • Can they list all of the countries that have Membranophones?

  • Can Membranophones be tuned?


Today is your LAST CHANCE to enter to win our month-long contest for the Quaver DVD of your choice – have your class decide on their favorite Percussion Instrument of all and let us know in the comments below!

If you aren’t able to access the Online Quaver Classrooms via the Bus Stop at

  • Quaver’s World Music is FREE with any Online Quaver Classroom Access!
  • You can sign up for a free preview at The Access Code you receive will give you a Sneak Peek of Quaver’s World Music as well! Details in this post.
  • Or you can purchase any Online Quaver Classroom for just $8 a year and get Quaver’s World Music included!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mrs. Grant May 31, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Our favorite percussion instrument is the steel drum. Our teacher (Mrs. Grant) plays it for us in class sometimes. We like to improvise melodies on it. We love Quaver !


2 Abby @ Quaver May 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Thanks Brittany!


3 Ben Sexton June 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Great job, Sam!


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