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What Is a Tongue Drum?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

A tongue drum is a musical drum that has parts of the exterior cut, or slit, to provide for a certain sound when the user strikes a portion of the drum. These drums are often made of wood, though some can be made of a metal. Usually, the way a tongue drum is set up, striking various parts of the drum will provide different tones for the percussion.

Experts point out that tongue drums are some of the oldest kinds of percussion instruments. Designs for these drums come from African, Asian, and South American cultures. The simple wooden construction of traditional tongue drum models shows how more primitive societies could make these instruments easily. The original sticks would have been fairly simple to make, and the rectangular or simple round construction of the drum itself does not present the same structural challenges as some other types of drums, for example, those that require extensive tightening of a drum head. Some experts claim that the tongue drum served a specific purpose when it was originally made; according to those who have studied the societies that created these designs, the drum was originally constructed to sound a low percussive tone that could travel long distances.

Young boy eating an apple
Young boy eating an apple

Many of the most common tongue drums are rectangular boxes with progressively longer areas cut in the top of the box. The length of the wooden piece or “tongue” that is surrounded by a pair of slits determines its relative tone. These drums can also have additional ornate woodworking added to the surface of the drum.

Although many tongue drums are made of wood, some metal versions do exist. One of these is called the harmonic tympanum. Its design features a round metal surface with C shaped cuts, providing for a variety of tones.

The unique design of a tongue drum provides not only an attractive decoration, but a very functional tonal instrument. These drums do have their own problems with maintenance and repair, including the possibility of various tongues breaking off or becoming fractured with continual use. The quality of wood affects the longevity of these relatively simple drum models.

Although the tongue drum is still in use today by some musicians, the history of the drum tells historians a lot about the activities of various ancient cultures. The tongue drum has influenced more modern percussion instruments such as the xylophone. At the same time, the actual use of the tongue drum has become relatively obscure, and the owners of these percussion instruments are, for the most part, hobbyists.

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