Medieval and Tudor Percussion Instruments
There are of course many, many different types of percussion instrument and we have listed here just the main percussion instruments played by Trouvère minstrels in shows, concerts and workshops.
Percussion instruments are instruments where the sound is produced by bashing or beating, and the most familiar of the percussion instruments is the drum. Drums are shells made of wood, pot or metal with leather (or some other membrane) tightly fastened onto one or both ends. In medieval and Tudor times leather was the only option as a membrane, and this material needs care to keep working well. The leather must be carefully tightened and warmed up before use otherwise the drum skins become too loose to produce a good tone (especially in wet weather). Rope-tensioned drums were introduced to reduce this problem. Modern drum skins are often made out of plastic and do not become loose.
Other percussion instruments include objects that can be struck and made to vibrate. There is no drum skin or shell (in which the air can vibrate) - rather, the object itself vibrates. Examples of this type of instrument include wood blocks, cymbals and bells.
Many of the instruments described here have attached sound-files. Click to hear these intruments in action.
These instruments are the ancestors of our modern kettle-drums and, like so many instruments, were originally introduced into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. Their name is derived from the Arabic naqqara. Nakers use rope-tensioned animal skins over a copper or stoneware bowl, and the drums were often small enough to be worn on a belt around the waist - resulting in a very portable and playable drum kit.
One of the drums (as in our example below) often has a snare, and this is simply an extra piece of rope tied tightly over the skin to produce a rattling effect
As can be seen in the pictures, frame drums are wide but shallow drums - the diameter of the head (the skin) is greater than the depth of the shell. They are usually played with the hand rather than with beaters and many varieties have bells, jingles or even rattling chains to add to the range of sounds available. Frame drums can be played in many ways for many different sounds and effects.
The frame drum is another import into Europe, and remains a hugely important instrument in middle eastern and north African music.
The tambourine - often called a timbrel in medieval or Tudor times - is one form of frame drum, as is the modern Irish bodhran,
These instruments became increasingly popular through the fifteenth century and into Tudor times. Like the nakers they use rope-tensioned animal skins, but here on a curved wooden shell. Due to their size they produce a powerful deep sound and as a result were useful in later periods for organising and controlling soldiers on battlefields.
There are medieval records of drums such as these being used to terrify enemy armies, and these drums when played in great numbers would certainly create a fearful sound.
Sometimes a drum was played with one hand, while with the other hand the musician plays a pipe. This was known as pipe and tabor and is quite an impressive bit of multi-tasking! The drum might be hung at the waist (as shown here) or - trickier - suspended from the arm that is also holding onto the pipe.
A selection of tuned bells, gently struck with a hammer can lend a very sweet harmonious tone to music whether it be a church hymn or an instrumental dance. The bells are usually made from cast metals such as brass or iron.
Bells such as these were clearly thought of as a noble instrument, and here we have no less a personage than King David himself playing them. Tuned bells are still heard today - we hear them very often every time we hear church bells. They are also very similar to the tuned percussion we see in music from around the world, most notably the Indonesion gamelan orchestras.