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What is a Frame Drum?

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  • Written By: Matthew F.
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 June 2014
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A frame drum is among the most common instruments around the world. It is a shallow drum, usually with a large hitting surface. By rule, the diameter of the face of the drum is greater than the depth of the shell. It is the most ancient instrument in the world, having been around for centuries in all corners of the globe. Each culture has many different versions of the frame drum, including the most famous type in the West: the tambourine.

The frame drum is among the most versatile type of drum in the world. They can be played held in the air with one hand, or on the ground with both hands, between the legs like a bongo, or with a mallet. It can be played in many different styles as well. It can be played with the fingertips for short, quick notes; with the thumbs in a “thumb roll;” with the palms or hand claps to give a louder, higher sound; or with mallets or sticks in a more recognizable rock and roll style. The frame drum, because of its size, offers a unique opportunity for harmonic precision, and offers a range of sounds with a large head size.

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Many frame drums are hand drums — drums of various sizes not struck with a mallet but played with the hands. They are often round and in the case of drums like the tambourine can be complimented with different rings or pieces to provide an accompanying jingling. This type of frame drum may have one drumhead or two — with one side as an open face opposite the head, or with a second side as another hitting surface.

The traditional frame drum has a shell constructed of any of various kinds of bent wood, from oak to ash and others. These shells have stretched over them a drumhead often made of animal skins or hides. More recently, frame drum heads and shells have been made of various man-made materials.

The frame drum was developed around the same time in many early cultures. The earliest types were from the Middle East and Central Europe. They have become popular in upbeat Latin music and have been used as a defining sound in many Middle Eastern and Indian sounds. They have found their way into American popular sounds in instances, with the tambourine serving as a percussive background instrument. The frame drum has also slipped into the Western consciousness with 1960s pop groups and songs like Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

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