Drums are among the oldest musical instruments. The best known of percussion instruments, they are found throughout the world and in a great variety of shapes and sizes. A drum normally consists of a skin or other membrane, called a head, which is stretched over an enclosed space or over one or both ends of a hollow vessel. Exceptions include the African slit drum, made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, and the Caribbean steel drum, made from a metal barrel. Drums are usually played by the hands or by one or two sticks. In some non-Western cultures drums have a symbolic function and are often used in religious ceremonies. They are sometimes used in sending signals. The talking drums of Africa can imitate the inflections and pitch variations of a spoken language and are used for communicating over great distances.
Many drums used in Western societies are of African, Arabic, or Turkish origin. The kettledrum was introduced into Europe during the Crusades. The European tabor, derived from an African instrument and sometimes called a tambour, was a small drum played with the right hand, while the left hand fingered a 3-hole flute. Across its center, the tabor often held a snare, which produced a strong vibration and sustained the sound between beats.
The modern symphony orchestra employs a variety of drums. Kettledrums are the most common; the bass drum, tenor drum, and snare drum, or side drum, are also sometimes used, along with tambourines and bongo drums on occasion. Among these, only the kettledrums produce sounds of definite pitch, which is adjustable. The tenor drum is a large deep drum with two heads that is played with wooden sticks. The larger bass drum, also with two heads, stands upright on its side and is struck with felt-padded sticks. Bongo drums are small single-headed drums struck with the hands and usually played in sets of two or three. The tambourine is a shallow single-headed drum with metal jingles inserted into the frame.
Drums are also used in large numbers in military and marching bands. Traps, an assorted set of drums and other percussion devices played by a single performer, are a standard feature of modern dance, jazz, and rock bands. Electronic drums and drum machines, both containing programmed drum sounds, have come into use in pop music and rap.